Keeping a cool head in Antarctica

Basque trio face a great psychological challenge on their ice-bound trek

Arriving back from their dress rehearsal in Greenland - an obligatory step before their attempt to cross Antarctica - the components of the BAT Basque team, Alberto Iñurrategi, Juan Vallejo and Mikel Zabalza, were concerned. It wasn't the extreme cold, the fierce winds, the problems with their kite sleds, or hunger: what most frightened the explorers was the emotional stress of constant coexistence and chafing claustrophobia, a novelty to men more accustomed to working together on mountains. The friendship between the three was forged in the world's high places, such as on Broad Peak (8,047m), when they reached a point of no return: either they reached the top, or fell in the attempt - an exercise in teamwork and fraternal bonding that their latest expedition, now in its fourth week, will put to the test.

If all goes to plan, the team's attempt to cross Antarctica will follow the same monotonous routine for around 80 days; lumping a 150-kilogram sled when there is no wind; battling with their kites to avoid tangled cords and crashes for 10 or 12 hours a day, then sharing a tent for a further 12 hours to eat and rest. They will see nothing but an endless white landscape and no other faces than their own. Only the satellite telephone will keep them in touch with the outside world. "We nearly ended up killing each other in Greenland," chuckles Vallejo. Nothing that could break their friendship, but another problem to add to the adventure, which now involves daily temperatures of 45ºC below zero.

"From the point of view of living together, the worst error you can make is to mistake tiredness, which is a physical state, with anger, which is an emotion. They mustn't enter into this spiral. If one of them receives an irate response from a colleague, they should give it no importance, because problems begin when emotions are involved," says Julieta París, a psychologist who specializes in high-performance sports.

On the other end of the satellite telephone, Mikel Zabalza sounds distant but happy: the tent is up and while one of the team prepares food and another works with the maps, the other can speak on the phone. "We've gone several days without seeing the sun and the cold is terrible, but at least we are getting some wind now. On Saturday we covered 72 kilometers, our record." Covering the first 500 kilometers of their 3,700 kilometer odyssey was harder than expected; the team advanced so slowly that now time is their principal enemy, especially as they are only carrying enough food for 70 days.

Are the 12 hours spent each day in the tent long ones? "To tell the truth, no," says Zabalza. "Because once we have eaten and finished with the computer, we practically pass out. But that said, the routine is terrible."

To the wear and tear of routine fatigue must be added. "The days when we have had to drag the sleds like dogs have been atrocious. One day we walked about 10 kilometers only to find our way blocked by a pass with a crevice around 30 meters wide that we couldn't get across. There are days when I don't know if I'm going to have the strength to make it to the point where we plan to erect the tent," admits Zabalza.

"Tiredness disinhibits the cerebral cortex, it turns off the rational parts, and as a consequence one becomes much more emotional," says París. "The psychological challenge the three face is a matter of emotional management."

At 6am, Iñurrategi, Vallejo and Zabalza dismantle the tent, organize their sleds, put on their skis and search for the wind that will carry them forward. Like every morning, the same horizon lies behind and ahead; kidnapped in an exhausting landscape and with no comfort in sight.

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