This Article was updated after Colin O’Brady completed his unsupported and unassisted solo Antarctica traverse.
The polar exploration community is currently buzzing with news about Colin O’Brady and Loius Rudd. Both are taking on a challenge nobody has successfully completed, yet: a solo traverse of Antarctica via the South Pole, unsupported (not receiving supplies along the way), and using only human power. You can follow Lou Rudd’s journey on his sponsor’s website, and Colin O’Brady’s on his Instagram or his own website. These expeditions stand out because they are one of the last supposed firsts out there to achieve for polar explorers. Since the first humans set foot on the Antarctic continent explorers have always found ways to add more challenges to their journey or make it unique in some way or another to qualify for that precious “first” label. Let’s take a look at some notable firsts in Antarctic history.*
* for the sake of simplicity we are going to focus on overland travel
Team size: N/A, Distance covered: N/A, Duration: few hours, Mode of Transport: N/A
The first persons claiming to have set foot on the Antarctic continent are from the party of Captain John Davis, a sealer from England. On 7th February 1821 their logbook entry reads:
“a Large Body of Land in that Direction SE at 10A.M. close in with it our Boat and Sent her on Shore to look for Seal at 11A.M. [..] Latitude was 64°01’ South Stood up a Large Bay, the Land high and covered intirely [sic] with snow the wind coming [..] I think this Southern Land to be a Continent.”Captain John Davis
They may have landed in Hughes Bay. (source)
Team size: N/A, Distance covered: N/A, Duration: N/A , Mode of Transport: Skiing
Larsen led the first Norwegian Antarctic Expedition from 1892 to 1894. He discovered a huge ice shelf and disembarked to ski on it. It was later named Larsen Ice Shelf after him. (source)
Team size: 5, Distance covered: 3,440 km, Duration: 99 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing & dog sleds
The turn of the century saw the golden age of Antarctic exploration. Expedition after expedition reached a new farthest south and discovered new parts of Antarctica. All these efforts culminated in the arguably most well-known and important first in polar history: Amundsen’s South Pole expedition. Originally Amundsen planned to reach the North Pole, but during the planning phase of the expedition, reports emerged that Frederick Cook and Robert Peary both had reached the North Pole already. This news prompted Amundsen to abandon his North Pole attempt and focus on Antarctica instead. This decision put him in direct contention with Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, with both expeditions attempting to conquer the Pole simultaneously. Starting on October 19th 1911 from his base Framheim, Amundsen and his men reached the South Pole on December 14th and returned on January 25th 1912. They beat Scott to the Pole by 34 days. (source)
Team size: 12, Distance covered: 3,473 km, Duration: 99 days, Mode of Transport: Tracked vehicles
Led by Sir Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary respectively, two parties set out in November 1957 to reach the South Pole using Sno-Cats, Weasels, and adapted tractors from different sides of the continent. Hillary was originally supposed to only scout a route for Fuchs’ party, but seizing the opportunity to beat the British he took his party all the way to the Pole regardless. On January 1958, they became the first expedition after Amundsen and Scott 46 years earlier to reach the Pole overland and marked the first time ever land vehicles had reached the Pole. Fuchs’ party arrived at the Pole on January 19th 1958 and continued back along the route Hillary had taken to the Pole to complete the crossing of Antarctica on March 2nd 1958. (source)
Team size: 11, Distance covered: 1,207 km, Duration: 51 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing and snowmobiles
I could not find a lot about this particular expedition. It was led by Martyn Williams and pioneered a new route to the South Pole. They set out on November 28th 1988 and arrived at the Pole on January 17th 1989. the Team consisting of 9 men and two women skied dragging pulks and was accompanied by snow-mobiles carrying their camping equipment. (sources: 1, 2)
Team size: 2, Distance covered: 2,800 km, Duration: 92 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing and kites
Reinhold Messner was one of my earliest explorer heroes. Messner had already summited all 8000s without the use of oxygen, granting him legend status in the mountaineering scene. In 1989 he teamed up with fellow explorer Arved Fuchs to attempt the first un-mechanised crossing of Antarctica. The team set out on November 13th 1989 and reached the Pole on new year’s eve 1989 and completed their crossing on February 12th 1990. The pair of Fuchs and Messner did not have the best relationship and living in a tiny tent for over 90 days did not help them become friends. Messner states in his book that most of their time together was spent in silence with everyone doing their own thing at their own pace. (sources: 1, 2)
Team size: 6, Distance covered: 6,020 km, Duration: 220 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing and dog sleds
Will Steger, Dr. Jean-Louis Étienne, Victor Boyarsky, Geoff Somers, Qin Dahe and Keizo Funatsu formed the team for this ambitious expedition, which achieved a number of firsts in Antarctic overland travel. The purpose of this endeavour was to raise awareness for the early signs of climate change and advocate for the continuation of the Antarctic Treaty that would be up for review in 1991. On July 26th 1989 the party set out with three dog sleds from the tip of the Antarctic penisula. They became the first expedition to travel the length of the peninsula in Antarctic winter. During their journey, they resupplied at Antarctic bases and depots, which had been established in the summer before the trip. They became the first expedition to cross the “Area of Inaccessibility” close to the Pole. Ending their journey at the Russian Mirny Station on March 3rd 1990, they had crossed Antarctica along the longest Axis, a feat that has never been repeated to this day and thus also completed the first un-mechanised crossing of Antarctica sea to sea. (source)
Team size: N/A, Distance covered: N/A, Duration: N/A, Mode of Transport: N/A
Unfortunately, I could not find any details on this particular expedition, just websites mentioning that this has been achieved in 1990. If you know anything about this expedition, please let me know! (source)
Team size: solo, Distance covered: 1,310 km, Duration: 52 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
Norwegian Erling Kagge set off solo from Berkner Island on November 17th 1992. He dragged a 125-kilo pulk. Without any resupply or other assistance, he skied the 1,310 km to the Pole, which he reached on January 8, having averaged 26 km per day. Kagge had no radio contact to the outside world during his trip, making this achievement even more remarkable. (source)
Team size: 4, Distance covered: 1,078 km, Duration: 67 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing and kites
Led by Ann Bancroft, who had previously skied to the North Pole, Anne Dal Vera, Sunniva Sorby and Sue Giller planned a traverse of Antarctica on the same route Messner and Fuchs had taken several years earlier. They relied on a supply drop halfway to the Pole, and also wanted to resupply at the Pole a second time. They set out on November 5th 1992 and planned to arrive at McMurdo station February 17th the latest. Unfortunately, the start of their expedition had been delayed by 10 days already, and it soon became apparent that they would not have time to reach their goal in time. Faced with the decision to pay 300,000$ for a later pickup from McMurdo, or take a plane there from the South Pole, they had no choice but to abandon their crossing plans. They still reached the Pole on January 14th 1993, becoming the first all-female team to do so. (source)
Team size: 2, Distance covered: 2,100 km, Duration: 97 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing and kites
Stroud and Fiennes had previously teamed up to reach the North Pole unsupported and had their sights set on an unsupported Antarctica crossing in 1992/3. They set out in November 1992 and abandoned their attempt at a sea-to-sea crossing when reaching the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf after 97 days. They still had achieved a traverse of the continental land mass. (sources: 1, 2, 3)
Team size: solo, Distance covered: 1,200 km, Duration: 50 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
I could not find a lot on this expedition online. I don’t know if this trip involved any other means than human power alone. If you have her book or know details, please let me know! (source)
Team size: solo, Distance covered: 2,845 km, Duration: 64 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing and kites
Børge Ousland is arguably the most accomplished Polar explorer alive today and another one of my personal heroes. In 1994, he had already reached the North Pole solo and unsupported and in the following year he had to abandon an attempt at an unsupported Antarctica crossing after reaching the South Pole, making him the first person to reach both Poles solo and unsupported. Børge set out on November 15th 1996 from Berkner Island for an unsupported sea-to-sea solo crossing of Antarctica. He reached the Pole on December 19th and set a new speed record for an unsupported un-mechanised journey to the South Pole. He went on to cross the continental mainland and the Ross Ice Shelf to complete his sea-to-sea crossing on January 17th 1997. Marek Kaminsky and Ranulph Fiennes had started simultaneously with Ousland with the same goal in mind. However, Fiennes had to abandon his attempt a few weeks in because of medical reasons, and Kaminsky chose to not continue after reaching the South Pole. (sources: 1, 2)
Team size: 2, Distance covered: 2,747 km, Duration: 94 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing and kites
This is another expedition I can’t find a lot of details on online aside from the bare metrics. The pair of Bancroft and Arnesen set out on November 10th 2000 from the northern end of Queen Maud Land, pulling 113kg pulks. They reached the Pole on January 17th 2002 and finished their traverse at McMurdo base on February 11th 2001. (sources: 1, 2)
Team size: solo, Distance covered: 1,745 km, Duration: 59 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
Felicity Aston conquered one of the last remaining firsts for women in 2012 by becoming the first woman to complete a crossing of Antarctica relying only on human power. She started on November 25th 2011 from Leverett Glacier and ended her journey after 1,745 km at Hercules Inlet. (source)
Team size: 1 + motorised support team, Distance covered: 638 km, Duration: 10 days, Mode of Transport: Tricycle and motorised support team
Maria Leijerstam pioneered a new method of travelling in the snow in 2013, when she reached the South Pole using a specially modified tricycle. She set out from the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf and reached the Pole after only 10 days on December 27th 2013. She cycled from 10 to 17 hours each day. Her expedition has been criticised for using motorised support (sources 1, 2)
Team size: solo, Distance covered: 1,247 km, Duration: 50 days, Mode of Transport: Bicycle
In 2012, Helen Skelton became the first person to reach the South Pole having used a bicycle, but she did not use it for the majority of the trip. Another attempt by Eric Larsen was abandoned in 2012 as well. The first to reach the South Pole by bicycle alone was Daniel Burton. He set out from Hercules Inlet on December 2nd 2013 and arrived at the pole on January 21st 2014. (source)
Team size: 6, Distance covered: 1,704 km, Duration: 62 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
The Ice Maidens, a British Army team made up of Major Nicola Wetherill, Major Natalie Taylor, Captain Zanna Baker, Lieutenant Jenni Stephenson and reservists Major Sandy Hennis and Lance Sergeant Sophie Montagne, set out on November 20th 2017 to cross Antarctica. They finished their crossing in only 61 days on January 20th 2018. (source)
Team size: solo, Distance covered: 1,500 km, Duration: 54 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
Colin O’Brady and Lou Rudd both started on November 5th 2019 with the same goal: to become the first person to cross Antarctica unsupported relying only on human power. Both originally wanted to start at Hercules inlet, but due to bad weather they changed their plans and started at Messner. Colin managed to keep a slightly faster pace from the start and reached the South Pole on December 12th, one day before Lou. It was a tight race until the end, but Colin never gave up his lead and with a monstrous last leg of almost 33h skiing, during which he covered the last 80 miles, he reached his destination at the edge of Leverett Glacier on the afternoon of December 26th to officially become the first to have crossed the Antarctic continental landmass unsupported and relying only on human power. However, there is a huge Asterisk next to his unassisted claim, because he followed the McMurdo South-Pole Highway, a route groomed by tractors, which makes skiing a lot easier and can arguably seen as outside assistance. (sources: 1, 2, 3)
It is quite likely that you are missing a couple of people on my list. That may be because I chose to not include certain metrics, which are also commonly used to define a first. One of those metrics is speed. Speed records are technically not a first in the sense that you can never lose having achieved something first, whereas a speed record can be broken. However, I guess you can phrase any speed record like “first to reach the pole in under 40 days” and then they still remain standing.
Another metric commonly used is ethnicity or nationality. I intentionally did not want to touch on that, because I feel it is impossible to create a comprehensive list of all firsts regarding ethnicity and nationality using only the online research methods I have.
Having said that, here are some honourable mentions from the categories speed, ethnicity, and nationality:
Team size: solo, Distance covered: 1,100 km, Duration: 39 days, 10 hours and 33 min, Mode of Transport: Skiing
Hannah set the speed record for the fastest coast to Pole journey in 2006, at that time setting the record for both men and women. In 2008 Todd Carmichael bested her by just under 2h, and in 2010 Norwegian Christian Eide crushed both their times by making the journey in 24 days 1 hour and 13 minutes. This year Eric Larsen is attempting to make the journey in 22 days. Hannah’s record was beaten by Johanna Davidsson, who made the trip in 38 days 23 hours and 5 minutes in 2016. (sources: 1, 2, 3)
Team size: solo, Distance covered: 904 km, Duration: 38 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
The Kaspersky Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition, led by Felicity Aston, took seven women out of the Commonwealth member states to the South Pole. They had been chosen out of over 800 applicants. They reached their destination on December 29th 2009 and set multiple firsts for nationality and ethnicity: the first Bruneian woman, the first Indian woman, the first Singaporean woman, the first Cypriot and the first New Zealand woman to ski to the South Pole. (sources: 1, 2)
Team size: N/A, Distance covered: N/A, Duration: N/A, Mode of Transport: Skiing
Barbara Hillary already reached the North Pole in 2007, becoming both the first African American woman and, at the age of 76, one of the oldest persons ever. In 2011 she skied to the South Pole, now aged 79, and became the first African American woman to reach the Pole. (source)
As you can see, with every conquered first, the next one becomes even more specialised. The first achievements simply focused on getting there, no matter the means or team size, whereas today it is all about going unsupported, solo, or by human power alone.
So if Lou Rudd or Colin O’Brady succeed this season, will the last possible first have fallen? In my opinion, it is only a matter of time until someone comes up with the next Antarctic first we could add to this list. Actually, I can even come up with the next one right now. As you may have gathered from reading the expedition descriptions, the problem with Antarctic expeditions, and especially crossings, is whether it is enough to cover the extent of the continental landmass, or whether it needs to be sea to sea, including all ice shelves. Since both Rudd and O’Brady have started from the Messner start, which is the edge of the continental landmass, a sea-to-sea, unsupported, solo traverse relying only on human power will still be up for grabs in the future. The one after that: do the same in Antarctic winter.
At some point, we have to start asking ourselves, where the line crosses from being an actual unique achievement to a mere technicality. Is the trip Lou Rudd has planned that different from the one Kagge did in 1992? On paper they cover about the same distance, both going unsupported and relying only on human power. However, Rudd has daily contact to the outside world, whereas Kagge was completely cut off for 52 days. What about Ousland’s crossing in 1996? Ousland used a kite for about a third of his journey but covered almost twice the distance that Rudd and O’Brady are planning. And will either O’Brady’s or Rudd’s effort be diminished by one of them arriving a few days after the other? Are they not both equally awesome for being out there right now, regardless of who will finish first in the end?
I wish we could celebrate all the amazing achievements without comparing ourselves too much and trying to find some criteria to one-up each other. I wish both Colin O’Brady and Louis Rudd all the best for their trips and hope they arrive safely.
Pictures used for the banner image
Keen hiker and ÖAV trekking and hiking guide, in love with Nansen. Owner of the most walk-averse rescue dog ever. Ice cream lover, kit junkie, runner and mad software genius.