Apologies for the delay in sending this update - it turned out to be a very long day indeed and I've only just had a couple of hours' sleep...
Antarctica seemed livid at the fact we were lying happily in our tent yesterday morning, eating well and contemplating our final few kilometres, and it went furiously about trying to bury us and our few belongings with spindrift, and occasionally as far as trying to shake our tent down and blow it away completely. The wind was gusting to nearly 50 knots, the hiss and spray of the snow hitting the windward end of our shelter sounded like heavy rain on a fast-moving car's windscreen, and erratic, gusts made the taut fabric boom and rumble with an alarming violence. It occurred to me that we were lying almost the precise distance away from Scott Base as Scott lay from One Ton Depot, and I thought of him as I lay there in the storm, trying to keep fear from creeping into my thoughts.
What to tell you of yesterday? We dismantled our green Hilleberg Keron tent -home for fifteen weeks now- in the early evening, as soon as the blizzard seemed to abate a little, and headed on a bearing towards a snow airstrip called William's Field (Willy's Field to the locals) and then on to the rough ice road that links the airfield with Scott Base and McMurdo beyond. We had been given two forecasts that suggested worst weather tomorrow, so we forced ourselves out of our sleeping bags and into the cold air once more. Low cloud and windblown snow blocked our view of almost all of the mountains and volcanoes that surround us, but we caught occasional snatched glimpses of Castle Rock and Observation Hill as we descended towards the sea. The wind came at us from our left, and our light sledges were blown out to our right-hand sides at crazy angles as we leant forwards and shoulder-barged our way into it, staying warm by skiing with short strides and a fast cadence, driving hard with our arms. It was weather that on any other day would have been miserable, but today it brought a grin inside the warm depths of my jacket hood rather than a gritted-teeth grimace; it can't stop us now, I told myself, and it obviously knows it.
After an hour we started to make out the huts and vehicles and flags of Willy's Field, and soon after that we were on the ice road that leads to Scott Base and McMurdo beyond. Skiing well past midnight, on a beautiful hard-packed surface, things started to get surreal. We skied past (and waved at) a fat seal, squirming along the side of the road in the opposite direction. A red US National Science Foundation truck approached us after a few more minutes, and I half-lifted a ski pole as a wave. The driver (Chris, from Charleston, South Carolina) stopped, clambered out and surprised us with an incredibly warm welcome. Thank you Chris; you cheered us up immensely on what was becoming a never-ending plod from flag to flag!
As we rounded the corner towards Scott Base, we could finally see the sea of McMurdo Sound, and hear the (glorious!) sound of waves lapping at the nearby shore. I thought I could make out a figure walking our way, to where the road turned from ice to rock; the transition from sea to land and our finish line for this giant trek. "Wait a minute", said Tarka, "There are a few more coming down the hill". It turned out to be almost the entire crew from Scott Base -and a few others from McMurdo- turning out to wave us over the line, on what was a chilly, windy afternoon. I was expecting a quiet finish, and was totally overwhelmed by the warmth of the reception we had from this wonderful gang.
Emotionally, Tarka and I are still numb and exhausted, and we are doing little more than eating and sleeping around the clock now. That he and I are here at all, at the end of this journey, with an unbroken 1,795-mile looping ski track behind us, is something I owe to an awful lot of wonderful people and companies that have carried on believing in me and in this dream, often for many years, and often when it seemed time and again that all hope of even starting it had been lost. There are too many to list and thank in one blog post, but I want to extend as much gratitude as I can wring out of clumsily-chosen words to Land Rover and Intel for breathing life into this expedition, and for making everything you have read about for the past four months possible. I also want to thank KCOM, Drum Cussac, CF Partners, Mountain Equipment, Bremont, GSK, Hilleberg and Field Notes.
My UK-based team have borne me humbly and tirelessly on their shoulders for so long, and I'm sending my sincerest love and thanks to Andy, Chessie, Tem, Gillie and Ryan. Further afield, I'm indebted to Jerry Colonna, Tony Haile, Al Humphreys, Martin Hartley, Anthony Goddard, Steve Jones (and the entire ALE team), Kate Bosomworth, James Lindeman, Alistair Watkins, Stuart Dyble and Philip Stinson.
Tarka and I are both so thankful to our loved ones and to our friends for being there for us always, and for putting up with us not being there for them for so long.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge my brilliant companion for the past three-and-a-half months of suffering and striving, the inimitable Monsieur L'Herpiniere. He has been reliable to the very end of the world, and to the very limits of endurance; both an anchor and a lighthouse in every storm this expedition has weathered. And even if no one had ever heard about this journey; if we had skied in secret, the chance to spend so long in this man's company is something I'm truly grateful for, and I can only hope that, long after we return home, I can continue to learn from and emulate his indomitable spirit, his stoicism in the face of deep discomfort and struggle, his generous and modest nature, and his remarkable self-reliance. He is, to borrow John Ridgway's highest accolade, a good man.
Right now it's time for more food and sleep, but I'll write again soon. Thank you all so much for following, for thinking of us, and for your messages and comments. With my brain addled and dulled by so much hard physical work and by so little in the way of rest and recovery, it's often been a struggle to do this journey justice in words and I fear I've fallen short on many occasions, but I hope you've enjoyed the story. Perhaps the best line I can think of to end on today is a piece of advice Tarka gave me several weeks ago on improving my skiing technique, but it's something that holds true for pretty much everything in life: "With each step, try to reach a bit further forward than you think you can".
For more on the Scott Expedition and to read Ben's outstanding blog visit the Scott Expedition website.