The reader's guide to modern Polar exploration

Submitted by Thorsten on 27th January 2020

200 years ago to the day, the continent of Antarctica was discovered, arguably kicking off the race to the South Pole that culminated in the golden age of Polar exploration. The expeditions of men like Peary, Nansen, Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton have inspired adventurers to this day. For them, it was all about being the first to achieve something – first to cross Greenland, first to the Poles or first to cross Antarctica. Since then, Polar exploration has become it bit more confusing. Here’s my attempt at explaining the history and what to look out for when reading about Polar – and especially Antarctic – expeditions.

An attempt at an explanation

For centuries, people have gone on adventures aiming to achieve what others thought was impossible. Being the first person in the world to accomplish something always has a great ring to it. It makes a great story. And even though Polar exploration nowadays is by no means as expensive as in the golden age, it still requires a fair bit of money, which is easier to get from private and corporate sponsors, when you have a great story.

Unfortunately, by definition every one of those firsts can only be achieved once, so adventurers quickly started falling back on additional qualifiers to set their achievements apart from what had been done before. This is by no means a modern phenomenon. After the race for the South Pole was decided, the British, for example, quickly maintained that Amundsen’s use of dogs didn’t really count, since he should have walked, as Scott did.

Unassisted, unsupported, solo…?

Since Polar exploration opened up to private individuals starting in the 1980s, many more of these qualifiers have appeared. Not much later, some adventurers took it upon themselves to create a classification system, trying to categorise expeditions by these various qualifiers. One source for these sets of ‘rules’ is the website adventurestats.com. Now it’s important to bear in mind, that those rules are entirely made up by somebody and by no means universally accepted. However, there seems to be at least a consensus within the community about what important aspects of a Polar expedition should be considered when talking about it. So here are some terms you may encounter when reading about Polar expeditions.

guided vs unguided/self-guided

If a trained Polar guide is leading a group, it makes an expedition a lot easier than if the team or individual has to look after everything themselves.

Grey Area: This qualifier can become a bit dodgy when a Polar guide is part of a group, but not officially tasked with guiding it, but these days group expeditions don’t take centre stage anyway, so this one usually doesn’t spark a lot of controversies.


solo

On a solo expedition, the adventurer travels alone. Plain and simple. If somebody accompanies you, you aren’t going solo. Solo expeditions are considered to be especially mentally challenging, which is why they make one of the best stories these days.

Grey Area: This one becomes interesting if somebody accompanies you for a part of the way, or you meet another explorer and decide to sit in a tent together.

Note: this common definition differs from the one on adventurestats.com, who require any solo effort to be unassisted as well. So even having a supply drop would take away the solo qualifier in their book. I do not agree with that.


unsupported/unassisted

These two terms don’t mean the same but are often used interchangeably, which makes it especially hard to tell what a text is talking about. They are trying to categorise expeditions by determining whether they had outside help of any kind and by their mode of transportation. Here’s how I’ve seen it used most commonly, but plenty of texts, including adventurestats.com, use it the other way around:

Unsupported means the expedition did not receive any outside help, most notably resupplies. This style of an expedition is more difficult since the adventurer has to carry all the food and fuel they require from the beginning. Emergency outside support generally takes away the unsupported label, but I think it should be mentioned separately because it differs a lot from planned resupplies. It usually does not reduce the weight an adventurer has to pull, and sometimes – notably in case of evacuation of some members of a group – even make it harder for the other explorers to continue. Explorers also have to deviate from a carefully laid out plan, which is a whole new challenge itself.

Grey Area: what if someone accompanies the expedition, but does not interfere? Does that constitute outside support? This can be a common case with film-crews accompanying an explorer, but also other kinds of company. Even if you manage to not interfere with the routines of the adventurer, surely the knowledge that someone else is close by will give them a sense of increased security as compared to help being days away. This will likely affect the decision making and speed of the expedition nonetheless.


Assist refers to the mode of transport with unassisted meaning using only human power. This qualifier is probably the one that makes the newest ‘firsts’ today and also the most controversial. Many of the solo explorers in the 90s and early 2000s kite-skied. Back then it didn’t mean much, but nowadays those expeditions tend to be classified as wind-assisted. Colin O’Brady made use of that detail for his hugely popular ‘impossible first’ expedition in 2018.

Grey Area: What constitutes assist? The use of motor vehicles and the use of dogs are pretty much agreed-upon categories, but after that, it becomes extremely muddy. Many people consider kites to be a form of assist, but others argue it’s no different than skiing down a slope or with the wind in your back, it’s natural. Adventurestats.com even lists the use of roads, bridges or premade tracks as assist. Interestingly nobody (yet) considers using skis or pulks a form of assist.


Start and End Points

Another qualifier for modern expeditions is their start and endpoint. Golden age explorers could only go from their ship on the shore to some point inland, and then return to their ship. Nowadays, a plane or helicopter can drop you off anywhere and pick you up anywhere. Generally speaking, the attention-grabbing expeditions today are either trips to the Pole or traverses. Depending on whether it’s about the Arctic or Antarctica, this means different things.

For the Arctic ocean, a trip to the Pole means going from the edge of the ice across the Arctic Ocean and ending at the geographic North Pole. A traverse means continuing after the North Pole and going back to the edge of the ice.

Grey Area: Some sources only consider expeditions that started from land – mainly Northern Canada, Siberia or Svalbard – as valid, while others argue that taking a boat or helicopter to the edge of the ice and starting from there is perfectly fine as well. Nowadays, the Arctic ice usually doesn’t extend far enough any more to enable a start on land.


For Antarctica, things get a little confusing. Generally, the definition of traverses and trips to the Pole follows the one outlined for the North Pole above. There is one addition, however. Expeditions in Antarctica tend to start on the edge of the continental land-mass recently, which is not the shore of Antarctica. Here’s where it gets technical. Antarctica is covered by huge masses of ice, but unlike the Arctic ocean, there’s actually land underneath. Thanks to modern science, we know where the land under the ice ends and begins, so we know the continental coastline of Antarctica, although the ice sheets stretch many hundred km further out into the sea. As far as I can tell, this all started when Reinhold Messner and Arved Fuchs crossed Antarctica in 1989/90. They originally planned to set out from the German Filchner Station, but due to a fuel shortage, they were brought to an arbitrary starting point inland instead. Messner was furious about this and threatened to sue their logistics provider because he wanted to start from the shore. But they could not change it. The real paradigm shift came from Michael Stroud and Ranulph Fiennes in 1992/93. They had to abort their expedition after 97 days when they reached the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. However, they still technically had reached the continental coastline, so they claimed success after all. Several later expeditions followed suit and so the inland start and endpoints were legitimised. Damien Gildea of explorersweb.com wrote an excellent article about the history of the inland starts.

When reading about Antarctic expeditions, pay close attention to what they’re saying about the start and endpoints. Phrases like “crossed the continent of Antarctica” or “from the coastline of Antarctica” often mean an inland start or finish. If you can’t tell by the phrasing, the length of the route gives you a good idea. Or you can take a look at the excellent maps created by Eric Philips, visualising many routes. Philips also just unveiled his own classification system for Polar expeditions, that aims to be more granular and clear about some of the grey areas outlined above.

Where does that leave us?

I hope this article helped a bit in clarifying common terms you encounter when reading about Polar expeditions. I am no fan of this system of categorisation. I think it tried to create a system to explain achievements in Polar regions but fell well short of that. Instead, it tries to compare apples to oranges in some aspects but is unnecessarily strict in others. As you can see above, some of the rules seem arbitrary and there are a lot of grey areas, which contributes a lot to confusion and controversy around Polar expeditions every year. I have decided I will try to use actual words to describe expeditions from now on. So Colin O’Brady’s solo unsupported and unassisted Antarctica traverse becomes an expedition where he skied on his own for 1500km dragging his pulk from the Messner Start across the South Pole to Leverett Glacier, without getting resupplies along the way.

It’s just another attempt at clearing up the confusion, but I think it could help people see all these amazing achievements for what they are – each great accomplishments by individuals, individually planned and executed under different conditions, with different goals, and all worthy of recognition. Then it’s up to you to decide what constitutes a first in your mind.


The reader's guide to modern Polar exploration

Thorsten

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.