Last week, Colin O’Brady and Louis Rudd both completed their seemingly impossible quests to cross Antarctica unassisted and completely solo. Nobody had ever successfully accomplished that feat before (without aid of added propulsion), and O’Brady finished just ahead of Rudd; O’Brady clocked in at 54 days, Rudd at 56. It was a remarkably quick time, with both men smashing their forecast times for completion.
But in an article for The Explorer’s Web, a journalist named Peter Winsor pointed out that both O’Brady and Rudd skied the home stretch of their expedition, from the South Pole to their finish at the Ross Ice Shelf, along a packed road used for transporting supplies by truck from the McMurdo Station to the South Pole, called the South Pole Overland Traverse Road (SPOT). Which raises the question: Can this be considered a truly unassisted trek?
In at least one of O’Brady’s photos, vehicle tracks can be seen next to him as he skis across, presumably anyway, the SPOT road.
Tracked vehicles pack down and groom the road, making it easier for vehicles to make the difficult 600km journey from the sea to the South Pole. In addition to making the skiing far easier because there are no snow ridges built up by wind—called sastrugi—the road is also much easier to navigate.
Flags are also stuck into the ice along the road at 100m intervals, helping vehicle operators to stay on course, and avoid veering off into the white nothingness of the frozen landscape. Plus, any crevasses are filled in to keep vehicles from plunging into the ice. All of which makes it a much easier course to navigate on skis than the open snowfields surrounding the road.
Winsor quotes Eric Philips, a polar explorer who’s skied the South Pole, who said:
“It is a highway [that] more than doubles someone’s speed and negates the need for navigation. An expedition cannot be classed as unassisted if someone is skiing on a road.”
It may be splitting hairs a bit to wonder if the presence of a navigable road means O’Brady and Rudd’s journeys were unsupported, meaning no supplies were dropped off for them, or unassisted, meaning they were completely on their own and left to their own devices the entire trip. They traveled a tremendous distance, often facing dangerous weather and conditions, and navigated solely on their own for the first leg of the trip, over 1,000kms.
Top photo: Colin O’Brady/Instagram