Watchkeeper (Wendy Searle Interview)

Expedition Manager, Wendy Searle, talks the logistics and psychology of keeping close friend and solo adventurer Lou Rudd safe and sane.

On November 3rd 2018, Captain Lou Rudd set off from Messner, prepared to attempt something no one has done before: a crossing Antarctica in complete solitude, with no assistance and no support. Over one week into this punishing journey, expedition manager Wendy Searle is the only evidence that Lou hasn’t fallen off the face of the Earth.

A senior press officer with the Ministry of Defence by day, Wendy Searle has overseen this journey before, when Rudd led six army reservists on a 68-day Trans-Antarctic crossing during the SPEAR17 expedition last year. Her meticulous planning helped the team join an exclusive list of 11 people who’ve now crossed the world’s deadliest continent. The difference with this expedition is that Lou is entirely alone. That means Searle’s responsibilities are all the more crucial – not just for Rudd’s safety, but for his sanity too.

Each day Wendy receives Lou’s voicemail recorded from his tent each night – a postcard from the edge of beyond.

Wendy And Lou

She then faithfully transcribes every word:

“Whenever he’s finished for the day, it’ll be midnight in the UK so he’ll ring up and leave a voicemail - just a normal voicemail - on my phone,” says Searle, “As soon as that call comes in and I can hear he’s safe, that’s when I’m finally able to relax and go to bed.”

On this occasion Searle is experiencing the Spirit of Endurance at one remove, but she’s no stranger to the bone-biting cold of the Arctic and polar regions. “I’ve been on polar expeditions, so I’m really well-versed in the routines,” says Searle, “I know why it might have been a bad day, and I’m all too aware of just how dangerous the conditions can get. I’ve lived it - and that gives me another dimension of insight into how Lou is feeling and his state of mind.”

Having joined Lou on the Traverse of Greenland 2018 expedition earlier this year, Searle knows exactly what he’s like under pressure.

“The difference now is that he’s on his own,” says Searle, “And that changes things. But he will not give in, and he approaches everything with a crazily cheerful sense of humour. We’d be absolutely exhausted at six o’clock in the morning, but he’d be cracking jokes and we’re just like: ‘how does he have the energy to be so chirpy?’”

“The difference now is that he's on his own... That changes things. But he will not give in, and he approaches everything with a crazily cheerful sense of humour."

A positive outlook is one of those vital tools every pioneer needs, although positivity is also nothing without grit and force of will.

Lou Rudd Putting The Pulk Together

“Lou is extremely driven,” says Searle, “He’s got this unbelievably hard edge that enables him to push himself where the rest of us might not be able to. And having been with him in these situations, I know when he’s under strain - even if he doesn’t actually say ‘it’s been really hard’. His tone, the distance, the conditions – it all helps me build a picture so I can visualise exactly how he’s getting on.”

Wendy’s responsibilities cover many different grounds: she transcribes audio logs, plots Lou’s progress and updates the official expedition blog and social media. Not only does Wendy monitor Lou’s psychological state, she also controls the flow of information he receives and plays a part in keeping his morale stoked each night. 

“People send messages of support to me and I collate them,” says Searle, “If I detect that Lou needs a bit of a boost, I can put them all together into a big email along with messages from his family and friends. When times are hard, that little sliver of contact with the rest of the world can be amazing - but it needs to be done sparingly, because for the most part it’s more important for him to be completely switched off and focused on what he’s doing.”

Political and world news is forbidden in these missives. Anything that could take Lou’s mind off the task at hand is strictly controlled. Isolation is a constant danger. Concentration is imperative. And the stakes are too high to leave anything to chance.

“What sets this expedition apart?” says Searle, “It’s not just the fact that it has never been done before, but what it represents – the Spirit of Endurance is a tribute to Henry.”

The late Henry Worsley MBE - Rudd’s close friend and mentor - attempted the same journey in 2016. He made it 71 days into his attempt before being forced to call for help, suffering from exhaustion and severe dehydration.

“It had been eating away at me,” said Rudd, “I felt like I should complete the journey on his behalf.”

With Worsley’s memory in their minds, Rudd and Searle planned the Spirit of Endurance, spurred on by the closeness of Worsley’s attempt and determined to finish it as a tribute to all that he achieved – and was.

“[Lou’s] approaching each day with a really positive mentality, and I believe that is going to carry him a huge distance,” says Searle, “The world has become so risk-averse, but there are still places where humans have never trodden. There are still expeditions that haven’t been completed. People say that everything has been done, but it hasn’t – we just need to go further and search harder.”