Rudd woke to his alarm blaring at 4 a.m., a full three hours before his usual waking time. It was Dec. 13, 41 days into his attempt to become the first person to cross Antarctica alone, unsupported and without harnessing the wind, and the 49-year-old had some ground — or snow, as it were — to make up.
He woke early because he knew O’Brady, the 33-year-old attempting the same feat, was more than a day ahead of him. Rudd was just 15 miles from the South Pole, a pivotal landmark on their journey, but O’Brady had passed the pole the day before.
Ever since the two men had disembarked from their Twin Otter ski plane and stepped onto the Ronne Ice Shelf on Nov. 3, a mile apart, they had been aiming for the flag of the South Pole.
For weeks, both men had struggled through what ha’s been described as the most challenging summer season in Antarctica in over a decade. Snowfall has been El Niño-like. The normally hard, icy surface of the continent has been caked with inches of fresh powder, which makes hauling a 300-pound sled stacked with everything you need to survive in Antarctica for two months, very slow going.
After that 4 a.m. wake-up call, with the roaring polar winds rattling his tent, Rudd emerged into another total whiteout. He plowed ahead for 11 hours, covering 18 miles before arriving at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at 4:45 p.m. He received a hero’s welcome from the scientists gathered at the candy-cane striped ceremonial pole. The pole is topped with a globe and surrounded by flags of the 12 original signatories of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. On the globe, someone had placed a sticker that read, “Go Lou Go”
Dec. 12, Wednesday
Samuel A. Harrison
O’Brady woke up just two miles shy of the South Pole. The weather had been rough for days, with little to no visibility. In 2016, when he first skied to the pole while achieving the Explorers Grand Slam, O’Brady remembered seeing the station from 20 miles out. This time, he couldn’t see more than 100 feet ahead of him, but his compass kept dialing closer to 90 degrees south latitude, where all lines of longitude converge.
Just after 10 a.m., he saw the metallic geometric buildings that form the research station and zeroed in on the ceremonial South Pole. For O’Brady’s arrival, someone had placed a sticker that read “Go Colin Go!” The actual geographic South Pole was still 150 yards away, signified by a sign. (The ceremonial and geographic poles are different because the research station is built on snow and ice that is 10,000-feet thick in places, yet moves roughly 10 meters each year. Each New Year’s Day, residents of the research station, who conduct seismology, astronomy and air quality studies and operate on New Zealand time, move the sign to the true geographic pole.)
Two scientists, including an American, were there to cheer O’Brady on. They represented the first bit of civilization he had seen in over a month. The appeal of human contact worried him (to remain “unsupported,” he couldn’t accept so much as a cup of hot tea from them), so after an hour, he moved on.
O’Brady reached the 89th degree of latitude, also known in polar parlance as “the last degree.” That put him just 69 miles away from the South Pole. It was getting colder. The wind chill within the last degree plummeted toward minus 80 degrees.
O’Brady described his condition via satellite phone: “I’ve definitely lost some weight,” he said. “My legs are crazy skinny.” He also talked about his fingers, which he said were “cracking like crazy.” He had taken to filling dozens of microcuts with super glue each night, to, in his words, “try to get my fingernails and fingers to not completely crack into a million pieces.”
He also had to remain conscious of the ticking clock, which he had sped up. When he was getting ready to depart Union Glacier just before the launch of the expedition, he was having trouble pulling his sled and elected to leave three-and-a-half days of food behind. That meant he only had enough food for 61-and-a-half days, and if he didn’t make the pole by Day 40, it would be hard to imagine making it to the far shore by Day 61. He still had a lead of over 20 miles on Rudd, but O’Brady was also fighting time.
On Dec. 7, O’Brady received a text from Jenna Besaw, his wife and expedition manager, to call a number he didn’t recognize. He figured it was another interview, but when he dialed, Paul Simon, the singer-songwriter, answered. Ever since he learned that O’Brady was listening to “Graceland” on his journey, Simon had been following his quest and reached out to arrange the call.
For 30 minutes, they spoke about taking risks and the dedication to craft it takes to achieve any masterwork. “This will be my ‘Graceland’ if I can complete it,” O’Brady wrote via text after they talked. “[It’s] taking every ounce of everything I’ve trained for and learned.”
As Rudd got his first taste of the polar plateau at 8,700 feet, he was noticing that his base layers felt loose. Before the expedition, Rudd mentioned that early on in the journey he would have to force feed himself the 5,000 to 6,000 calories he planned to consume each day, because he just wouldn’t be that hungry, but at some point that dynamic would flip as his body mass started to shrink. On Dec. 6, he could feel it coming.
O’Brady ascended onto the polar plateau, leaving the sastrugi — wave-like speed bumps in the snow — behind. Although he still had 600 feet of elevation to gain before he reached the South Pole, it was over 100 miles away, which meant the terrain was relatively flat. Thanks in part to all the fresh snow, however, conditions remained treacherous. The cold (around minus 30 degrees) is more severe on the plateau, and as O’Brady moved closer to the pole, the effects of altitude were compounded by pressure.
The centrifugal force of the earth’s rotation means that the atmosphere is thin at the poles, where the air is even drier. Combined with exertion, that dryness can lead to dehydration, which can cause or exacerbate altitude sickness. O’Brady said that when you close in on the pole, 9,000 feet in elevation can feel like 12,000 or even 14,000 feet.
But it’s not all pain and misery out there. Antarctica does deliver rare gifts. Occasionally, when the conditions are right and there are enough frozen ice crystals in the air, a circular rainbow forms a halo around the sun. Sometimes called a sun dog, its scientific name is a parhelion, and on this journey, both men have been stopped, mesmerized by them. O’Brady documented the phenomenon on Dec. 5 and Rudd on Dec. 4.
Both men had encountered severe sastrugi since early in the expedition, but on this day, the wave-like speed bumps in the snow were especially steep and severe. Sometimes their sleds caught on a lip behind them, yanking them down from behind. Other times they tripped on a ledge of ice they couldn’t see and fell hard, face first.
Another common demon the competitors share is isolation. Whenever O’Brady is reached on his satellite phone, his opening greeting is some variation of “Hello from the middle of nowhere Antarctica, all alone!” He says it with levity, but it’s also true. Aside from a nightly call with their expedition managers, he and Rudd are on their their own as they navigate a monotonous physical and emotional landscape. O’Brady talks to himself a little every day, but mostly, he said, “It’s just me stuck in my own head.”
Rudd relies on audiobooks just to hear the sound of a human voice. “It’s almost like having someone talking to you,” Rudd said via satellite phone. “I find that quite comforting.”
On Day 30, Rudd was comforted by more than a faceless recording. He’d had a tough morning battling sastrugi and was feeling “done in” when, at about 2 p.m., he caught something moving out of the corner of his eye. He turned, and to his astonishment, there was a little white bird, a snow petrel about the size of a dove, fluttering in front of him. “It wasn’t just like it flew by or anything like that,” he said. “It was deliberately looking straight into me.
“I’m not deeply spiritual or anything like that, but if there was ever someone coming to check up on me, that was it. It was just surreal.”
O’Brady experienced his most difficult day since early in the expedition. After just three hours of travel, he lost a skin from his ski and was forced to set up camp to repair it. Because of the delay, Rudd, who began the day nearly 24 miles behind, finished within 12 miles of O’Brady. The race was on.
In raging wind and swirling snow, Rudd decided to take a big risk that endangered his entire expedition. He decided to try and divide his gear in half and ferry the first load forward two miles before coming back for the rest. But his gear was buried in snow by the time he returned. Good thing for Rudd, he ha marked the waypoint and found all of his supplies, but it could have been disastrous.
After a somewhat smooth start, both men entered the sastrugi obstacle course. It’s true that the more they ate, the lighter their pulks became, but the challenge didn’t get any easier. Rudd and O’Brady had to drag their sleds up and over or around thousands upon thousands of sastrugi as they climbed toward the polar plateau.
O’Brady took the lead for the first time. During this first week, just pulling their pulks, which began at 375 pounds, was the stiffest challenge. O’Brady said the weight literally brought him to tears. He charged as many as 20 miles in one day at first but then struggled to put together a string of 12-mile days.
At around noon on Nov. 3, Rudd and O’Brady boarded a Twin Otter ski plane that took off over Mount Rossman and banked east. After a 90-minute flight, they landed on the Ronne Ice Shelf. O’Brady got out first and collected his gear. “Good luck,” Rudd told him. “I think we’re both going to make it.”
They hugged goodbye, likely their last human contact for at least two months. Then, while O’Brady strapped into his sled, the plane drove about a mile away to Rudd’s parallel starting point. (That means O’Brady technically had about a 10-minute head start, but it would prove negligible over such a long distance).