In 2011 Pete Van Kets and Braam Malherbe, both proven endurance adventurers, were asked to represent South Africa in a once-in-a-lifetime event; an unassisted race to the South Pole at approximately 83 degrees south, a distance of 768kms. They would be man-hauling sleds weighing around 85kgs each, and be at an average temperature of -45 degrees Celsius with high winds.
They raced six other teams to the South Pole to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen’s epic journeys in 1911/12. Only three teams finished, with Braam and Pete coming third and, in a show of tremendous camaraderie, assisting one of the British teams to the pole.
Length of expedition: 888km, including a 120km acclimatisation trek and the 768km unaided race
Duration of expedition: 40 days
Duration of race: 24 days
Peter van Kets had won the pairs division of the 5500km unsupported Woodvale Trans-Atlantic Rowing Race with Bill Godfrey. He’d also spent 76 days alone in a seven-metre rowing boat, doing an epic 5438km unsupported row across the Atlantic Ocean.
Braam had run the entire Great Wall of China and the coastline of South Africa to raise funds for Operation Smile.
“We knew that coping with the daily grind would be won or lost in our heads and not our bodies. So, we had strategies for dealing with this. Every morning as we were packing our tent in the howling wind I would turn to Braam and say, ‘Just today, Braam’ and as we started trekking one of us would say ‘Well!’ and the other would reply, ‘Shall we!!’ (Classic lines from the movie Black Hawk Down). It’s amazing how small things like this can motivate a team. Despite my inexperience I loved the skiing, but being trapped in the boots and ski bindings all day was very different to anything I had experienced. At the end of each day it was a huge relief to step out of the skis,” explained Peter.
One of the second British team members, Andrew Carne, had fallen during a white-out and broken his arm. The team called in an emergency evacuation. Andrew was picked up by the race doctor and driven forward to the halfway mark. His two teammates, Jason Bolton and Ben Boyne, pushed on without Andrew.
Andrew wanted to join his team again and continue from the halfway mark to the finish. His team members took some of his load but were battling with the extra weight. We caught up with them and offered our assistance, which they gratefully accepted, so we each took around 13kg off of them and all headed for the Pole together.
Everything was going to plan until the teams were informed that the cut-off time was being brought forward by two days because a weather system was moving in and the last plane out of the South Pole back to Novo would have to leave before the storm hit. If the teams couldn’t make up time, the organisers would have to send an Arctic truck out to collect them, which would mean automatic disqualification. This meant they had to increase their daily distance or they wouldn’t make it in time.
As they got nearer to the Pole, they encountered many long uphills, sometimes four hours of uphill at a time. It also started getting much colder, but they had built up a good team spirit. The commitment that they made to each other before the race was critical to their success. The sole focus during the race was the well-being of the other person. It was a strategy that paid huge dividends, and they felt certain that the reason some of the other teams failed in their quest was the stressful team dynamics.
TEARS OF JOY
The duo reached the South Pole with literally 90 minutes to spare – this after 24 days of racing. It was an extremely emotional final day’s trek to the Pole that left both men crying with joy. “It wasn’t about winning, it was about friendship. It wasn’t about our country beating their country, it was about unity. We are brothers through extreme adversity. Friends for life. What a privilege! But, on a bigger level, our involvement in the race was about highlighting the issues around greenhouse gas emissions and climate change relating to Antarctica”, explained Braam.
Most of Antarctica is covered by an ice sheet that is 1.6km thick, on average. This ice sheet contains about 70% of the world’s fresh water, so if all of Antarctica’s ice were to melt, sea levels could rise by as much as 60m. Braam explains the implications: “Antarctica may be remote, but our actions affect this fragile and vital system, so I am using my experience to increase awareness around the ecological threats facing our planet and trying to educate society about behaviour change – individuals cutting power use and consumption. If you and I, as individuals, just consciously choose to reduce energy consumption, buy local and choose carbon neutral or energy efficient options in our daily lives, we can affect climate change. Do. One. Thing”.