SAS hero CAPTAIN LOUIS RUDD describes how he became the first Briton to cross the Antarctic wasteland alone
When explorer Henry Worsley died after attempting to cross a solo without support from Antarctica in 2016, princes Harry and William were among those who paid tribute to the man she described as “with great courage and determination.” . . a source of inspiration for all of us’. The same can certainly be said of his fellow SAS soldier Louis Rudd. In a poignant new book, he describes how he was the first Briton to complete the record-breaking challenge that eluded his friend, an epic journey with various brushes of death. He is the only person who has skied twice over the Antarctic landmass.
For four long days, I was stuck in a whiteout, unable to see the sky above or the ice under my feet. The only sound was the endless creak under my skis as I pulled past my pulk – the sled strapped to my waist.
It was day 27 of my attempt to complete a solo-assisted 920-mile journey through the Antarctic land mass – something no one had previously accomplished without food supplies or wind aid from a kite. I relied only on muscle strength and the difference was like sailing across the Atlantic and rowing.
After 25 years with the SAS, where I worked all over the world, I had experienced many difficult situations and physical challenges. Few had tested me as if I was just cutting a path through this field of sastrugi, towering waves of ice, some the size of cars, made when the winter wind blew across the continent at a speed of 120 mph. The Great White Queen saw how far she could push me and suddenly I felt the ice disappear under my skis as I entered free fall.
I had reached an invisible 8ft high ridge and stepped straight into a void before planting my face in the granite-hard ice underneath.
For four long days, I was stuck in a whiteout, unable to see the sky above or the ice under my feet. The only sound was the endless creaking under my skis as I pulled past my pulk – the sled strapped to my waist
The metallic taste of blood filled my mouth and I was very excited. It was like an upward movement from the ribs of a heavyweight boxer and the suction cup came when my pick fell on my legs.
As the pain ran through my rumpled body, my mind became overdrive. I assumed my legs were broken and even if I got to my satellite phone before I passed out, I would be dead by the time the rescuers arrived buried in ice, lost another soul to the South Pole.
I shuffled slowly out from under the pulp, expecting to see a bone protruding from my thigh or some other terrible injury at some point. Then gradually, as I came to my senses, it dawned on me that I had dodged another bullet, just like during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My pride and chest were badly bruised – nothing more – but every part of my body hurt and when I slowly moved forward again, I couldn’t stop the doubts.
How did I get here? How much more can I bear?
My fascination with Antarctica started the day a friend and I got the baton at Spalding Grammar School in Lincolnshire after messing around in a math class. When I was about 12 years old, I heard the slaps on my friend’s back as I waited outside the director’s office and flipped through a nearby bookcase trying to find distractions.
One title stood out, a small ladybug book whose heavily-thumbed pages recalled how Captain Scott reached the South Pole in January 1912, but discovered that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten him there for a month.
My pride and chest were badly bruised – nothing more – but every part of my body hurt and when I slowly moved forward I couldn’t stop the doubts
Then the return journey came, with Scott’s team battling the elements of hunger and gangrene, and Captain Oates, nearly dead, sacrificing his life in the desperate hope that the rest of Scott’s party would survive.
Strengthened by reading about men who faced death in the most horrendous circumstances, I felt the fear of the stick in the least and that night, while studying the red welts on my back in my bedroom mirror, I swore I would travel to Antarctica one day. It was an obsession I shared with Henry Worsley MBE, Lieutenant Colonel with the SAS and one of the toughest people I knew.
You could say that Henry had Antarctica in his DNA. He was distantly related to Frank Worsley, the New Zealand captain of the Endurance, the ship Sir Ernest Shackleton sailed south when he attempted the continent’s first land crossing during his 1914–16 expedition.
In 2011, I was on Henry’s team when he organized a race to the South Pole to mark the centenary of the Scott-Amundsen expeditions. Four years later, Henry returned to cross the first solo and unaided, but physical and mental exhaustion forced him to leave this 120 miles from his finish. Two days later, he died of an infection of his abdomen from multiple organ failure during emergency surgery.
At the time I organized my own Antarctic traverse. Known as SPEAR (South Pole Expedition Army Reserves), this saw me lead five reservists on a 1100 mile crossing.
Life was so hectic that I barely had time to understand Henry’s death and I only fully realized what a friend I had lost when we held a memorial service for him at the end of our trip.
This was at the head of the mighty Shackleton Glacier, a five-mile-wide highway of pure blue ice that led into the Ross Ice Shelf in the distance.
The stunning panorama resembled the physical embodiment of Henry’s mind, and although I was surrounded by close friends, I felt adrift as if I had lost a brother.
Soon people asked if I would try a solo crossing and after getting the green light from the ‘long-haired general’, as my wife Lucy is affectionately known, I got the blessing from Henry’s widow Joanna to try to crack a trip that belonged to him.
With only two weeks to go, I heard that Colin O’Brady, a 33-year-old American endurance athlete, tried the traverse with me.
I suppose I felt somewhat like Captain Scott must have done a century earlier, when Amundsen changed his last-minute plans to focus on the South instead of the North Pole. But our two expeditions were very different.
Colin was a professional adventurer and this was his full-time career, when I was a soldier and very amateur in the polar travel world just like Scott and Shackleton had been.
I wanted to connect to Antarctica like I had on previous trips and I couldn’t do that when my focus pushed as hard as possible so I refused to get carried away in a race.
On November 3, 2018, a ski plane from the support organization Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE) dropped us a mile apart at the launch point on the Ronne Ice Shelf, a huge blanket of snow and ice 1,000 feet thick that lies undisturbed for eons.
I wanted to connect with Antarctica like I had on previous trips and I couldn’t do that when my focus pushed as hard as possible so I refused to get carried away in a race
Our route included climbing 200 feet or 300 feet per day until we reached the Arctic Plateau, a high central region of the continent, which includes the South Pole at 9,000 feet. From there, it would become flat before a steep descent along the Leverett Glacier took us to the Ross Ice Shelf, about two months away.
During a whiteout in the days that followed, we were parallel to skiing, just 20 meters apart, but on day 6, Colin was little more than a distant dot.
If he wanted to leave, good luck to him. I was determined to stick to my plan and enjoy the expedition. To reduce the weight of my pulk, I had cut foreign metal from the stove and removed the zip pullers from the tent and all labels from my clothes.
I had also emptied all my dehydrated meals from their foil packs into freezer bags – that alone saved me 6 kg – and I had no luxuries like books. Instead, I downloaded about 5,000 songs and 35 audiobooks on my iPhone.
After medical treatment, a doctor had suggested removing my appendix in case it burst during the expedition. It had been fine for the past 49 years, so I chose to keep it, although I suppose it would have saved more weight.
Although I had trained hard and dragged a Land Rover tire across countless miles through long grass, nothing repeats pulling a 130kg pul over soft, uninterrupted snow.
It was a murderer. With every slide of my ski and the pull of the pulk, I felt the energy draining from my body and it became a will battle: mine against Antarctica. I had wondered how I would control loneliness with nothing to keep me company except the voice in my head.
But there was plenty to keep me busy, including the nighttime blog that I always closed with the heading “Continue” just like Henry had done.
After medical treatment, a doctor had suggested removing my appendix in case it burst during the expedition. It had been fine for the past 49 years so I chose to keep it although I suppose it would have saved more weight
Another important motivator was the chocolate pudding at the end of each ten-day pack.
Like all my freeze-dried meals, they all had to be rehydrated, a tedious process because every five quarts of snow I melted produced just an inch of water. But every time I reached one, it meant that in the ten days my pick would be about 15 kg lighter from food and fuel.
This is how life goes for an Antarctic traveler: it’s all about the little things and joy can be replaced by pure misery in a few moments, like on day 20, when my pick was sinking in soft snow and I doubled over my ski poles bowed About 100 meters and gasping for breath. I decided to distribute the load, bury half of my gear in the snow and mark the location with a spare ski before returning to pick it up after skiing a few miles ahead with the other half.
This worked fine until my ski tracks disappeared in a whiteout and I couldn’t find my way back.
I had left my tent and sleeping bag, a potentially life-threatening mistake.
For an hour and a half my heart was in my mouth, but eventually I saw my upright spare ski through a fleeting opening in the snow. I fell to my knees and vowed never to make such a stupid mistake again.
The only positive was that it was a chocolate pudding day. There is always a silver lining if you look hard enough.
I thought I had learned my lesson, but on day 21 I again questioned my decision-making.
In the middle of the afternoon the wind hit me and instead of pitching my tent while I could, I gambled it would fall later and skied to make up for the time I had lost the day before.
Within a few hours, the wind had reached 45 mph and I just managed to pitch the tent before I risked dying from exposure.
I pushed my regimental motto “Who Dares Wins” to the limit and soon day 27 and my survival of the dive came from that ice ridge.
Somewhere, I thought, my guardian angel was on guard, and three days later I prayed going relatively flat for a few miles when I saw a beautiful white bird the size of a pigeon with a jet black beak. It flew about 15 ft away at head height and stared almost directly at my face.
I was wondering if I was hallucinating. I was very close to the center of the most inhospitable place on earth and had never seen or heard of animals so far inland – and yet it was there.
Although it soon disappeared, it had a profound, almost spiritual effect on me. I am usually completely skeptical of ghosts. But the chance of that meeting was so rare that I still believe it was Henry’s ghost who let me know he was watching over me to this day.
That was a turning point. From then on, I never doubted myself again, but Antarctica was still looking for cracks in my mental armor.
On day 33, with the altitude making breathing increasingly difficult, I was finally on the Arctic plateau, and a week later one of the observatories that make up the South Pole station came into view.
As I approached ALE’s two small tents, the staff came out to greet me.
In order for my expedition to count as unaided, they were not allowed to offer me food or drink, but they were allowed to hug me, which was also a subtle way of checking how much weight I had lost.
After a very short photo shoot at the South Pole and a quick chat, where I heard that Colin had passed the day before, I said goodbye and continued.
The hard work was now largely behind me, but with temperatures as low as minus 40c the extreme cold seriously swore in my mouth.
With my lips sealed by the oozing of the sores while I was asleep, my first action of the day was to praise them open, ignore the pain while my eyes hurt and my mouth felt like it was on fire.
Almost from the day I skied away from the South Pole my body started to deteriorate. I had lost more than 10 kg and started to wonder if I could cover the last 300 miles.
Finally, with 100 miles to go, I decided to raid my reservation rations. My body was craving food all the time and I never felt full even after a big meal.
In the evening I thought of steak and chips, curry and fried potatoes. The knowledge that it was out of my reach made it all the more attractive.
On day 54, I called home just as my family was about to sit down for Christmas dinner at home in Hereford. When we spoke I could hear the emotion in their voices.
It was tough and on Boxing Day I heard that Colin was done and covered the last 72 miles in an impressive 32 hour push, but I didn’t regret not racing. Just two days behind a professional athlete, 16 years my junior, who undertook these massive expeditions for a living, wasn’t too bad.
While skiing at the Leverett Glacier the next day, I saw Colin’s red tent in the distance and reached it around 4:20 PM.
We hugged and started talking about everything we had both been through, and only then did it begin to collapse. After 56 days of skiing, without a single day of rest, and rushing and fighting through almost impenetrable fields of sastrugi and deep, soft snow, it was finally over.
My biggest emotion was relief that I had not failed, but for me it was much more than achieving my goal.
It was about the privilege of being alone to marvel at the scale and raw beauty of Antarctica, about surviving in an environment that could kill your life in an instant.
This is a place where people just don’t seem to be meant, but I know it’s only a matter of time before I answer the Great White Queen’s siren call again.
Endurance by Louis Rudd, © Louis Rudd 2020, will be published June 11 by Macmillan for £ 20.