Wendy Searle: "My Christmas gift to myself was an extra hour and a half on skis"

Wendy Searle: "My Christmas gift to myself was an extra hour and a half on skis"

Alexandra Gordienko

Interview

Dina Karavaeva

Photo

We met Wendy at the South Pole. For the Anthropogeos expedition, it was another stop on the route from Punta Arenas to Cape Town via Antarctica, and for Wendy, it was the endpoint of her journey. The journey took 42 days on skis from the coast to the South Pole alone, carrying with her all her equipment, camp and provisions. We talked to Wendy after her return from Antarctica, in the fall of 2021.
In the dining tent at the South Pole on the day of Wendy’s return.
— Wendy, tell us a bit more about you.
— My name is Wendy, I live in Salisbury, Wiltshire, UK. I am 43 years old now. In January 2020, I became the seventh woman in history to make a solo ski trip from the Antarctic coast, from Hercules Bay to the geographical South Pole. I usually lead an ordinary life: I am a mother of four, I work full-time and adventures came into my life, one might say, by accident.
How did you come up with the idea to go on such a journey?
— About seven years ago, I worked with a team that crossed Antarctica on skis and sleds. I had no idea that people were still doing this. Of course, I knew about the pioneers like Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott, but very superficially. I became the manager of this expedition while in the UK: I helped with logistics and communication while the team was in Antarctica. I read several books and became more and more encouraged by the idea of going there myself.

I really liked being in nature, by that time I had run several marathons, but I didn’t even know how to stand on skis and had never done anything like that. At the end of 2015, I wondered if a person like me, living a very ordinary life, without a lot of money, could do something so grandiose. So, the idea of this expedition was born.

In January 2020, I became the seventh woman in history to make a solo ski trip from the Antarctic coast, from Hercules Bay to the geographical South Pole.

Where did you start? You can't just come and say, hey, I want to ski to the South Pole, right?
— Organizing such a trip to Antarctica for one person is an incredibly difficult task. Perhaps, if I had known in advance what was waiting for me, I would not have dared. But then it seemed like a great idea. I started by studying the requirements of logistics companies. Antarctic Logistic and Expeditions (ALE) evaluates individual experiences and decides whether you can make such a trip and whether they are confident in your safety. I have never been to the snow covered mountains by that time. They told me that I need to gain experience in very cold places with temperatures of -30℃ and below.
To begin with, I joined a group that crossed Greenland from west to east. The expedition lasted about 27 days, we carried all the equipment for autonomous travel and food on sledge. Then I spent some time in Iceland on the Vatnajokull glacier. The conditions there are pretty tough, so it was a great practice. I also visited Norway and the north of Scotland in the Cairngorms National Park. There are also a lot of mountains and quite extreme weather.
This is a part of the preparation, you practice, you go on multi-day expeditions. And all this time you learn to take care of yourself: you observe and remember what suits you best, for example, what kind of hat, what kind of face mask, how hot it gets for you when you go skiing and drag a boat with a load, what clothes are the most comfortable to wear. I’ve made so many mistakes on these journeys! But this is the case when the more the better.
Polar explorer and skier Wendy Searle at the South Pole with her boat
Wendy and her boat, on which she carried all her load for 42 days.
What was your physical preparation?
— Physical training was very intensive. About a year before the trip, I started training six days a week, twice a day. This is how Olympic athletes train and the most difficult thing was to juggle such a schedule and full-time work. For example, I often rode my bike to work and went to the gym at lunchtime or did a workout in the evening. One of the main exercises was to drag a large tire around. After all, this is exactly what I had to do the whole expedition, so I devoted hundreds of hours to it. Even when we went on vacation with my family, I did my training before anything else. I felt a huge responsibility.
One of the main exercises was to drag a large tire around. After all, this is exactly what I had to do the whole expedition, so I devoted hundreds of hours to it.
How did you manage to secure the funding for the expedition?
— I went around a lot of companies offering to use my face as an advertisement, promoting this trip. For a potential sponsor, this is a big risk, because they cannot say with certainty that I will reach the end and that everything will be successful by simply looking at me. However, I found several companies that believed in me. Everyone assured me that I would not get the money together until I was on the plane. That’s exactly what happened. Right before the start, one of the companies offered me additional funding — thanks to them, I bought a plane ticket from the UK.
How was the logistics of the trip organized?
— I worked with ALE, they have a monopoly on the territory of Antarctica. They have been engaged in private expeditions for many years: they solve all problems with permits, monitor your movements inside the continent and are ready to send a rescue team after you if you change your mind to continue the journey, break your leg or have some problems with equipment. You have to buy insurance yourself, and surprisingly, it’s not as expensive as you might think, about $ 400.

The whole organizational process took about five years. My family friends and expedition manager supported me to a great extent. It was a solo trip, but I didn’t go my route alone. There were so many people who helped me. I contacted those who had already made such trips, and everyone answered me with great joy, shared information and encouraged me very much.
Greeting at the entrance to the South Pole.
Let's talk about your family. How can a mother working full-time decide to do this?
— My family has always supported me, but I don’t think they imagined how involved they would be in this process. A friend of mine completed a similar trip before I did, and when newspapers wrote about him, all the headlines were something like "A soldier has set a new record at the South Pole". But when local radio or television did reports about me, the headlines were "Mom skied to the South Pole" And then I thought: this is wrong, they should talk about the expedition, and not about me as a woman and the fact that I have children shouldn’t be important. Absolutely everyone asked me how I decided to go on such a trip, and what my family thought about it, because it’s so risky. I don’t think they asked such questions to my male friend. But over time, I realized that this is exactly what we need to talk about and what to focus on — mother, who reached the South Pole, and my family, without whom this would not have happened.

My youngest is twelve, my oldest is twenty-two and the expedition became a very big part of their life. But the main thing for me is that they watched how I was pursuing my goal, how I devoted every free minute to it and did it every day.

My kids don’t climb mountains, but this whole process has taught them how important it is to be passionate about everything you do. No matter what their task is, to make a movie or create a clothes collection, they will cope with anything with passion and willpower. They watched me, and now they live the same way.
at the time of the interview, autumn 2021
When you read such headlines, it seems that people only see you in one role. On the other hand, it is precisely this role and all responsibility that stands behind and can hinder you from pursuing your goal.
— It is very important to note that I do not always keep the balance. Although the role of a mother in itself is associated with a sense of guilt and constant doubts. Do you spend enough time with your children and yourself or are you absent too often? What will happen when they start living on their own? Are you raising them independent enough? Or, on the contrary, are you absorbed in your children? I’m definitely not the kind of person who does everything right. And my children sometimes tell me that I’m away quite a lot. But I try to take part in their lives as much as possible, and even if I’m going somewhere, we always keep in touch. This balance is extremely difficult to maintain. After my return from Antarctica, they asked me not to leave for so long anymore but perhaps they themselves will soon begin to leave the house.

My kids don’t climb mountains, but this whole process has taught them how important it is to be passionate about everything you do.

What was the biggest discovery for you in the expedition?
— My physical preparation was good for the trip, but, as it turned out, I had absolutely no idea how difficult it would be mentally to do the same thing over and over again for 42 days in a row. My family got me through this, supporting me every day. I had a strange vision-visualization: I came back, and we are all sitting together by the fireplace. This image was filled with details: I saw what we ate, what we watched, and this vision brought me closer to the final every day. I was only thinking that the sooner I finish, the sooner I’ll see my family. Of course, now I perceive the whole expedition quite differently but I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.
Anthropogeos expedition and Wendy Searle at the South Pole, Ammundsen-Scott research station
The expedition of "Anthropogeos" project and Wendy at the South Pole.
— What else helped you not to give up and reach the end?
— I think the most important thing was to observe a little progress every day. You know how long the expedition will take approximately, but even if you walk a long distance, compared to the entire route, it is negligible. It was demoralizing, especially at the beginning. For the first twenty days, I didn’t meet a single person until I saw the pilot landing in the snow. And then the tracks from the skis, and they accompanied me for several days. I was so happy! It was proof that there was life here somewhere. Because there are no wild animals or people there — just a ski track. It really cheered me up.
Which part of the journey itself was the most difficult?
— All that nervous tension from responsibility. I was constantly thinking that I could not afford to mess it up. That’s why I was checking everything all the time to make sure I wasn’t too cold, too hot, if I did everything carefully if something would be blown away by the wind. I was focused on taking care of my gear and myself.
Did you have any ambitions before starting the trip?
— When I only came up with the idea of this trip, I wanted to break the time record on this route. But I had no idea about its complexity. It seems to me that as a result, I was only three days behind the record. I realized very quickly that this trip is about me, about Antarctica, and my only goal is just to get to the end. I think that year I was the first skier at the South Pole to complete a solo trip without support. And I wasn’t slow in any way. Looking back, I feel satisfied because I know I did my best. Already with the experience I have, perhaps I would have done something differently. But then I was skiing for 11−12 hours, thinking only about the condition of my elbows and knees, and at the end of the day I didn’t even have the strength to get up.

The most difficult thing, perhaps, was to risk staying there alone for so many days, and realize that you are just a small dot in this huge desert and do so little every day. And I’m also very impatient, I always want everything to happen faster. But it doesn’t work there like that.
What did your day look like during the expedition?
— After breakfast, I drove for two hours, feeling full, full of energy and rested. Then I skied for 70 minutes, rested for 5 minutes, trying not to rest too long, because it was too cold to stop for a long time. So these pauses were necessary to make it to the next break, and then to the evening. It’s not easy, so I tried to trick myself: for example, convincing myself that every day my load is getting lighter, and that every step brings me closer to the goal. I didn’t think about it all the time, of course, but trying to avoid negative thoughts was very difficult.
The most difficult thing, perhaps, was to risk staying there alone for so many days, and realize that you are just a small dot in this huge desert and do so little every day.
By the way, what kind of thoughts come to mind when you are alone with yourself for so long?
— I thought I would be bored, because nothing happens there, and the landscape may not change for weeks. But every day was different. When you do something extreme and physically challenging, like skydiving or climbing, you need to be constantly focused on taking care of yourself. That’s why I kept wondering if I needed to do something during the next break: fix, adjust belts, eat, go to the toilet — it’s often impossible to do even two things in one break, because it’s too cold or you just don’t want to stop for a long time.

At first it was very difficult to get out of the tent in the morning, because when you wake up, it seems that it is very unpleasant outside. But as a result, it turned out that everything was not so bad. All day I was encouraged by the thought that I was approaching the next safe place, although in fact it was just a point on the snow that I chose myself. But it was like a sanctuary in my eyes. I also had a lot of audiobooks with me, thanks to them I remained sane.
What is your impression of the tourist infrastructure there?
— What surprised me the most was how much effort is being made to preserve the nature of Antarctica. These are not just words. Toilets, showers, leftovers, garbage — everything is stored and taken out at the end of the season. And the camps look perfect. No garbage, everything is in its place. It’s the same when you go skiing alone. You need to go to the toilet in a bag all the way, take it all with you to the end point, and transfer it to the company for further removal and disposal. The camp at the South Pole turned out to be smaller than I expected — in fact, it’s a few tents, there is practically no infrastructure. But even where everything depends on flights and weather, they take care of you and cook just at the level of a five-star hotel. When I reached the Pole, one of the heated tents was not used, and I could rest there. Just imagine what it was like for the first expeditions to the South Pole when there was nothing there. I was thinking about people, food, warmth all the way, and it was very pleasant to find all this on arrival.
What, in your opinion, is the key to success when you go on a trip like this?
— I think the main thing is preparation. I was just obsessed with double-checking everything, weighing everything, thinking whether it was possible to make something even easier, whether each item could be used for at least two different purposes. And, of course, the physical shape is very important. The better prepared you are, the more fun you will have.
I asked a similar question to a guide who works in Antarctica, and found in his answer motivation even for my friends in England. One phrase I particularly remember, I even wrote it inside my tent: focus on something good. It sounds corny, but it really helped me.
Did you listen to music while you were skiing?
— I had a music day once because audiobooks were driving me crazy. But it wasn’t easy with music, because you often start thinking: one song is three or four minutes… How many are there before the break? And as a result, instead of enjoying the music, you count the songs.

That day I really needed to change my routine. There was a strong wind, nothing could be seen. The only reference point is the compass that hangs on the chest. When the weather is different, and there is sun, shade, sastrugi and snow, it is much easier to go. And looking at the compass all day is very exhausting. It’s amazing how our condition can depend on the weather. Back then, my glasses were almost completely fogged up, and I could only see through a small window in them, while I had to turn my head very strangely. And so I was skiing alone, in such a strange position, looking at the compass, for twelve hours, and I only thought that this was some kind of nightmare and why I was doing all this. But even this allowed me to concentrate, and I thought, for example, that it was quite easy to drive today, that I didn’t fall (and this happened to me often), that I was very close to the goal. So not everything is so bad, you just need to survive today, tomorrow will be better. You focus on the good, even if it’s just the equipment that’s in order, or that you feel good, or that in four hours you’ll put up a tent and go into it to warm up, eat something that you’ve been saving all this time for such hard days.

I thought that I would start the journey happy and full of energy, and eventually I would lose it, but in fact it was the opposite. Every day is completely unpredictable.

the main thing is preparation. I was just obsessed with double-checking everything, weighing everything, thinking whether it was possible to make something even easier, whether each item could be used for at least two different purposes.

What did you take with you to cheer you up along the way?
— It was food. I had a tube of chips, and I ate two of them a day. It was, perhaps, the most difficult thing in the whole expedition — not to eat them all at once. There was something amazing about their saltness. I also had candied ginger, it sounds strange, I know. It has a pretty strong taste, so it’s impossible to eat a lot of it at once. But when it was very cold, it warmed up perfectly. Perhaps these are my main gastronomic joys. Even when I was in Greenland, I dreamed about a can of Cola for two weeks, and I couldn’t wait to finally get to it. So I took some cola-flavored candies with me, and, you know, it worked.

I realized during my previous expeditions what I was missing most from the food. I also had orange-flavored chocolate with me; I took it for Christmas but left it in case I ran out of food. My Christmas gift to myself was an extra hour and a half on skis. My brain is definitely fueled by routine. And I thought that if I took half a day off, or the whole day, I would lose my schedule. Because where there is one day, there are two, and three, and so, in the end, you won’t go anywhere at all. So I didn’t take any breaks and never allowed myself to start even later. And all my joys were exclusively in food.
South Pole mark that changes every year
The mark of the true South Pole, which is set every year.
Why Antarctica? The same expedition can be organized in other places that are much more accessible and cheaper.
— The question "why" is probably the most difficult for me. I’ve read a lot of books about the continent. And the fact that people sailed there with no idea what was awaiting them behind the next descent or turn encouraged me. And all this in order for humanity to gain new knowledge. Antarctica seemed to me like some other planet. And the fact that it is difficult to get there, almost like into space, was also part of the adventure. The more inhospitable the continent seemed to me, the more I dreamed about it. Despite the fact that there are quite a lot of people there every year, Antarctica still retains an almost magical image. What attracts most is its inaccessibility. There’s nothing more important than just staying safe and skiing. You leave behind everything that surrounds you in normal life: bills, traffic, office… It seems to us that this is our life, but there your whole existence is concentrated only on skiing. This stunning landscape, this emptiness — this what attracts people to come back again and again, and it is impossible to get rid of these thoughts.
Would you like to come back?
— Definitely! Even right now. If someone had given me money, I would have flown immediately. I even have some ideas about this
In the 2021−2022 season, Wendy acted as the coordinator of an expedition to Antarctica and plans to return herself in the 2022−2023 season for a new journey from the coast to the pole.
Share practical tips with those who have never been to Antarctica. What to expect? What to take with you?
— Obviously, standard expedition stuff, like sunscreen… And something that will allow you to feel comfortable, cheer up in the evening when it gets sad. I took with me a good luck charm and photos of my family. Means of communication. I had a power bank that I charged with a solar panel, a tracker, a satellite phone, so I was constantly in touch. It was very important to me. Also earplugs, because it can be very windy there, a sleep mask will definitely come in handy, because the sun does not set in the season, and it takes quite a long time to get used to going to bed in the middle of the day. I pulled on the mask and fell asleep almost instantly. And, of course, not to take anything extra — every gram is important.
Tell us about the meeting with our team at the Pole.
— In Antarctica, I felt very special, privileged, and tried to enjoy every moment: staying, camping, meeting people who work there, the Russian team of the plane. I reached the South Pole on the same day that your expedition arrived there. Thanks to you, I had the chance to visit the scientific station. I had just arrived at the time, I hadn’t slept yet, it was difficult for me to walk because I had been skiing for the last 24 hours. But the team of "Anthropogeos" was very kind, they invited me to join and took me by car. Without them, I would never have got to the Amundsen-Scott station-this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This has also become a big part of my journey and my memories. And everyone who has been to Antarctica has their own amazing memories of the continent.
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