Women are pushing the boundaries on the great white wilderness that is Antarctica
Make no bones about it, Antarctica is a continent that kills. "It's a place that wants you dead," said polar explorer Robert Swan, who walked Captain Scott's route to the South Pole in 1985. "Scott found that out 100 years ago."
The hazards are numerous: silent, awaiting crevasses, dense katabatic winds and ferocious storms, but more than anything it's the constant, inescapable, wearing cold that is the danger. Even in the summer months, temperatures hover around -30C. Make a single mistake and it punishes you.
In this harshest of environments, four women have just skied solo to the South Pole - more female soloists than in any year in the history of Antarctic travel. Three British women, Wendy Searle, Mollie Hughes and Jenny Wordsworth, skied 1130km from Hercules Inlet on the edge of the Antarctic continent to the South Pole. German Anja Blacha opted for a route some 225km longer, from Berkner Island on the Ronne Ice Shelf.
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‘No person who has not spent a period of their life in those 'stark and sullen solitudes that sentinel the Pole' will understand fully what trees, flowers, sun-flecked turf and running streams mean to the soul.’ Shackleton. 42 days, 16 hours, 23 minutes. Solo, unsupported and unassisted. 7th woman to complete Hercules Inlet to South Pole. First soloist this season.
A post shared by Wendy Searle (@betweensnowandsky) on
Their motives were each their own, and also overlapped. All were fascinated and drawn to the great white wilderness. As it transpired, none of them broke the record, but all four showed extraordinary fortitude.
"The first two weeks were awful," says Hughes. She set off earlier than the others, in order to be alone, and was hit by a white-out for eight days, with a sled weighing a hefty 105kg and the skiing all uphill.
This is something that would have been unimaginable for a woman in the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, in the early 20th century. Then, expeditions south were made up exclusively of men.
The shift has of course been cultural, nothing more, nothing less. In Antarctica this coincided with the opening up of the continent to tourism. In 1968, New Zealand zoologist Marie Darby worked as a lecturer aboard the Magga Dan, the boat that took the first tourists - almost half of them women - to Antarctica.
The next development was the introduction of commercial flights. The 11 on the first commercial expedition to the South Pole in 1988 including two women - and women have been pushing the boundaries ever since.
In 1992 Ann Bancroft led the first all-woman expedition to the South Pole. In 1994, Liv Arnesen of Norway became the first woman to ski alone to the South Pole. In 2000, Bancroft and Arnesen teamed up to become the first women to ski across Antarctica, and in 2012, Britain's Felicity Aston became the first woman to cross Antarctica alone.
Speed of travel has always been a consideration in Antarctica, but speed racing over a given distance is a newer development and there are rules. "Solo" of course means skiing alone. "Unassisted" means under your own power. And "unsupported" means no resupplies of food, fuel or kit. The gold standard is to ski "solo, unassisted and unsupported" and of the four women who skied to the pole this season, only Searle and Blacha can claim to have done so.
Hughes had a food drop at the halfway point and Wordsworth had a replacement stove part flown in just six days before the end - a small detail, you might think, but without such support, the consequences could have been dire.
The current women's speed record from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole is just short of 39 days. Norwegian Christian Eide covered the same route in an astonishing 24 days.
"I don't think the men's record will ever be beaten," says Wordsworth, "but I believe at least a week could be taken off the women's record" - a view that might be validated by Blacha's feat. She is now the youngest woman to have skied "solo, unassisted and unsupported" to the Pole.
Antarctia didn’t let me in easily!Soon after leaving Hercules Inlet a weather front moved in, it would stick on me for the next 10 days.— Mollie Hughes (@MollieJHughes) February 16, 2020
I endured 8 days of whiteout where I couldn’t see more than a meter in front of my face! @SpeakerBuzzUK @GORETEXeu @atagheating @CR_UK pic.twitter.com/LmoFqHsI80
"Women are mentally strong," points out Wordsworth. In 2009, Cecilie Skog, again Norwegian, and American Ryan Waters, skied across Antarctica "unassisted and unsupported" from Berkner Island via the South Pole to the Axel Heiberg Glacier, a distance of 1800km over 70 days.
"Phenomenal," says Steve Jones, expedition manager of Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE), the operating company for the majority of expeditions to the Antarctic interior. "Eleven years later it remains the record for furthest distance covered unsupported and unassisted in Antarctica."
Rebecca Stephens MBE was the first British woman to reach the summit of Mt Everest.