In the weeks since we published our story on the American Colin O’Brady and the Englishman Louis Rudd, the dueling adventurers competing for an Antarctic first, we’ve fielded plenty of questions about their expeditions, and what sets them apart historically. Here are seven takeaways from their journey:
What do we mean when we describe O’Brady and Rudd as crossing Antarctica “solo and unsupported?”
“Solo” means they walked or skied alone, pulling their own weight without any assistance. In fact, they were essentially moving along parallel lines across the continent, and did not cross each other’s path since early in the expedition.
“Unsupported,” the way we define it, means two things. First, they are not receiving any additional food or fuel drops along the way. They are carrying everything they need for their entire journey on their sleds, known as pulks. Second, they will not deploy kites to harness the wind, which would make it easier to haul their weight and get them across in far fewer days. Another way to define the Rudd and O’Brady expeditions is to call them solo, unsupported and unaided. In the polar exploration subculture, “unaided” means they are not using kites.
Are you sure this hasn’t been done before?
Yes. There have been 16 successful traverses of Antarctica over the years, but all have either been supported by additional food and fuel drops or have deployed kites — or both. Notable expeditions include Borge Ousland’s 1996 trip, which was the first ever solo crossing without a resupply. Though Ousland traveled farther than O’Brady and Rudd — 1,864 miles compared to more than 930 miles for O’Brady and Rudd — he used kites, which typically provide a big boost from Antarctica’s brutal winds. Ousland completed his trip in 34 days; O’Brady in 54.
In 2006, Rune Gjeldnes skied 2,988 miles across Antarctica with kites, but without being resupplied to set a distance record that he still holds. In 2011, Felicity Aston became the first woman to traverse Antarctica solo. She didn’t use kites, but she was resupplied twice along the way.
Nobody had ever skied across the continent alone without using a kite or demanding a resupply. The last person who tried it quit at the South Pole. The man before him died as a result of his attempt.
Were Rudd or O’Brady carrying spare skis, tents or sleeping bags?
Rudd had a comprehensive kit including extra skis, skins, poles and backpacking stove. He had only one tent, however. O’Brady had one extra ski pole and one extra ski binding, and an extra stove, but his repair kit was extensive. It included a Leatherman pocket tool, a range of tapes and glues, a hand drill, and a sewing kit to repair his Thermarest, tent and sleeping bag. He could even repair his tent poles. But, like Rudd, if he lost his tent, his expedition would have ended.
Say the worst happened, and one of them lost his tent or was stuck in a crevasse. How would they have called for help? How would they have gotten out?
Both men carried satellite phones and spoke with their respective expedition managers and their handler with Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions each night. They could reach A.L.E. 24 hours a day, if necessary (some in the explorers’ community argue this communication should be considered assistance). If either man got stuck in a crevasse and could not reach his satellite phone, he would retrieve his GPS device (it was always stored somewhere they could reach), and press an emergency call button. That would trigger an immediate rescue attempt.
How did they keep their minds occupied for 8-12 hours of exertion and nothingness?
Rudd listened to audiobooks and ’80s tunes. O’Brady queued up his favorite albums and podcasts, but, as a practitioner of silent meditation, often enjoyed the silence.
How did they get online and keep their electronic gear charged?
Both men carried satellite modems that tuned into the Iridium network of satellites and enabled them to send photos with decent resolution. They charged all their technology nightly with flexible solar panels. Rudd laid his panels out beside him in his tent each night, when there was still adequate light streaming in through the fabric to charge his devices. O’Brady arranged his panels on top of his tent, but beneath the rain fly to capture the sun’s energy. With 24 hours of daylight at this time of year, staying charged up was not a problem.
Was this a leave-no-trace expedition?
Mostly. Both men hauled all their garbage out as one would on a backcountry camping trip. But when they were making great time and chose to lighten their load of excess food or fuel, they buried it in the snow and tagged it with a way point that A.L.E. staff members can locate to retrieve by vehicle at a later date. Then there was nature’s call. Yellow snow was tolerated, but all solids had to be buried six inches deep. O’Brady brought four rolls of toilet paper. Rudd is old school: He used ice.