Putting the Recent Antarctica Firsts Into Context

Solo Traverse

You may have seen the recent news about the completion of two solo, unsupported and unassisted ski expeditions across Antarctica by Colin O’Brady and close behind, Lou Rudd. While there are numerous people who have successfully traversed Antarctica over the years after Shackleton’s ill-fated attempt, O’Brady has claimed his achievement is a world first. So what does this all mean?

If you are like me, apart from knowing that these challenges are absolutely amazing physical and mental feats, it’s hard to visualize what each expedition actually entailed. Eric Philips of Icetrek Expeditions, a polar explorer himself, put together a great visual with a little background information on a number of past solo trans-Antarctica expeditions (not all are included) to help us better understand the routes each person took, their means of travel, and whether or not they resupplied along the way — you can view this all in the photo above.

As with any world first, solo trans-Antarctica expeditions are not without their controversies. For example, is it only a true crossing if the expedition started and finished on the outer edges of the ice shelves, almost doubling the distance? According to Børge Oslund, who completed his own trans-Antarctica expedition in 1997 with the help of a kite at times, the ice shelves are part of the continent. If you don’t cross them, you haven’t crossed Antarctica.

And does using a basic kite to travel a small portion of the distance still mean you were unsupported and unassisted? How about following the line of a graded and flagged road (known as the South Pole Overland Traverse or SPOT road) that runs from the South Pole down the Leverett Glacier? This road cuts through sastrugi fields and eases the navigational burden.

Last South

I am sure the debate will continue for years to come, but the sheer difficulty of hauling a close to 300-pound sleds for over 50 days should not be taken lightly. And thanks to global warming, the feat may become more and more difficult each year as my friend Eric Larsen can attest. He just abandoned his own attempt at the fastest solo, unsupported and unassisted ski trek to the South Pole — a 700-mile journey starting at Hercules Inlet and finishing at the Geographic South Pole.

Eric was pulling roughly 135-pounds of food, fuel, and equipment for the entire journey in a lightweight kevlar sled. Because of uncharacteristically warm and unstable weather with its resulting soft snow, he wasn’t making enough progress each day and would sadly run out of supplies before reaching the pole. You can see Eric’s route in the photo above. Hopefully he will have the opportunity to try again.

UPDATE: Explorers Web just published an article on the whole controversy. You can read it here.

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