'This vast area of nothing, as big as Europe, with the constant drift of ice creating shapes before your eyes'
I like to think that my books are pretty realistic - I try to write about places I've been and experiences I've had. So whatever I'm doing in my life, I'm always wondering whether it might make a good setting or part of a plot. If you've read Dead Centre, my Nick Stone novel set in the kidnap and ransom world of Somalia, you'll have seen this already. That book was inspired by my work out there with a private security company tasked with securing the release of a couple of western hostages being held by al-Shabaab.
You couldn't get much further away from the heat and landscape of Somalia than Antarctica, and this is where I found the inspiration for my brand new Nick Stone thriller, Cold Blood.
Back in early 2015 a mate asked if I fancied trekking to the South Pole, following the last 100 nautical miles that Shackleton and his crew should have covered had their ship not got stuck in the ice. I said yes without really thinking it would ever happen, so no one was more surprised than me when he got back in touch later that year to say that the expedition was on and we were to leave in November.
Actually, I suspect my wife was more surprised, but I promised I would be back in time for Christmas, so she got over it and I got ready to go.
It took a while to get there – commercial flights to the south of Chile, Russian military jet to the ice camp in Antarctica and then a WW2 Dakota over the mountains and onto the plateau itself – but once we were there it was spectacular, just looking out over this vast area of nothing, as big as Europe, with the constant drift of ice creating shapes before your eyes, it was like a mirage.
Then the hard work started. We got going most days at around 6am. Bizarrely, the navigation is exactly as it was 100 years ago. Because at the South Pole everything is north of you, as long as your shadow is broadly in front of you, you know you're heading south. And it's 24-hour daylight. There's no compass, no SatNav – you don't need it. Except for the horizon, there's nothing. It's totally flat, no points of reference. The desolation is extraordinary and bizarrely some people even find it claustrophobic!
We were in three tents of five, crammed in to help generate body heat. The first three or so hours of each day were spent melting ice on the pressure cookers and trying to fill water bottles and eat and drink as much as we could. Trekking in Antarctica, at temperatures averaging -35C, you need about 8,000 calories a day.
On days that the temperature went down to -50C, it was really hard to breathe and to generate body heat. You try to keep everything covered up but if there's even the smallest chink in your clothing, you get windburn. We had a doctor with us who would treat these burns using something which generated new skin underneath, our version of an Antarctic facelift.
Even though we tended to walk in silence, preserving our energy during the day, once we were tucked up in our tents at night, the banter got going. In some respects it wasn't that different from my days in the army. You had to pee into a bottle rather than leave the tent, you had to take everything with you, leaving nothing there, just as we had to during hard routine as a special forces soldier. I probably found bagging up all my bodily deposits and happily letting them freeze in my pack rather easier to deal with than others!
For the final couple of days we started making out a shape on the horizon. It never seemed to get nearer, but eventually we got there, the Amundsen-Scott base that's at the South Pole. To stand on that spot, and to think of who - and how few - had been there before you, was an incredible feeling.
We were then stranded at the base due to bad weather for several days before we were able to begin the journey back to Chile. This gave me the perfect opportunity to start thinking about how I could use this extraordinary experience in the next book. I knew that the ice and the expanse of emptiness was more than it seemed, and that is always a good starting point for a thriller. I had just one problem though. The South Pole is a bit bleak and barren, no polar bears there, and I thought we could have some fun getting Nick Stone in front of a new kind of predator. So I switched the backdrop from the South Pole up to the North, just as much ice and cold, just a few more furry friends!
So I got that squared away, leaving me with just one other issue to sort out whilst waiting for the plane. What was I going to buy my wife in duty free that was going to make up for missing Christmas after all...