Modern polar travellers glide over the blue ice in East Antarctica. (Photo: Christoph Höbenreich, 2019)

The development of modern expeditions to Antarctica and an attempt to classify ice travel

While there have long been recognised classification systems in alpinism and climbing, as well as in sailing, paragliding and canoeing, not only to assess the difficulties of the sport, but also to make the performances achieved comparable, these have existed so far only in rudimentary form for sporting ambitious ice journeys in polar regions. A new classification model is intended to bring more clarity and structure to the comparison of modern polar expeditions and for extreme athletes who want to set new records at the ends of the earth. A brief outline of modern polar expedition activity in Antarctica.

by Christoph Höbenreich and Eric Philips

Why classify?

Today, of course, polar voyages are no longer about conquests or even the satisfaction of national interests, but about personal goals and sporting challenges. It is also impossible to compare the expeditions of the present day with those of the pioneers and explorers. In view of modern equipment, satellite navigation and communication devices, as well as supply and rescue possibilities, it is not really possible to wear any polar medals at all today.

But even in our high-tech world, what is still a pioneering achievement and never-before-tried? What is an adventure and venture on the edge of the impossible? What is a sporting challenge? And what are just mock adventures? To objectify the top performances of modern polar athletes and make them comparable is a challenge, especially since objectives, types of possible support and, above all, locomotion techniques are very different.

(Graphic: Eric Philips, Christoph Höbenreich)

Despite – or perhaps because of – the growing number of polar travellers as well as the high interest of the media and sponsors, the lack of an established classification system for polar expeditions makes it easy to stage oneself in the light of publicity according to the motto “more appearance than reality”. In order to be able to win sponsors for the financing of polar dreams, it should also not come as a surprise that in clever self-promotion the idea of wanting to set a “world record” sometimes comes up, as if one could even compare expeditions with competitions on standardized race tracks. But the catchword “record” is obvious in the circus of media-effective vanity and in the race for the favour of major sponsors, especially as it is easily understood by uninformed readers. From my point of view, the unique experience and flair of a polar expedition are not to be found in record marks, times or distances, but have a completely different dimension. In the light of record seekers with an almost insane no-limits mentality, however, that seems like downright romantic reverie. After all, pushing the limits of performance and striving for records is all too human. This also turns modern polar expeditions competitive. And so, in the field where anyone can claim to have performed the fastest, longest, most extreme or most extraordinary, there has been a call for an objective system of comparison.

In the Filchner Mountains of East Antarctica’s King Maud country, also known as “New Swabia,” storm-milled sastrugis and knife-hard snow make sled travel difficult. (Photo: Christoph Höbenreich 2015)

Of course, fortunately, in the wilderness of Antarctica and the Arctic, anyone can and should be able to do anything they want (provided they abide by the respective laws and official requirements), whether it’s fun and games, forays and discoveries into uncharted territory, or top sporting performances. Polar travel should also not be categorically pigeonholed.

But as soon as you go public or even aim for measurable records, your activity is inevitably compared to others. And this requires uniform standards and terminology. While differences in the distances covered are still relatively easy to understand, questions of ethics and style in polar expeditions – just as in top alpinism – almost lead to the esoteric and can almost only be judged correctly by insiders. The general public, on the other hand, can hardly differentiate between the subtle but often decisive differences. And if half-truths or the concealment of facts then replace the quality of truth, the differentiation between given and actual performance becomes impossible and comparisons are reduced to absurdity.

Especially in the human border area, it is therefore not irrelevant what means and statements are used. For when reporting or language become arbitrary, at the end of the world and wherever there are no arbiters, values and standards become irrelevant.

Antarctica is the most remote “adventure playground” on Earth. (Photo: Christoph Höbenreich, 2015)

The polar regions are the most remote adventure playgrounds to those seeking new limits and extreme adventurers. However, they are not only located at the “ends” of the earth, but mostly also in the oscure periphery of public consciousness. In the golden age of discovery, adventurers were the driving force in expanding our geographical knowledge of the unknown regions of the planet. In many cases, their exciting exploits still shape many people’s ideas about Antarctica today.

Cruisers on the Antarctic Peninsula underway on a Zodiac excursion. On “South Pole Expedition,” that’s how it was sold! (Image: Heiner Kubny)

But it should not be surprising that modern expedition reports often cannot really be understood and classified, when even participants of luxurious cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula already think they are on a “South Pole Expedition” (although one often does not even cross the southern polar circle there) and even wonder why all the penguins have not been eaten by polar bears long ago? However, the protagonists themselves are often to blame for the collective lack of orientation about modern expeditions in Antarctica. Because time and again their own reporting, consciously or unconsciously, leaves something to be desired. If the use or the renunciation of previously flown-in depots or supply flights is usually still mentioned during expeditions, the “explorers” – as polar travellers like to call themselves – not infrequently cleverly suppress or completely conceal the fact that they were led by professionals in the public presentation. As if that would diminish her performance. And finally, how can the historical achievements of Will Steger, Reinhold Messner, Børge Ouslands, Rune Gjeldnes, or many others be understood as pioneering or supreme feats when even abbreviated races, vehicle-assisted or other tourist ventures are portrayed as “the last great adventure of mankind” or inexperienced skiers actually follow a marked out and prepared slope on their “record expeditions”?

Sporting polar expeditions can have very different goals and intentions, such as record-breaking performances or simply exploring the wilderness of Antarctica with skis and sleds off the beaten track. (Photo: Christoph Höbenreich)

The value of a business or its importance to society can of course be debated. However, in order to be able to put developments and differences in polar expeditions into perspective at all and to evaluate them realistically, firstly a basic understanding of geographical facts and historical background is required, and secondly truthful and serious reporting on projects and actual achievements using adequate language. The maxim of the UIAA-Tirol Declaration,1 which was written for mountain sports in the International Year of Mountains 2002 in Innsbruck, can also be applied to polar expeditions: “Mountaineers should be scrupulous about providing realistic information about their activities. An accurate report not only enhances the credibility of the climber or mountaineer, but also the public image of his sport.” Nothing different applies to polar athletes.

Even one night in a tent in the snow during a polar cruise on the Antarctic Peninsula can be an “expedition” and an “adventure” for some. But even in the case of sporting “expeditions” it is often not easy – consciously or subconsciously – to recognise what actually is an push forward into uncharted territory, what is a top sporting performance, what is a venture on the limits of the impossible or what is merely an illusory adventure. (Foto: Oceanwide Expeditions)

Serious and transparent reporting – or more appearance than reality?

“World record at the South Pole” is what the Viennese Wolfgang Melchior, as a participant in a guided tour group, had to say about his 893 kilometre and 33 day long ski trip at the beginning of 2006. The then 50-year-old planned to be “the first person to march to the South Pole in just 40 days without technical aids”. However, the decisive factor for the alleged record was not a stronger walking performance than previous polar travellers, but simply a significantly shorter route, as the tour operator chose a starting point much closer to the pole than had been usual up to then. But you don’t break a 100 meter sprint record by only running 80 meters. Nor did anyone else on the team feel the need to elevate the beautiful idea of a new, shorter route to the South Pole to a “world record”. And even the press release that he was the first Austrian to reach the South Pole “without outside help and only with sleds he pulled himself” is put into perspective when you know that, to help him, a lot of material had to be taken from his sled and dragged by the others so that the expedition would not fail, like the Norwegian Cecile Skog wrote in her expedition report. She herself took 25 kilograms of material from the Austrian. Melchior eventually received the State Award for Communication and Public Relation. By the way, in 2008 the Norwegian Christian Eide led a team on the same route to the South Pole in only 24 days.

After her test expedition in 2005, the Norwegian Cecilie Skog fought her way across the southern polar plateau on her polar sled, which initially weighed 135 kilograms, during the first internal ski crossing of Antarctica without a wind sail in 2009/10. (Photo: Ryan Waters 2010)

At the turn of the year 2010/11, the 400-kilometre “Race to the South Pole” between an Austrian and a German ski team with prominent participants Hermann Maier and Markus Lanz in front of the cameras of ORF and ZDF aimed to reconstruct the “last great adventure of mankind”. It was meant to be a tribute to the legendary race between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Even though the natural conditions on the southern polar plateau were still equally harsh and the TV action demanded a respectable sporting performance from the athletes, it still seemed like a rather strange comparison with the historical opponents and was not really taken seriously. The successful Norwegian and the tragically unsuccessful Briton had to conquer the South Pole in 1911/12 by covering almost seven times the distance of 2,700 kilometres there and back over unknown terrain, without vehicle escort, satellite connection to the outside world and return insurance. How would Amundsen and Scott have reacted if they had learned that their great voyages of discovery were to be commemorated by a cleverly staged sporting event?

In 2015, the German market was hit ice cold. Martin Szwed, who wanted to reach the South Pole solo in a time of only 14 days and 18 hours for a distance of 1,130 kilometres – almost ten (!) days faster than the Norwegian professional adventurer Christian Eide four years earlier on his second South Pole tour – but then got caught up in a tangle of lies, deceptions and imposture in his search for recognition. In the end, it turned out that Szwed wasn’t at the South Pole at all.

To supply the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the 1,600-kilometre-long “South Pole Traverse” (SPoT, also known as the “McMurdo – South Pole Highway”) was constructed in 2006 from McMurdo across the Ross Ice Shelf and through the Transantarctic Mountains to the South Pole. It is marked and leveled by sled trucks weighing tons, making it much easier for skiers and cyclists to move forward. (Photo: Eric Philips 2017)

In 2018, 33-year-old American Colin O’Brady published that after 54 days and 1,455 kilometers of travel, he had become the first person to achieve a “Solo Unassisted Unsupported Crossing of Antarctica” and, more importantly, a feat previously even considered “impossible.” The New York Times, which is serious in itself, unreflectively described the expedition as one of the most remarkable achievements in polar history. This caused discussion among experts. Finally, the renowned magazine “National Geographic” took up the matter and researched critically and revealingly: O’Brady started and ended his expedition at the inner continental margins of the Ronne-Filchner and Ross Ice Shelves, used a frequently travelled route and even simply followed the South Pole Traverse from the South Pole, an ice track marked and secured to supply the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 2006, also called the “McMurdo – South Pole Highway”. Here, crevasses are filled in and the storm-rutted surface is leveled by tractor trucks and tanker sleds weighing tons, making it much easier for skiers to move forward – and practically possible for cyclists.

The Norwegian Børge Ousland in 1996/97 on the first solo crossing of the Antarctic continent between the two outer edges of the Ronne-Filchner and Ross Ice Shelves – with more than 2,845 kilometres covered, he broke the limits of what is conceivably possible. (Photo: Archive Børge Ousland)

But how can all these remarkable sporting achievements be compared with, for example, those of the then 34-year-old Norwegian Børge Ousland, who in 1997 became the first person to cross the entire frozen continent alone, with skis, sledge and simple paraglider: a whopping 2,845 kilometres in 64 days – from the outer continental edge of the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf to the South Pole, over the jagged Axel Heiberg Glacier through the Transantarctic Mountains and across the entire Ross Ice Shelf to the U.S. polar settlement of McMurdo on the opposite coast?

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