“Why then do we feel this strange attraction for these polar regions, a feeling so powerful and lasting, that when we return home we forget the mental and physical hardships, and want nothing more than to return to them? Why are we so susceptible to the charm of these landscapes when they are so empty and terrifying?”
— Jean-Baptiste Charcot, Towards the South Pole aboard the Français
I remember my mum saying something to me just before I left for Antarctica, on a Skype call from my little hotel room in Punta Arenas. The bandwidth was stretched thin across half the planet, and the video often stuttered into blocky, pixellated freeze-frame portraits of her and of my dog, Molly. Pink squares, black squares. “Life’s going to be very different after this trip”, she said.
I’ve thought a lot since then about how she imagined things might be different, and indeed about how I -a year-and-a-half ago- pictured life unfolding if I pulled off this expedition. In hindsight, if I’m totally honest, I’d imagined there might be a slightly more decorous homecoming; not the ticker-tape parade that Shackleton returned to after his Nimrod expedition, but I had felt this was quite a significant journey, particularly to Britain – one that had defeated Shackleton and killed Scott and his men, and that had remained unattempted, unfinished and unsurpassed for more than a century since.
As it happened, the expedition barely registered in the places I expected it to make a few brief waves. There was no invitation to the Explorers Club dinner (“the Academy Awards of Exploration”), no Polar Medal, no MBE for Services to Polar Exploration, not a single word in National Geographic, and Men’s Journal passed me up for their “50 Most Adventurous Men“*. I spent most of 2014 recovering, hermitlike and cantankerous (Cas and Jonesy told me it took them ten months to recover from their expedition, and my experience matched theirs) before the realisation gradually dawned that the only two people who could ever genuinely appreciate what we had been through were Tarka and me. We had done something no one had ever done before, we had plumbed hitherto uncharted depths of base human endurance and exhaustion, and it occurred to me that waiting for some form of external validation was fruitless; it was impossible for anyone else to really get it.
(*I did, however, come number 45 in Town & Country Magazine’s most eligible bachelors of 2015.)
The Scott Expedition validated my belief that with enough grit and persistence, you can start with almost nothing – empty pockets and a napkin sketch of an imagined journey – and end up bending the world to your will. Yet perhaps the biggest lesson this giant challenge has taught me is that fulfilment and success and self-acceptance aren’t finish lines that you too might cross one day if you push (or indeed pull) hard enough. They are moment-to-moment decisions. You won’t read much about mindfulness or presence in Scott or Shackleton’s diaries, but after joining up up the 1,800-mile broken loop of their ski tracks for the first time, I suspect that they too would have argued that the most rewarding exploration is of the plains and valleys of the self.