An unforgettable Antarctic feat

BAT Basque Team ends South Pole mission 15 days ahead of schedule

A little more than a year ago, the combined polar experience of Juan Vallejo, Mikel Zabalza and Alberto Iñurrategi was an empty box on a curriculum vitae stuffed with famous climbs, deeds hard to explain to non-believers... or to sponsors. For this reason, before repeating feats and, above all, before lowering their ambitions or betraying their own pioneering spirit, the three Basque explorers looked around, looked up and down, and decided that there was plenty of adventure for them in the polar regions.

On Tuesday, 55 days after turning their backs to the northern hemisphere before reaching the South Pole on New Year's Eve, and setting their course for the return journey, the members of BAT Basque Team have completed their quest, covering 3,400 kilometers in 15 fewer days than they had predicted.

Bearing in mind their dress rehearsal in Greenland had been somewhat traumatic, what they achieved on the southern continent seems little short of miraculous. Before they departed, they openly doubted whether they would last the course.

A week ago, Vallejo admitted he was almost spent: then, the 1,200km separating the team from finish line seemed eternal. But they managed to complete the stretch in just 11 days, borne by a wind that whipped up when they barely expected a breeze. Thus, they were able to throw together a series of days when they covered up to 180km with their kite-sleds much lighter than on the inland journey due to the lower food load.

The horizon seemed like a giant billboard advertising the end of a daily marathon the three wanted to "finish once and for all."

On the way, they encountered some curious sights: "polar tourists," guided groups that simply scratch the surface, up to 100km inland, of the great expanse, "and feel like real adventurers," observes Vallejo. They also saw specialized cars designed to cross the region as though it were a frozen highway. Scott and Amundsen turned in their graves.

Zabalza, on his return, will take charge of the Spanish Alpinism team. He will not compete, but will impart his knowledge and show good climbers how to become world-class ones. It will be a return to his favored terrain after one of the most severe tests of his career.

"Lots of people have said to me that they could never imagine Mikel, with his profile, as a polar explorer," says his brother, Ángel. "I've seen a few photos he sent back, and he looks as though he has aged through the effort. And if Mikel, who is famed for his spartan lifestyle, complained about the journey, I can't imagine how hard it actually was."

Before the exploits of BAT Basque Team, only eight people had previously traversed Antarctica completely unaided. Nobody had previously covered such a distance with skis and kites as a form of transport. It is not a small achievement for three men who describe themselves as "fans."

Their journey was an unusual one that went against the very genetic fiber of high-altitude climbers, against the principles that make them feel secure, against their emotional balance and against the clock, which in the vast and ever-light expanse of Antarctica has had them at the mercy of the capricious winds.

Yet they reached their goal as though someone had shifted the billboard nearer to them, while battling weather conditions that had previously had them trapped in an environment as hostile as it monotonous.

Juan Vallejo, Alberto Iñurrategi and Mikel Zabalza celebrate after reaching the end of their 3,400km journey.
Juan Vallejo, Alberto Iñurrategi and Mikel Zabalza celebrate after reaching the end of their 3,400km journey.
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