The last word: Solo to the South Pole
Todd Carmichael was aiming for a world record when he set off on a 700-mile trek across Antarctica. His skis failed him, says Jacob H. Fries, before reason did.
“We’re going to be okay. You’re such a worrywart. I’m doing all the work anyway. All you have to do is hang out back there.”
Todd Carmichael is talking to his sled again. And you can’t blame him. Try setting the world record crossing Antarctica, stomping over 700 miles of snow and ice, your face and feet black with frostbite, your body shedding pounds faster than you can eat a stick of butter—try that and see if you don’t give a nickname to the sled you’re pulling and start carrying on conversations that make you sound like one half of an old married couple.
Indeed, Carmichael later said he welcomed the occasional hallucination. Disconnecting from reality made him feel less alone.
But on Day 37—with only 47 miles left between him and the South Pole—his mind slips another gear or two. And then it happens: the boneheaded mistake that could kill him before rescuers arrive.
Had he been more lucid, he might have panicked. Or even done the sensible thing and slept for a couple of hours. Instead, he tore down his tent, packed up “the Pig,” and without food or rest just started walking again.
“Let’s move, Pig.”
Carmichael always had a taste for adventure, even as a kid in Spokane. He recalls having a long leash as a boy, free to explore the world on a bicycle. When he took up distance running as a teenager,
he would race his sister’s school bus the entire 15 miles home. “He was very wild,” recalls his sister Lisa. “He was always going somewhere he wasn’t supposed to go.”
A running scholarship drew him to the University of Washington, and after studying business there, he worked at an accounting firm. Later, with a nest egg built up, he moved to Philadelphia and with a partner founded a high-end coffee roasting company. For a while, coffee became his life, his endurance test, as running had once been. “It was 24 hours a day coffee,” he says. “That’s what I did.”
But by 2000, with the company raking in millions, Carmichael looked to take a break. He arranged to be dropped off at a tiny island in the South Pacific. “The idea was to go back in time … to learn from the indigenous people there how to survive,” Carmichael says. The experience became a turning point. “I thought, You know what, it’s very, very clear for you: Adventure and endurance is just part of your life. And it’s time you take it more seriously.”
Before long, he was hooking up with a team tracking elephants through the Namibian desert. He quickly moved from team treks to solo expeditions, and made several return trips to Africa.
A few months after deciding to give Antarctica a try, he was standing at the South Pole in 2004 with a group that had trekked about 70 miles in eight days. He was wrecked, though. “I thought, Wow, I’ve got some work to do here,” he says. Over the next few years, he gave up cigarettes, wine, and fatty foods. He started doing eight-hour bike rides and runs. He dragged weighted tractor tires on roller skis around Philadelphia to prepare for pulling a sled across Antarctica.
In 2007, Carmichael set out with a partner to ski from the edge of the continent to the South Pole. Unfortunately, his partner hurt his leg and had to quit. Carmichael continued by himself, but—frostbitten and running low on food—he called for a rescue plane after 24 days.
He vowed to return the next year, at age 45. This time he’d go it alone.
To get to Hercules Inlet, on the edge of Antarctica where trekkers begin the 700-mile slog to the South Pole, you charter a bush plane. It takes you to the flat ice shelf at sea level, circles, and comes down hard. Moments later, you’re alone, except for the powerful winds rushing into your face. Even in summer, with 24-hour sunlight, you’re standing in one of the coldest, driest, most isolated places on Earth.
Carmichael arrived there this past Nov. 11 with hopes of making history. He was trying to be the first American to complete the journey alone and without aid. And he was hoping to do it in world record time: just under 40 days.
“It’s bone-marrow cold,” he says. “It’s just cold where you go, ‘Oh, my God!’”
He trudged a few miles north and crossed the 80th parallel, so that his journey would encompass a full 10 degrees to the pole. He made camp for the night and went over his checklist for the millionth time. In the morning, the sled would be at its heaviest, about 250 pounds, with freeze-dried food, countless sticks of butter, two satellite phones, two GPS locators, beacons, cameras, a solar-panel recharger, two stoves, and fuel. Carmichael’s feet were already lathered in Super Glue, making the skin tough against blisters. He wrapped them in athletic tape, then set his alarm thinking about the next day’s trek.
In the morning, he set off across the hard, slick ice and began climbing a snowy ridge. He felt strong. Then his ski bindings—the ones he had trained in for months—broke. He made just nine miles that first day and spent most of the night inside his tent trying to devise a way to fix the bindings. Already, on Day 1, his shot at the world record looked to be over. “I had a lot to think about,” Carmichael says, “whether I was going to continue and try to do what everyone was saying was impossible … 700 miles in ski boots.”
Walking, rather than skiing, would mean he’d have to nearly double the amount of time he spent moving every day. And as far as anybody knew, nobody had ever done it. It was slow going. On Day 2, he did 10 miles. On Day 3: 13 miles. On Day 4: nine miles.
Fortunately, with the passing days, Carmichael was settling into his routine. Trekking to the South Pole, you don’t want to reflect or even be fully present in the moment—because you just might want to stop. “You’re trying to find that area, like when you drive your car and show up at work and go, ‘S---, I don’t remember driving here.’ That’s the zone you want to stay in,” Carmichael says.
The day becomes an endless list as soon as the alarm sounds. Get out of the sleeping bag. Light the stove. Prepare a porridge breakfast and chop food for the day (sausage and chocolate bits). Bandage your feet again. At 7 a.m. exactly, begin walking. “It starts to happen through muscle memory,” he says.
On Day 7, when Carmichael woke and unzipped his tent, his heart sank. Whiteout. The sky, the ground, inches in front of his face: Everything was a blinding, vertigo-inducing white. At the end of the day he had gained just two miles. The world record kept receding into the distance. He needed to average about 18 miles a day; so far, the longest distance he had traversed in a day was 14.
Each night, Carmichael phoned base camp to report his position. Over the next two weeks, he continued logging 12-, 14-, and 16-mile days. It wasn’t progress that would bring him the record, but he was having to walk 16 hours (or more) a day to hit those marks. It was during this
time that his relationship with the Pig started to blossom. In audio dispatches to his family back home, he took to using “we”—speaking of the Pig as though it were a person.
Then, on Day 22, Carmichael finally busted out a big haul. He walked for 12 hours and covered nearly 27 miles. Mentally, it was critical: He had proved to himself that he could still mount a serious challenge to the world record. A string of huge days followed, but at a cost. His gear began breaking down and he spent nearly every night repairing something, which meant less sleep. His body was breaking down, too. He had lost more than 30 pounds. His lungs were so raw from the cold air that he was coughing up blood. And now he was talking more and more to the Pig.
Then, on Day 37, after another 19 miles, it happened. Both his stoves hadn’t fired the previous night, so he had taken them completely apart, cleaned each component, and put them back together. Still nothing. He did it a second time: It was nearly 5 a.m. when he finally got a stove to put out enough heat to melt ice.
Carmichael packed up the mess he had made, stuffing one bag with all the important stuff: a GPS tracker, food for the next day, a fuel canister. Moments later, he discovered that the cap on the fuel was loose and the canister had leaked over everything—including his food reserves.
To make matters worse, the backup satellite phone was now dead. No way to call anyone for help. He knew his mind wasn’t working as well as it should be. “You gotta think clearly now!” he muttered to himself.
He began obsessing that he had become that guy—the guy who in the midst of doing something daring does something so completely stupid that it costs him his life.
Carmichael shook off the thought and decided, no, he wasn’t that guy. Not him. He packed up the Pig, determined to make 47 miles in one long, self-destructive march.
Carmichael grew dizzy. A bit of sausage and two freeze-dried meals had survived the fuel spill, but that was nothing, considering that he was burning 12,000 calories on an average day. The snow was getting deeper, and he had to shorten his stride to the point that each step moved him only six inches forward.
Thirteen miles from the pole, he pitched the tent. He had to melt ice for drinking water, but he didn’t want to risk falling asleep. So after he got the stove going, he leaned toward the flame. That way, if he nodded off, he’d fall into the fire and wake up.
Three miles from the pole, he stopped again. The Pig was practically empty, but Carmichael couldn’t pull her another step. “Listen, I can’t walk anymore,” he said. “I’ll be back. I promise. I won’t leave you here.”
He took a camera and left, but once the Pig was out of sight, he got anxious. What if a storm rolls in? What if I can’t find my way back to the Pig? He reached the edge of the research station near the pole, but didn’t want to cross the icy airstrip there because he worried his tracks would be lost.
A couple of times he turned back toward the Pig. “I wasn’t making a lot of sense,” Carmichael says. Then he spotted a man living at the research station, who pointed him to the actual pole. The man snapped a photo of Carmichael and his watch.
Carmichael’s time—39 days, 7 hours, 49 minutes—meant he had beaten Hannah McKeand’s world record. The difference —just 104 minutes—was less than 0.2 percent of his total time on the ice.
From a longer feature by Jacob H. Fries that was originally published by The Pacific Northwest Islander. Used with permission. All rights reserved.