Skiing Solo and Unsupported to the South Pole
Wendy Searle writes about her journey to the South Pole. From being unable to ski to her final push across Antarctica.
In 1924, Herbet Ponting released cutting edge footage of Scott’s fateful South Pole expedition. In the silent film were accompanying words: “Only 10 men have ever reached the South Pole since God made the World”. Whatever you feel about God, those are stirring words to read. They represented some of the last great days of exploration. They hinted at the hardship those men faced, some of whom would never return from Antarctica.
So what made me, a 30-something mother of four with an ordinary office job, think that I too could face such hardships, such isolation - maybe even a good deal of suffering? I had no time, no money, no experience – I couldn’t even ski.
Back in 2015, I was living a pretty normal existence. But while I was working for a military charity, I met a team of soldiers who were traversing Antarctica. Up until that point, I didn’t know that Polar travel was a thing people still did. I would have struggled to tell you who Scott and Shackleton were. And I think this is really important: my Antarctic plans were not long-held dreams. Rather, they evolved from creating opportunities and grabbing them with both hands. If you look back for a moment, you might not take that leap.
“So what made me, a 30-something mother of four with an ordinary office job, think that I too could face such hardships”
I became more and more drawn to the idea of Antarctica. It’s an other-worldly place. The South Pole itself was only discovered relatively recently and first reached in just 1911, barely more than 100 years ago. Someone once said that if Antarctica was music, it would be Mozart.
My plan was to be the fastest woman to ski solo from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole, completely unsupported. This meant I had to take everything with me for a journey of more than 700 miles alone. I could neither receive nor drop off anything, in order to for the attempt to count as unsupported. Even accepting a cup of tea from a fellow expeditioner could cost me the prize. It was a huge undertaking for someone who’d never even skied before. I had a lot to do.
“I would be alone, in temperatures that would kill you in 20 minutes if you did nothing but stand still…”
There was a huge black hole between where I was in 2015 and where I needed to be, to even be allowed to stand at the start line of a solo journey in Antarctica. I poured myself into preparation trips: Norway, Iceland, the Cairngorms and a six-person unsupported crossing of the Greenland ice sheet. Suffice to say that every time I finished another training trip, I thought, “Wow, that was hard, I’m not sure I could do anything harder than that.” I had no idea what was to come.
I was training six days a week, twice a day, for a year. To carry all your kit and equipment in your pulk and ski for maybe 11-12 hours a day, you need to be mentally and physically strong. I pulled tyres. I sat in rivers and ice baths. I put my tent up in my sitting room over and over again, learning the muscle memory required for when you’re so done at the end of the day, you are putting your tent up on your hands and knees.
The training was easy, in the sense that I could make myself do it and there wasn’t much cost involved. I had no spare cash lying around and asking for corporate sponsors was a huge task, especially as, at the time, I had no credibility and no contacts. I found asking people to support me was incredibly difficult and I still didn’t have all the money until 10 days before I flew to South America.
The Start Line
I spent a week in Punta Arenas in Southern Chile; packing and prepping kit, looking for extra things I could leave behind, anything to shave off another few grammes of weight. After being delayed because of bad weather for another few days, I finally got the call to say there was a weather window. The flight to Antarctica was on.
“If I was daunted, I pretended to myself that I wasn’t.”
We arrived in Union Glacier, a logistics base in Antarctica, via a blue-ice runway and then tracked vehicles. It was a magical moment, stepping out of a cargo plane with no windows for my first glimpse of the Great White Continent.
I spent a few days at Union Glacier, collecting fuel and trying out my pulk at its full weight. I had the pulk weighed but asked not to know the number. I was interested, but didn’t want to be psyched out by how heavy it was.
And that brings me to the start line of the biggest challenge of my life. I would be alone, in temperatures that would kill you in 20 minutes if you did nothing but stand still; crevasses, white-outs, headwinds and a (literal) uphill slog for weeks.
It was beautiful sunshine for the first few days of skiing. I gradually left behind the other ski tracks and along with it any trace of humanity. If I was daunted, I pretended to myself that I wasn’t. It was so stunning, and I had dreamed of it for so long, that I could hardly believe it was really happening.
Reality set in a few days later when a storm arrived. I knew it was coming, thanks to comms with the logistics team. After facing the infamous Piteraq storms in Greenland, I knew I needed to stop early, get the tent up and protect it as much as possible. I began to dig, creating a sunken platform in the snow to give the tent some wind protection. Then, with the slabs of snow I dug out, I built a wall on the windward side of my tent, providing extra fortification.
The storm arrived right on schedule and I was pretty scared. It sounded like being inside a jet engine but, worse than that, I could see snow building up around the sides of the tent. Too high and I’d be buried alive. The snow is heavy and feels like concrete. I went out and dug it back down, but in the end I slept.
In the morning, the storm was still raging but the snow wasn’t any higher around the tent. Once it was safe to travel again, I spent more than two hours digging out my tent with surgical care. One slip from my carbon-fibre shovel and I could slice right through the tent canvas or a guy line.
From that point on, everything was much harder. I’d seen what Antarctica was capable of and I knew I had a long way to go.
A Polar Morning Routine
Each day, I got up at the same time and started my morning routine. I started by melting enough water to rehydrate my breakfast and drink for the rest of the day. Meanwhile I would check the GPS for that day’s bearing, prep my clothes and sort my gear. It took 20 minutes to get dressed. In Antarctica, too hot is as dangerous as too cold. You sweat and when the sweat freezes you’re super-cooled, so wearing the right layers and leaving no skin exposed is a fine balance.
After that I steeled myself for emerging from the tent. Outside I’d collapse my tent, roll it up (something I got so efficient at, I could do it in minutes) and stick it in my pulk. Then I’d have one final look round my camp before I set off again, heading endlessly south.
You might think that every day was the same - because there are barely any landmarks and an endless, endless 360-degree white horizon. But really every day was different. I was grateful for the days when the sun was out: I could see where I was going. Collapsing into the tent at night was a warm cocoon of safety. But the mornings were brutal. I cried every morning for about three weeks.
The South Pole
I approached the half-way point with not much left to give. I was exhausted already, how would I keep this up for yet more weeks? I had so far still to go. But spotting Thiels, an airstrip in almost exactly the middle of nowhere, gave me hope at the end of a long day. The elation I felt for these tiny dots on the horizon was huge – it felt like humanity and it gave me a renewed energy to continue.
The second half of the expedition was so much harder: the weather was worse, more white out and so much colder. Then there was the sastrugi – huge, wind-blown scoops and ridges of ice, for around a hundred miles. It slowed my pace and sapped my morale. I fell over more than ever, sometimes having to take a moment to check I hadn’t broken anything before hauling myself ungracefully to my feet. But it was beautiful – so so much stunning, raw beauty, that no one else will likely ever see but me. It was full of wonder, as well as full of hardship.
I had 42 days’ worth of food. On the 41st day, I skied for the usual 11 hours, then put my tent up. There was 24-hour daylight in Antarctica at the time, so I sat and had a huge feast of all the food I had left. Then I rolled up my tent, told myself I’d had a good rest and carried on skiing for another 12 hours.
The moment I saw the South Pole, I realised that - after 5 years, 42 days and 16 hours -I was going to become the seventh woman to ski solo and unsupported from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole. Only the seventh woman since God made the World.
Wendy Searle skied 720 miles across Antarctica from Hercules Inlet to the Geographic South Pole. The expedition took place from 27th November 2019 to 8th January 2020. You can listen to Wendy’s daily updates from the field, or read her blog posts at southpole2020.com
Oh, and in case you were wondering… her pulk weighed 86kg.