In 2006, only 5 people in history had ever completed a solo, unsupported walk from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole. So, at the age of 44, John Wilton-Davies, a business consultant from the south-west of England, who had never even spent a night alone in a tent, decided he’d try to become the sixth.
After 3 days of winter camping training, a year’s worth of physical training, a lot of research, and a giant hole in his bank account, he was dropped off by ski plane on the ice at Hercules Inlet, 700 miles from the South Pole....
“I had really no idea what conditions to expect, how hard it would be to pull a 145kg sled up hill, whether I’d get frostbite within a few hours, or if I’d crack up when faced with two months of solitude."
- John Wilton-Davies
A month into the journey, John found himself in an uncharted crevasse field, of some 50 square miles, and the terrain became impossible to move through with a heavy sled in tow. With the ice over a mile deep, the crevasses are likely to be deep. After several partial snow bridge collapses, he turned around and spent a nervous three days extricating himself from the area.
The second month was much more a test of mental strength than physical. I spent ever longer on the satellite phone each day to the radio operator at base camp, and the blogs to my website became worryingly emotional at times.
Several more days were lost to bad weather and illness. Finally, some 70 miles or four days short of the Pole, the logistics team advised that the last plane of the season was about to depart the continent and that John must accept a pick up. Somewhat frustrated, he then spent a further four days at base camp awaiting that flight.
On his return he vowed never to return. “The expedition itself was mind-numbingly boring, interspersed by short periods of excitement and danger. There are many more pleasant things to attempt.”
So, true to form, John is returning to Antarctica. The Last Great Challenge is the attempt to be the first to complete an unsupported return journey to the Pole. This time, he’s learned lessons. He is starting earlier in the season, and is going with a friend, Justin Miles. And no, of course Justin doesn’t have any experience...
Did you have any expedition background before you tried walking to the South Pole?
No. With a young family, I didn’t feel I had the time, or indeed the money, to take a more traditional approach and build up to it through shorter guided trips. In my mind this was a one-off opportunity and I didn’t want to come back wishing I’d tried something tougher.
How dangerous is an Antarctic expedition?
Perhaps not as dangerous as you might expect. If you’re prepared and sensible, then the greatest risk is crevasses. When you’re on your own, there’s not really any chance you’ll get out of one, even if you survived the fall. In a group, where you can rope up, I’d say the bigger risk was frostbite. Strangely, individuals in groups take bigger risks than when they’re alone, and peer pressure to keep up with the team can easily lead to slack clothing decisions.
Why has no one made it to the Pole and back again before?
A couple of teams have kite-skied back from the Pole, but the problem with walking is time. There’s an 80 day window between the first and last flights of the summer into Antarctica, and the one-way route was only completed in less than 40 days for the first time last year. Going both ways requires us to have much heavier sleds of about 200 kg each and average nearly 20 miles a day.
At 48, aren’t you a bit old for all of this?
Probably. I certainly notice how much harder the training is just over the last four years, and the injuries take longer to mend each time. But I love the training. I’m motivated by knowing that, if I’m not fit enough, it’s not a case of just getting a poor time, it’s a total failure, and I’ll have wasted two years of my life and over £200,000.
What do you do for training?
Mostly low intensity, long duration exercise, like hiking, running, tennis, with weight training and football. The Marathon des Sables in Morocco was an excellent training event, and had the added bonus of annoying the proper runners who treat it rather more seriously.
What’s the hardest part of the expedition?
Easily, the fundraising. As anyone who’s ever tried to raise sponsorship will know, the effort in just getting in front of the right people is soul-destroying. In comparison the actual expedition can seem like a holiday – albeit a rather cold and tiring one.
What’s your biggest fear?
That someone else will get there before we do. 2011/12 is the centenary of Scott and Amundsen’s South Pole expeditions, and there is likely to be some competition.
What about the crevasse field?
I think I’ve managed to put those demons to rest. The mountain under the ice that caused this area, about the size of the Island of Jersey, was later named after me. I had suggested the suitably dramatic title of Dragons Jaws, and was somewhat underwhelmed to hear it named ‘John’s Hill’.
“But by far my biggest concern, as the plane left me and circled above, was to make damn sure I set off in the right direction. There was no way I wanted to give the pilots a laugh at my expense so early on.”