Post Expedition Reflection

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Ice buildup created by exhaled moisture while on the polar plateau

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. 

Onwards. 


26 Comments on “Post Expedition Reflection

  1. Thank you for your extraordinary accomplishment and the way you shared your life with all of us. Life is a journey, not a destination. There are so many ideals we can all learn from your journey. For those who have not been to the polar regions and who may be hesitant about the Drake passage crossings, a journey to the South Georgia Islands and Antarctica is an experience of a lifetime.

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  2. I have followed your blog for most of your journey. As an ultra-runner/endurance athlete I was awed by your feat. I have not read any of the negative comments you write about and hope it does not take away any of the self satisfaction you must be feeling. Bravo!

    Marc V. Allentown, PA USA

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  3. Hi Lou and sad to hear about detractors. I have no doubt about the enormity of your achievement . The worst any of the many Norwegian Arctic winters I have personally experienced pale into insignificance against what you took on and nailed. Epic achievement and very eloquently described for those who need elighqment! There will always be critics of everything I am sure but that says a lot about them, their attitudes and their lack of respect for those that ‘do’ rather than talk! Well done and see you soon. Chris

    Sent from my iPhone

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  4. Thanks Louis!  I am not an explorer by any means just a long distance cyclist of very modest achievements (although I did calculate recently I had cycled the equivalent of 3 times round the globe in the last 35 years – most of that commuting!) and a fan of polar exploration.Sorry to hear about the criticism. For meI am very clear. Your achievement was outstanding and something very few people could survive. I have been pushing in my very modest way for you and Colin both to go down in history. As for the longer kite supported journeys. Also amazing and great to be reminded of alongside your amazing journey.Respect. Simon Brindley

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

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  5. I really appreciated reading your note and getting your inside perspective on your expedition. It is truly an amazing achievement and I’m so glad that you and Colin made it safely to the finish. I agree that once mass media takes the reins of the story, descriptions of Antarctica expeditions can become misrepresented. My husband and I completed the coast to South Pole route, unsupported and unassisted, and we still have people saying we crossed the continent. I wish you all the best as you go out and share your story and lessons learned with the world.

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  6. I´ve been following your amazing adventure since you started. Very inspirational. I was lucky enough to run the 100k in Union Glacier in 2017 and immediatly fall in love with Antarctica. Your story strengthed the will to do the last degree expedition.in a nearby future. (nothing compares to what you have done, but still will be a dream come true) Best of lucks and thank you for sharin the magic.

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  7. Lou…First and foremost, congratulations on your awesome achievement! And to hell with the haters and negative ninnies.

    Thanks for the update. I avidly followed your trek from my toasty sitting room in North Carolina. I am a 71-year old armchair adventurer. (I am currently re-reading one of my favorite books, Fatal Passage. It’s about the Scotsman, John Rae. I am sure you know of him.)

    Anyway, I and I would think many others, would very much enjoy hearing more about some of the details of your expedition. Stuff like types of equipment you selected, fuel choices, other equipment decisions, as well as post-expedition effects you have experienced (both physical and emotional).

    Maybe a book? A series of posts such as this? A video/podcast?

    Finally, I would also be happy to make a contribution to the charity you mentioned. Is there a link or website?

    Once again, congratulations, and all the best going forward.

    Val Brunell

    Sent from my iPad

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  8. Huge congrats Lou on a job well done.
    It’s been a privilege to follow your journey.
    It’s a great shame that some have felt the need to make negative comments about the expedition, especially if they’ve never taken part in a polar expedition themselves.
    You can’t help but feel there must be an element of jealousy involved, particularly by those who make their living from exploration and have tried and failed the same epic man-haul.
    I have always avidly read about and followed many expeditions over the years and therefore I’ve seen one or two comments made by current explorers who I also follow on social media that have not been exactly congratulatory.
    YOU will be rightly be recorded in the history of polar exploration as the first British man to complete the journey many thought impossible.
    Once again, huge congrats to you, the team behind you and your sponsors.

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  9. Congratulations on this epic achievement . Absolutely Brilliant !

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  10. Congratulations on a super human effort.Big respect to you on your achievement. I totally agree with you on all your comments on this latest post 👍It’s  coast to coast  without sails, without assistance in my books.I’ve never done any polar trekking of any kind like you have but I’m an avid back country cross country skier living in Australia from a Swedish heritage so I think I have an inkling of The effort involved and would like to tell you how much you have inspired me with this expedition.I admire your humility and the respectful and honest way you have replied to your detractors and with your relationship to  Colin Obrady also. Big Kudos and BIG respect to youCheers champ! Regards Kent Klasson Sent from Yahoo7 Mail on Android

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  11. Well put! I had read some comments on either Facebook or Twitter that criticised whether it was really solo effort and they were just plain mean and stupid to put out there. I thought to myself I’m sure there were others instrumental in the journey but I wouldn’t discount what you had accomplished.

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  12. Well done Lou, you done a great job, and what I would say about some people is to raise above they’re ignorance

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  13. Bravo Lou – I think your accomplishment is outstanding. I thoroughly enjoyed following your footsteps from afar. All the best.

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  14. Congratulations Lou for a very difficult, but very inspiring expedition. I think no one can take from you what you achieved for yourself, and in particular because you appear not to have done it as an “impossible first”. Your previous Antarctic experience and doing this out of sheer passion can’t be taken from you either.

    But I think both you and especially Colin O’Brady misrepresented the nature of your expeditions during preparations and with the media, by using markers that are mostly arbitrary and do not take into account other previous accomplishments in Antarctica.Settling for “landmass” is arbitrary and logistics is no excuse when pursuing “firsts”, “solo” (there so many others before as you gladly pointed out), “distance” – Gamme skied 50% more than any of you with time to spare.

    Again, this is not to take from your your accomplishment, but I hope this discussion will actually from now on help the media and future expeditions to avoid the hyper-commercialisation of Antarctica – we don’t want another Everest down under, imaginary goals and the first pogo-stick backwards to the Pole.

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    • Thanks for the message Gustavo and you raise some good points. With reference to Alex Gamme, whom I know and I was actually there when he did that journey its worth noting that he did a return journey along the same route which allowed him to lay food depots on the way out thus radically reducing his pulk weight every few days and making for a fast and light return trip, an option I didn’t have with a one way crossing. Alll the best, Lou.

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  15. Top effort Lou. Enjoyed following your journey and some very insightful post exped reflections. See you on the ice 🙂

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  16. Thank you for this reflection (I wish they`d print something like this instead of sensationalism…) and showing us your side of this great journey. Ist a part of the history now. Welcome home!

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    • Kudos again to both you and Colin. I felt that the media, particularly the New York Times, pushed hard to sell this as a race, which I am sure was never your intention. Your graciousness and humble embodiment of the history of Antarctic exploration dating back over a century will never be forgotten. Well done.

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  17. Congratulations on your finish Lou! Well done. Most important part is you finished what you set out to do. If others have to “one up” or try to take the wind out of your sails, that’s on them! Was rooting for you all the way from America. May you find adventures in your everyday life!

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  18. Bravo! Well done!
    Experience, hard work and good planning paid off.
    A remarkable achievement that will remain forever in the history of South Pole.
    Thanks for sharing your journey.

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  19. Congradulations on an expedition very well done! Also, thanks for writing the in-depth summary; very informative.

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