Conquering the last degree

The flag of Saudi Arabia has been carried into outer space, unfurled on Mount Everest and now flies at one of the last milestone destinations reachable by human intrepidity, the South Pole. An expedition led by Waleed Yusuf Zahid, accompanied by his sons Haytham and Mohamed reached the geographic South Pole on Dec. 10, 2010, the conclusion of a grueling trek across the harshest environment on Earth. They are believed to be the first Saudi team to complete the challenge.

Waleed Yusuf Zahid, flanked by his sons Haytham and Mohamed, with the Saudi flag at the South Pole. (AN photo)The arrival at the Pole, 90 degrees South latitude, was the capstone of months of preparation, training and conditioning; travel to an Antarctic base station; and a flight to a location at 89 degrees South; to launch the overland trek across the polar plateau known as “The Last Degree.” It is a 111-km journey on skis, over a number of days — achieving 20 km on any day is quite remarkable — with painful progress decided by the whims of the weather, which had the team pinned down in their tent shelters 41 km short of their goal, for several days.

The weather in Antarctica is the most formidable foe of human physiology with the temperature at the Pole, when the team reached 90 South, a numbing -33C on the thermometer but feeling like -50C in the steady 40-km plus wind. However, other hazards face trekkers at the bottom of the planet. The ground at the South Pole is near sea level but the actual altitude at the Polar Plateau, given the ice build up, is about 2,800 meters. Becoming acclimated to the thinner air of higher altitude is made worse by the phenomenon of the Earth’s rotation dropping air pressure to what would be expected at 3,350 meters.

The inhospitable conditions at the Pole were first noted by Capt. Robert Scott, who led a 1912 expedition that took second place, 35 days behind Roald Amundsen as first to the Pole: “Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here.” The Scott expedition perished on their polar egress.

The Zahid Expedition documented their experiences in Antarctica and their trek across “The Last Degree” on a blog that recorded the team’s dispatches. On Dec. 8, when stranded two days short of their goal, Haytham recorded, “The weather report came in at 8 a.m. this morning saying that the wind will persist for another 24 to 36 hours. We’ve been pinned down by the weather at 41 km from the Pole for the last 36 hours and now we may have to wait another 36 hours before we can move again.”

He continued, “The wind really does make it a miserable existence out here. Inside my down sleeping bag that is rated to -40 degrees C, I still had a chill in my bones. If that wasn’t enough, it started snowing in the inside of our tent. Our breath condenses and freezes on the inside of our tent and over the 36 hours that we have been here it has built up, then the wind blows hard, shakes the tent, in the middle of the night while I’m sleeping I get very fine ice particles falling on my face.”

Until recent years the area around 90 South was the exclusive preserve of scientists based at the American Amundsen-Scott research compound, but it has become a destination for adventure travelers, who fly in for short, symbolic visits to the geographic South Pole. The “Last Degree” trek, however, captures the challenges and dangers faced by the Antarctic pioneers. The three Zahids were accompanied by Duncan Paul of South Africa, Dr. Jeff Lunt of Britain and Guy Cotter of Adventure Consultants, who was commissioned as the expedition organizer.

The demands and exhilaration, the inspiration and spirituality of such a journey was perhaps best summed up by Waleed in a blog posting from the Union Glacier base station on the outbound trip. On Dec. 12, he wrote, “When Mohamed and Haytham first suggested we undertake this expedition I was thrilled at the prospect of sharing in such an adventure. I expected it to be hard, but I had no idea how hard it would actually turn out to be — physically, psychologically, emotionally and hygienically, by far the most demanding and challenging two weeks of my past 60 years. Two weeks that would normally flash by unnoticed in our everyday life crawled excruciatingly slowly here on the ice. Every kilometer gained and every hour clocked felt like a lifetime. But in all those kilometers and hours, it was the last two, when the Pole was so close that it seemed so unattainably far. But Alhamdulillah we made it, by Allah’s grace and mercy, all in one piece and none the worse for wear other than the brutally blistered feet and marginally frost bitten noses and hands.”

Waleed celebrated his 60th birthday on Dec. 7, the target date for reaching the South Pole, but weather delays kept them from the goal until Dec. 10.

The last steps of “The Last Degree” trek were documented on the blog by Mohamed who wrote: “I enjoyed every aspect of it, the frigid cold, the brutal wind, the powerful hidden UV rays, the vast nothingness and the company of my father and brother. There was no margin for error. The cold can freeze you, the sun can burn you, the wind can bite you and the monotony can wear you down. On the last day, I thought Antarctica had accepted me because of the generous treatment it gave me but not so. On the final stretch, it slapped me with a fierce wind bite on my cheek leaving a scar, hopefully not permanently, a sure reminder to be on alert at all times. The long grueling hours of skiing took a toll on the body but, alas, it was what was needed to achieve the goal of reaching the South Pole and my determination kept me in good spirits. The sight of the South Pole, first spotted from 15 km out, gave us a false perception of heaven. It was a large fortress, the Amundsen-Scott station, neatly hidden and tucked in the dense clouds, a rare sighting after 10 days of nothing but the wind, sun and ice. It was adrenaline jolting. Yes, after arriving at the southern most point on Earth at the day’s end, I felt a tremendous reward and the paying off of the planning, training, self-discipline and tedious treks but neither compared to the feeling rushing through me at the appearance of my father and brother collapsing into each other’s arms with joy pouring out of them. It was emotionally magnificent.”

The closing notes from the expedition, summed up by Haytham on the blog were not of the hardships but of the accomplishments and rewards, “Memory is a very funny yet kind creature, whenever we look back on experiences we always remember the good and tend to forget the bad, or at least the bad doesn’t exist as prominently in our psyche as the good. The funny thing about this experience is that it was the very things that I complained about that I now cherish and relish and very much miss. What an experience! If it hasn’t been mentioned yet, Antarctica is the most beautiful place I have ever been to, the polar plateau is featureless, beautiful nonetheless but that’s not what I’m talking about … The sights were awe inspiring, the mountains on three sides, the clearly visible glaciers of blue ice, the whole thing was just magnificent!”

Those were words echoed by Mohamed in his expedition epilogue, “Standing on Antarctica, the last great pristine and protected place on Earth, is a privilege! The wind, sun and ice. Ah, I miss it.”