Spirit of Endurance 2018/19

For those of you who wish to find out more regarding my Spirit of Endurance expedition, you can read each of my daily blog posts here.

Crossing Antarctica – A 1000 miles alone

A solo, unsupported crossing of Antarctica, using muscle power alone – although attempted – has never yet been completed. It is the purest and most challenging form of polar travel. From Shackleton’s Endurance expedition in 1914, right up until last year, successive expeditions have tried to ski across the driest, coldest, most inhospitable place on the planet. For centuries Antarctica remained unexplored and unknown, and only in the last hundred or so years have people discovered the secrets of the last continent. The name of the expedition harks back to the original Shackleton Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and aims to complete Shackleton’s original plan to traverse the continent on foot.

The extraordinary feat of a full unsupported Antarctic crossing is right at the limits of human endurance – Shackleton faced pack ice which meant he never reached landfall, and his team went through unbelievable hardships to reach safety. Sadly, a more recent attempt by a close friend, Lt Colonel Henry Worsley MBE, Polar Medal, ended tragically. Henry’s wife Joanna is graciously backing what is set to be the final attempt to complete the ultimate journey.

Now the ‘Spirit of Endurance’ expedition is set to finally complete one of the last challenges this continent has laid down. Lou, who has specialised polar experience – who led the award-winning SPEAR17 expedition and who raced to the South Pole with Henry in 2011 – is setting out to traverse 1,500km, alone and without resupply. Carrying 165kg of kit and food supplies, the journey will take over 2 months; using every moment of the short weather window which represents the Antarctic expedition season.

“Through Endurance We Conquer”

Sir Ernest Shackleton CVO OBE FRGS

Expedition Facts

  • When: 1 Nov 18 to Jan 19
  • Total Distance: 920 miles
  • Duration: 56 days
  • Hauling 130kg of food and equipment
  • No Resupplies/wind/ vehicle assistance/ outside help
  • Avg Temp: -30c
  • Calories: 6,000 per day

On December 31st Lou was picked up from the Ross Ice Shelf by the ALE Twin Otter. He was then taken back to the relative comfort of Union Glacier and flown on to Punta Arenas, Chile. So ends the Spirit of Endurance – an expedition 104 years in the making. To celebrate the final moments of this historic adventure, Shackleton searched back through Lou’s logs to provide an overview of exactly what the indomitable 49-year-old has just endured…

AT 5PM local time on December 31st the ALE Twin Otter descended into view and landed on the Ross Ice Shelf. Two worn-out figures were waiting on the ice. Their skinny bodies taut with muscle, faces sunburnt, features nipped by frost and lips cracked with dried blood. Together they had played chase across the world’s driest and most inhospitable continent, from the Messner Start via the South Pole through the Transantarctic Mountains to the Ross Ice Shelf.

One was Lou Rudd: a soldier who served for 33 years in the British Army and saw tours in the warzones of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The other was Colin O’Brady: a 33-year-old endurance athlete with 3 world records.

In 2017 Lou led a team of Army Reservists on a similar 1,100-mile traverse of Antarctica.

Those feats of endurance notwithstanding, this expedition was still their biggest test to date – a burden that is alien to all but a handful of polar explorers.

Solo. Unsupported. Unassisted.

925 miles of polar travel. 30-40mph headwinds. Wind-chill falling to the low -30s.

Total isolation…

Each day, as the weight of their pulks lightened, the toll of their solitude and daily exertion continued to rise. It might sound like a living hell, and yet this solitary journey – an attempt to fulfil the 104-year-old ambitions of Ernest Shackleton and his crew – also afforded both O’Brady and Rudd moments of unusual revelation and connection.

On the ice, Lou relived a memory of waking early and watching a live rocket launch with his daughter Amy in Cape Canaveral. A few days later he had a chance encounter with what at first appeared to be an apparition – a lone bird (Lou thinks it might’ve been a snow petrel) – flitting through the wilderness. Another day Lou woke to discover the radiant halo of a parhelion ringed around the sun.

Of course these were rare rewards amidst weeks of struggle. Mostly the men were hunched forward in their harnesses, heads bowed, shoulders clenched, leaning into their burdens. Their routines varied slightly, but they were united by a strict regime of calorie loading and hard mileage. Both men relied heavily on warm fluids and stodgy snacks as they heaved their 300-pound Norwegian sleds across the ice, sometimes spending as long as 12 hours in the harness.

Rudd started each day with an instant hot chocolate, digging into a portion of the 15 pounds of chocolate powder he carried with him.

All the while Rudd grazed with a bag of chocolate, nuts, fruit pastilles, salami and frozen cheese, which he tucked into his cheek like a hamster. For company Rudd took to listening to ‘80s music and sinking into audiobooks, like the biography of Winston Churchill.

Read Adam Skolnick’s article: ‘Racing Across Antarctica’

At the day’s end, as a precaution, Rudd would take an extra 11 steps before he stopped to set up camp. It was a habit he adopted during past expeditions, owing to a calculation that posited the survival of Scott and his party if they’d taken another 11 steps each day on the Terra Nova expedition.

Ultimately both approaches worked. The Brit and the American were able to stand together at the edge of the world, having fallen and risen many times and traversed the continent. They’d stepped into the deafening silence and been through what David Grann called the ‘White Darkness’. Self-doubt had crept in at times. They’d spent months being hammered by the elements, blinded by whiteouts, whipped by spindrifts and buckled by sastrugi.

To give you some idea of what they went through, we’ve compiled a selection of our favourite logs from Lou’s journey:

Tough Battle | Nov 4, 2018 (Day 2)

Sunlight prevailed but temperatures wavered around -20C as Lou heaved his loaded pulk over sastrugi. At the end of the day he’d achieved 8.3 nautical miles.

“It got really tough with the pulk,” he said, “The sheer weight in the pulk and trying to move this thing. I found that today – light sastrugi all day, and the pulk was catching all the time and bringing me to a halt. I’d have to jerk forward with my hips and try and unblock it and then get the thing moving again and it was a constant battle really all day with me trying to get the pulk moving and making progress.”

“It’s really dawning on me how tough a challenge I’ve undertaken here. I briefly saw the American Colin O’Brady this morning. He was camped about an hour behind me when I woke up this morning so a bit of a speck in the distance, and after about an hour – he looked like he was up and moving and following in my track (obviously we’re both heading the same way) – but after a couple of hours I couldn’t see him anymore so I’m not sure how he’s getting on. I’m sure he’s having as difficult a time as I am trying to move this pulk.”

The Bird | Dec 2, 2018 (Day 30)

Wearing a clean pair of socks, Lou pushes on across the Polar plateau and battles with patches of sastrugi. The struggle is broken-up by a visit from a feathered friend. By the day’s end Lou has made 14.3 nautical miles.

“Definitely the highlight of the day,” Lou said, “It was around about two o’clock and I was having a hard time, I was moving quite slowly, feeling a bit fatigued and done in. I caught something moving out of the corner of my eye and I looked up. It was a bird in front of me. Pure white. A stunning bird about the size of a dove, with a little black beak, literally fluttering right in front of me… I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but if ever there was anyone coming to pay me a visit and have a look, that was it. It really made my day and I spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about it. It was just such an amazing moment. I really enjoyed that. If it was someone, I know exactly who it was.”

If ever there was anyone coming to pay me a visit and have a look, that was it…

Parhelion | Dec 3, 2018 (Day 31)

Another unusual moment occurred when Lou crawled out of his tent to do his morning business and was greeted by a spectacular polar phenomenon:

“When I popped outside,” Lou said, “There was an awesome parhelion around the sun – which was absolutely stunning. Sometimes it’s called a sun dog as well; it’s basically like a giant rainbow – a sort of big halo around the sun – and it’s created by frozen ice crystals in the air that create the phenomenon. It’s absolutely stunning. Quite nice to have that for the start of the day. That was around for a couple of hours as I was skiing.”

Reflection | Dec 11, 2018 (Day 39)

Antarctica dealt Lou a hard day of whiteout conditions, heavy snowfall, strong wind and spindrift lashings. Lou spent 11-hours staring at his compass, which gave him some time to reflect:

“Full whiteout right from the beginning,” Lou said, “Really strong winds that were bringing up a lot of spindrift. And also actual snowfall as well making the hauling really difficult. I accepted right from the beginning it was going to be a tough, challenging day. I put my head down. I was on the compass. It was complete full whiteout; saw absolutely nothing all day. So it was 11 hours of staring at the compass. I used the time, I got into a rhythm, to kind of reflect on my performance so far on the expedition and was feeling quite self-critical…”

“By this point on SPEAR we’d had several [rests] by now, every couple of weeks… I haven’t taken a single one now in 39 days. I think actually – oh I’m a couple of years older too – in a few months’ time I’ll be 50 years old. I kind of came away, after reflecting on that today, feeling quite positive about my performance so far on this expedition. I think I am doing as much as I possibly can. I’ve still got over 300 nautical miles to go, so I don’t want to go crazy and push way too hard. So I felt quite positive by the end of the day, having analysed my performance against previous trips. I’m reasonably happy with that. I’m now two days away from the Pole.”

The Trudge | Dec 12, 2018 (Day 40)

Lou had just put away 40 days of food. He pushed on through heavy whiteout and snowfall, trudging into deep snow with his heavy pulk pulling hard against his harness. He finally set up camp 11 miles from the South Pole, where he plans to do a dynamic risk assessment.

“The sun came out,” Lou said, “I was able to make better progress. Where I’d been slow in the day, I was really keen to get as close to Pole as I could by the end of the day so I ended up extending the day quite a bit just to get myself in position. I’m pleased to say I’m now camped 11 miles from the South Pole, which is absolutely fantastic. It was a long, hard day to get to this point, but I’ve positioned myself deliberately now so I can certainly reach the South Pole tomorrow. Which is really exciting – sort of like Christmas. It’s a huge milestone, and the third time that I’ve skied full range from coastline into the South Pole. I’m really looking forward to that, it’ll be amazing.”

The South Pole | Dec 13, 2018 (Day 41)

After 41 days in Antarctica, Lou skis 11 miles searching for the Pole through the driving snow, until finally he spots a radar installation… “I set my alarm for 4 o’clock this morning,” Lou said, “I knew it was going to be a big day. I was on the move just after 5. Absolutely atrocious conditions unfortunately, total whiteout, driving snow, almost like a blizzard, which was a shame, with 11 miles to do to get into Pole. So I ploughed on, and literally I saw nothing, until about a mile and a half out, conditions were that bad. Constantly scanning the horizon through the mist trying to look for something and, finally, in the gloom, and outline of a radar instillation, which is on the outskirts of the Pole. Incredible feeling to finally see something, and realise I was getting there. From there, you have to aim for the final way point, which is a sign, a big sign that ALE have positioned. It says ‘congratulations, you’re almost at the South Pole…’”

Into The Whiteout | Dec 19, 2018 (Day 47)

Lou woke from a sleepless night spent listening to the wind as it hammered his tent. He thought twice about pushing on before stepping out into a blinding whiteout and 50mph winds. He continued with the wind behind him and made a record 20 nautical miles.

“Getting the tent up,” Lou said, “That took a while, I had to be really careful. I was lying on it, getting the poles in and just securing it – I had to carabiner it onto the pulk just to make sure I didn’t lose it. I was really worried about damaging it. If you rip the tent apart here, or even worse, lose control, you’re instantly into a life-threatening situation in these conditions…”

For The Final Time… Onwards | Dec 27, 2018 (Day 55)

On the penultimate day of the Spirit of Endurance expedition, Lou reflects on his journey and, in typical Rudd fashion, covers a staggering 29.3 nautical over 14 hours of skiing (another record mileage).

“My number one priority,” Lou said, “Was to come out here and ski solo, unsupported and unassisted right across the continent and by the end of tomorrow, I’ll have done that. That was always the primary objective. I’ve always been keen to avoid the media… [They’re] really keen to make it a race issue, the fact that the American Colin was out here at the same time – I’ve done my upmost to completely avoid that. I didn’t want to… the minute you get drawn into a race scenario, everything you’re doing is dictated by the other person. You’re having to react. It changes the whole nature of the expedition. You put yourself under a lot of pressure and I decided right from the early stages I wasn’t going to get drawn into that, and I was just going to do my expedition, and not let anything else interfere with that. I’m really pleased that that’s what I’ve done. I haven’t been reacting. I’ve just come and done my journey.”

“To be honest it’s a minor miracle that both of us have completed a journey that’s been attempted before, nobody’s ever managed it, and then, lo and behold, in one season two of us attempting it. A lot of expeditions have come out here – it’s been a really difficult season for expeditions, with the conditions. The fact that both of us have finished is absolutely fantastic. I’m really pleased for both of us. Where I’ve come – it’s just a title thing. It doesn’t mean anything to me, first, second. It’s just a title. What matters is that I’ve completed my expedition, and that’s the bit that’s really important to me.”

RETRACE Lou’s progress in The New York Times

The last days of the Spirit of Endurance unfolded as Lou dropped down onto the floating plateau of the Ross Ice Shelf. From there he left behind the ragged crests of the Transantarctic Mountains. Colin arrived first on December 26thafter 54 days and Lou joined him two days later on December 28th.

A few days after that Lou loaded the withered, sledges (pulk) onto the ALE Twin Otter. Those sleds had been their only lifelines for the past 56 days of Antarctic solitude. Now they were returning with them to the seasonally occupied Union Glacier camp, ready to enjoy a respite from the hardship of digging pits, following expedition rations and facing all the panoply of polar weaponry the White Queen hurled their way.

Back at Union Glacier they joined a motley group of adventurers, filmmakers and scientists from around the world. Drinks, fat-tired-bikes and ice volleyball were all on offer as they awaited their return flight to Punta Arenas, Chile, and the rest of civilisation.

After Lou landed in South America he freed the next few days to rest, reflect and read all the messages of support since his first steps into the snowbound unknown. He also sent a message out to his followers via his Instagram on Friday, January 4th:

‘Just arrived back to civilisation in Chile! Food, showers, people and a bed. I’m a bit overwhelmed! This is the first chance I’ve had to view the media coverage and social media and blown away by all the amazing support I’ve had, huge thanks to everyone and I will be catching up on everything you’ve posted over the coming weeks. Hoping to be back in the UK in the next few days. Thank you all so much and I hope you’ve enjoyed watching the journey unfold…’

From Punta Arenas, Lou then flew north to New York where he was interviewed at CBS News headquarters. He also attended a few exciting future project meetings and even had time to visit the 115-year-old Explorers Club at 46 East 70thStreet – a multidisciplinary society dedicated to the advancement of field research and the unification of explorers and scientists around the world – where he was made an honorary member. Former Club members include Edmund Hillary (first to summit Mount Everest), Roald Amundsen (first to reach the South Pole) and Neil Armstrong (first to walk on the moon’s surface).

The whole Shackleton team want to say a huge congratulations to Louis! It’s been a privilege to follow you every step of the way.

Louis Rudd – new book – Endurance, out 11 June 2020