All striving done and “life’s set prize” attained: Not geographic goals, but greater far The pinnacles of leadership you gained. -William Shakespeare
This is part 2 of a 3-part series about contemporary solo-explorers.
Our most recent heroes come into the limelight in late 2018. At that time, those who were keeping up with polar explorers heard of a race to cross Antarctica unassisted, the same feat that led to Henry Worsley’s death. There was disappointment the year before when Ben Saunders crossed over 800 miles of the continent, but tapped out before he finished. But now, hopes were high again as two more ambitious explorers threw themselves into preparation. Louis Rudd (a friend of Worsley’s) and Colin O’Brady would make the journey of over 900 miles across the wasteland. They pulled sleds that, at their outset, weighed over 350 pounds with supplies that would last them the two months of the trip. Before they even began, there were worries to occupy their minds: O’Brady’s wife was fresh from a sudden surgery, and Rudd hadn’t planned on a competition while training, since he’d announced his planned crossing months before O’Brady did.
While the two were manhauling their way across Antarctica, the temperature fluctuated from negative-25 degrees Fahrenheit to below negative-50. Wind can blow at 60 mph in Antarctica, and there’s a grave danger of a tent being swept away. With crevasses and tricky snow consistencies, a sled is a significant (yet necessary) weight to carry. Even sweating can be deadly, because the perspiration can freeze on an explorer’s skin when he stops moving. This causes internal temperatures to drop considerably, which means flirting with hypothermia. There are virtually no points of visual reference in Antarctica, and an explorer can’t even tell when he’s going uphill until the sled suddenly drags him to the ground.
Every day means about 10-12 hours of travel. As for O’Brady, on the fourth day in, he posted on his Instagram account, “To give some perspective on how hard I’m being tested out here, today was the first day that I haven’t cried inside my goggles.” Both explorers kept in touch with the outside world; their families, sponsors, expedition managers, and many others wanted daily updates.
Thankfully, the story of Rudd and O’Brady ends in neither failure nor death. On December 26th, 2018, O’Brady completed his crossing in an impressive 54 days. Two days later, Rudd finished as well, and both men conquered the coldest, driest continent – completely solo. Rudd had covered 925 miles, thus traveling over 3,000 miles across Antarctica combined with his previous expeditions.
On such a trip, there are blisters and the same foods every day. Some adventurers may bring toilet paper, but many opt to use ice instead. There are no spare clothes (they would add weight), not even extra underwear. There’s anxiety and boredom to battle. The experts agree: Antarctica is draining. So why has it enjoyed the company of countless brave and undaunted men and women, who so enthusiastically accept its brutal challenge?
Scott first went to Antarctica for the scientific discoveries. Later, he and others like Amundsen give rather vague reasons for the pursuit of the Pole; they just wanted to explore. They wanted to step on the Pole and conquer it. Scott and his team gave their lives in this pursuit of a place “hitherto been untrodden by human feet, unseen by human eyes.”
Shackleton wrote in his memoir,
“Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices,’ the mysterious fascination of the unknown.”
He said that during the team’s expedition, they had “reached the naked soul of men.” It is noteworthy that Shackleton, while he failed several times to accomplish his goals, survived all that Antarctica could throw at him; his desire to be at the end of the world was powerful and determined, but his love of life and the lives of the other men was stronger.
Perhaps Thomas Pynchon’s words explain it the best in his book V.: “[Tourists] want only the skin of a place, the explorer wants its heart. It is perhaps a little like being in love.” Later, a character assures another, “Everyone has an Antarctic,” meaning “someplace people seek to find answers about themselves.”
While O’Brady was traversing the continent, he said that when he didn’t fight with “the monotony and the repetition of the landscape,” he was “able to lock into some really deep, meditative, blissful states of mind.” Such philosophical depths are also found by long-distance runners and hikers, and many philosophers (viz., Nietzsche, the Buddha, Socrates, Kant, and Thoreau) were known for their lengthy walks. John Kaag wrote that “The history of philosophy is largely the history of thought in transit.” It could be that one cannot walk for an extended time without one’s mind turning to ponderous topics.
Antarctica, however, is not the woodlands of Thoreau, or even the Alps of Nietzsche. It is much more severe and brutal, and one would not casually stroll through the ice just to clear one’s mind, just as one would not attack a bear to alleviate boredom. There is something beyond the blankness of the landscape; more than the allure of the elusive Pole; besides the glory of surviving the inhospitable climate; a prize greater than mere geological or meteorological knowledge, and perhaps each explorer seeks something different. It could be that each explorer seeks their unique self. The purpose of exploration is to satisfy curiosity, and very often the thing humans are most curious about is themselves.
T. S. Eliot wrote that
“We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Everyone has an intense challenge, something that will emaciate them, grind them to a pulp, make them feel like they’re “inside a Ping-Pong ball on a boisterous ocean,” as one Antarctic visitor put it. It is up to every explorer to decide how long they’ll press on, being responsible to know their limits and the limits of those under their command. Shackleton called off expeditions when he thought continuing would spell death; Scott and his men froze on their return journey; Worsley pressed on as far as he could, and died despite tapping out. It is impossible to say is these decisions were “right” or “wrong.” Survival isn’t the criteria that decides the “rightness” of an exploration – it is hard to say any such standard even exists.
These explorers take on two of mankind’s greatest fears: death and failure. Failure to keep walking means death. Death means failure of the mission. The two are entwined for the Polar adventurer, and if nothing else, the courage to look a frozen Hell in its blank white eye, and to continue onward, must be esteemed and admired.
 Some argue if the crossing should truly classify as “unassisted,” because the men used a type of “highway” where the ice had been flattened and cleared a bit by others. This makes the trek considerably easier and faster.
Images from Google Images
Text © 2019 Kimba Wisotsky