Make no bones about it, Antarctica is a continent that kills – and easily. Crevasses are one thing – you wouldn’t want to fall down one of them – but the constant, inescapable, wearing danger is the extreme cold and, at times, the dense katabatic winds that roll off the polar plateau and down the steep glaciers to the coast.
In the company of others there is danger enough, but on one’s own, who is there to call for help? Lose focus for the briefest of moments, allow body temperature to fall and fingers to freeze – quickly to morph into wooden, useless stubs – and who is there to unpack and pitch a tent, to operate a satellite phone? Things can spiral out of control at frightening speed.
Oddly, one might argue, it was the challenge of an expedition in such a place that proved irresistible to 42-year-old mother of four, Wendy Searle. ‘I just wondered if someone completely ordinary like me could even get to the start line,’ she says. She was introduced to polar travel when working as Head of Communications for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. A part of her role was to build profiles of people who were raising funds for the charity – marathon runners, fell walkers and the like – and then one day a team of army reservists walked through the door and announced they were going to trek to the South Pole. It piqued her interest – even more so when the seriousness of the undertaking began to really sink in. She volunteered to step in as the team’s media manager and accompanied them on a training weekend, attending a lecture on cold weather injuries, ‘lots of pictures of frost-bitten body parts,’ she says. And then tragically, Henry Worsley died. Anyone with half an eye on Antarctic news will likely recall the sadness that surrounded his untimely death in January 2016, of organ failure following surgery in a Chilean hospital. He had been trekking solo, unassisted and unsupported across Antarctica and called for help when he fell ill after covering 913 miles, just 30 miles short of his destination. Worsley was a close friend of Louis Rudd’s, the army reservist expedition leader – and on hearing the news, he and his team abandoned their original plans and decided instead to complete Worsley’s journey, adding a good couple of hundred miles to their trek. Wendy looked at these six, tall, super-fit army types, and wondered, could she do this? A working mother, no experience, a mortgage to pay?
She acknowledges a feeling that after two decades’ dedication to her children, now aged 20, 16, 15 and 10 – it was time for a bit of ‘me time’. ‘The kids are fantastic,’ she says, ‘capable and independent, they cook and the elder ones pick up their little brother from school,’ and as for her husband Yann, a soldier, he would, she says, back her to the hilt in whatever choices she made.
Searle’s first Antarctic ambition was to pioneer a new route, climbing a heavily crevassed unclimbed glacier before continuing to the South Pole. But there were a few knocks on the way. Antarctic veteran, Roger Mear, who in 1986 walked 900 miles to the South Pole with Robert Swan and Gareth Wood – without any radio communications, or back-up support – told her in no uncertain terms that it was too difficult. Further demoralisation followed in a frank conversation with a potential film producer. Of her planned team of four, ‘all women?’ he asked, ‘any minor Royals?’ ‘No, and no,’ she said. ‘Then it’s not going to happen.’ The fundamental challenge, unsurprisingly, was sponsorship to enable anything to happen at all.
‘Why do you want to go?’ insisted Mear. ‘To inspire women, mothers, ordinary people, that they can do this too,’ she said.
‘No,’ said Mear, ‘WHY do you want to go?’ He pushed and pushed – wouldn’t let it go – until finally she burst out, ‘because I’m obsessed with this extraordinary place, hell bent on getting to Antarctica.’
The very next day she secured her first sponsorship deal, putting the first tranche of money in the pot to help her realise her newly defined ambition, to trek solo, unassisted and unsupported to the South Pole. Searle needn’t have highlighted this element of her story, but she did, understanding that Roger had gone a long way to help clarify her truth. Certainly, she did (and does) want to inspire others, but the core motivation was to go to Antarctica and set herself a serious challenge. ‘Authenticity’ might be an overused word, but people know it when they see it, and are drawn to it.
‘Just to get to the start point was the challenge of a lifetime,’ says Searle. ‘Fund raising is so hard; I’m not a great fan of being in the limelight,’ she says. But, like many before her, she learned the importance of getting the message out there whether you feel comfortable with the process or not.
She approached training in an admirably methodical and scientific manner. ‘It was my way of investing as much as I could,’ she says, ‘I couldn’t magic up experience I didn’t have and needed to make marginal gains elsewhere.’ She employed an endurance coach who posted programs remotely via an App. ‘Lots of hauling of tyres, running and stretching sessions in the evening – twice a day, six days a week for a full year,’ all squeezed into the day around a full-time job. Her husband was posted in Estonia at the time, returning three weeks before she left – so it was Wendy and the kids. ‘I’d roll out a mat and do push ups in the kitchen while they got on with their homework.’
This methodical approach she carried onto the ice. She flew to Antarctica with the logistics operator Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE), landing at the company’s base, Union Glacier Camp. Here she waited for a Twin Otter flight to the start point of her trek on the continental edge. ‘I don’t know what to do today, everything’s packed and ready to go,’ she said to Antarctic legend Robert Swan, he himself waiting for a flight to the start of a trek. Swan was incredulous. In thirty years, he had never once seen anyone so well organised at this point of an expedition. ‘All down to Louis Rudd,’ says Searle. After Searle had acted as Louis Rudd’s marketing manager, he stepped in as Searle’s expedition manager – one of her ‘trusted circle of supporters’. Louis Rudd had done three polar journeys, experience enough to develop the best mental approach to get through every day, and instilled in her that a methodical approach is the way to success.
Which begs the question, which was the harder: the mental or physical challenge? Searle is clear in her answer – ‘the mental challenge,’ she says, ‘but that’s purely because of the training I’d done, I knew how to look after myself in that environment.’ On the insistence of ALE (who after all would be called to the rescue if anything went wrong), Searle had been on a comprehensive training course under polar Jedi Hannah McKeand in Norway, and had skied 350 miles across the Greenland ice cap. ‘Sometimes it was too cold to have a pee, or my hands were so cold I couldn’t feel them. Then I’d ski hard like a woman possessed,’ she says, ‘But if I hadn’t known how to put up a tent and look after myself, it could have been very serious.’
She had a precisely rehearsed system for everything: the order in which she dressed in the morning, the pocket in which she placed her lighter, the number of mouthfuls of cheese, nuts and chocolate she ate on each break. Travelling ‘solo, unsupported and unassisted’ meant that she had to carry all her own food and supplies on a sled with no resupply, and rely wholly on her own power – no kite to harness the wind permitted. She had food for 43 days, which meant she had to complete the journey in 43 days. Her trek took her from the continental edge at around about latitude 80°S to the South Pole at 90°S – 10 degrees or 600 nautical miles. Simple maths: she had to cover a quarter of a degree or 15 nautical miles every day. ‘Didn’t matter how bad the weather, or how difficult the sastrugi (wind-blow, wave-like ridges on the surface of the snow).’
At times it felt painfully slow. ‘It dawned on me on Day 3 or Day 4, just how tiny I was,’ she say, ‘I am literally the world’s most impatient person and I was making such tiny increments in such a massive continent. I wanted to give up so badly.’ But she dug deep and showed exemplary discipline (much under-estimated quality in today’s world). ‘Mornings were the hardest,’ she said, ‘only another 11 to 12 hours skiing to look forward to, I cried every morning for three weeks.’ Yet every morning without exception, she dressed, dismantled her tent, re-packed her sled, and, she says (smiling as she did so), ‘struck a power pose to the sun, almost like saying to the Great White Queen [Antarctica], here I am, I’m going to do this.’ Then she skied for two hours before stopping for a break, and then continued with 70-minute legs through the day. ‘I never allowed myself to go one minute under 70 minutes,’ she says, ‘and never under 11 hours a day. I bought myself a Terry’s Chocolate Orange for Christmas day but didn’t eat it – instead I treated myself to an extra half hour’s skiing.’
‘But I never felt lonely,’ she says. ‘I’d switch on my devices in the evening and messages would come pinging in through from home – ‘you mustn’t fail’, ‘get out of that tent and get skiing!’ It was just what I needed. Louis, too, knew exactly when to be kind and when to tell me to get on with it.’
That connection with the team was all-important – likely the most important message to take from Wendy’s extraordinary feat of endurance. That, together with her dedication to her training and discipline throughout – and a developed knack of seeking whatever happened to be good in any given situation. ‘If it was windy, I could at least see,’ she says, ‘the sastrugi might have been challenging but the sun was shining. I might have had a hard day but I’d covered good ground.’ At the end of every day she would write down in her diary ‘reasons to be happy’, however small, and focus on the positive.
She concludes, ‘the journey was f***ing hard, but there is satisfaction in having done a difficult thing well.’ Indeed. She completed the journey in 42 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes – on the very last day of her rations. She looked after herself impeccably – no frostbite, no snow blindness. She deliberately gained 10kg before she started and lost 12kg on the ice – 2kg down, crossing the finish line slim, but far from emaciated. And, remember, she started from base line zero. ‘I can still only ski uphill,’ she says, laughing, ‘and now Osprey has signed me on as a pro-athlete!’ It shows you what can be achieved with courage to follow your conviction. We know that to inspire other women, mothers, and ordinary people was a peripheral goal, but she’s successfully done (and doing) that too. So, was it harder than six months on her own looking after three kids under four and a dog, a reference she made earlier? ‘No,’ she says, ‘on the ice I could sleep.’
Wendy’s story resonates with the Skarbek team and we share it because it surely chimes with many struggling with their own “Antarctic journey”, only it’s the journey of their project. Wendy has not only shown a great deal of optimism throughout her challenge, but also proven that even the most carefully considered plans cannot account for every scenario in such an ever-changing environment. Sure, you can use data and prior experience to mitigate the amount of risk, but it is how we adapt our plans to these changing situations, where we truly see success. Wendy worked together with her virtual team to tackle any potential hurdles and readjust the plan of action accordingly. Her grit and determination to finish is reminiscent of our namesake, Krystyna Skarbek, the Second World War secret agent, known for her unwavering commitment, creative resourcefulness and appetite to take on and succeed in even the most difficult missions. It could also be your project story?