When it’s blue sky and you’re on the polar plateau, you can feel so small. It’s just endless, and you’re like this tiny little speck. You can look 360 degrees, there’s nothing. There’s no tree, no building. You are the only tiny little thing out there in this endless sea of light. So that makes you feel small. But then when it’s whiteout, it’s the opposite: It’s super myopic, insular. All I can see is my compass a couple inches away from my nose, and the contrast of those two things is so stark, but what is ever-present is that you are just a product of your own thoughts, your own mind.
— Colin O’Brady, January 2019
On Nov. 3, a Twin Otter ski plane dropped from a cobalt blue sky and landed on the Ronne Ice Shelf, on the western edge of Antarctica. Colin O’Brady, 33, an American adventurer, and Louis Rudd, 49, a captain in the British Army, disembarked to attempt something nobody had ever done — a solo, unsupported, unassisted traverse of the coldest continent on earth.
Harnessed to pulks (plastic sleds) packed with everything the pair would need to survive for at least two months, they clipped into skis and began racing each other toward the Ross Ice Shelf, a journey of 921 miles as the crow flies. They would face wind chill temperatures in the neighborhood of minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit, whiteout days with little visibility, unseasonable snowfall, isolation and pain.
On Dec. 26, O’Brady completed the journey, after a 32-hour march to the finish line. In an astonishing twist, he covered the final 78 miles in one push that began on Christmas morning and went through the white night. Rudd joined him at the finish two days later. O’Brady lost 20 pounds along the way. Rudd lost more than 30, and just when they thought they were finished, poor flying weather forced them to wait two extra days for their journey back to relative comfort and their first shower since Halloween.
Since they completed their journey, there has been considerable debate among polar adventurers about how this expedition stacks up to Borge Ousland’s 1996-97 journey, which began and ended at the edges of Antarctica’s ice shelves, the massive floating blocks of ice that border parts of the continent. Rudd and O’Brady say they have the utmost respect for Ousland, who skied with the assistance of a kite that helped him cover 1,864 miles.
“He’s one of the greatest modern-day polar explorers,” O’Brady said in an interview just days after returning to Punta Arenas, Chile, the pair’s departure point for the Ronne Ice Shelf. “But to me, it’s apples and oranges.”
Others have noted that the later stages of the route taken by Rudd and O’Brady followed a pass that heavy vehicles traverse.
“I wish they could be there, it’s not a road at all,” Rudd said. “Trying to say it was easy that we skied down a road is just so wrong. It’s unbelievable. It’s a bit disappointing. It’s a shame that they haven’t actually said, ‘Well done, guys, great effort that was, tough journey.’”
They had plenty more to say about their unprecedented adventure. Interviews with each of them have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Louis Rudd (LR): So we flew in, the plane landed and I said to Colin, “Do you want to hop out first?” Then we taxied along the ground for a mile, just plowing through the snow, parallel to Colin. We parked and I hopped out. We could clearly see each other at the start. I remember Monica, the pilot, and me trying to manhandle my pulk out of the plane, and the weight was insane. It just sank in the soft snow on the Ronne Ice Shelf, and I was thinking, “My God, this is crazy.”
Colin O’Brady (COB): There’s four straps that strap my sled down. The first strap I pull to tighten — snap — the plastic clip breaks. I haven’t even taken one step, and [expletive] is already breaking.
LR: They took off, circled round and buzzed over the top of me, and gradually the noise gets quieter and quieter, and you’re just staring at it until it’s a tiny black speck. I remember this overwhelming silence and just being bitterly cold.
COB: That first day I’d been pulling for about two hours. I could see Lou in the distance, going a bit faster than me, but it wasn’t about the race at that point. I didn’t know if I could pull my sled across Antarctica. I didn’t know if I could pull my sled for another hour. I called Jenna (his wife and expedition manager, Jenna Besaw) in tears. And she’s like, “Where are you?” I’m like: “I’ve only gone 2 miles since the plane. I’m half a mile from the first waypoint. Should I just camp here?” And what she said was really crucial: “Get to the first waypoint. That will feel like a victory for today.”
Rudd Takes an Early Lead
COB: Those first four days were brutal. Your body isn’t used to it. I got a couple of hot spots and blisters, and my back hurt. Getting everything dialed in was challenging for me. I saw Lou in front of me. It’s hard to judge distance when you’re out there. It’s like, “Is it a mile or is it 10 miles?” But I could see him in the pretty far distance.
LR: On Day 4, the surface was great and I did like 15 nautical miles, which I never expected to do with that weight. I finished that day thinking there’s no way Colin is going to do that at this stage. I had in my head that I pulled this massive lead on him.
O’Brady Catches Up and Builds a Lead
COB: At the end of Day 5, about 10 hours into the day I spotted his tent in the distance and I was like, “Oh man, he’s right there.” I camped 15 minutes away from his tent that night. On the morning of Day 6, I started skiing in that direction. He must’ve heard me coming past, and popped his head out of the tent and waved to me. I waved back and continued on my way.
LR: By the time I got going, he got about a half-mile ahead, and very quickly I caught right up to him. Again, I had that confidence I was traveling much faster, and he looked like really hunched over and really toiling, and I felt a bit more relaxed, a bit more upright. Great for my confidence. We had like a kilometer between us, but it was kind of level, all day through Day 7.
COB: Late in the day, I noticed he was stopping to put his tent up, and I continued onward for another hour. I was like: “I don’t want to wake up right next to each other again. It would be nice to have a little separation.” So I was maybe 2 miles ahead of him at the end of that day.
LR: He got up super early, and by the time I came out of the tent, he was a little speck in the distance.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Rudd Flirts With Disaster
About halfway to the South Pole, Rudd confronted deep soft snow and struggled to pull his sled. So he decided to divide the load, leaving half of it behind, skiing ahead, then returning to pick up the remaining items. The operation went well the first time, so he repeated it, but on his second run, he forgot to mark the location of his gear with GPS coordinates. That was a really bad mistake. Rudd nearly lost vital items in a sudden storm.
LR: I’ve heard other polar explorers talk about portaging, or ferrying the load, as an option. I thought, I’ll try it out. I should’ve kept either the tent or the sleeping bag, and just left one of them, so if I lost the tent I would have had the sleeping bag and vice versa, but I left both, marked them with my GPS and my spare ski, and set off with about 40 days of food in the pulk, a satellite phone and down jacket.
Visibility was all right at that point. You could see a mile on the horizon, and the pulk felt fantastic. It was easy to zip along with half the load, and quite quickly went 2 miles ahead. And I went back, picked everything up fine. Went forward.
Then did it again.
It started to get quite blustery. The wind was building 30 to 40 knots, visibility coming right down. I stopped again at 2 miles. The first time I’d just followed the ski tracks straight back, piece of cake. This time, the wind and the spindrift had already filled in my ski tracks. I was literally down on my knees trying to look, thinking, “I can’t believe I can’t see my tracks.” I was actually amazed it had gone so fast.
I couldn’t retrace my track. I went back on the compass bearing. Visibility was like 10 meters. I was thinking, “This is getting quite dangerous now.” I’ve got no tent and no sleeping bag. I’ve literally got a down jacket and I’ve got some food. I’ve got a sat phone, but nobody is coming to get me in these conditions. It could be a couple of days in this sort of thing.
Without my tent and sleeping bag, I’m instantly in a survival situation, and I was conscious as well that the winds were really strong. There was a ski sticking up, but if that fell over, the whole thing could have been buried. It took me a long time to do the 2 miles. I was scanning and looking. I’d almost gone past it, which would have been fatal, but by pure luck, I turned my head toward a gap in the spindrift and saw a black shadowy sort of shape. Instantly turned, skied a couple hundred meters, stumbled across it. Relief.
When Skiing Across Antarctica, Bring Extra Skis
COB: One thing that I think he did smarter — again, this is based on his experience — is that he had two sets of skis with him. I didn’t bring any extra skis, but he had long skins on one set of skis and short skins on the other. When he wanted to switch between the long and short skins it was simple, whereas for me to switch my skins, I literally had to undo the glue off the skins, grab the other skins out and reglue them. But it turns out if you want to do that in a whiteout in Antarctica when it’s minus 25 degrees and the wind chill is minus 70 and the snow is blowing around everywhere, it actually doesn’t work.
So on Day 27, I tried to switch my skins in the storm and couldn’t get my long or short skins to stick, which meant I couldn’t pull my sled. I was forced to set up my tent after having only traveled 3.5 miles. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I decided to take the second half of that day off to re-thaw out my skins and get them back on my skis for the following day. Lou did 15 miles that day. I had been two days in the lead, but if you don’t move at all, you’re not holding the lead.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
COB: So I arrive on Dec. 26 after 32 hours, and I literally stopped at the final waypoint and said, “I’m putting my tent up and going to bed.” I was down to pretty low rations, and two days later, my personal food was more or less gone. That’s when Lou arrived.
LR: Colin had obviously been there a couple of days already, and I was half expecting a Twin Otter [plane] to be there waiting. No plane. Straight away I phoned Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions. They said, “We’re fogged in at Union Glacier.” And they said they had a weather window on Dec. 31, which was like three days away. I was quite frustrated. Colin, too. He was quite low on food, so I gave him some of my freeze-dried rations.
COB: When those guys showed up, I had been there for four days and Lou had been there for two days and our food was getting low. There were big smiles on our faces. They brought us a bottle of Champagne.
LR: It was 11 or 12 o’clock at night when we landed back at UG, but a load of ALE staff and clients had stayed up, and when we got off the plane, there were cheers and hugs and congratulations. That was really nice. They’d prepared a special meal for me and Colin that they kept in the kitchen as well, so we sat down and had a great meal. And as much wine and beer as we wanted.
COB: Antarctica is the last great wilderness. There is nothing quite like going to a place on this planet, in this day and age, that is literally untouched.
LR: I genuinely do love the place. It’s harsh and can be brutal. A lot of the time when you’re there, you’re wishing you weren’t, but I’ll miss it, and will be thinking about it all the time. The great white queen.