Post Expedition Reflection
Now that I’m finally home and the dust is beginning to settle I thought I’d write a few lines to summarise the key points of the expedition. It’s been an incredible experience from start to finish and I’ve learnt so much from it. I’ve been staggered by the amount of media interest it’s generated and it’s really put Antarctica and polar journey’s back in the spot light for a while, which can only be a good thing for everyone right? I feel extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to do this journey and owe a huge debt of gratitude to so many people that helped make it happen. I will be visiting you all in due course to personally thank you.
I achieved what I set out to do, a solo unsupported and unassisted crossing of the Antarctic land mass. Key stats as follows:
- Total distance: 920 miles.
- Time: 41 days from Messner Start point to South Pole, 15 days from South Pole to Ross Ice Shelf via the Leverett Glacier. 56 days total for the crossing
- No full rest days taken
- Pulk start weight: approx. 130kg
- Food: started with 65 days, consisting of 6000 calories per day
- Cooker fuel: 16.5 litres
- Body start weight 88kg, finish 73kg, a loss of 15kg (17% body mass)
- Fundraising for ABF Soldiers’ Charity (still ongoing)
- Dedicated 4 month post expedition school visits programme
Ultimately, Colin O’Brady and I both successfully completed what was an extremely difficult journey, hauling around 130kg of food and equipment over 900 miles, without resupply or the use of kites/sails across the continent. What’s more we did it in what has been unanimously recognised as a difficult season this year, with unprecedented levels of snow fall and soft difficult surfaces making man hauling particularly arduous. Many other solo expeditions this season came through the same conditions we did and thought better of it, taking the sensible decision to abort. At times it was absolutely brutal. We thoroughly researched beforehand to ensure we were correct in saying that this particular journey had not been done in this exact style, unsupported and unassisted. There’s always lots of debate around what unsupported and unassisted actually means, but for me it’s quite simple. If you haul all your own gear without any form of resupply using muscle power alone (no use of wind assistance, kites/sails etc) then you are unsupported. Anything else is supported. Using a simple analogy is the difference between rowing across an ocean or sailing across, clearly rowing is much slower and more physically challenging. Someone with a kite can comfortably do over 100 miles in a day with very little physical exertion, the most I’ve ever managed manhauling with a light pulk going downhill is 29 miles. My typical daily average manhauling is around 12 miles. Manhauling is the purest and most difficult form of polar travel, kiting is a very different kind of journey.
I got to know Colin quite well over the course of the expedition and what he did was truly remarkable. I pushed hard and skied longer hours and greater distances than I ever have on any previous expeditions and yet he was still able to finish two days ahead of me. And this despite the fact he had less direct experience in polar travel, although a very accomplished professional athlete and mountaineer. I genuinely thought his chances of successfully completing were slim but he did an incredible job. Yes, it would have been nice to finish first but my highest priority was successfully completing the journey and I was always wary of pushing too hard and becoming unsafe. It’s just incredible that we both successfully finished and I commend him for what he also achieved.
What has been a little disappointing is the reaction from some in the polar community. You would have thought it is this community that could best relate to what we achieved. I should start out by saying I have the utmost respect for those that crossed Antarctica solo before us, most notably the very first solo crossing by Borge Ousland back in the 90’s which was a truly epic journey, indeed I have his book in my collection which has been a huge source of inspiration. Also, more recently the huge kite traverse completed by Mike Horn which I followed avidly. These were incredible ground-breaking journey’s in their own right. But they were very different in nature to the journey we were looking to do. In reality, you couldn’t do Borge or Mikes journeys without the use of kites because of the sheer distances involved and the time available. The Antarctic expedition season is at best 90-100 days long before the weather turns and the logistics support company (ALE) pack up and go home. This restricts what is achievable for an unsupported, unassisted journey. Also, the current options for coastline start points is restricted by the capabilities of the logistics support operator and getting to the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf for example is a non-starter unless you have your own boat, or kite out there. They simply don’t have the reach to get there. In short, actually doing an unsupported crossing starting on the edge of the floating ice shelves by the waters edge without the use of kites or resupply is nigh on impossible, although I’m sure one day someone will crack it. Virtually every expedition these days, and indeed of the modern era, starts from the continental coastline of Antarctica and not the edge of the ice shelves, and they all claim to be coastline to Pole, so are they all null and void? If so there’s going to be a lot of disappointed people out there.
The other contentious issue has been around the choice of route for the second half of our journey from the South Pole to the Ross Ice Shelf. I selected the Leverett Glacier quite simply because it was the safest option for a solo expedition. The crevasse risk on this route is well understood and mitigated. As a husband and father of three, safety was always my utmost priority with this trip, any other approach would be irresponsible. The route is used by the US to resupply the South Pole station from their base at McMurdo. It’s been described by some as a ‘road’ which is misleading. It’s quite funny watching people comment on it when I know for a fact they’ve never even seen it let alone skied 300 miles along it. A tracked vehicle convoy traverse this route several times in the summer season, but having now used it I can tell you it’s a churned up heavily rutted surface that is mostly buried in soft spindrift. For most of the time it was a hideous surface to ski on and actually skiing parallel to the road on the much firmer flanks was mostly a better option. It is marked every 400m or so with a bamboo pole again which some claim is an artificial aid but having successfully navigated over 2,500 miles across Antarctica previously without them I don’t think they were a deal breaker! Without them I still would have skied exactly the same course. Of note, I have previously successfully skied the Axel Heiberg and Shackleton Glaciers so this wasn’t my first rodeo, so to speak. I’ve done the whole falling into crevasses several times a day piece and didn’t really want to repeat that experience solo. In summary, I believe the presence of the marker poles and vehicle tracks had no real impact on the overall outcome of the expedition. Either way I would have got to the Ross Ice Shelf.
I suspect one of the main issues is the amount of media interest our crossings have generated, primarily because of the race angle they focussed on. Some coverage has not made it clear precisely what we are claiming and has inadvertently diminished the solo crossings of those that went before us. I have always gone to great pains to stress the difference, but unfortunately have been misrepresented at times, which is a common issue for us all when dealing with media. When Borge did his journey back in the 90’s social media didn’t exist and coverage was minimal, which is a shame because it was a truly ground breaking trip. I don’t do these journeys for self-promotion or recognition, I have a full time day job in the Army and they are very much a hobby. I’m not a full-time adventurer (I certainly don’t consider myself an explorer or an athlete for that matter) and don’t need to make a living from them writing or talking about the experience. I do them for the love of Antarctica and actually being on the journey itself. When leading a team such as SPEAR17 I get a huge sense of satisfaction from watching others develop and achieve their goals in this most challenging of environments. Reaching the finish line is always an anti-climax as I know the experience is then coming to an end and it’s back to routine life once more.
As part of the post expedition phase I’ll be visiting schools, clubs, organisations and cadets across the country to talk about not just the expedition but my time in the Armed Forces as a whole and the incredible journey and experiences and opportunities I’ve had. Sadly this four month tour from Mar-Jul 19 is now fully booked.
In summary, what Colin and I did was push the boundaries of what is possible in truly unsupported polar travel, stretched the limits of human physical performance and lay a marker in the snow, it’s just a matter of time before someone goes one better. But what we have done is show what is possible and opened the door for future unsupported traverses of the continent. If what I’ve done with this expedition inspires just one person to pursue their goals or overcome a difficult challenge then I’ll be happy. Any future ventures I undertake will be focussed around helping others experience this wonderful continent and passing on all the skills and knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years.