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Meet Sophie and Ewie of BallaghBlyth

The Cold-Water Kayakers Conquering Antarctica
Posted by Gestalten—10/2017

As BallaghBlyth, outdoor professionals Sophie Ballagh and Ewie Blyth travel to the extremities of the world, bringing back stunning photographs and awe-inspiring tales from the road. Our recent release Below Zero features one of their many tales: The story of their once-in-a-lifetime kayaking trip across Antarctica. We spoke with Sophie and Ewie ahead of its release to find out their top tips for young adventures hoping to explore the sights unseen in the cold, cold South. Read more below, or browse the book in our webshop.  

The two of you went kayaking in Antarctica, which seems like a rare opportunity—how did that happen?

We were working on a tourism vessel in Antarctica when our boss at the time suggested that we take our mid-season break kayaking in Antarctica. He offered to drop us off, and then suggested that we paddle unsupported for two weeks, at which point the ship would pick us up on the next voyage! We took that offer with both hands and immediately started planning. Almost two years later, a dream beyond a dream became reality.

When you’re planning an expedition to unfathomably cold locales, what are the preparations that most people wouldn’t think about? What are the hidden tricks to surviving the temperatures?

There isn’t a great deal of specific sea kayak equipment designed for multi-day expeditions to Antarctica so we began to design, test, and make a lot of our own equipment. For example, we made our pogies—mitts that fix onto the paddle shaft to protect one’s hands. Neoprene is the most common fabric, which works well for a day but overnight the temperatures freeze the fabric that has absorbed water during the day. By the morning, you either have to crack them open or submerge them in the water to make them malleable again to get your hands inside.  So we designed and built our own from closed-cell foam—an old school sleeping pad that is light weight, insulating, and doesn’t absorb water, so it cannot freeze over night! We ended up using close-cell foam to insulate our bodies, our food, and even our camera and filming gear.

For us the trick was not letting our hands get so cold we would loose dexterity, which is quite likely when you have your hands in and out of Antarctic waters! This was our number one concern as it would become a major and possibly life-threatening issue if we lost the use of our hands. At that point, it’s almost impossible to put up a tent and create shelter or to start a cooker for warmth!

What is the coldest you’ve ever felt? How would you describe it?

When your nose hairs freeze on inhale, your eyelashes are stuck to your neck buff, and the combination of dried salt, sea spray and snot freeze to your cheeks—when paddling in rough conditions you can’t take your hand off your paddle to deal with these things!

The sub-zero climate zones also offer some of the most extreme natural landscapes. What was the most memorable sight you’ve seen on your adventures?

I think one of Antarctica’s magical wonders amongst many is that during the summer months it’s a mass breeding ground for krill that feed on the phytoplankton blooms. Krill is the bottom of the food chain in the Southern Ocean and hundreds of marine mammals flock to the icy wonderland to feed!  We had many encounters with some of these fascinating creatures, especially humpback whales. One in particular sticks in our mind. We were gliding through calm, glassy waters and pushing small chunks of brash ice aside, surrounded by mountains rising thousands of meters into the dark looming sky with glaciers cascading and crashing down to the sea when one of nature’s giants rose from below to exhale all 5,000 liters of its lungs, then inhaled again just meters from our kayaks! That kind of experience is simply surreal!

Where in the world would you still like to travel? What is on your bucket list?

The tropics! Bring on the warm climates! There are so many adventures and places we are yearning to visit and explore in the tropical climes.

Any advice for young adventurers hoping to brace the coldest of colds?

Do it! The technology and equipment has advanced so far that cold should not put one off!  But take care, plan and prepare well, and always have the utmost respect for Mother Nature—she can remind you very quickly who is at whose mercy in the polar world. 

Images taken from Below Zero

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