Last January, 30-year-old Aussie adventurers Justin Jones and James Castrission became the first pair to take the 1,400-mile journey from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole and back totally unsupported. This is their chilly, frostbite-y tale.
Photographs by Justin Jones and James Castrission
By the time Australian adventurers Justin Jones and James Castrission set out to make the first unsupported expedition to the South Pole and back, they’d already been best friends for half their lives. “We met at school when we were 15,” says Castrission, a.k.a. Cas. “As the years progressed, we went from bushwhacking, climbing, and canyoning to bigger trips.” In 2007 the pair took off for their biggest adventure yet: kayaking from Australia to New Zealand, a trip that took almost twice as long as they had planned and saw the team brave storms, lethal waves, and hungry sharks. They survived and immediately set their sights on the South Pole. “Adventure leads to adventure, and for me Antarctica has always held this starry-eyed fascination,” says Cas. The South Pole has acted like a magnet for adventure seekers ever since Captain Cook first crossed the Antarctic Circle in 1773, and it’s claimed more than its share of victims over the years. But no one had made it to the pole and back unassisted. Cas and Jonesy would have no support on their journey except each other. “Some people operate better alone and prefer their own company,” says Cas. “I much prefer being out there with someone else—especially my best friend.” Together the pair would face hunger, exhaustion, bitter cold, and hallucinations. Not that they’d have it any other way. “I guess you either get the appeal or you don’t,” says Cas. Here he recounts three months in the deadliest place on Earth.
The Preparation Photographs by Justin Jones and James Castrission
If I put it in the context of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, what chocolate is to Augustus Gloop, Antarctica is for me. I used to love reading those stories from the heroic age of discovery 100 years ago, about explorers like Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton pushing the limits of human endurance at the ends of the Earth, and I knew someday, some way, I’d do it myself. There’s an appeal to the South Pole that has to do with its remoteness and mystery. It’s a landmass larger than Canada that’s completely desolate, with an environment as hostile as you’ll find on this planet. And not only are temperatures brutally cold; it’s also the windiest and driest place on Earth. The idea of an expedition down there really turned me on.
Any trip this intense is 95 percent planning and five percent execution. Jonesy and I trained and prepared over three and a half years. Our mantra was: fat, fit, and flexible. We had to be fat because we knew we would lose a lot of weight down there, and, indeed, over the course of the expedition we lost a combined 121 pounds.
Despite bulking up, we also had to be in the best shape of our lives—our sleds were close to 350 pounds when we started out, and when you’re pulling that much weight for 12 hours a day, it completely rips your body apart. Over the 12 months prior to leaving Australia, we worked on our strength and conditioning for up to 30 hours a week. We also worked hard on flexibility, because we really couldn’t afford injury. And 15 months before departure, we decided it might be a decent idea to learn how to ski, since neither of us had ever done it before and that’s a useful skill in an environment covered in snow and ice.
Before Jonesy and I embarked on our kayaking expedition a few years ago, we asked the Australian army to put us through various sleep-deprivation exercises, pushing us to the point of collapse. We wanted to know how our bodies would react and what to expect in the most extreme conditions. We learned that when I hallucinate—and this happened in Antarctica—I see a 6'5" baby in diapers drinking out of a milk bottle. Needless to say, it completely freaked me out. Jonesy, on the other hand, would feel people touching him and trying to pull the ski pole or paddle out of his hands.
The one thing we couldn’t prepare for in Australia was the cold. You go down to the Australian Alps and it might reach, at worst, 14°F. In Antarctica, for most of the expedition, we were looking at -22°F. Sure, we went to the Arctic Circle to acclimate to the temperatures, but there’s really no getting used to them.
The ConditionsPhotographs by Justin Jones and James Castrission
The moment you step out of the plane in Antarctica, it’s like being punched in the face by cold. The air gets down to -30°F, and that’s not including windchill. There’s a basic rule of thumb that states that if your skin is exposed to the elements with the temperature at -20°F and the wind at 20 mph, then that skin will get frostbite within 30 seconds and die. That rule shows you that you need to be switched on at all times. I’ll never forget walking out of the plane—the moisture inside my nose froze instantly. When I pushed my nostrils together, I could hear it crunch and crackle. Ice crystals and ice chunks even formed inside our sleeping bags.
Besides the cold, another primary concern was the isolation. And when it sets in, it’s truly overwhelming. Once we set foot on Antarctica, there was literally nothing else around. During our earlier kayaking adventure, there was always the sense that “Australia’s back behind us and New Zealand’s just over there.” In Antarctica, on the other hand, it felt like we were on a different planet. In the first month we got hammered by blizzard after blizzard and hardly ever saw the sun. If anything happened to us, we were completely alone—there was no way a helicopter or a plane or a person was coming for us—and that was a terrifying realization.
The EssentialsPhotographs by Justin Jones and James Castrission
This may sound odd, but among the most important things we packed were our iPods. (For the record, we’re not sponsored by Apple, so if you’re reading this, Apple, feel free to give us a call!) There’s so much desolation; being able to listen to music and podcasts and audiobooks was essential for taking our minds off the pain and the monotony of the trail.
A good, bombproof tent is another necessity. Days on end, the wind blew at 50–70 mph. If our tent had collapsed or been compromised, it would’ve been lights out for us. For three months a 63-cubic-foot tent was home, and it kept us alive. But even a quality tent is no good when nature calls. So…going to the bathroom: Let’s just say you gotta do it bloody quick! You need to be super well-organized, and because the weight of the sleds was a major consideration, we could carry only a limited amount of toilet paper. That meant using ice and snow blocks when we ran out—and that stuff can be gravelly.
The StrugglePhotographs by Justin Jones and James Castrission
There was atrocious weather for the first month of our expedition, and to complete our goal we needed to average 15 miles a day for the entire trip. We were doing just over six, leaving us 100 miles behind schedule. At that point the finish line felt so remote, we dumped three days’ worth of food to lighten our sleds and make faster progress. The thing to remember is that reaching the South Pole is nothing: Getting back is the goal. Just like summiting Mt. Everest is nothing if you don’t make it back to base camp alive, by reaching the pole we were still only halfway home. And by Day 80—well into the return journey—we were absolutely ravenous and spent half an hour digging through the snow like a couple of lunatics, looking for the food we’d buried. Couldn’t find it.
So you have an idea: In the last 27 days we had to cover 680 miles, almost a marathon per day. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have made our goal, we would’ve missed the last plane out for the season, and we may well have died.
To be honest, there were times I didn’t think we’d pull it off. At first I was busy focusing on the day ahead. When that got too hard, I focused on the next 100 steps. Then the next five steps. By Day 29 I had a skin infection on my balls that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. It felt like someone had rubbed them raw with sandpaper for two hours and then poured vinegar on them. It was so incredibly painful; I had to take a course of antibiotics and was holed up in the tent for two days.
After 89 days we’d pushed ourselves so far that we were walking a tightrope between failure, collapse, and just scraping by. Our hands and feet were dying; we had infections running rampant over our bodies; our faces were smashed—our lips were caving in on themselves, and when we ate all we could taste was blood; the soles of our feet and our toes had filled up with pus, so every night we had to lance them. It had become a very dark state of affairs. Looking back now, I’m not sure how we pushed on. I guess we were so far beyond any expectations and boundaries we’d set for ourselves that we just kept going without thinking about it.
The FinishPhotographs by Justin Jones and James Castrission
When we finally reached our pickup point and knew we didn’t have to ski the next day, I reflected on what we’d accomplished. Even then it was surreal, like, how the hell did we do that? Looking at the photos and footage now, I still can’t quite understand how we got it done. This trip took us to places physically, mentally, and emotionally that we’d never been.
In terms of the physical toll, once we returned there was some nerve damage to our fingers and toes that took a while to recover from, and we had to set about putting that weight back on. The only lingering effect was a sense of fatigue that clings to you.