There’s a huge controversy brewing in the Antarctic polar exploration community right now. There’s a big question of whether the two men who just completed a crossing from the Messner Start to the base of Leverett Glacier were completely unaided and unassisted or did they have help? According to the rules of exploration, you can have NO outside help of any kind to claim unaided and unassisted. Assistance means mechanized (snow mobiles), kites, dogs, or otherwise. But it also includes navigational assistance, too.
For someone to be totally solo, they can’t use other tracks or the graded “road” on the ice from Leverett Glacier to the South Pole. The other claim is the Impossible First. Borge Ousland was the first to cross the entire ice continent. He had a makeshift kite made out of a tarp. Nothing like what people use today. In order to claim a land crossing or start like I did, you have to start on the geographic coast. That’s what everyone has accepted for years. My trip was ~720 miles. My hope was to round trip to the South Pole and back but that didn’t happen. I lost my solo, unassisted and unaided when I had my supplies moved and I ended up traveling along a sled track for a couple of days.
Apparently, it’s very common for people to follow the graded ice path from the South Pole to Leverett Glacier. The grading removes all of the sastrugi. That’s a big deal. But what’s a WAY BIGGER DEAL are the flags every 100 yards. This completely eliminates the need for navigation. During a whiteout, you can still move super fast without blundering around by compass with those flags. I fantasized about having a marker on the horizon to follow. I had no idea they existed for some people.
When I was in the sled track, I was still blind in whiteouts, so trying to follow the track was far worse. But if I had flags, it would have been 10x easier. I explain all of this in my book Antarctic Tears:
I talk about my decision to follow the sled track for a while, what it gave me, and what injuries and problems it caused. I had no idea that people weren’t being totally truthful about their experience.
What I couldn’t figure out is how this year’s skiiers’ speed increased after the SP. Then I learned about the grading and flags. Their speed increased a whopping 40% by following this track and the markers. The average speed moving to the pole was 14 miles per day. The average speed moving AWAY from the pole was 20 miles per day. An occasional tailwind and microscopic downhill can’t give you that much advantage.
Though the athletic achievement is phenomenal (900+ miles is crazy by any measure), it’s not a fair comparison at all to the other explorers who had no aids.
Ah, exploration controversy! I hope I’ve cleared things up a little bit. I want to be open and honest about exactly what happened on my record-setting expedition of 80+ days. I hope everyone else does, too.
New York Times Article