What an achievement to kick off the new decade: Wendy Searle, aged 42, well respected in her role as senior press officer at the Ministry of Defence, but at her own admission no great shakes on skis, mother of four children, has just completed a trek of some 720 miles on skis, ‘solo, unsupported and unassisted’, from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole in 42 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes. She was of the first of three British women soloists to complete the journey this season and the effort cost her 12kg body weight.
‘I’ve skied every single day without a rest day for at least 11 hours and finally I’m now stood here at the geographic South Pole,’ says a jubilant Searle. ‘I feel like I’ve won an Olympic gold medal combined with winning the lottery, all rolled into one.’
Searle didn’t break the existing women’s solo speed record of 38 days, 23 hours and five minutes, set by Swedish nurse Johanna Davidsson in 2016, as was her intent. But, she’s in good company in that: Captain Scott, too, was beaten to the South Pole by a Scandinavian, and it didn’t stop him becoming a national hero.
Robert Browning’s words spring to mind: ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?’ Poetic licence should I think allow us to stretch to a ‘woman’s reach’ as well, particularly in a year when not just one, but three, British women trekked the distance to the South Pole. Jenny Davis, group head of legal at Simec Atlantis Energy, also had sights on the speed record, while Mollie Hughes, aged 29, recently became the youngest woman to complete the journey. Severe weather conditions, however, meant that she could not complete her original goal of skiing unsupported, as the slower progress meant she accepted an unplanned food resupply from an aircraft drop early in her journey. Walking to the South Pole is ‘very easily underestimated’ says Steve Jones, expedition manager of Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, ‘43 days getting up every day in the extreme cold, no rest days, no let up.’ Of Searle’s success, he says, ‘It’s a tribute to her training and preparation.’ Until now, only seven women have completed such a trek from Antarctic coast to pole.
Just five years ago, it hadn’t crossed Searle’s mind to cross Antarctica; she didn’t know how to ski. But then she had opportunity to manage the media campaign of an expedition to the South Pole by a team of military personnel, and in her words, ‘became hooked’. Exposure to people in the community normalised the idea and before she knew it she was skiing the 350 miles across the Greenland ice sheet on a training exercise. She learned quickly – crossing Antarctica was going to be tough, mentally. ‘I definitely missed my children,’ she says, ‘but all I could think at the time was: no one day has been as bad or is ever going to be as bad as the six months I spent pretty much on my own in Germany when I was 25. My husband was away fighting in Iraq. I had a house, a dog and three children under four I was solely responsible for, and six months of just absolutely relentless grinding tiredness.’
Today Searle has four children and a full-time job. ‘Really, if I can do this, anybody can,’ she says. And in a way she’s right. She’s physically fit, but not obviously more so than countless people one passes in the street. Her differentiating quality, however, is a magnificent, bold and optimistic mind-set – one that’s essential for the polar traveller and of huge value in the business world as well, and arguably one that could be honed in us all.
It’s important to contextualise the measure of Searle’s challenge. It’s so easy for people to say they have walked to the South Pole, which indeed they may well have done, but so often only the ‘last degree’ – 60 nautical miles, fully supported. Though undoubtedly out there in the wilderness, this is very different from dragging more than your own body weight of food, fuel and essential supplies in a pulk over 700 nautical miles.
In the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration of the late 19th and early 20th century – in the days of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen – the limited nature of transport and communications meant that those venturing to polar regions were tested to their physical and mental limits for months, even years, all too often ending in loss of life. This generation was one of pioneers, pushing scientific and geographical boundaries in a manner that might be likened to exploration to Mars in the modern era. They had a major psychological barrier to overcome: was it possible to reach the South Pole? Today, we know it to be possible. Indeed, if we were to allow ourselves full use of all resources available, it would be no challenge at all. Thus, we have contrived a sporting code of practice. The rules dictate: ‘unsupported and unassisted’ means no resupplies of food, no medical help, and no use of a kite to harness the power of the wind. While satellite communications, on the hand, are insisted upon to alert a rescue in the case of an emergency.
Some things, nonetheless, are unchanged through the centuries. Antarctica is still the coldest continent on Earth; temperatures plummet tens of degrees below zero, dense katabatic winds roll off the glaciers at terrifying speed, and crevasses lie hidden, waiting. Weather is of course capricious and a bad season can thwart any chance of reaching one’s destination, let alone breaking a speed record. Something Sir Ernest Shackleton knew about all too well when his ship Endurance was crushed by ice in the frozen Weddell Sea, before even it had reached the Antarctic coast.
In the evolution of the new sporting practices, there is one element, however, that the explorers of the Heroic Age were not obliged to endure – and that is isolation. Today, an elite band of polar travellers opt for the toughest of challenges and add ‘solo’ to ‘unsupported and unassisted’, which tests their mettle to a new and higher level. ‘Mentally there’s a huge difference between being on your own and being in a pair,’ says Jones, ‘if there are two of you, you can take turns navigating. On your own there’s no rest, it’s mentally very tiring.’ Searle was on her own for more than seven weeks. Yes, she could communicate with the outside world and had audio books to keep her company, but still it was up to her and her alone to drag herself out of her sleeping bag every morning, strike her tent and start another day anew, irrespective of her mood and the weather – something that perhaps many people might relate to when working from a home office, or in a virtual team with minimal face-to-face contact and little opportunity for camaraderie. ‘That for me is the hardest bit,’ says Searle, ‘it’s not the skiing or the navigating, or setting up my tent and making camp, it’s getting out of the tent in the morning, when really all you want to do is lie in your sleeping bag and have a nice rest day or be at home with your family.’
The development of Searle’s inner strength to keep going started long before she stepped onto the ice. She clearly had an all-important goal – something accepted in all walks of life as an important motivator – and, as training for the expedition, she spent over 10 hours a week lifting weights and running up and down hills pulling a tyre, while also holding down a full-time job and mothering four kids. ‘It’s important to prioritise time for the things that matter most to you,’ she says, ‘schedule it in if you have to. Sometimes you won’t want to do it, but just put on your gym kit, step outside, just do five minutes. Then it suddenly doesn’t seem so bad and when you’ve finished, you’ll feel powerful and invincible; like you could take on anything. Then keep building on that feeling to make your sessions longer or harder, and your dreams bigger.’
Still, no amount of preparation and training can prepare you wholly for the event at hand. Moods shift and swing, sometimes with no apparent rhyme or reason. From Searle’s blog, Day 38, ‘It feels like today has been a really hard day, there is no particular reason as the visibility was fine, the surface was good and it wasn’t too steep a gradient. Yesterday was really physically and mentally draining having to navigate in a whiteout all day, so maybe it’s just a hangover from that. Some days just feel like a massive slog.’ Then she adds, echoing the sentiment of many people drawing close to the end of a project, ‘It almost feels like the closer I’m getting to my goal the further away it seems. I’m trying really hard to appreciate every day as I get closer to Pole, but today was a bit of a stinker.’
It is this positive self-chat in this last line, though, that ensures Searle is a finisher and not one who easily gives up: ‘I’m trying really hard to appreciate every day.’ This positivity shines through the duration of her expedition: ‘I’ve been so lucky today, it has been another day of amazing weather…when it cleared, it was just the best feeling in the world… having the sun on my face and being able to see where I was going was incredible…today the landscape was just so majestic and awe-inspiring…I listened to the silence and it was quite a surreal experience. I am so lucky to have these amazing conditions.’
Focusing on the positive is a lesson for us all. As indeed is the importance of milestones and rewards – well understood as motivators for the seemingly overwhelming challenge – but worth reminding ourselves nonetheless. Searle is pass master at this. ‘The exciting thing about Day 14 is that it is new sock day…to mark off the days I’m drawing little hearts inside the tent… I’m saving some Oreo cookies for when I get to Thiel’s, which will hopefully be in well under a week now.’
Confidence in one’s capability to weather storms when they strike is also important, in Antarctica, as in the office. In the icy wastelands it’s matter of survival, literally. Searle’s training and preparation paid off. She fortified her tent in good time, pitching it in a pit and building a 4 feet snow wall to shelter it from the wind – and came through the storm completely unscathed, her spirits high. Her training paid dividends right to the end. ‘I skied in [to the South Pole] with one breakfast and one main meal left, I couldn’t have timed it better,’ she says, ‘I was also out of cooker fuel. I set my tent up last night for an hour or so, got myself some hot food then set off again. So, I skied for around 25 hours with only a one-hour break. I knew that was possible because when we were in Greenland we did that at the end of the journey.’
She is humble enough to acknowledge, though, that none of this would have been possible without the help of others. We are fundamentally social animals; we need our fellow human beings as we do food and water. For those of us working in a home office, or in a virtual team, struggling at times to keep focus on the job at hand, the lesson is that we are not alone, and that reaching out and connecting with others, as Searle did, is all important.
‘I literally could not have done this without you,’ Searle tells her Expedition Manager, polar traveller himself, Louis Rudd. ‘I have spoken to you on the satellite phone every single night, most of the time I was crying my eyes out. But, somehow you inspired me to keep getting out of the tent every morning and get on with it.’ She thanks her husband Yann for his support and for looking after the kids in her absence. And the children themselves, ‘I did it because I wanted you to be proud of me. That has kept me going, just wanting to see you at the end of this journey is something that has motivated me to keep pushing one ski in front of the other. You have supported me throughout and I couldn’t be more grateful.’
Searle says that training for her adventures has changed who she is as a person. ‘Doing things that push me beyond what I thought I might be able to do, that has become a huge part of my life. I can’t imagine not doing those things now,’ she says. But she adds, ‘I’m just an ordinary woman, anyone could do what I’m doing. Think about where you want to be and how you fill that gap between where you want to be and where you are now, and really anything is achievable with enough time and determination.’ I have a feeling she might approve of the words inscribed on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s gravestone in the little cemetery at Grytviken on the Antarctica island of South Georgia. Robert Browning, again: ‘I hold…that a man (or woman) should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize’.
42 days, 16hrs, 23mins – Official Expedition time
4 – 4th Fastest solo unsupported female
7 – 7th Female ever to complete Hercules Inlet to South Pole, solo & unsupported
0 – Resupplies
0 – Rest Days Taken
0 – Cold weather injuries
2 – Teeth broken
720 – miles skied
12 – kg in bodyweight lost
258,000 – Calories consumed
473 – Hours skied
0 – Penguins seen
46 – Days without a shower
Read more about Wendy’s journey here: https://southpole2020.com/
Skarbek Associates is proud to have sponsored Wendy Searle in her recent challenge, showcasing the limits of human endurance. As Wendy made her way across the frozen wastes of the Antarctic continent, her mental strength was tested to the limit. Challenges included physical hardship, isolation, monotony, sub-zero temperatures, whiteouts and the life-threatening danger of crevasses.
Working with Dr Nathan Smith and Exeter University, Wendy has recorded data on her mental state both during the expedition itself and in the run up to the trip. Data gathered from the team will form part of a study into mental health at the limits of human resilience and this work will also continue to gather evidence for research into female resilience, something which is close to Skarbek’s heart and exemplified through our namesake, Krystyna Skarbek.