Racing solo across Antarctica – what is the point?

Louis Rudd and Colin O’Brady are currently going head to head across the unforgiving ice

Colin O’Brady at the South Pole on December 12th. Photo: New York Times

Been feeling some anemoia of late. If I were 20, this nostalgia for a time I’ve never known might have led me to listen non-ironically to the Spice Girls or to buy a Fila tracksuit. But I’m older than that, so I went further back. To 1875 to be precise. I knew the name, Captain Matthew Webb, and his signature achievement: that he was the first man to swim the English Channel unaided. But nothing else, and his story is a belter, full of derring-do and godforsaken tragedy.

Part of the appeal of Captain Webb is that his challenges were often so weirdly, byzantinely pointless. They included floating for 60 hours in a whale tank in Westminster and swimming 14 hours a day for six days. He once took on a Newfoundland dog whose owner boasted of its legendary stamina in a test of endurance in choppy seas. The poor mutt almost drowned while Webb happily trod water for more than an hour.

They don’t make them like Captain Webb anymore, I thought. But I was wrong. Right now, two men are engaging in a punishing endeavour that feels directly lifted from the 19th century: to be the first person to walk across Antarctica, alone and without support, conquering 920-odd miles of the world’s most punishing terrain on a journey that will take at least two months. It’s bold, it’s impressive and it raises a question that is getting harder and harder to answer: what for?

The first man to commit to the challenge was a Brit, 49-year-old Captain Louis Rudd, who declared his intentions in April. Rudd joined the Royal Marines aged 16 and has served three tours in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. "The way I'll console myself on this expedition is to remind myself that nobody's shooting at me," he told The New York Times.

Colin O’Brady crosses sastrugi, wave-like speed bumps in the snow, on Day 30. Photo: The New York Times

There’s also a personal element to Rudd’s odyssey. His great friend Henry Worsley, a 55-year-old retired British Army officer who served in the SAS, died of organ failure in 2016 while attempting the feat. Worsley had in turn been attempting to do what his hero, Ernest Shackleton, had never managed, though Shackleton had been leading a large expedition, not trudging along solo. The full, crushing story of Worsley’s quest is told in David Grann’s epic book, The White Darkness.

If battling 60mph winds and temperatures that potentially drop to -60F was not hard enough, Rudd became aware of a new adversary in October. This one was not elemental but human: a 33-year-old American adventurer called Colin O’Brady with quite a story of his own. In 2008, O’Brady was badly burned in an accident in Thailand and told by doctors that he wouldn’t walk normally again. He’s defied those predictions to become a professional triathlete, climb each of the “seven summits” (the highest peak on each continent) and ski to both poles.

In other words, O’Brady is a formidable rival, a man with considerable previous for defying logical expectations. When Rudd and O’Brady met for the first time – in a hotel bar in southern Chile that was an old haunt of Shackleton’s – it was, you’d imagine, slightly testy, but they quickly gained each other’s respect. And they agreed to turn their solo expeditions into a race. They would start parallel, a mile apart, together but alone in their own separate hells.

Louis Rudd at the South Pole.

The race began in early November, each man on skis towing a pulk (a Nordic sled) that weighed around 170kg. For the first four weeks, they basically climbed: from sea level up to the polar plateau at 2,700m. The ascents have been made harder by unseasonably high temperatures, which made the snow soft and crumbly, especially when the pulks were at their heaviest. Rudd has suffered from blisters and snapped a ski tip tripping over a ridge of ice. O’Brady extended his lead to almost 30 miles at one point, but Rudd has been chipping away at the deficit. At the time of publishing the pair are on day 47 and O’Brady still holds the lead of around 30 miles with just over 200 miles still to travel. It’s undeniably dramatic, with shades of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. And instead of them writing in their journals at night, we have O’Brady posting every day on Instagram.

Still, for all the anemoic romance these two remarkable individuals evoke, it’s hard not to feel a little conflicted. This quest killed Worsley three years ago and part of the reason that his slow demise is so excruciating in Grann’s telling is because we know he is leaving behind his wife and two children (they had written “You can do it, Dad” on his skis). Worsley had already made it to the South Pole twice and he described the trips as “very selfish odysseys”.

Olden-day adventurers could claim they were setting out to benefit science or trade or national self-esteem. But this claim can’t really be applied to Rudd and O’Brady. After Worsley’s death, Beverley Turner – whose husband, James Cracknell, has endured unimaginable chaffing racing across the Atlantic and to the South Pole – questioned the motivations of the obsessively intrepid. They could not be described as “explorers”, she wrote, “as every inch of earth has already been mapped rendering this term a tad impotent”. The most common outcome of these trips, Turner noted, is a lucrative career in motivational speaking.

Colin O’Brady on Day 37. Photo: The New York Times

Though much has changed since Captain Webb’s day – wicking fabrics, GPS – the personal stakes haven’t. Webb died penniless, aged 35, attempting to swim through a particularly treacherous stretch of water near Niagara Falls in just his trademark red silk bathing shorts – a stunt he hoped would raise $10,000. He’d gone to the US on a family holiday and didn’t even mention to his wife, son and seven-month-old daughter, what he was planning.

Rudd, who attended Worsley’s funeral and has a wife and three children, has insisted that the primary goal of his expedition is that he should make it home. “If I need to pull out, I will,” he told his family. Exciting as their exploits may be, you have to hope that he means it. To twist Bill Shankly’s words, polar adventuring remains a matter of life and death, but these days it’s much less important than that. – Guardian service