Antarctica 2019-2020: Expeditions to Watch

Antarctic Poles
Photo: Rob Smith/ALE

Last year’s Antarctic season saw a level of media interest which the coldest continent had not seen since the golden age of polar exploration. The culprits? Lou Rudd and Colin O’Brady. Each set out to cross the continent “solo, unsupported and unassisted,” in what was billed as one of the few remaining world firsts. As we’ve previously reported, mainstream media didn’t bother exploring the grey areas around their claims, and O’Brady — who finished two days ahead of Rudd in their informal race — lapped up the plaudits.

This year will be just as busy, though it may not garner as much attention. Below, some of the expeditions to watch as the season gets underway.

Geoff Wilson – Longest Polar Expedition

Already winning the prize for best studio portrait, Geoff Wilson should look even more grizzled by the end of his 5,800km trek. Photo: Geoff Wilson

Geoff Wilson describes himself as a “Queenslander who hates cold and heights.” Naturally, he’s attempting the longest ever solo, unsupported polar journey: 5,800km. He’ll visit the coldest point on earth and the highest ice dome on the continent while he’s at it.

Starting from Thor’s Hammer, near to the Russian Novolazarevskaya Station on the coast, Wilson will first head inland to the Pole of Inaccessibility, the furthest point from any of Antarctica’s coastlines. This pole is, rather curiously, marked with a statue of Lenin. Wilson will “probably drape him in the Australian flag.” Then, it’s on to the South Pole. During this opening 2,500km phase, he’ll use a snowkite whenever possible, removing the “unassisted” tag from his expedition.

Wilson’s proposed route. Two poles and Dome Argus. Photo: Geoff Wilson

From the South Pole, things will get significantly harder as he heads into virgin territory, at least for solo manhaulers. He’ll climb up from the Pole towards Dome Argus, a 4,093m ice peak with recorded temperatures as low as -82.5ºC. Favourable winds are scarce here, and he’ll likely have to do without the kite while lugging his 200kg pulk. From Dome Argus, it’s back toward the Novolazarevskaya Station, where Wilson should hope that the Russians haven’t taken too dim a view of him adorning Lenin with the Australian flag.

On November 6, Wilson flew out of Cape Town on a Russian Ilyushin aircraft. He begins his trek soon.

Cross Continent – Xu Wen

Xu Wen announces his expedition in Beijing. Photo: China Daily

Chinese mountaineer Xu Wen will also attempt a mammoth solo journey. His plans aren’t finalized, but he’ll likely set out from Berkner Island, manhauling via the South Pole to the base of the Axel Heiberg Glacier.

This crossing would cover 2,000km and take over 80 days. The three-time Everest summiter warmed up for the polar regions with a solo crossing of Greenland last year.

Women’s Speed Record Attempts – Wendy Searle and Jenny Davis

Wendy Searle and her pulk. Photo: Wendy Searle

This year will feature another race, as both Wendy Searle and Jenny Davis battle to set a new women’s speed record from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole.

To break Johanna Davidsson’s sub-39-day record, they will need to average 27km per day. Searle will drag 125 percent of her body weight on her 80kg pulk. Interestingly, Searle worked as Lou Rudd’s expedition manager last year, and Rudd will return the favour this season. She heads off from the UK on November 11.

Davis attempted the speed record just last year, so she has the advantage of practical experience. Soft snow meant she never really threatened Davidsson’s time, and in early January she aborted her attempt. She was airlifted from Antarctica to Chile and treated for a bowel infection and peritonism, with symptoms akin to the more serious peritonitis, which had killed manhauler Henry Worsley in 2016.

Solos to the South Pole – Mollie Hughes, Anja Blacha, Neil Hunter, Richard Parks and Robert Swan

Mollie Hughes in training for her expedition. Photo: Mike Wilkinson

Another gaggle of soloists are heading off from various starting points toward the South Pole. Mollie Hughes, Richard Parks and Neil Hunter will all set off from Hercules Inlet. All three are “unsupported and unassisted” — although as we know from last year, vehicle tracks sometimes make the “unassisted” label along that route dubious.

Hughes, the youngest woman to have summited Everest from both the north and south, aims to add the South Pole to her “youngest woman” honours list. Parks is the British speed record holder for this route and is likely targeting the men’s world record, though there has been no public announcement. Last year, Parks was only 70km off record holder Christian Eide’s pace on December 31. Parks had covered an excellent 481km in 13 days, but his body broke down under the strain, and he ended his expedition on January 3.

Fresh off K2 and Broad Peak successes this year, Anja Blacha will set off from a bit further back. She will depart from the Berkner shoreline, “the closest a traditional expedition could get to the South Pole with a ship before hitting ice.”

Non-Solo to South Pole

Robert Swan is starting from the Thiel Mountains, roughly 500km from the Pole. Swan’s name might ring a bell: He was the first person to reach both Poles on foot when he manhauled to the North Pole in 1989.

Guided Efforts of Note – Jing Feng, guided by Sarah McNair-Landry and Erik Boomer

Jing Feng at the South Pole. Photo: Shine

Last year, Jing Feng became just the second Chinese woman to ski to the South Pole. This year, she’ll head for the Pole of Inaccessibility with two guides, ExWeb ambassador Sarah McNair-Landry and her partner, Erik Boomer.

Like Geoff Wilson, they will set off from the coast near Novolazarevskaya Station. Their 1,800km journey should take around 85 days, without the use of kites.


About the Author

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh is a freelance writer and wildlife photographer based in Da Lat, Vietnam.

A history graduate from the University of Nottingham, Martin's career arc is something of a smörgåsbord. A largely unsuccessful basketball coach in Zimbabwe and the Indian Himalaya, a reluctant business lobbyist in London, and an interior design project manager in Saigon.

He has been fortunate enough to see some of the world. Highlights include tracking tigers on foot in Nepal, white-water rafting the Nile, bumbling his way from London to Istanbul on a bicycle, feeding wild hyenas with his face in Ethiopia, and accidentally interviewing Hezbollah in Lebanon.

His areas of expertise include adventure travel, hiking, wildlife, and half-forgotten early 2000s indie-rock bands.

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Steve Jones
Steve Jones
2 years ago

Thanks, Martin A few minor proof-reading corrections and a comment on the definition of assisted/unassisted. Geoff Wilson didn’t fly from Chile, he flew from Cape Town along with Sarah McNair-Landry’s Pole of Inaccessibility team. With Wendy Searle and Lou Rudd, I think you’ve confused the ‘at home’ role of expedition manager with being the expedition leader. Henry Worsley’s last expedition was in the 2016 season not the 2017 season. There are no vehicle tracks down at Hercules Inlet. Last season the vehicle track from Union Glacier to the skiway adjacent to the Thiel Mountains was quickly buried and was of… Read more »

Jerry Kobalenko
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Jones

Steve, Thanks for your comments. We’ve input the corrections. The assisted/unassisted designation, as you rightly suggest, is controversial. Only last week, we did a deep dive into this, in which Eric Philips made a strong case that this nomenclature should be changed, or at least standardized from its current whimsical state. See And in another ExWeb article early this year, Damien Gildea reported the vehicle tracks that have gone from Hercules Inlet to the Thiel Mountains and even beyond to the South Pole. See Of course, in a heavy snow year like 2018-19, those tracks may be covered,… Read more »

Louis Rudd
Louis Rudd
2 years ago

Best of luck to Xu Wen, great to see others now going down and having a go at a solo crossing. Now the concept has been proven the floodgates are open.

Morten Andvig
Morten Andvig
2 years ago
Reply to  Louis Rudd

Let there be no doubt in the word “Crossing” is not to find the shortest way in to and out from the South Pole in a 90 degree angle, as was done by both English and American contenders last year. Please see the proper crossing done by Borge Ousland in 1997. His comments as follows: Borge Ousland · 29 December 2018 · This satellite image of Antarctica clearly shows the extent of the permanent ice sheets. A real crossing of Antarctica from coats to coast will have to include the ice sheets, -the way I did it on this epic… Read more »

Louis Rudd
Louis Rudd
2 years ago
Reply to  Morten Andvig

I just did what I did, your approval is not needed. But thanks anyway