Expeditions to the South Pole are still among the world’s great adventures 109 years after Amundsen’s first arrival. Numerous people have attempted to reach the southernmost point of our globe since 1912, including colorful personalities such as Sir Ernest Shackleton. But only a few were granted the opportunity to actually see this point with their own eyes. One of the greatest challenges is to reach the South Pole solo, without food depots and without any aids except skis. In 2020, German extreme athlete Anja Blacha achieved this feat in 58 days from the Weddell Sea to the South Pole. In an interview with Sandro Merino from Basler Kantonalbank, she talks about the risks, the efforts and why she ended up causing a sensation with “Not bad for a girl! caused a sensation. The article also appeared in the BKB magazine.
Until a few years ago, Anja Blacha climbed a mountain for pleasure at most. Today, the Bielefeld-born athlete, who lives in Zurich, already holds several extreme sports records. The crowning achievement of Blacha’s young career to date was her solo expedition to the South Pole, which she reached after an incredibly gruelling 58-day march on skis through snow and ice. Her track record is all the more impressive when you consider that she only started mountaineering in 2013: “On a holiday in Peru, I trekked up Machu Picchu. The first time I spent the night in a sleeping bag in a tent, I caught fire for the idea of an active vacation as a balance to everyday life in the office,” she recalls. Next, in 2015, she tackled Argentina’s Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America. “On every tour I look for inspiration for something new, and so one thing leads to another,” Blacha said.
Even when she had completed the “Seven Summits” – the ascent of the highest peaks on all seven continents – the ambitious athlete was not satisfied. Her greatest achievement to date is a successful solo expedition to the South Pole. Completely on her own, Blacha covered a total of 1381 kilometres from Gould Bay on the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. Initially, she pulled a 110 kilogram sled with equipment and food behind her. “How can you be on the road alone for almost two months? How do you manage something like that, physically and mentally?”, Sandro Merino wants to know from the 30-year-old German. “At the beginning I didn’t know how it would feel,” Blacha looks back, “but it was a magical moment. Antarctica welcomed me with bright sunshine”. Then, when the first storm hit, everything got a lot tougher, she said.
Completely on her own in the endless expanse, in extreme cold and exposed to nature without mercy, her thoughts would constantly revolve around bare survival: “Navigating, watching the reserves, calculating in my head whether I’ll stay within the average. Everything depends on that. I have to manage my daily kilometres, not consume too much food,” explains Blacha. An expedition in Antarctica is a journey into the unknown, she says, because from the 85th parallel onwards there is hardly any map material left: “The route I chose is only poorly documented. The navigation worked via a few waypoints that I had stored in the GPS. I then used a compass to navigate from one point to the next”. Orientation was particularly difficult during weather-related whiteouts, when the sky was indistinguishable from the ground.
Such expeditions are naturally associated with high risks. Merino therefore wants to know from the young woman how she deals with it. “First, I have to anticipate risks and think about what could happen. Three factors are decisive: nature, the equipment and myself,” says Blacha. In a second step, she considers how she can mitigate – i.e. contain – certain risks: “Do I take an alternative route? Do I take repair materials or redundant equipment with me? Finally, there are also risks that you can neither anticipate nor mitigate: “On K2, for example, there is a block of ice below the summit from which pieces can break off at any moment. I have to pass it and I can’t control it,” says Blacha. Merino sees parallels to the world of finance in the extreme athlete’s structured risk analysis: “Investors also have to anticipate risks and diversify their portfolios. And there are things that you simply have to accept and endure”.
When Blacha reached the South Pole in January 2020, she did not raise a German flag, but a banner with the slogan: “Not bad for a girl – almost impossible for everyone else”. “I wanted to get the message across with a twinkle in my eye that we need to free ourselves from prejudices. People often think that polar or mountain expeditions are only something for strong, male adventurers. But I have proven that success requires very different ingredients than muscle power,” says Blacha. She explains her extraordinary achievements with mental strength, discipline, perseverance, meticulous planning and safety awareness. Some physical differences would even prove to be an advantage: “Thanks to my lower body weight, I need less oxygen at altitude, for example, and lose less weight on longer expeditions.”
“On an expedition, you’re more focused on the moment than anywhere else, consciously experiencing the moment.”Anja Blacha, extreme athlete
As an endurance and extreme athlete, Blacha wants to encourage other women: “Even classic male domains are absolutely within our reach,” she states. Especially in the world of sports, female athletes still have to fight against prejudices. And what else does she gain from all the hardships? “On an expedition, you are more focused on the moment than anywhere else and consciously experience the moment. This inner journey is also important. You have a completely different perception than in our hectic and so highly interconnected world.” And so, in the end, Anja Blacha is driven by the same longing as all of us: the search for the last great adventure.
Listen to the whole podcast: Anja Blacha in conversation with Sandro Merino
Press Department Basler Kantonalbank