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Photo by Rene Koster. Lou Rudd on his gruelling crossing of Antartica

Interview

Louis Rudd’s solo crossing of Antarctica

Capt Louis Rudd MBE, a 49-year-old Army officer, is the first Briton to complete a solo, unsupported crossing of Antarctica

Photography by Shackleton
Words by Patrick Tillard

While families gathered around the hearth on Christmas Day, 2018, to children’s shrieks of glee, Captain Louis Rudd MBE was entirely alone, enduring temperatures of minus 22°F with only the howl of the wind in his ears.

While Rudolph and friends were putting their feet up, Rudd had been hauling a 287lb sled for 13 hours, allowing himself a three-minute break every two to three hours—for a pee, a drink, to gather his thoughts—before once again pressing on. By Day 53 of his solo, unsupported crossing of Antarctica, such activity had become routine.

Three days later, he successfully reached the Ross Ice Shelf. It had been a brutal 920-mile haul, and he finished two days behind American Colin O’Brady who had set off on the same date (November 3rd, 2018) looking to achieve the same world-first mission. Nevertheless, by completing the feat, Rudd consequently became the most decorated polar explorer in history, with more hard-won miles in the White Continent than any other human being.

Sitting down with the 49-year-old Army officer to talk about his exploits, it’s only been two weeks since Rudd has returned to the UK amid a blizzard of media interest. The expedition had never meant to be a competition—O’Brady had completely blindsided Rudd. Following a year of discussing his plans to cross Antarctica, he discovered the American’s intentions only five days before he was due to fly out for his final preparations in Punta Arenas, Chile. While the media went into overdrive, Rudd hunkered down, intent on maintaining his game plan.

“I made a conscious decision to eliminate the competition element and not get drawn into the contest,” says Rudd. “The crossing is hard enough without it being a race. I decided that my main effort was focused on a successful finish. If I had failed because I got tempted to race I would have regretted that for the rest of my life.”

There was also deeper motivation driving Rudd to this world-first: in his pack was the family crest of Henry Worsley, a friend who had tragically died attempting the same feat in 2016. Rudd was determined to carry that crest all the way.

Skating across Antartica with belongings in tow Rudd battles the conditions to set up his tent
Skiing across rocky terrain Rudd faces challenging weather to prep his tent

Preparation

Not just anyone can travel to Antarctica. Permission is given only to those who have the necessary experience to attempt a solo, unaided crossing. Even the most prepared elite athlete—the likes of Ben Saunders, for example—have tried to conquer the holy grail of solo undertakings, but have been forced to quit in the face of the continent’s intense hostility.

“You have to have a deep respect for Antarctica,” says Rudd. “It is a privilege to go down there and witness this vast unspoiled wilderness, but one mistake could be life-threatening. I personally quite like that prevailing threat and sense of vulnerability. It is a sign of genuine adventure. It is a minor miracle that Colin and I both finished.”

Adding extra gloss to the achievement for both Rudd and O’Grady, was that it was one of the worst seasons in recent memory. Of another eight solo expeditions aiming for the South Pole at the same time, only three succeeded.

So what gives Rudd the ability to persevere where others can’t?

 “Thirty-three years of military service gives you a natural mental robustness,” he explains. “In low moments, of which there were quite a few, I would remind myself that no one was shooting at me. No one was trying to kill me. It could be worse. Plus, no one forced me to be there – I chose to be there.

“I was also fundraising for soldiers with life-changing injuries – it kept things in perspective. On top of that, a huge amount of time, effort, and money went into the expedition and I didn’t want to let people down.” Over the course of the trip, Rudd amassed a loyal following, as his trials and tribulations were documented daily by his title sponsor and clothes supplier, Shackleton.

“It’s fair enough to call for help if you have a serious issue, but not because it’s hard. You know it’s going to be hard. Conditions change by the hour in Antarctica and no two days are ever the same. You have to be very comfortable in your own headspace. It is absolutely key. Most days you go through the full range of emotions.

The facts

Distance: 920 miles

Time: 56 days

Rest days: 0

Food: 6000 calories per day

Body weight loss: 15kg (17% body mass)

“With the personal stuff I knew I’d miss – my family, food, creature comforts, etc. – I mentally boxed it up and buried it at the end of the trip. I only get to it when I finish. But I didn’t entertain the idea of finishing until I had reached the Leverett Glacier, about 100 miles from the Ross Ice Shelf.”

Rudd’s preparation involved breaking the crossing into blocks of ten days, which corresponded to how his food rations were packaged. “I never looked further ahead than those 10 days,” he says. “That’s also when I changed my socks – the only item of clothing I changed throughout.

“Weight is so critical,” says Rudd, seeing my eyes widen at the idea of wearing the same pair of sweaty briefs for two arduous months. “The first time I got to experience my full pulk [sled] was when I landed in Antarctica, and it was horrendous. I had to strip it out.”

That stripping took out the spare pair of briefs, his Christmas presents from his wife and children, and anything else that wasn’t an ironclad necessity for the crossing. In Antarctica, weight trumps hygiene every time. The final load total of 287lbs included 198lbs of rations, 44lbs of cooker fuel, and another 44lbs for his sleeping bag, tent, communications, clothes, and seven pairs of socks. It was everything he needed—including the daily intake of 6000 calories—required for the 920-mile expedition.  

After 56 days, and with one Herculean final push of 34 non-stop miles, Rudd hauled his way into the history books. Emaciated and exhausted at the finish, Rudd was also relieved to have fulfilled his pledge to Worsley’s memory and to become one of only two people to have crossed Antarctica unassisted and alone.

What’s next?

Part-time record-breaking adventurer Rudd has since resumed his official duties with the Army, however, new horizons of endurance are already in his sights. In the spring, he’s leading a group in Iceland. Then it’s to the Pelorus Trans-Greenland expedition in August 2019, a 27-day crossing of the ice cap in partnership with Shackleton, his sponsor in Antarctica.

And on a personal level?

“Well,” he says wryly, “I have some ideas.”

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