Updated: Antarctica Week Seven: The Home Stretch

Photo: Kyle O'Donoghue

This week, most expeditions are on the home stretch, grinding their way up to the polar plateau. It’s crunch time for the two women’s speed hopefuls to have any shot at the record. There’s also been an emergency evacuation and some updates from the less visible expeditions. Let’s dive in.

The Longest Polar Journey

As always, Wilson’s days are guided by the wind. In late December, he approached the Valkyrie Dome, a “dead zone” of ridges with little wind. He needed two days with enough puff to see him through the area, as long as he could cover a mighty 380km in that span.

He blitzed the first day, covering 202km in under 10 hours with his primary kite. He suffered two significant falls, but aside from these mishaps, he didn’t take a break all day. On day two, he pushed through the remainder of the dead zone, hugely relieved to have avoided manhauling any of this section.

Wilson strapping in. Photo: Geoff Wilson

From Valkyrie Dome, he has been on a straight-line route to the Russian Novolazarevskaya Station on the coast, roughly 1,300km away. He has been chewing into these kilometres, but took another nasty fall on December 30. It happened after he rose in the middle of the night to harness a promising ripple of wind. While setting up his harness, the kite self-launched, wrenching out its anchor point (a ski jammed into the snow) and making a break for freedom. Instinctively, Wilson took off after it, forgetting he was shackled to his 150kg sled. Cue a spectacular “pirouette and body slam,” before he could get free and chase down the kite and ski. No injuries or lost gear, but a near miss.

On New Year’s Day, he had just 770km to go.

Wen Xu

We haven’t heard much from Wen Xu since he started his mammoth 2,000km solo. He set off from the coast near Berkner Island, aiming to cross the continent via the South Pole to the base of the Axel Heiberg Glacier.

Wen Xu has really had to work for these first 1,000km but he remains upbeat as he approaches the Pole. Photo: Wen Xu

We caught up with his manager (and wife) this week. Xu is now 50 days into his expedition and had a rough start on the north side of Berkner Island in soft snow. Since then, conditions have improved, and he is in good spirits. Last week, he crossed 87ºS and he has already covered over 1,000km. He took a day off this week to recover some strength before the last couple of degrees to the Pole. After a delayed start and early weather issues, it’ll be interesting to see if he can push on after the Pole to complete his crossing.

Women’s Speed Record Attempts

It’s been a busy few days for Wendy Searle. On December 27, she came across life for the first time in 31 days. A spot on the horizon turned out to be soloist Mollie Hughes packing up camp. Searle skied over for a brief chat and a hug before heading off, back to isolation.

More days spent staring at a compass tray for Searle. If this looks like the same photo from a previous update, well, imagine that this is your only view for 10 hours a day. Photo: Wendy Searle

She continued to climb towards the plateau through soft snow, sastrugi and more whiteouts. She has also broken another tooth, having already broken one on day two of the expedition! She’s being careful with the breaks, keeping them clean and avoiding using that side of her mouth.

Though she hasn’t revealed her exact location, her chance meeting with Hughes allows us to indirectly verify her progress. On the day of their meeting, Hughes was two-thirds of the way to the Pole. With just eight days and a third of the distance remaining to best Johanna Davidsson’s sub-39-day record, she’ll have to kick hard to set a fresh mark. She’s banking on a speed boost once she reaches the polar plateau. We’ll know by January 5 whether she is successful.

We no longer need to guess where Jenny Davis is; she finally activated a tracker on her website. On New Year’s Day (day 35 of her expedition) she had 217km to go and less soft snow to slow progress. However, it will be extremely hard for Davis to break Davidsson’s record. Davis’s team reports that her body is suffering, so a superhuman kick seems unlikely.

Jenny Davis has activated a tracker on her website. Position as of Jan 2. Photo: Jenny Davis

Solos to the South Pole

All the soloists have been fighting through soft snow and closing in on the polar plateau. The temperature has been dropping as they gain altitude, but spirits remain high.

Mollie Hughes, who bumped into Wendy Searle on December 27, is still plugging away. She has about a quarter of the way to go and should soon become the youngest solo, unsupported woman to reach the South Pole.

Neil Hunter was relieved to hit better snow on December 31. The end of the decade also marked two-thirds of his journey to the Pole; he celebrated with a whisky miniature. On New Year’s Day, he had reached 87ºS.

Tanel Tuuleveski has arrived at the Pole. We haven’t covered him since early in the season because of lack of information, but he completed his journey to the Pole on December 29 in 34 days, an impressively quick run. His last few hours were unexpectedly hectic: As he was in his tent ready to go to bed, ALE told him by satphone that they had a plane at the Pole, which was leaving in a few hours. To catch it, Tuuleveski packed up and did the last 20km without sleep, took a few quick photos at the Pole, jumped on the plane and is now at high camp at 3,700m on Mount Vinson, awaiting a summit push. Whew!

Most soloists are approaching the home stretch. Photo: Anja Blacha

Jacek Libucha emerged from 10 days of exhausting sastrugi on December 30. He managed to complete this stretch a day quicker than planned, saving a vital day of food. He believes he should now have enough to see him through. He also reports bumping into a team expedition (his first human contact in 48 days). But they didn’t talk much, as the group was busy with a medical issue.

Libucha is hoping to reach the Pole by January 6 at the latest.

We heard from Anja Blacha earlier today. She has had quite the year: Broad Peak, K2 and this current run to the South Pole. She told ExWeb:

“It was super important for me to start as close to the coast as possible. The route from the northern tip of Berkner has been quite a challenge but incredibly beautiful from mid-Ice Shelf up until the Median Snowfield! Other than that, it was a pretty stormy start, with lots of wind, lots of snow and lots of whiteouts.

“It has been very slow dragging, with the soft surface and sastrugi fields since roughly South 84°20 to 84°40.

“How I feel: It has been a decent year, though no North Pole! [She was one of those frustrated by political events at Barneo last April, which canceled the North Pole season.]

“Got to know lots of incredible people, both in the mountain and polar world, which is great! Spent more than every third night in my sleeping bag this year — it’s the new normal for me.

“Challenges: North Pole politics that stopped us going up there…staying back at K2 for a second summit push while my team left…finding enough time for everything and everyone in my normal life…and surprised how many times I needed to explain that K2 is a mountain and that there are no polar bears in Antarctica!”

Guided Efforts of Note

Perhaps it was Robert Swan’s expedition that Libucha encountered? Sadly, Swan suffered “an aggressive fall” while skiing and has badly dislocated his hip. After a long recovery from an injury during his 2017-2018 Antarctic expedition, a similar accident trying to finish the expedition must be gutting for Swan. He has been evacuated to Union Glacier Camp and is awaiting an airlift back to Chile for medical treatment.

The rest of Swan’s team, Johanna Davidsson (the women’s Hercules Inlet to South Pole speed record holder), Kathinka Gyllenhammar and filmmaker Kyle O’Donoghue will continue on to the Pole. They are due to meet a last-degree team at 89ºS that includes Swan’s son.

The remainder of Swan’s group celebrates New Year. Photo: Kyle O’Donoghue

Lucy Reynolds and her team have consistently been putting in 24km days, but the number of daily hours spent to reach this target has varied considerably with snow conditions. The recent return to a firmer surface has been a relief. They have just passed 86ºS.

Jing Feng, Sarah McNair-Landry and Erik Boomer continue to pile up long days of 28-30km. They have 550km to go as they trek towards the Pole of Inaccessibility, but the weather remains good.

Ryan Waters of Mountain Professionals is guiding Jaco Ottink and Paula Strengell to the Pole from Hercules Inlet. They have been averaging 25km per day and have just crossed 87ºS.

About the Author

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh

Saigon based freelance writer. Travelling the world one basketball court at a time.

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Thank you for the hard work and updates!