Michele Pontrandolfo needs 180kg of stuff to survive. That’s stove fuel, food, clothing, technical equipment, a tent, maps, and more, piled up on a sled that, if all goes well, he’ll spend November and December (and maybe longer) dragging across a 3,862-kilomatre, hellish Antarctic path called the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility. Temperatures can reach –50 degrees Celsius. Winds will whip up to 485 kilometres per hour. And he will be solo, aiming to become the first person to make it across entirely alone. But today, he is not alone. And he is hot.
It’s August and 38 degrees in northern Italy, where he lives, and he is looking for anything that will prepare him for the Arctic suffering. So he’s come here, to a rock-strewn landscape called Magredi. It’s thematically appropriate: In the spring, the place is a raging river of water from the melting Italian Alps snow. But more important, it is unforgiving — no shade, nowhere to rest, a great place to drag a 23kg car tire across an expanse of gray stones. “It is the closest feeling to pulling a sled across one of the most inhospitable landscapes on the planet,” he explains, as sweat runs down his face.
Pontrandolfo is a legend among explorers, and during his 15-year career, he has crossed Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic Ocean, the magnetic North Pole, the Southern Patagonia Ice Field, Ellesmere Island, Svalbard, and the geomagnetic North Pole — often solo. He is 43 and stands just 170cm tall. “When I make speeches or presentations, people are often initially disappointed. They expect someone bigger, someone more heroic,” he says. But strength isn’t the key to survival. “It is the mind and emotions that determine success or failure. Let fear take hold and you are dead.” Does he fear dying out there, in the great white nothing? “You can die crossing the street,” he says. It is all he’ll offer on the matter.
During the coming trek, which could last anywhere from 60 to 80 days, he will get up every morning, break camp, and drag his sled 145km (in good weather) for up to 18 to 20 hours. If he needs it, he’ll have a quick snack every 30 minutes. Before settling down for the night, he will build snow walls around the tent to protect against katabatic winds. These form in the low-air atmosphere above the Pole, gain speed from gravity as they descend the Arctic plains, and can reach 322 to 483 kilometres per hour. Hurricane Katrina, by contrast, peaked in the 270s.
The water he’ll drink and use to rehydrate his food must be boiled from the snow outside, leaving little time for anything else but sleeping. Despite the climate, Michele’s meals will be surprisingly versatile: lasagna, ratatouille, and almost anything else that can both please an Italian man and be freeze-dried.
Sometimes during treks, he cries all day. He isn’t ashamed to admit this. Other days he prays, something he rarely does in the real world. He draws strength from his solar-powered iPod, which is loaded with early punk rock, especially the Ramones. He carries chocolate cookies, made by a pastry chef friend, and keeps them dry, safe, and properly rationed to last the voyage. They are like brain medicine, he says. The cookies keep him sane.
But these days, before the journey, that pastry chef friend provides another benefit: He lets Pontrandolfo sit inside his freezer.
It sounds absurd, but it’s necessary. Polar expeditions are timed for the most favourable weather conditions. For the North Pole, this is typically from March to early May. Pontrandolfo prefers that schedule: “My body is partially accustomed to snow and freezing weather then,” he says. But to hike the South Pole, he must leave while Italy is still warm. For this journey, he’ll fly to Cape Town and then farther south, reaching cold temperatures only on the first day of his adventure.
And so, the freezer. It contains gelato and, sometimes, Pontrandolfo. He sits in a two-square-metre space for 45 minutes at a time, acclimating to the subfreezing temperatures. It’s also a good way to test his equipment. His sponsor is the French-Italian outfitter Moncler, and the company has been adjusting his customised jackets and other protective gear based in part on what happens in the freezer. Better to find imperfections alongside bucketfuls of vanilla than when immersed in the great, icy white.
Pontrandolfo grew up wandering the woods, riding one of his many bicycles in the mountains, skiing the slopes, and doing other Alpine activities. When he came of age, he joined the military to gain more formal adventuring experience. As he sees it, he’s just another tradesman using the skills he learned. His work is a natural consequence of his upbringing. But this job takes a toll.
“Antarctica is different from anything I have done before. It is much longer, and the winds are a huge risk,” he says. “This may be my last expedition. I am not as young as I used to be.”
Even as he says this, he admits there’s still more he wants to do. He dreams of a solo journey across the geographic North Pole, another thing nobody has done. He’s tried three times: Bad weather and icy conditions forced him to turn back twice; the other time, his plane couldn’t even drop him at the starting point. But those are decisions for later. Today, the sun is strong and he must sweat. The freezing isn’t far away. ■
BY Mark Abouzeid
Photographed by Mark Abouzeid
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