When Ousland’s 1996-97 crossing is drawn on a map next to O’Brady and Rudd’s, it is clear to the onlooker that one expedition truly crossed Antarctica and the others did not. Ousland’s route is the shortest and most practical way to truly cross the whole continent. A crossing of Antarctica is a geographical challenge, with obvious natural boundaries. Those boundaries, which influence the sporting parameters of our game, are not set by money, cost or convenience. As in climbing, it is a natural line that attracts the challenger, not a contrived route done for relative ease or faster fame.
To some extent, O’Brady and Rudd have drifted off course on a current generated by others who have claimed these short and contrived crossings. One such predecessor is the Briton, Felicity Aston, who in 2012 claimed a traverse of Antarctica, with resupplies, using the Leverett-Hercules combo.
Børge Ousland on the first solo, unsupported crossing of Antarctica
Historical context is important when making claims to be first, particularly when the claim relates to the feats of others. When Ousland crossed Antarctica alone in 1996-97, he achieved one of the great adventures of all time, a supreme example of humanity engaging with harshest nature in a minimalist way. The use of a sail — a Beringer sail, different and less efficient than modern kites — was considered an elegant advance in polar travel that was clearly more efficient than constant manhauling. Says Ousland now: “It did not even cross my mind that using the natural force of the wind would later be controversial.”
But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the idea arose that sails were an artificial aid that cancelled what was then just termed an “unsupported” status. In these Rules of Adventure, the category was split into Unassisted and Unsupported, with sails, then kites, relegated to the latter, as they provided a material addition to basic legs and lungs. The term Unassisted remained to denote no air resupply, food drops, caches, vehicle following, etc.
In the polar community, the jury is still out on whether kiting qualifies as support. It’s certainly not some easy fix around the hard slog of manhauling. Most kiters will tell you that it requires training, skill, judgment and involves clear risk. At least one Antarctic kiter has been thrown, injured and dragged by his kite, and was lucky to survive. But kites also unarguably aid human propulsion and therefore are technically support.
However, this relies on a strict minimalist view of an ideal, with the body as the sole perfect state. Manhauling is so slow, and kiting is so obviously sensible in windy Antarctica, that one should probably question what is truly the perfect minimum. If pursued
ad absurdum, minimalism dictates that we walk naked out our front door, swim to Antarctica, trudge barefoot across the ice, then swim home. Instead, we agree that it’s okay to carry all sorts of hi-tech gear, clothing, tents and comms, not to mention skis, to make the whole thing easier and safer.
While manhauling and not using kites has a minimalist appeal — more physiology than technology — if you use a million-dollar airplane burning thousands of dollars in fuel to fly to a contrived starting point, then blog your progress every evening with the latest comms and get picked up literally in the middle of nowhere at your nominated end, then maybe you are just confining your minimalist doctrine to a convenient and flattering industry bubble, and the whole thing loses some of its virtue. When one looks at landmark ski expeditions in recent years, the greatest ones have been the kiting trips of Rune Gjeldnes and Mike Horn, skimming across the great expanse of Queen Maud Land, tagging the Pole, needing no resupplies and venturing past even Ross Island to further coastal points, where they step aboard ships and sail home. Is manhauling really better than that?
Manhauling relies on concepts like the nobility of suffering, but paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to force ourselves to demonstrate how tough we are can seem like some game for the bored and affluent. One can only make such choices from a position of luck and privilege, and such resources might be put to better use than dragging your snacks across the snow for a couple of months while quoting Shackleton on Instagram.
The SPoT Road – It’s Support
In 2005-06, the United States Antarctic Program finally finished its
South Pole Traverse road, a graded track from McMurdo station across the Ross Ice Shelf, up the Leverett Glacier and all the way to the South Pole. This was made to facilitate tractor resupply of the Pole and reduce flights. Crevasses were filled in and flagged marker posts erected every 400m in order to aid route-finding in a whiteout. It was never envisioned that adventurers would use this manufactured trail. O’Brady makes no mention of following a road in his dispatches, even though he describes the terrain and descent. But he did follow it, and in at least one photo the smooth, tracked surface is clearly visible.
The road is not just a physical aid to hauling, but helps with navigation and relieves the weight of isolation that vast Antarctica imposes on us. While some technological factors — GPS, satellite phones — can no longer be removed for safety reasons, and are stipulated as mandatory by logistics operators, a graded road with markers every 400m surely cancels any unsupported status, which is presumably why both O’Brady and Rudd failed to mention it.
A less obvious issue is the use of vehicle tracks elsewhere in Antarctica. For the last decade or so, vehicles have plied paths around Hercules Inlet, on the way to the Thiel Mountains and beyond to the Pole, as well as in parts of Queen Maud Land. Sometimes, the tracks are too rough to ski over, so are best avoided. Other times, they give a better skiing surface than the snow or sastrugi beside them. Teams using these tracks in recent years rarely say so publicly. Other expeditions have deliberately avoided them for a more honest and authentic experience. Some have done both.
The SPoT road. Photo: Eric Philips
The great financial cost has been part of Antarctic expeditions since day one. Money is the reason that whalers and sealers were the first to visit Antarctic environs, money is the reason that only governments could explore, map and occupy Antarctica for decades, and money is the reason for the Hercules and Messner Starts. Without lots of money, we can’t get on the plane to Antarctica in the first place. Modern expeditions leaving Punta Arenas often have a traditional drink in the Shackleton Bar beneath the Hotel José Nogueira, where Shackleton gave talks to gain more funding from potential sponsors, right up until the minute he sailed south from the docks across the road.
When Ousland set out to do it right in 1996, he too needed to raise money, because the flight from Patriot Hills to Berkner Island cost $175,000, beyond the cost of getting to Antarctica in the first place. Luckily for him, he was able to split some of the charter with the Polish adventurer Marek Kaminski, who also chose Berkner to start. So there’s no getting around the issue of money in all this and how it influences where expeditions might go, start and finish.
But the geography of Antarctica is not determined by your bank balance, your marketing team or the state of sponsorship opportunities in your home country. If you make a claim that relies on geography, then geography gets priority over cost. No one claims to be the first to do The Longest Journey I Could Afford Right Now.
Rune Gjeldnes amid crevasses
Some Leeway – Because What Is This Really For?
Starting points have always been granted reasonable leeway. Weather or surface conditions may prevent planes from landing in a particular spot. There are slight variations on the Berkner and Novo starts, for example, but the distance is not considered meaningful, considering that any traverse from there is thousands of kilometres more. You don’t actually have to start from Ross Island with wet boots.
Agreeing on some flexibility not only allows for the reality of humans dealing with Antarctic conditions, but it indicates that these rules we seek to impose are not like cudgels with which to beat each other over the head. They are more like guides to quality, benchmarks by which we mark and make progress toward something we all recognize as better than what went before. O’Brady and Rudd’s trips are not progression, they are regression, because they avoided the very challenges inherent to the feat they claim to have achieved.
Leeway does not really extend to some of the blatantly inconsistent attempts over the years — Fiennes and Stroud, for example, and even Worsley himself who, claiming to be doing what Shackleton could not, started at Berkner Island but never intended to fully cross to Ross Island. They were simply trying to bend the rules, hoping that journalists wouldn’t notice and that their social media supporters wouldn’t care. It’s not the end of the world, after all, as polar ski adventures are not really life or death any more. They are a game for those who can afford to play them. Sporting contests have rules, if they are to mean anything, and what those rules are and how we enforce them says a lot about us.
One day, someone will walk from Berkner Island to Ross Island via the South Pole, purely on skis, without kites, roads or resupplies. That will be a significant achievement in the annals of polar adventuring. Whoever they are, they deserve a clear run at the goal, free of murky claims based on lesser feats. None of us has the right to steal that future opportunity from someone better than us.