Before you read, remember this: Independent editorial isn’t free. If you enjoy this article, please consider our message at the end of this article and consider supporting our journalism so we can keep going.
An Unexpected Visitor
One day at breakfast, my wife Jennifer says to me, “darling, have you ever thought of walking to the South Pole?” When you have been married for 40-some years and your wife says that to you at breakfast, the thing is not to answer too quickly. The way forward is actually to grab a croissant and shove that in your mouth and start chewing. Well, fuck me, no, I haven’t actually thought of going to the South Pole. I don’t even know where the South Pole is, why would I want to walk there? “Well, you know”, she says, “we’re going to be flying there and it would be wonderful if we could all meet up and have a party at the South Pole”.
Jennifer holds the world record for being the first woman to fly around the world in a helicopter. Now she wants to go from the South Pole to the North Pole. But she needs someone to pay for it. So of course, the question was, “how are we going to get Simon involved?” I didn’t know anything about the South Pole, but Jennifer tells me there’s a guy called Pen, who she says is a very well-known explorer and he takes people within 60 miles of the Pole and they walk the last degree. Well, who is this guy? “I don’t know, but he’s coming to stay with us”, she says. When is he coming to stay? “Well, he’s arriving tomorrow. And he’s giving us advice on the polar problems, the snow, the wind and issues of temperature. Would you mind going to the airport and picking him up?”
Well, fuck me, no, I haven’t actually thought of going to the South Pole.
Simon Murray: So you go to Antarctica all the time? You take people there every year?
Pen Hadow: “No, I’ve never been to Antarctica.”
SM: My wife says you’re coming today to tell us all about Antarctica…
PH: “Yeah, well, I’ve never been there. I’ve been to the Arctic and I’ve been trying to get to the pole for 15 years. Never made it yet”.
SM: Well, that is interesting. The Arctic is all about water and drowning, the pole is about crevasses, etc., it’s a little bit different.
PH: Oh, I imagine it’s hugely different.
So I tell my wife, he’s never been to the South Pole, you got them mixed up. He’d taken a group last year to the North Pole and they failed. In fact, someone’s written a book about it, someone who was on the trek, and said it was a complete bloody shamble, that Pen didn’t know what he was doing.
Anyways, Pen, he’s about 42, he’s a good bloke. And a couple of bottles of wine later- “why don’t we walk to the South Pole? We’ll go from where nobody else has ever been before!” Another glass or seven later, “we’ll do the whole fucking thing, unsupported, no nothing”. That’s a great idea. So we are now on. And the helicopter thing has now gone into the background somewhere.
We do a year of huge training. I was walking around the countryside of France, dragging car tires. Which is slightly embarrassing. People would walk up to me and say, “Have you lost your car? Can we escort you back to the asylum? They let you guys out once a week, is it? And what are you actually doing?”
I’m training to go to the South Pole!
Pen, without me knowing, had said to his secretary “we’ve got to find out about Simon, I mean he’s going on 64”. And so he took me on a short trip in England on the 21st of December. We go to Dartmoor and it’s absolute filth. I am up to my knees in mud and shit. Then there’s a vertical cliff. And there’s a bloke with ropes and I’ve got to climb up this cliff. It’s 2:00 in the morning. Occasionally I slip and fall, I’m dangling there and he pulls me up a bit. It’s pretty unpleasant. Then Pen wants me to swim across a lake. It’s three in the morning and it’s absolutely fucking freezing. And so he tested me out. So just make sure the person you’re going with knows what they’re doing. Because you’re the one that’s going to fall down the pit and they’ve got to be reliable.
“We’ve got to find out about Simon, I mean he’s going on 64”
I had endured all that for about three months. And got very fit. But getting fit brings your weight down. When I went to see the doc, he said you’re in very good health, but you’re too light. You’re only going to get halfway because your fat will be gone and your muscle will be gone and you’ll have nothing to carry. The problem is that of course, you have to budget what you’re going to eat. What you can’t budget for is what you’re actually going to lose: 10-12 a day. But you budget only 5 or 6, because if you budget more, you’re going to carry more and you’re going to lose more weight. That’s why we went training in the North, in the Arctic, to see how quickly the cold takes that fat off you.
Training in the Arctic
‘Pen, there’s a fucking polar bear! Get the gun!’
Pen and I are about 20 miles off the coast. This is the thing about the North, it’s all sea ice. That’s why you have to go in the winter, around February- so it’s very cold. We’re hitting temperatures of -50, -55. The Arctic has another bonus, polar bears. They’re real and they’re tough. They smash their fists through the ice and grab some little bloody thing that’s underneath there. So you don’t want to be zapped by a polar bear. And they’re aggressive. When you have a polar bear coming at you, you have to rush out with your skis and make a noise and it may just get bored and go. We also had a rifle each. The first day we were very wary, so we install electric wires. We’ve got two sleeping bags on at once. Everything’s closed and it is still absolutely freezing. And suddenly, I hear it. GRAAAAAAOOWWRRR. I’m not getting out of my sleeping bag. I yell to Pen. ‘Pen, there’s a fucking polar bear! Get the gun!’
And there’s Pen covered in sleeping bags. It’s Pen snoring.
We’d been out on the ice for about 15 days and we got a message on our radio that there was a blizzard coming our way. Huge, huge blizzard. So either we’ve really got to camp down with lots and lots of lumps of ice around our tent (it’s a little nylon tent), or we’ve got to leave. There’s this Inuit camp and they have about 200 inhabitants. And there’s a couple of Canadians there who have been put there by the Canadian government, including this guy Jack who lives in the village.
He’s an advisor or a doctor, I don’t know what.
So we decide, I’ve got to go. I’ve got a business and I’ve got to be back in New York. So they come to get us in snowmobiles. Jack is on one of them. We’ve got the three sledges. Anyway, we load up the sledges and it doesn’t matter what we put on what sledge. I’ve got sleeping bags and shovels, Penn’s got the food, the tent and the radio and off we go. We don’t care. We’ll be safe in an hour. That’s when I lose one of my gloves- it’s on my arm and then ‘whooosh’. Watching your glove being blown across the ice at 25 miles an hour, you know you’ve got no chance to get it and there’s nothing to stop it. Well I still have three more gloves on, so what does it matter? It does matter and you start to get nippy fingers. It’s black. It’s winter. We’re in February, going into March. It’s already very, very dark. And we’re going along, dodging the sastrugi and bits of rock and ice all over the place. We’re in column, so Penn is ahead, then Jack, and then me.
The worst words I’ve heard in my life: “which way do you think it is?”
Suddenly I come across Jack, stopped. The wind is absolutely roaring and you have to shout and scream at each other to hear what everybody’s saying. It’s lethal. Jack’s screaming… Penn has disappeared. Jack says he’ll see that we’re not with him and he’ll come back for us. We’ve got to wait for him to come back. But how does he know? How long will it take for him to notice that we’re not there? How does he know? I’ve been at the back and Jack hasn’t even missed me. And you can’t look back! Well anyway, 20 minutes later, back comes Penn. Fantastic! All systems are working, everyone’s okay. Off we go again.
Twenty minutes later, we’re stopped again. And Jack is screaming and he thinks that Penn is behind us. We turn to go back. Now, I’m thinking about petrol. Back we go, and we wait and wait. No sign of him.
So Jack says to me, probably the worst words I’ve heard in my life: “which way do you think it is?”
And I say “what are you talking about? What do you mean which way do you think it is? Well, I don’t know which way it is! We’ve been around these rocks and up and down here and I thought you were the guide. You’ve got the GPS and everything else. So when you left the island you must have taken a waypoint?”
Anyways, he’s screaming and yelling that he didn’t take the waypoint.
Well, that’s just fantastic. So, this island we have to hit is about 60 miles long. If you miss it, then what’s the next stop? Well, it’s called the North Pole. How far is that? Well, it’s nothing. Just 600 miles up. Oh fantastic!
Okay, where is the GPS. Give me the fucking GPS. Look at the GPS and get a direction. See what we’re doing.
This is all screaming in the middle of the night with the wind howling. So he’s fighting around with the GPS and I realize that he doesn’t know how to use it. “Give me the GPS. GIVE IT TO MEEEEE!”
And then I see it: no battery. Fantastic. So we don’t have a clue. Not a fucking clue, okay? You can’t even imagine, disorientation, multiplied by about a hundred. And that’s where we are. We’ve been around, no idea. So, which way do we go? It doesn’t matter. I mean, we’re probably going backwards. Our snowmobiles are facing one direction, so off we go in this direction. What’s the other choice?
“Let me in the fucking hotel, you c***. I want a bath!”
And suddenly, 40 minutes later, we hit the island. We can’t see it. We just hit it. And everything goes up in the air, sledge turns over and everything is gone. Everything from the sledge in three seconds, the wind just takes it. So, which way now? We’re now on land. We turn right. Why? I don’t know. We’ve got these little lights in front. We can see close by, but you can’t see anything beyond that. And suddenly, boom. An empty sledge. Right on the edge of the coast. It’s Penn’s sledge, and everything is gone as well. He’s lost everything as well, but we can see his tracks. So we follow. Now why he would be right and we would be wrong, I have no idea. But Penn’s with this other guy and he must know what he’s doing. So we follow the tracks and they go on…in a huge circle. So they’ve got it wrong too and they’ve changed their minds. So I’m waiting, trying to figure out what we’re going to do. The tents are now gone with the contents of the sledge. We’ve got nothing but a 55 knot wind and -55 degree temperature, so we’re going to be lying on the ground enjoying that. And suddenly we spot this tiny little star in the sky. It’s on a huge pole. It’s got a sort of base station. We can’t see anything except something that looks like a star. And we follow it… until we get to the village. And when we get back, Penn is already there. And as we come in, just alongside Jack’s house, the snowmobile splutters out of gas. We have to walk the last 10 yards.
When I get back to the hotel the following day, where I have left some kit, there’s a rather large doorman. He says, “you’re not coming in”.
“I’m Mr. Murray. You don’t recognize me?”
“I’m sorry sir, you’re not coming in this hotel.”
“Let me in the fucking hotel, you c***. I want a bath!”
The worst thing is that there are people like Penn, (who is a lovely, lovely guy), but romanticizes about Antarctica. He calls it the white lady or something. This isn’t the ‘white lady’, this is Antarctica. I don’t know who said it but it’s true- “Antarctica wants you dead”. The moment you’re off the plane, it wants you dead. So what’s the enemy got in line for you? First and obviously it’s the cold. It is extremely cold, the coldest place in the world. It’s much colder than in the north at the end of the day. Temperatures of -82, even lower.
He calls it the white lady or something. This isn’t the ‘white lady’, this is Antarctica.
Item two, it’s the wind, it’s the windiest place on Earth and it’s ferocious. It’s in your ears all the time. Constant screaming. ‘PAAAAHHHHHHHH!’ That’s it, for 58 days that’s all you’re going to get. And you’re shouting all the time. Everything you have to say. ‘PASS THE FUCKING SALT!’ or whatever it is.
You get up to about 200 mile winds that’ll just rip your face off. And it’s coming down from a height. Most people don’t understand that the South Pole is high. It’s at 9000ft. You’re on the top of the globe. It’s colder up there than it is on the coast of Antarctica. Normally they say about every 1000ft is about 2 degrees of drop in temperature. So that wind, colder than the normal air- it starts to roll down the mountain because colder air is heavier. And it picks up speed. It’s called a katabatic wind, and it rips up the earth and everything in its way, creating big valleys. At the same time, you’ve got the ice itself which is on the move. It’s rolling down the mountain. And that’s where you get your crevasses and so on.
Then there is the coast. The snow is compact. It’s hard ice because of the wind. But as you get higher, contrary to what you’d think, because it’s getting colder, the snow is getting deeper, softer. And we took a bearing that nobody else had been on. A lot of theory in this. When you get going from Patriot Hills (where most of them go from), it’s called Hercules Inlet. Look at your map, it’s up in the Northern part of Antarctica. Punta Arenas is where you go from, Chile. Antarctica is big. Twice the size of America. Big place. And I’ve told you it’s a mountain. Because it’s a ball. You’re on the surface of the world, and you’re walking continually upwards.
Up, up, up on this ball until you get to the top.
As soon as you start, from Patriot Hills, there’s a very severe climb. To about 3000ft. But if you stay low, you’re sort of going around like that and you leave the climb to the end, to get to what they call the Polar Plateau, your sledge, your toboggan, is going to be lighter for the steepest climb.
That’s the theory. And it’s quite a good theory. Except it took us straight into a crevasse field, which was not where it was supposed to be because the latest maps of Antarctica are from about 1965 and so they’re showing where the crevasses are, but those crevasses have already moved and you could find yourself standing in a very strange place – right in the middle of the crevasse – because your map is irrelevant. Which happened to us. We had done a lot of crevasse training, exit from crevasse training, with the ropes.
I had shin splints on the front of my legs in the beginning because you’re not used to the skis. In the North, you’ve got sastrugi but you’re on ice. It’s flat. Down there it’s over rocks. After about ten minutes I was ready to pack up and go. But I knew, I mean half the world is watching me with the bloody Times newspaper. So everyday or every second day, there’s a full page article on us. We’re talking on the radio every evening, back to London, and giving her a sort of report. My son in-law, quite clever, said “why don’t you tell everyone before you go that you’ve got a grumbling appendix. That way, if you get fed up, because you know you’re not going to like it, you can say you’ve got appendicitis”.
Lost my Skis
No wonder I lost 58 fucking pounds.
When I took my skis off it was ten times better. And because the ice was hard, it was relatively easy to pull the toboggans. As we went up, suddenly when we got to the ice field and I had to put my skis on again. If the crevasse is so wide, and you’re without skis, you’re going to go into it. When we got past it, I took them off again. And then we had the worst day of the whole trip. There was a whiteout, you couldn’t see anything. I can’t see Penn ten yards in front of me. And you’ve got to be roped, otherwise you’re going to get lost. And if you get lost, that’s not good news. We sat down, had some coffee and I took my shoes off again. Fuck. I’ve left my skis behind. So we’ve gone for about 3 hours. And we’ve stopped. This is the worst three hours of the whole trip. Now, would I need them or not? The answer is yes. Because the snow was getting deeper and softer and now I’m going along with snow up to my knees. You can imagine what that’s like, when you’re in mud up to your knees and it’s snow. It’s exactly the same.
So, what are we going to do? Go back? Find them? That’s a joke. We’ll never find them. So I’m off skis for the rest of the trip. I said to myself, Murray, you’ll be the first guy to go to the South Pole without skis.
No wonder I lost 58 fucking pounds.
We still had about a month to go. It’s tough.
I think the tough part is when you’re actually walking. One foot in front of the other. Penn used to go miles ahead because the deal was we had to do 12 miles a day. Some days we’d do 16. We were doing 8 at the beginning because of the sledge and the crevasses and you’ve got to go sideways and all that stuff. And I’m pulling the sledge with the missing runner. You’re warm during the day, we had good clothing and stuff. In the evening… you’ve got to get the tent up.
And then you’re in the tent. You get yourself covered up. And you cook the food. That’s the biggest thing you’ve got to carry, the fuel. To melt snow. You can’t eat snow or drink snow. Because it freezes your esophagus and you can die. So you boil the water. We had Norwegian food, which is the best. We tested it and it says on the label, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and everything else. And it tastes like shit, but it’s better than anything else. And we had music- Penn playing Abba every night. I had the classics and was trying to educate him.
The South Pole
My wife arrived on the helicopter and she gets treated like God’s arrived
Eventually there was a tiny little thing in the horizon that looked like a building. And that was the South Pole. When we got there, the Americans had a very sophisticated operation. They are trained to give you nothing. It’s one bun and a cup of coffee. My friend, you’re on your own. Because the American taxpayer doesn’t like feeding people. It is quite mean. My wife arrived on the helicopter and she gets treated like God’s arrived, because she’s from America and she’s a woman. When we arrive we’re treated like scum. Well, it wasn’t as bad as that, but I’ve had better moments. I think somebody did congratulate us or something?
But we had done the right thing. The Times newspaper was following us and they’d sent an airplane. A little twin otter, which was coming to pick us up. If you don’t make it by the 6th of February they charge you $20,000 a day to come and get you because the sun’s gone and you’re in darkness with cross winds on the runway, and the runway’s ice.
So there’s this woman from The Times and the wind is howling and running across and I’m running trying to find the American coffee shop. She knows Penn from one of his trips to the North. And he’s shouting around, ‘the most wonderful moment of my life! The one I dreamed of! Since I was a kid. And here we are. The single point of the earth that doesn’t move and the sun never sets and the stars don’t move. And Jesus Christ. I’m here!’
And she comes running over. ‘Mr. Murray! What do you feel about the whole thing?’
‘I don’t give a shit if I don’t see another snowflake in my life!’
Which she puts in The Times, thank you very much. Quote of the day.
The opening line of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book the Social Contract is ‘man is born free, but everywhere he finds himself in chains’. I thought that was terrific. I didn’t read the book, I just used the first line for all my essays and I used to get very good marks. But I now know that Rousseau was wrong. We are born in a prison. We are born in a box. The box, we are prisoners of our environment. If your father is a multi-billionaire in Boston, this is the trajectory of your life: you are going to Princeton, you’re going to join the company, the family firm, you’re going to marry someone in society, you’ll become the chairman of the board at the company, at the family firm, you’re going to retire, play golf, and die. Okay? That’s the way it is. If you were born in a Caracas slum, this is the trajectory of your life (and it’s very difficult to get off): if you’re born in Africa, 75% of the village has got AIDS, this is the path you’re on and it’s very, very difficult to get off that path. So what I say to young people, get off the path. And get off the path early. And off the path, in that space, you will find, maybe, yourself. When you find yourself, you will begin to find the meaning of freedom. I am my own man.
And I’ve been off the path quite a few times. I’m the guy trying to get back on the path.
Re-entry can be quite difficult.