Antarctica Week Eight: It Gets Busy at the Pole

A number of expeditions have wrapped up, and a handful more sit on the doorstep of the South Pole.


The Longest Polar Journey

Last week, Wilson had 770km to go. Since then, he has blitzed through the final stretch to his starting point at Thor’s Hammer. His last push included a mammoth 208km day on January 4 and some tricky crevasse-strewn terrain.

Originally, Wilson had planned to end his journey at Thor’s Hammer, but his earlier decision to skip the South Pole because of a fuel leak meant that he needed to continue on to the Russian Novolazarevskaya base in order to achieve the “longest solo, unsupported polar journey.”

Geoff Wilson playing around with his gear in a freezer before his expedition. Photo: Nigel Hallett

His 5,306km journey took 58 days, narrowly besting Mike Horn’s 57-day, 5,100km crossing of Antarctica in 2017. Besides achieving the longest unsupported polar journey, Wilson becomes the first Australian to reach the Pole of Inaccessibility unsupported, and the first person to reach the summit of Dome Argus unsupported.


Wen Xu

Wen Xu took a day off last week and has felt stronger since resuming on January 2. He has been putting in longer shifts, skiing up to 14 hours per day and raising his average distance north of 30km.

He reports that skiing conditions have improved since crossing into the last degree. He is due to arrive at the Pole today.


Women’s Speed Record Attempts

With no distance updates and no public trackers for the first six weeks, we were left to make educated guesses as to whether either woman could threaten Johanna Davidsson’s sub-39 day record. On January 5, both women passed 39 days on the ice, and the record was safe for another year.

Wendy Searle reached the finish line on January 8 after 42 days and 16 hours, a very respectable effort. She had just two meals remaining and had run out of fuel on her last day, inspiring a final 25-hour overnight push. Writing from the Pole, she expressed her joy: “I haven’t broken the speed record, but I feel like I’ve won an Olympic gold medal combined with winning the lottery, all rolled into one. It’s been the most momentous journey and an absolute roller coaster of emotion.”

Searle won this informal race but couldn’t quite best Johanna Davidsson’s record. Photo: Wendy Searle

Jenny Davis had a tough time completing the final degree. She apparently maintained a world-record pace for the first two-thirds of the journey before falling off as she climbed up toward the polar plateau. Over the final week, she has also been nursing an injury. A thigh wound or rash split open, and there was concern that she might not finish. Compounding matters, her one stove was not working very well, and she was unable to fix it. In the polar regions, a stove is vital to melt snow for drinking water. Most polar trekkers bring two stoves and at least two pumps for this reason.

She limped over the finish line early this morning and is receiving treatment for her injury. Her final time is yet to be confirmed.


Solos to the South Pole

Mollie Hughes has camped 35km from the Pole and should arrive there tomorrow. She had been dealing recently with whiteouts before a welcome blue-sky day on January 7.

The poor visibility has made life tough for Neil Hunter too, leading to several falls over sastrugi — difficult to see in that flat light. The sastrugi have decreased as he passed 88ºS, and he should enjoy flatter terrain the rest of the way.

A day earlier than he predicted, Jacek Libucha arrived at the Pole on January 5. The final few days caught Libucha off-guard: The snow was soft, and his lungs didn’t appreciate the thinner air. His food supplies were marginal, so he pushed on, putting in longer days to reach his daily distance targets. By the finish, his rations consisted of nothing more than a single sugar cube! His solo, unsupported run took him just over 53 days.

After days of whiteouts, the weather has improved for most expeditions since January 6. (Photo was taken earlier in the expedition). Photo: Anja Blacha

The New Year saw Anja Blacha cross 88ºS and pass day 50 on the ice. The colder temperatures as she climbed to the polar plateau had been taking a toll; even with more layers, she had been struggling to stay warm. On January 1, she treated herself to a short day and subsequently felt much stronger as she entered the last degree. After just over 57 days, she arrived at the South Pole on January 9.


Guided Efforts of Note

Robert Swan suffered a dislocated hip on December 30. He has since been airlifted to safety and had the hip popped back into place. The rest of his team continued, and they rendezvoused with a last-degree group that included Swan’s son on January 6.

Robert Swan’s group are now within the last degree. Photo: 2041 Foundation

Jing Feng, Sarah McNair-Landry and Erik Boomer are about 14 travel days from the Pole of Inaccessibility, with 700m of elevation still to climb. They continue to make steady progress.

Lucy Reynolds’ group are still 245km from the South Pole and working through degree 87. They took a rest day on January 7 because of zero visibility “and a lot of fatigue.”