The crazy, brave, lonely folly of walking across Antarctica by yourself

So vast, and so alone.
So vast, and so alone.
Image: AP Photo/Rod McGuirk
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As you read this, two men are walking across Antarctica alone, together.

Both are adventurous and fit: Louis Rudd, 49, a British Royal Marine combat veteran who has hiked to the South Pole before; Colin O’Brady, 33, a US adventurer who survived severe burn injuries to become a mountaineer and professional triathlete. They are each walking the 921 miles across Earth’s highest, driest, coldest continent, taking two parallel routes only a mile apart.

The two are joined in a shared objective: each wants to become the first person to cross Antarctica unsupported. But the nature of their goal means that neither of them can seek help from the other, or from anyone else. For the journey to count as unsupported, neither can accept assistance of any kind: not even as much, as the New York Times pointed out, a cup of tea from the researchers at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station they’ll pass on the way.

They started on Nov. 3. The trek could take up to 65 days. They’ll hike first from the Ronnie Ice Shelf to the South Pole, a distance of 651 miles rising to 9,301 feet, and then head south to the Ross Ice Shelf. Each will be pulling—by himself—a supply-laden sled that at the start of the trip weighed about 375 pounds.

This journey can kill a person. British explorer Henry Worsley tried in 2016 and had to be rescued just 130 miles from the finish line; two days later, he died of infection. It is possible that Rudd or O’Brady could perish on the ice for want of something that is in the other’s pack barely a mile off, a distance practically arm’s reach in terms of the vastness of the continent but a world away for all that it matters.

It’s a formidable challenge for any person to undertake against himself, or against nature. It requires preternatural reserves of fortitude, determination, and resourcefulness. The pull that motivates humans do things like this is timeless, and nameless. “Because it’s there,” George Mallory replied when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest in 1924. His may be the closest explanation for the desire that compels people to climb, dive, or cross nature’s greatest extremes.

What it is not is a desire to return to some purer state of human existence, the lost paradise implied when people talk about “getting back” to nature. There is nothing natural about the kind of isolation that Rudd and O’Brady are taking on. Humans were not meant to survive in loneliness that total.

An inhumane level of aloneness

The risks of venturing to any extreme multiply when taken on alone. The first signs of hypothermia are cognitive: poor decision-making, incoherence, a subtle shift in personality. A teammate or partner might notice those signs; alone, it’s infinitely harder to distinguished illness-induced thoughts from reality.

In 2012, British explorer Felicity Aston skied alone across Antarctica; her feat doesn’t count as unsupported, because she was supplied by two airdrops during the journey. She started having ongoing daily conversations with the sun, like Tom Hanks talking to that volleyball in Cast Away. She had a daylong olfactory hallucination of the scent of a British fish-and-chips shop, as if she were skiing past an unending row of them.

As the plane that dropped her off disappeared into the sky on the first day, Aston was overcome by the sensation of horror. “I was absolutely petrified,” she told CNN. “And it wasn’t because I (was) scared of dying or injury, it was just that level of aloneness that was instantly frightening. Just the weight of the amount of time on my own.”

This was the reaction of someone who had chosen the journey. People who have been cut off from their support networks and thrust into harsh survival conditions through circumstances not of their own making have found it even more traumatic.

Human connection is a survival skill

In 2004, a group of 34 men, women, and children emerged from the brush and stumbled into a small village in southern Laos. They presented themselves to the startled villagers as refugees from the war engulfing their native Cambodia. They did not know that the war they were running from had ended a full 25 years earlier.

A quarter-century before, when the oldest members of the group were still young men and women, they had taken their young families and fled into the dense rainforests of northeastern Cambodia to escape the violence and chaos that followed the collapse of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. They hid so far, and so well, that word of peace never reached them. They lived in punishing conditions for decades, hunting their own game, making clothing out of tree bark, and building shelters out of bamboo.

They, too, survived in conditions that could kill, albeit in a markedly different climate than the poles. The rainforest in Southeast Asia is dense; any number of threats from tigers to infection could end them.

But it was not learning to survive in nature that was difficult. They were all members of the indigenous communities native to northeastern Cambodia; they all had been raised to survive off the land. It was the isolation that was agony, they told me when I met them, first as a young journalist working in Cambodia when they first emerged from the jungle and then again four years later when I returned to research their experience in depth. They all had been raised in collective communities that recognized that human connection was essential to surviving the difficult conditions of their environment. To be separated from that greater whole, even as a small group, was almost viscerally painful.

When they spoke about their experience, I often thought of the canon of self-reliant Western adventurers and idealists: the iconic lonesome cowboy, Thoreau on Walden Pond, and yes, the adventurers who attempt things like crossing Antarctica alone.

I thought of Christopher McCandless, the 24-year-old American subject of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild. In 1992, the educated, well-off young McCandless hitched a ride to Alaska’s DeNali National Park, where he disappeared with a backpack after assuring his flabbergasted driver he was “absolutely positive I won’t run into anything I can’t deal with on my own.” His emaciated corpse was found months later, his experiment in rugged self-sufficiency having met a tragic end.

In Asia, I spent one afternoon with one of the Cambodian returnees, a man in his mid-40s named Moun. We sat in a grove of trees Moun planned to clear that day for a new plot of cashew trees.

As we talked, Moun’s 12-year-old son, Theang, amused himself with his father’s axe, mimicking felling trees the way boys back home lathered their faces to play at father’s shaving. He scratched his back with Moun’s machete, lolled about in the leaves, and chased dragonflies through the trees when he grew bored with our talking.

In my country, I said, there had been a young man with a very nice house and family. He decided to live by himself in the forest, just as Moun and his family had, to see what it was like. I was curious what Moun thought of this. My translator, a young man from the same ethnic minority indigenous community as Moun, struggled with the question.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” he said, his forehead furrowed. “Like, he had a house? But he went off by himself? To the forest?”

Finally he shrugged and relayed the question. Moun and Theang listened with blank expressions, looked at each other, and then burst into deep, belly laughs, accompanied by exclamations in their own language.

“That man was crazy,” Moun said. He could not understand why someone would voluntarily turn his back on the benefits of society, nor could he abide the young man’s decision to voluntarily leave his family and live away from his community. For a man who had survived what he had, it was inconceivable: why seek death, when life presented so many chances to meet it?

“Life requires other people,” he said. “You cannot live alone.”

So what about camping? I asked. There were people who lived in cities but liked to spend time in the forest, sleep under the stars, maybe catch their own fish for dinner. Unlike McCandless, these campers often went into the wilderness with other people, and usually went back home after a few days. Moun approved of this.

“That’s nice, that’s good,” he said. “Maybe you get bored in the village, so you want to go live in the forest for a while, to learn new things. That’s ok. It’s good to understand other places.”

He was quiet a minute, and then laughed again. “But that other guy…”

Beneath the mask of modern life

Jon Krakauer wrote that he was drawn to McCandless’ tale because he recognized a piece of himself in the young man. At the age of 23, Krakauer had also attempted a foolhardy solo climb on a remote Alaskan mountain. Krakauer walked off the mountain and out of the backcountry; McCandless didn’t. What drew men like him to such extremes, he theorized, was a desire to glimpse the sublime danger beneath the mask of modern life.

“At the time, death was a concept I understood only in the abstract,” Krakauer wrote. “I didn’t yet appreciate its terrible finality or the havoc it could wreak on those who’d entrusted the deceased with their hearts. I was stirred by the mystery of death; I couldn’t resist stealing up to the edge of doom and peering over the brink. The view into that swirling black vortex terrified me, but I caught sight of something elemental in that shadowy glimpse, some forbidden, fascinating riddle.”

Perhaps that is the greatest difference between Moun and people like McCandless, Krakauer, Rudd, O’Brady, and all of us who have at one time played fast and loose with our mortality for the sake of thrill, or convinced ourselves we could do alone what safety traditionally dictates is done with another. There is no need to sneak a peek at the face of death when you have already seen more of it than you ever cared to.

In a perfect world, both O’Brady and Rudd will survive their journeys, and cross their finish lines somehow at the same time so that both can share the deserved honor of surviving such a difficult feat. What they are doing is bold, courageous, and hard. And it also feels sad, somehow: the image of two people crossing this lonely expanse of ice and snow because it is there, risking death rather than sharing glory, considering every element of survival except for one: a connection to our fellow humans.