Fatigue. Hypothermia. Frostbite...
These are just a few of the stark realities Captain Lou Rudd will need to befriend when he begins his long solo crossing of Antarctica. The expedition – dubbed the Spirit of Endurance – is an endeavour Lou has been preparing for his whole life. With 33 years of army and expedition experience, he is now mentally and physically equipped to meet this world-first challenge head-on.
In 2017, Lou made a similar 1,100-mile coast-to-coast journey when he led SPEAR 17, a group of five British Army reservists, across Antarctica and finally down through Shackleton Glacier. The journey took just 66 days. Considering this continent boasts the lowest temperature ever recorded in history (-89.2°C in 1983), the team were grateful to walk away with mild hypothermia and skin that bore only the first raw signs of frost-bite.
While the continent may be deadly, it disguises its potential for chaos behind an otherworldly beauty.
“Within the polar community, Antarctica is called The Great White Queen, and like a siren song she draws you back,” Rudd explains, “I absolutely love the sheer vastness of Antarctica. It blows me away every time, and without even knowing it, I’ve probably been preparing for Spirit of Endurance for well over 10 years now. It has always felt like my destiny.”
The luring façade of Antarctica can lift in the blink of an eye. Just like a siren’s song would lure sailors to their peril, a glorious day can transform into an explorer’s worst nightmare at a moment’s notice.
Jamie Facer-Childs, one of Rudd’s SPEAR 17 teammates, noted one such occasion when the team set off on their epic trip across Antarctica.
“It was just a beautiful day, with white, crisp Antarctic scenery all around us. The sun was beating down enough for us to remove our jackets and pitch our tents,” He explains, “The very next day the winds were so violent and so breathlessly cold, the temperature just crashed. The whole environment changed in seconds.”
The luring façade of Antarctica can lift in the blink of an eye. Just like a Siren's song would lure sailors to their peril, a glorious day can transform into an explorer's worst nightmare at a moment's notice.
During SPEAR 17’s ambitious journey across Antarctica, they also noticed this sea change in temperature frequently. It was primarily due to their geographical route, which took them along the coastline, where the temperature averages -10°C to -20°C, before gradually moving towards the polar plateau, the central area around the pole itself, where temperatures can plummet to around -30°C.
This bitter temperature was one of the many obstacles the expedition faced.
“Some days it was a complete white out. You’re just walking blind and based exclusively off the face of a compass. You literally can’t see a foot in front of your face or where your next step is taking you,” Facer-Childs recalls, “Just a complete whiteness and a lack of horizon which is very disorientating.”
This overwhelming whiteness could be daunting at times as fellow SPEAR 17 teammate, Alex Brazier, noted: “Ninety percent of it is just looking at white nothing, especially when a whiteout comes through. You’ve got nothing to look at – no frame of reference. Everything is just white. It’s very easy to get lonely, feel isolated and go a little crazy.”
Describing the gruelling conditions SPEAR 17 faced, one of the other Army Reservists, Chris Brooke, explains: “Imagine hell on earth! Your beard is completely frozen hard. You blink and your eyelashes stick together and can freeze almost instantaneously. Your fingertips become wooden. With those temperatures and all the altitude and the wind – it’s magnified tenfold. It’s hard to fathom really, it’s hard to describe it completely.”
Rudd acknowledged the temperature drop to around -30°C was challenging, and then added: “the lowest I’ve gone on a previous journey is -53°C.”
These temperatures burn through flesh and freeze you to your very core.
“It makes your bones hurt,” Alex explains, “You can’t stand still for very long at all, and you find that your lips and your nose start to freeze stiff, very quickly. Even if you’re wearing a face mask you have to take it in turns to suck your top lip or your bottom lip or breathe through your nose, otherwise you start to get frostbite.”
Frostbite is a familiar foe to Rudd. He developed frostnip – a sign of onset frostbite – during his first trip to Antarctica. During his 2011 recreation of Captain Scott’s race to the South Pole, with his friend, the late Henry Worsley, a minor error in -45°C nearly cost him dearly.
“I had my gloves on and I was pouring some water from my flask into a cup. The wind caught it and blew it onto the tips of my glove, soaking the ends. Before I could really react, the cold water froze and I got frostnip on the tips of three of my fingers and my thumb. It could have been curtains for that expedition, and almost certainly would have been had Henry not been there.”
Unfazed by the danger his digits were in, Lou noted: “I continued for the rest of that day and when I got into the tent that night I had a proper look at it. All the tips had gone white and the tip of my thumb, the tissue, was completely frozen. It was almost frostbite, and then a few days later they went quite black. It’s a remarkable thing to get your head around when you think about it. A weather so savage it can bully, break and blacken your skin. But I managed to prevent it from refreezing for the remaining four weeks of the journey. I had it dressed and protected and it fully recovered, but it took about four or five months.”
Hypothermia is another extreme danger that lurks in Antarctica.
Facer-Childs explains: “I was getting some really bad pain from the top end of my foot. Eventually it got so painful I cut a chunk out of my boot to allow more breathing space. That same day, and as a result of the split I fashioned in my boot, I got hypothermia. [It started with] stomach cramps and diarrhoea throughout the day. Every step became a slog. Come the end of the day I was feeling really drained of energy and we had another two hours left to go. I asked to stop and Lou, in typically unflappable fashion, took one look at my pale, fragile demeanour, and agreed. Hypothermia is hard to describe, but it can be pretty debilitating.”
Thankfully his supportive team enabled Facer-Childs to complete the trek across Antarctica. A luxury neither the aforementioned Worsley, nor Rudd, could call upon. Far from being put off from attempting the same route, Rudd uses his late friend as an inspiration for this stunning endeavour.
Rudd says: “Henry completely inspired me from that very first journey and gave me that real
deep appreciation for the polar pioneers and for polar history in general. I knew absolutely nothing about polar travel – the dark arts, the routines, the kit… he taught me everything.”
He adds: “Antarctica has been eating away at me since I got back from SPEAR 17. I need to go back down there and have a go at this journey.”
In early November Lou will have his opportunity to sate this hunger and return to the frigid arms of The Great White Queen.
Alone, unsupported and unassisted…
At the world’s coldest extremities.