Christmas Day for Louis Rudd will start just as every day has for several weeks now: a 7am alarm followed by a cup of instant hot chocolate and some freeze-dried porridge. The British Army captain will then pack up his tent, load his sled, clip into his skis, hook his compass to his chest strap, and walk alone across the white expanse of Antarctica. If he is lucky, he will be able to see where he is going.
“In a team, you might have a litre of whisky to celebrate something like Christmas,” Rudd, 49, tells me from his tent via satellite phone. It’s late at night after his 43rd day on the ice. He has enjoyed sunshine after long periods of bad weather involving consecutive days in whiteout conditions. “But weight is so critical when you’re alone, so I’ll treat it like any other day and ski for 12 hours.”
Rudd is trying to slide into the record books, in the tracks of two British adventurers whose own expeditions, separated by a century, ended in disaster or death. If he can now sustain an average daily distance of 15 nautical miles (17.26 miles), while dragging a sled, or “pulk”, that weighed 170 kilos at the start on November 3, he will reach the other side of the continent in early January, after walking 930 miles.
No one has yet been able to cross Antarctica alone and without being resupplied with food or assisted by a kite or any other means of power besides their increasingly tired legs. Yet it is a long-coveted journey. After Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, in 1911, Ernest Shackleton wrote that “there remained but one great main object of Antarctic journeyings — the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea”.
Shackleton failed in 1915, his ship succumbing to ice before his team could start their march. They narrowly escaped with their lives. Others have succeeded since, in teams or with various forms of assistance. In 1958, Sir Edmund Hillary became only the third person to reach the South Pole by land, and continued to make the first overland Antarctic crossing — but he drove there in a fleet of tractors.
While Rudd is the latest to attempt the purest version of Shackleton’s dream, he is not entirely alone. As he was preparing to fly to Antarctica, he learnt that an American would be making the same attempt, following the same dog-leg route between the Ross and Ronne Ice Shelves. Colin O’Brady’s appearance turned Rudd’s mission into a race he didn’t want, and created a cultural clash.
While Rudd is every inch the grizzled British Army adventurer, the younger O’Brady, 33, is a chiselled professional triathlete-turned-mountaineer from Portland, Oregon. He arrived at the start with 70,000 Instagram followers and custom-made organic energy bars he calls “Colin Bars”. He talks like a cross between a motivational speaker and an athlete who does not only do things, but “executes” them.
“We’re very different people,” says Rudd, who describes still being “irritated” by O’Brady’s last-minute appearance. The men boarded the same flight from Punta Arenas, the Chilean base of Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE), which organises trips to the continent. A smaller propeller plane took them to “Messner start”, a point where the Antarctic land mass meets the ocean almost 200 metres below the ice. After dropping off O’Brady, the plane taxied for a mile before unloading Rudd. The Brit caught sight of O’Brady on day six, but not again.
On day 11, Rudd stooped to pick up an American-flag sticker that had come off O’Brady’s pulk. He put it in his pocket. The American’s lead has only widened since. “He’s got to win, he’s about collecting records, and becoming a YouTube star by the way he comes across,” Rudd says of O’Brady, who delivered a Ted Talk last year that has more than a million views). “I’m here for very different reasons.”
In 2011, Rudd joined his friend, mentor and fellow army man, Henry Worsley, in a centenary rerun of Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole. Worsley, who was also a leading authority on his hero Ernest Shackleton, shared his expertise — he had already walked to the pole — as well as an obsession with the world’s largest, coldest desert. They were successful, but Worsley had in mind a greater test: a solo crossing to honour Shackleton’s doomed expedition.
On January 22 2016, after 71 days of walking across the continent and battling against storms, dehydration and a bacterial infection, Worsley finally called for rescue after two days in his tent. He was little over 100 miles — perhaps a few days — short of completing the traverse. Two days later, he died of organ failure in a Chilean hospital.
The only non-essential item in Rudd’s pulk is the flag Worsley carried with him. Rudd has borrowed it from his friend’s widow, Joanna. It bears the family crest. “I want to be able to take it back to her and say, ‘this time it made it right the way across’, and I think that will help her grieve,” Rudd tells me. “It will also mean a lot to me.”
At 10:30pm local time, on day 46, O’Brady gives me a call. Like Rudd, he has solar panels to keep a satellite phone charged. He also uses it to send nightly updates and a photo to his team. Time zones are arbitrary at the bottom of the world, but ALE runs on Chilean time. It is a strange experience to be woken up at 1.30am in London by a call from a polar adventurer in his tent.
“It’s getting pretty stormy now, you might be able to hear the wind outside,” O’Brady says. It’s still light; the sun doesn’t set during an Antarctic summer. The American is businesslike but buzzing after his best day yet. He has just covered 25.5 miles, breaking his day into 90-minute sets and five-minute breaks. There is no doubt in his mind that he is racing. “Obviously I am, because I’m trying to be the first,” he says. “But it’s not only a race against Lou, but against history.”
Sixteen people have crossed Antarctica on foot with different levels of support, enduring temperatures as low as -45C and 60mph winds. “There’s a reason why no one has cracked this yet,” Rudd says. In 1997, Borge Ousland made the first solo crossing. The Norwegian hauled all his food but used kites to help pull him and his pulk. In 2010, Cecilie Skog and Ryan Waters made the first crossing without resupply or kites, but they could share trail-breaking and camp duties, as well as the emotional toil involved in such a feat.
Felicity Aston, a British scientist and adventurer, completed the first solo crossing without kites in 2012, but she picked up two caches of food along the way. She fell in love with Antarctica in her early twenties, during a 36-month stint at a British Antarctic Survey research station. “It’s just so ancient, vast and empty,” she says from her home in Iceland. “There was always this idea in the back of my mind that it would be amazing to see an entire cross section of this continent, and do it alone. What would it feel like?”
Aston, 41, says she was constantly terrified. ALE can organise a rescue when an adventurer or their remote support team requests it, but, for example, in the steep glaciers of the Transantarctic Mountains, which lie ahead in the coming days for Rudd and O’Brady, a plane can’t land. Help might take days to arrive — too late for anyone stuck down a crevasse or stripped of their tent in a storm.
Aston returned wondering what might have been. Could she have made it with a heavier pulk and no food caches? She also regrets that the title now looks unlikely to be held by a woman. But she is also sanguine about the vagaries of modern adventure. These people are not explorers in the Shackleton mould but athletes creating challenges, armed with aeroplanes and sat phones. “What expedition is truly ‘unsupported’ these days?” she asks. “We are all out there by the grace of a complex network of support logistics.”
Until recently, Aston says epic walks to the pole and back were in vogue, and speed assaults on the pole before that. The Shackleton centenary turned attention back to crossings, Worsley’s fate then bringing a poignancy and jeopardy to the solo, unsupported challenge. (O’Brady says he, too, was inspired by Worsley.) By doing it without help, “you are pushing the boundaries of human ability further and gain more kudos from your peers”, Aston adds.
Another Brit had a go first. Ben Saunders, another friend of Worsley’s, was on the ice this time last year. Bad weather slowed his journey to the Pole, where he calculated he would run out of food before the finish. He quit, and says Worsley’s death changed his attitude to risk. “One of the hardest things is navigating that boundary between being bold and reckless,” he says. Rudd and O’Brady have made similar calculations. “I can’t afford a rest day or to get held back by bad weather,” Rudd says. “If I can make good 15 nautical miles a day, I’ll finish with literally nothing left.”
The men have endured weeks of solitude, but there have been breaks. Each man paused for an hour at the pole, where ALE has a small base, being careful to accept not even a cup of tea. On day 44, Rudd came across a campsite and three trucks. A Taiwanese group had been driven from the pole to ski the three degrees of latitude (180 nautical miles) back again. Rudd recorded the encounter on his blog: “They haven’t got any kit . . . just skis . . . with big campsites and a cook and everything else.”
Last year, 51,000 people visited Antarctica, although 99 per cent floated there on cruise ships. ALE accounts for almost all of the rest, flying in about 400 clients each austral summer. The company thinks awareness of climate change may be fuelling its steady growth. Almost half its clients come to climb Mount Vinson, Antarctica’s tallest peak. This season, ALE also expects to fly 70 people to the South Pole — no walking required — while 30 are due to visit penguin colonies. A few dozen will walk the “last degree” to the pole, while 40 or so are on expeditions.
Neither Rudd nor O’Brady is revealing the cost of their crossings, but estimates suggest more than $200,000 each, most of it covered by sponsors and private backers. (A seat alone on an ALE flight from Chile costs more than $20,000). Rudd has put up money of his own, too, and watched with horror in the summer as the pound fell against the dollar. At one point the fall would have had added £10,000 to his bill.
Both men are putting the expectations of sponsors and the pressures of their purported race out of their mind. They have enough to contend with. In a few days, the Transantarctic Mountains will loom on the horizon. The sunny break is also over, replaced by 50mph winds and zero visibility. Rudd had to tie his tent to his pulk on the night of Tuesday, December 18, and pray it stayed anchored. But the direction of the wind was also kind, helping each man put in 20-mile days the following day.
It helps now that their pulks slide higher as their food supplies drop; food accounted for more than three-quarters of each sled’s starting weight. They have also passed the 3,000-metre highest point in their march and are now “trending” downhill, as O’Brady puts it. A few weeks ago, he and Rudd were struggling to walk 10 miles a day as they hauled their full loads uphill, through soft snow and over rock-hard, wind-whipped undulations called sastrugi.
O’Brady’s lead has now opened up to about two days, but he is concerned about how much weight he is losing as he maintains such a high pace. If the men had carried enough food to fully sustain themselves, they could not have moved their pulks. The American’s watch is falling off his wrist and daily tasks such as making camp leave him panting. “It makes me really nervous even to look down at my legs to see how small they are,” he tells me.
Rudd, who has a wife, Lucy, and three grown-up children at home, has been more concerned by a “cold injury”. Constant exposure to icy air has turned large parts of his mouth into a painful mass of blood and pus, making eating difficult. He is taking antibiotics. After he ends the call and goes to bed, he will reach for some medical glue to fill cracks that are opening up in the tips of his fingers. I wish him good luck for the final leg of his journey, and his mission to honour his friend. “I’m going to need it,” he says.
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