Kite Buggies - a new method of travel to The South Pole 

Brian Cunningham and I, are both from N Ireland. We met, by chance, on the quayside of Portrush on a wild delivery trip to North Scotland I was doing in mid winter 1971. He watched us sail into the harbour in an enginless boat and for some obscure reason joined up for the rest of the, very rough, trip. We had stopped here as one crew member was ill and had to be evacuated. During other escapades we hit on the idea of using Traction kites to pull a ski shod buggy across ice, and in particular across ice caps.

To achieve this required money and by a series of coincidences we managed to get on board two major sponsors, Nestle Kit Kat & Toshiba. With these two we also managed to persuade suppliers of equipment to donate gear and were also very well assisted by McCambridges in Galway in supplying food. We were underway in 6 months which is a very short time to get something like this going. This brought its own problems as time for testing and making changes was not enough, although we did go to Switzerland for a week. As we discovered, the concept is right but more development needs to take place for it to work successfully. This will happen sooner rather than later and I know of a couple of others who are contemplating the trip.

I thought it may be an idea to describe a little what the trip was like and what you can bring back from such experiences. However it is very important that people understand that my feet are as much stuck in clay as anybody else’s, I just look at the stars too much and often! Instead of why however, I say why not? There is a need also for you to know what the trip consisted of from a practical perspective, should there be queries, and possibly for your own interest. It is a lot different than the beaches of Conemmara! Also look at

We left Ireland in December 18th and the following is a brief outline which will give you an idea, of what the trip was like and how we got on…..

….Very smooth travel to Punta Arenas via Dublin-London-Madrid-Santiago. Punta Arenas lies on the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America in Chile. It is the base for ANI (Adventure Network International.) who organise the logistics and own the planes from where you fly out across Drakes Passage to Antarctica. The main transport is a Russian Allution plane chartered from Siberia. It is a requirement that any plane going to Antarctica has 4 engines and capacity to go there and back without stopping in case of severe weather. This plane has to land on an Ice runway below the Ellswoth Mountain range at Patriot Hills in perfect conditions. So there is a long wait in Punta for the weather to be acceptable and no schedules can be set. We waited 6 days extra (10 in total) before weather was good enough, spending our time running, talking, reading, meeting the locals, drinking and using the internet café, in attempts to keep in touch with the media and families back at home, eager for news on our trip. The ice runway allows wheeled planes to land but, is there because the wind coming off the mountains blows the snow away and this makes for exciting landing conditions. No brakes can be used, just reverse thrust and much bumping along! We stepped out into –25oC and a completely alien environment.

We Set off eventually and landed safely at Patriot Hills. The plane is full of extra fuel and spares for other planes, food and supplies on the way out, and of course various expedition members. Bagged human waste and empty fuel tins on the way back. Better to crash on the way out I reckon! Rather messy otherwise! Since the treaty in ’93, to preserve this unique environment, anything brought onto the Continent must also be brought out so all waste returns to S America. As we discovered also, no dogs have been allowed since this date either as they are a non native species.

Patriot Hills camp is just tents with stores kept below ground in ice caves and is basically a transit camp before people go on to other areas. There are four planes: a bent DC3 that got damaged earlier this season in high winds-Twin Otter-Single and an Otter-Cessna. The purpose of these is to support expeditions to various places this side of Antarctica. Mt Vinson (Highest on continent) is nearby and is a target for all those seeking to tick off all the 7 summits on the seven continents of the world. Many other options are also available, just up to your imagination! For instance a Chilean team (Who had already done Everest & K2.) were doing a 56 day traverse of the Elsworth range. A spectacular performance in an un-visited region that demanded total commitment. We saw some of their footage and they were moving over terrain that was very very demanding.

Two days after we arrived the weather was good enough to fly on to the South Pole, a 7 hour flight with one refuelling stop at the Thiel Mountains, about half way at 300 miles. This is manned by one individual who is there to send weather reports back and help with refuelling. He lives in an Igloo and a tent. (Without Sky!) 3 month posting for those who might be interested in some serious contemplation. We travelled in a Single Otter that just had the space for our two buggies and all equipment. Single and Twin Otters are the workhorse of the Polar regions with no more being made, ours was built in ‘63.

Before departure, you have to reassure the base that you are prepared with all necessary equipment and have two means of communication. Iridium, which is an amazing satellite phone, now owned by the US forces, and a HF radio, which is very basic. Daily call in is required, otherwise after 50 hours no call, a rescue is put into operation at a cost of $150,000!

The flight up is spectacular and you begin to realise that this is another element to the ones we know; a bit like diving in the sense that there are no comfort options, you cannot sit down for a breather and take your mask off. It is full on all the time with very changeable conditions. This particular route that we were doing is reasonably known, although the conditions change year by year. Our main concern was ‘sastrogi’. This is piles of hard snow/ice that form when wind blows softer snow away; it can grow up to 3M’s high. Crevasses are another concern but only tend to be in particular areas, which are known. With modern GPS navigation you plan the trip to avoid known areas or move carefully over unknown areas. Since we had no mechanical braking system, we practised emergency stops by back winding the kite, which is easier and quicker than it sounds!

The Pole itself is a US base that tolerates visitors rather than welcomes them. However some are friendly and they are doing fascinating work, some of which we got to see. The base is open for only three months of the year, and then you are on your own. Tour of duty is a min of 1 year. 1/3 female so need to move quick if you are male! Most people go back for a 2nd or more tour interestingly enough.

Soon after we arrived, there was just enough wind to get the buggies moving, although only downwind. We sailed down the snow runway and tried to sail on over the snow. Not a lot of joy as the buggies needed a huge amount of power to get through the snow, which was not there due to lack of wind. Consulted with Pole weather crew for forecast and the message was no change until late Jan-Feb.

Over the next few days we assessed and discussed options. Pull for 200 miles until we got wind, wait for wind or put spare lines on to make 50M control lines. In the end our decision to abandon was based on a number of connected factors:

- No wind, nor any sign of it, within our time frame. Patriot Hills closes on the 20th January so we had to be back by then.
- Buggie was too heavy. 5-8 miles a day was the most we could reckon on achieving, so 200 miles could take 25 days before we even got going with the kites.
- We did not have skis/skins to pull the buggie over soft snow. You sink in while pulling and this would account for our low daily mileage.
- Would we find wind?
- If we had to be picked up in the middle of nowhere, it would cost $150,000. Pick up from a recognised place was very negotiable and a lot less.
- Skis needed further development, as they did not grip the snow when being pulled from the side. More likely scenario is wheels, with brakes and possibly able to peddle as a bike.
- We had come to enjoy the trip, not cause havoc to all. Inspire not perspire!
- At 9.5 thousand ft, and zero humidity, the wind is at least 30% less powerful because it is much less dense. Bigger-lighter-higher kite needed.
- Tried to persuade sponsors to fly us down to ½ way mark. No luck.
- It will work, but needs more development time and money. Because of our time frame, we could only achieve so much in preparation. However, we know a lot more than anybody else using this method!
- We had to make fast decisions before everybody retired for the New Year and beyond.
- Other factors were, whilst we knew more development was needed, we thought we were virtually there. Sponsors wanted to do the attempt this year and would withdraw if this were not the case. Would not give any more money for development or research. Brian was 60 in February and wanted to go now. Better to learn from this than destroy enthusiasm in a mad attempt to get back.

We were able to tie into another flight that was coming up to the Pole, which was very convenient and would not have been available later. We dismantled the buggies upon returning to the Pole station and had much time for reflection and discussion.

We now need to find the money to do the trip again and successfully, using all we have learnt! Any ideas will be entertained but it would be fantastic to have an ‘Irish First’ in this realm. Budget is in the region of $250,000 but the PR exposure for the expedition exceeded $600,000 in printed space and more through TV-Radio interviews. All very measurable and beneficial. Our web site and media coverage generated a phenomenal amount of interest, we received e mails from over the world saying ‘What a neat idea!’ It was amazing and encouraging to think there are so many people out there with an interest in the unusual. So if you know any one or organisation who might be interested, ring Jamie Young on 095-42276

In fact, another item we discussed was how most modern expeditions are repeats of older ones that are either: different route, same goal-slower-faster-younger-older-M/F-? What we were trying to do is develop something completely different, hence the level of interest. When you are inventing something new the learning curve is steep and achievement not at all sure. If the Wright brothers had given up after their first ‘plane’ didn’t work, where would we be today!

So if you see some more kiting activity on the beaches of Conemmara, you know we are in practice!

You meet people and encounter situations on this sort of experience where they have had to look deep into themselves, and discover many things. Sometimes it is things they would rather not see, but on the whole, like a lot of things in life, the more you discover, the less you seem to know. Fame, should that be what people go for or seek, is a pretty shallow mirror. When you do look deep into yourself, it is also usually in circumstances that are already demanding, either from a risk perspective or you are pushing your boundaries hard in whatever you are doing. Each person’s assessment of this level of risk is also different so do not take going to the South Pole as such a measure! It is just mine.

I have called this description of the South Pole Expedition; ‘To Inspire’ as one of the many things we talked about in our lonely tent at the bottom of the world in 24 - hour daylight, waiting for things to happen, is what values you need to live a full life. I am afraid I have great difficulty, especially being born and raised in NI, in believing in a God, but that does not mean I, or anybody else, can exist with no values. (There are also no atheists in a Force 10 ice or sea storm!)

From a practical perspective, that means many things. If dealing with those around you, both through work or at home, do you inspire them to achieve things that look difficult in as best a manner as possible. Most of us live fairly ordinary lives; it is beholden on us to therefore to live them extraordinarily well. Look at the stars and say why not!

Many other examples will come to mind, but I would like to encourage you to stop sometimes and say, is what I am doing inspiring to me or to others? Should it be and should I do whatever I am doing another way to make it more inspiring? Your values are your own of course, and it is not for me to say what these are; it is for you to work out-change and adapt as life moves along. But generally speaking, to inspire someone means to put questions in their mind rather than supply answers, and demonstrate that you have values that you have thought through. If you believe in nothing, you will fall for anything!

Here is also a little tale from a lady, Nadine Stair 85, that puts things a little bit into perspective:
‘If I had to live my life over again, I’d try to make more mistakes next time. I would relax. I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I know of very few things I would take seriously. I would be crazier. I would be less hygienic. I would take more chances. I would take more trips. I would climb more mountains, swim more rivers, and watch more sunsets. I would burn more gasoline. I would eat more ice cream and fewer beans. I would have more actual problems and fewer imaginary ones.

You see, I am one of those people who live prophylactically and sensibly and sanely. Hour after hour. Day by day. Oh, I have had my moments, and if I had to do over again, I would have more of them. In fact, I’d have nothing else. Just moments, one right after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day. I have been one of those people who never go anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a gargle, a raincoat, and a parachute. If I had it to do over again, I would go places and travel lighter than I have. If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot earlier in the Spring and stay that way later in the fall. I would play hookey more often. I wouldn’t make good grades except by accident. I would ride more merry-go-rounds. I’d pick up more daisies. If you hold your nose to the grindstone rough and hold it down there long enough you’ll soon forget there are such things as brooks that babble and a bird that sings. These things will your world compose: just you, a stone, and your darned old nose!’

So do not let the stones of Conemmara hold you back!