Matthieu Tordeur is the first Frenchman and the youngest explorer to have reached the 1150 kilometres separating the Antarctic coast from the South Pole on his own, without assistance and in total autonomy, on skis, then.
The Antarctic continent is supposed to be the coldest, driest and windiest in the world, I had prepared for temperatures that would drop to -50°C. During the first few weeks, they were between -5 and -15°C, which is very unusual and confusing on this continent. The relatively mild climate caused very heavy precipitations, I found myself with 30 to 40 cm of fresh snow. Instead of the twenty kilometres a day that I had set for myself, I could barely manage to cover 8.10 kilometres, the friction between the sled and the snow was much greater than expected, gruelling.
The meteorologists with whom I have discussed the phenomenon remain cautious, but see these disturbances as a consequence of climate change. It almost rained on the coast, when temperatures should have been well below zero. It will be a question of studying the way in which the phenomenon repeats itself or evolves, I will keep in mind their astonishment and concern.
I set off from sea level for this ascent to the pole, at an altitude of nearly 3000 metres, and the first day was both the day of the steepest drop and the day when my sled was the heaviest, 115 kg (one and a half times my weight) of food and equipment for the next 50 days. The traction harness pulled hard on my hips and shoulders, on the first slope of this first hill, I was constantly slipping despite my seal skins, not much to do, but one thing to avoid: take off my skis. The weight is no longer distributed in the same way, the pressure is concentrated on the surface of the feet instead of the two meters of the skis. The thin snow bridge on which I was advancing without realizing it broke under my feet, detecting an early crack that the snow giving way under my weight has somewhat filled in. Suddenly, halfway down my thighs in the soft snow, I felt that there was almost nothing under my feet. On all fours, I climbed up – without having time to see my life pass before my eyes – slowly to the sled to which I was anchored. My skis hardly left my feet during the rest of the expedition.
The idea may seem fascinating, but in the white out, we are nowhere. White out fog is a visual phenomenon that cancels out any perspective, any contrast, any spatial notion, here the feet, then the skis, but there, left to right, top, bottom, front, back, the uniform white, as in a ping-pong ball full of clouds. The inner ear gets lost, I stumbled and fell regularly, not even anticipating or understanding the variations in the relief, hollows, bumps, declivities, nausea, 12 hours in a row, sometimes 24, for days on end. Absolute monotony in the most exact sense of the word, since the sun does not set, does not rise either, that flora and fauna are absent.
Drowned in this sidereal void, I alternated music and podcasts, Sensitive affairs, Fabrice Drouelle’s work on France Inter and Transfer on slate.fr. On a loop, often Heavenfaced* from The National, a hit from my Antarctic summer, which took me back to the years of my studies in London, a happy, reassuring and peaceful time. I concentrated on the few elements within my reach and controllable: effort, food, fatigue and cold management, all of which formed a familiar rampart capable of breaking through the fog, and gave me the strength to advance in this soft matter that had engulfed me. Thinking about the end of the expedition, imagining what I would do next, I visited my memories, going through my previous expeditions, and representing to me as precisely as possible the circumstances, the people with whom I was with, I travelled through time if I could not move forward in space. My objectives were getting smaller: the next hour, the next break, my next cereal bar* with dark chocolate and fleur de sel, the next podcast, the lunch coming up, then very far away, the dinner coming up, what I will eat. I thus deconstructed the expedition in microelements punctuated by moments of comfort, however short they may have been.
I cherished this solitude as a very precious gift, my studies were over, I was 26 years old, the perfect time for introspection, these 50 days would be mine and mine alone, a thousand miles from any external solicitation. But when the conditions were too bad, when I was stuck in the too soft snow, wounded, exhausted, fighting with my tent that threatened to fly away like a huge kite, knowing that the weather would prevent help from coming, the most difficult thing was to keep this dream of the South Pole, to find and re-state the reasons that had led me so far, to gather my strength every morning, open the tent and leave in the cold, in the bottomless white.
I was enjoying my 12 hours of skiing every day, staring at my feet, when I saw three black spots on the horizon. They were growing up, slowly, I had plenty of time to think that my brain was inventing all this, before I came to the conclusion that these points were real, 40 minutes later, no doubt, they were cars… cars! I diverted to meet them, a month since I had not spoken to anyone, nor seen any living beings. They saw me, little man with a sled lost in the white desert, they also changed their course. We met, to the height of euphoria. They came from Taiwan, and from the South Pole, in a 4×4. When the evening came, I no longer knew if this encounter had been happy, this dear solitude broken in a few minutes, civilization had thrown itself on me, quite violently and noisily. This way of travelling, a five-day hike in a huge 4×4, is quite exuberant, for me, who walked only half of it, in a little over 50 days.
It is true that motorized expeditions in Antarctica have always existed, some scientific bases are supplied by tracked vehicles. The pilots were very friendly, Icelanders – they are the ones who produce these modified 4×4s – they worked as tourist conveyors in extreme areas. These guys have a pretty strong sense of adventure, they still drive cars in the middle of Antarctica and crevasse fields that would swallow a cathedral in a second.
Frostbite on the cheeks, nose, healed without leaving any sequelae, knee injury, a few hundred kilometers before the end, passing a bump too quickly, the pain was such that I had to stop, not to aggravate the injury. I had to change the way I ski, avoiding bending my left leg, and transferring the weight of my body to the left ski pole, I had blisters on my heel that I lost a lot of time every night to treat, doubt began to settle, I feared that the pain would get worse, and I had to stop.
115 kilos was the weight of my sled, I couldn’t pull much more. The initial conditions were terrible, I was progressing 8 kilometres a day instead of the 20 planned, it would take me about 70 days to reach the goal if the weather did not improve, when I had 50 days of food. I had 3 choices: ski faster, when I had already reached the maximum of my abilities, extend my days and ski longer or ration and put 10% of my food aside every day. I rationed, so after 10 days, I had one more day of food, I also extended my skiing days to 12 hours daily, or 80 hours of sport per week. Exhausted, every night, after melting my snow and eating dinner, my eyes closed by themselves as I tried to write and send a message, I could no longer stand or sit. As I climbed up to the pole at 2850 metres, the temperature dropped, precipitation became scarce, snow became more compact, the sleigh slipped better as I ate the 50 days of food it contained.
I didn’t suffer from hunger, I was eating 7,000 kilocalories a day, almost three times more than usual: at dinner, I added 150 grams of butter with hot water to my freeze-dried dish (mushroom risotto, my favorite, I ate 5 or 6). The desire and need for fat was irrepressible, I ate a lot of chocolate, dried fruit, salami, whose fat content prevents it from freezing; hard cheese, Chinese noodles, dried meat. I was dying for something fresh, fruit, vegetables, grapefruit juice. When I arrived at the pole, I had eaten almost everything and lost 5 kilos (gone 72 kilos, returned to 67), that’s not much in almost two months, those who do that – 21 people before me – lost an average of 10 kilos, something I couldn’t afford. Back in France, I threw myself on a tartare-frites.
To make a living out of my adventures, I have to tell the story, the camera is the thing I always take with me everywhere, certainly, when I was in the white out, that the infinitely soft snow was slowing me down dangerously, that the mileage count, far below the forecast, worried me very much, that the food was disappearing too quickly, the desire to film was quite distant. But, well settled in my sofa, warm, in Paris, I know that I did well to shoot these twenty hours of rushes for 52 minutes of film*.
This expedition, long and difficult to prepare, was even harder to lead to the pole. Here, I give conferences, I talk about the environment, the poles, sustainable development, in middle and high schools, in companies, expectations are a little different: resilience, risk-taking. My adventures are not escapes, I like returns as much as departures, knowing that in a more or less near future, I will leave again, I wait, it is not a question of outbidding in exploits, but of identifying the story that will resemble me.
* Objectif Pôle sud, produced by Hello Emotion and Ushuaïa TV, has been broadcast on their channel since June 17, the film will then be screened in many adventure and travel film festivals in France; in addition to the DVD, it will also be available in streaming, on Matthieu Tordeur.‘s website.