Cold, Hard, Fast

Ray Zahab and Kevin Vallely talk about the importance of butter, bacon, and iPods on their record-setting South Pole expedition.

Feb 10, 2009
Outside Magazine
South Pole Quest

Kevin Vallely, Impossible2Possible    Photo: The team bedding down for the "night."

South Pole Quest

The South Pole Quest team after their record-setting journey.

South Pole Quest

Kevin Vallely showing how he broke his tooth.

On January 6, 2009 adventurers Ray Zahab, Kevin Vallely, and Richard Weber broke the record for quickest unsupported, unassisted journey to the South Pole, completing the trip in just under 34 days. After following the expedition with daily dispatches, Outside's MICAH CRATTY checked in with team members Ray Zahab and Kevin Vallely back home in Canada.

How does it feel to be off the ice?
Ray Zahab: It feels great to be home, I can tell you that. I missed my family so much. It's good to be home doing regular day-to-day things. That's the other exciting part of the adventure, because the fact is when I'm out there people ask what I think about, and I think a lot about home. You think about all the little things in your day to day life that you take for granted. An example is changing diapers. It's not so bad when you're missing your baby that much.

Now that you have had some time to reflect on the trip, was it worth it?
Kevin Vallely: Totally, even if we got the record or not, it was absolutely worth it. Our whole objective was to get out and to inspire people, to inspire kids, and we really did do that. It feels awesome. There is something wonderful about planning something for a long period of time, setting a goal, actually feeling a little pensive about it, and then actually going out and doing it. Yeah, it feels wicked.

Was there any tension among the team members?
KV: Surprisingly, there wasn't. We got along extremely well, which is rare on these things. I remember reading somewhere that the participants in polar expeditions very often take on the same sort of relationship as do convicts. The reality was we got along great. Every night I would be laughing so hard, literally I was going to tears. We really had a good time together.

What was the Antarctic environment like?
RZ: I think my perspective on the terrain is different from Richard and Kevin's because they were on skis, and of course I was on foot and snowshoes. Kevin joined me on foot for the beginning of the expedition and then transferred to skis, but Richard skied the whole thing. For me, the deeper snow, I remember it above 86 degrees or 87 degrees [latitude], it was really freaking tough. It was really tough moving. Definitely when I think of the Antarctic environment I think of that snow.

KV: The Antarctic environment is like nothing I've ever experienced before. It's probably closer to being a desert than anything else. It's probably the loneliest place you could find on earth. Even out in the middle of the ocean you have ships around you, or potentially a ship within x number of miles. But when we were out there in the Antarctic plateau, we were in the most desolate, loneliest place on earth. The only living creature, except around the periphery of Antarctica, is this half-inch insect that lives on one of the mountain peaks that they theorize has blown in there millennia ago and it eats bacteria.

What kind of temperatures did you guys see?
KV: It went from the warmest probably minus ten down to probably the minus 40 range [Celsius]. It was cold enough. We lost our thermometer on day two, so we were judging things, believe it or not, by the composition of butter. One of Richard's tricks is that with butter if you can gnaw on it, it's in the minus 20 range, when it starts to snap off in chunks, you're in the minus 30 to minus 40 range, and when it actually shatters like glass you're in the minus 50 range. It never shattered like glass, but it was doing a lot of snapping off when I was biting into it. Actually, I just came out of the dentist repairing a tooth that I broke biting into a chunk of butter.

Did you ever want to sit down and give up?
RZ: Oh yeah, there were days where you were so exhausted from always going, and these long, long days. There were days where you said "Man, this is really, really tough." But it was the kids. We'd hear these stories. There was one where these three kids were pretending to be Richard, Ray, and Kevin in their school yard in Ottawa, dragging a little sled around. Those stories were so powerful for us, that it drove us forward.

KV: One day I had really bad altitude sickness, we had been going for 5.5 hours already and had 5.5 more to do and, I'm telling you, I could barely walk. I'd lose my balance, I was nauseous like I'd never been nauseous before, my head was spinning. I really thought I was just going to die. I was feeling really weird. I remember sitting down at that break, and the guys were pretty sure I was going to pack it in for the day, but it was one of those things, even then you realize you have to try and see if you can keep going and push through. No one wants to suffer, but we told ourselves we were never going to give in unless we couldn't keep going. So there was never a point that we would act on that feeling. You always want to stop, you always want to rest, you're human, right?

Did your training prepare you for your trip?
KV: Marginally, I have enough experience to recognize that you can never train adequately for something like this. If you were fully trained to go 12 hours a day in the beginning, you'd over-train and be shattered by the end of it. I was prepared in the sense that I was slightly under trained. I suffered a lot for the first couple of weeks trying to be fit enough, and then once two weeks hit in I was able to hold it well and I felt really strong for the rest of the duration. We had put on enough weight as well that at the end I was probably only five pounds underweight. I probably lost 20 pounds overall.

Did you get sick of your food?
KV: Yeah, I got really sick of my food. We were just eating butter, pemmican, and double-smoked, deep-fried bacon, and I'm a vegetarian for God's sake. But out there the only thing that would work was that diet. I found it very difficult to go from a guy that basically eats tofu and nuts all the time, to someone that's basically eating straight meat and lard and butter for 40 days.

What was the best part of the trip?
RZ: The best part of the trip by far, actually there are a lot of them and they are tied, but I would have to say really, truly, as corny as it sounds, it was being able to share this place with young people. That was really the best part of the trip for me.

What would you do differently if you did the trip again?
RZ: I would learn to ski at Richard's caliber.

KV: I'd bring a backup iPod. Mine froze.

It literally froze?
KV: Yeah, it got a bit of moisture in it and it just froze solid.

Did you listen to any books on tape?
KV: Yeah, I was listening to Lance Armstrong's book, It's Not About the Bike, and also The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, he was on the Scott expedition. He didn't die on it, but he wrote about it. [Scott and four others died].

How did it feel to be listening to The Worst Journey in the World when you were on a South Pole expedition?
KV: A number of times I had to turn it off. I was suffering too much on the outside to listen to these guys suffering on the inside.

How did it feel when you finally reached the South Pole?

RZ: It felt fantastic; there is no doubt. It was the culmination of everything. It felt like it wasn't just our record or our effort, it was the effort of us plus the young people that followed along on the internet. It felt like not only were we able to achieve our goal in the way we did it, but also we achieved our goal and shared it. It was excellent, and of course once you put your hand around the South Pole you're like "Whew, we're done. I don't have to drag that damn sled anymore."

Was there a party when you got to the South Pole?
KV: We met a skiing expedition and they said "Hey guys, in the tent there we left a liter of wine and two beers." So we had a liter of wine and two beers for breakfast, then we went to sleep.

Do you guys have plans to do any more expeditions together?
KV: Yeah, we definitely will. We are toying with the idea of something up north, we're not sure what yet. We definitely want to do something again together, so that's in the works now. We certainly felt that we worked together as a team, so we'd really like to do something together again.

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