The future has already begun

In retrospect, the developments of Antarctic expeditions over the last 30 years can be seen. Following the motto “by fair means” – or actually “by purest means” – some saw the renunciation of the use of wind as a driving force and thus the pulling of sledges by own power as the purest form of polar travel, as if snowkiting was even a form of travel “by unfair means”.

Today snowkiting is no longer considered an “assisted” form and physical facilitation of ice travel but a discipline in its own right (photo. Christoph Höbenreich, 1997).

A look at history explains this judgmental – and today antiquated – way of thinking. Already during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, a distaste for the use of sled dogs practiced by Norwegians permeated the British expeditions. “Manhauling” was considered the ideal of British sportsmanship. Even Clement Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society from 1863-1888, was an ardent believer in the moral superiority of human muscle and willpower. For the great Norwegian explorers, on the other hand, pulling a sledge under their own power was nothing more than futile labor, to be avoided at all costs. Some advocates use a comparison with rowing and sailing boats. But who would seriously describe a sailboat as a form of sea travel “aided” and a rowboat as “unaided” and “unassisted”? This earlier emphasis on polar travel techniques in terms of the form of energy used or not used for locomotion is no longer necessary, although some – especially those who can’t or won’t snowkite – are still at pains to emphasize it. The early parachute-like sails, with which polar travellers could be pulled across the ice in a makeshift manner with their pulka sleds in tow and which were regarded as an elegant innovation of self-sufficient polar travel, developed into steerable and increasingly efficient power kites. In this way, a completely new and, in comparison to the gruelling sledge pulling under one’s own steam, no less strenuous, technically demanding, but also injury-prone discipline of ice travelling was created.

For polar voyages, the use of the wind has therefore long since ceased to be regarded merely as a physical aid to locomotion. Snowkiting has established itself as a discipline of polar travel in its own right, requiring completely new rules of the game and enabling almost unbelievable top performances. For example, Eric McNair-Landry and Sebastian Copeland set a 24-hour course record of 595 kilometres on their Greenland long-distance crossing in June 2010, and Frédéric Dion (CAN) set a record for the furthest distance ever covered in a single leg of a journey in 2014/15 with 603 kilometres on his 4,171-kilometre solo Antarctic crossing in 24 hours and 53 minutes. If you think this is just a pleasurable float along, you’re wrong.

Pulling a sledge under your own power is the classic form of polar travel, which can be more or less arduous or meditative depending on the terrain and quality of the snow. The Tyrolean Paul Koller glides through the magnificent mountain world of Queen Maud Land on skis and polar sledges. (Photo: Christoph Höbenreich 2009)

But it is not only the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, further” that is indulged in. Away from these escalating numbers games, new expedition successes are also eagerly awaited. Still open, for example, is the first full ski crossing of the continent without any wind sail from one to the other outer shelf ice edge, with or without depots, as a team or solo. At present, this extremely difficult undertaking could perhaps still be considered one of the actual “last great challenges” for future polar athletes in Antarctica. Incidentally, there are already ambitious plans to implement this difficult task. One can be curious.

Increasingly subtle travel methods also claim sponsors and media. In the meantime, there are, for example, sailing sledges (“wind-crafts”), entire sledge platforms which, together with permanently installed tents, are pulled by stunt kites and on which the travellers sail across the ice while seated. Following the sledge-building tradition of the Greenlandic Inuit, Ramón Larramendi, Ignacio Oficialdegui and Juan Manuel Viu first set off in 2005/06 on a wind-driven vehicle of this kind to make a 4,486-kilometre loop through the white continent in 62 days. Without walking or skiing, the Spaniards reached the two poles of inaccessibility as calculated by the British Antarctic Survey as well as Vostok Station for the first time with a wind vehicle.

In 2018/19, Ramón Larramendi and Ignacio Oficialdegui sailed with Manuel Olivera and Hilo Moreno on their sailing sled in a 52-day, 2,538-kilometre round trip to the 3,810-metre-high ice cap of Dome Fuji, the second highest peak of the Antarctic Ice Sheet in East Antarctica, where a Japanese research station is located. Would this have seemed strange to Amundsen and Scott?

Using only the forces of nature and sitting on their sailing sleds, modern polar vagabonds travel thousands of kilometres across the ice in relative comfort with bag and baggage. (Photo: Ramón Larramendi 2018)

In 2011/12, the ultra marathon runner Pat Farmer was only on polar running shoes. The Australian ran 21,000 kilometers around half the earth and through all climate zones on his “Greatest Run on Earth”: From the North Pole across the Arctic Ocean to North America, on to the very tip of South America, and from the US polar base at Union Glacier 1,157 kilometres to the South Pole in just 18 days. With his sensational action he collected donations for the International Red Cross. In Antarctica, he was accompanied by a 6×6 vehicle and covered an average of 64 kilometres a day on snow and ice.

On his “Greatest Run on Earth”, ultra-marathon runner Pat Farmer (AUS) ran from pole to pole in 2011/12, 21,000 kilometers from the North Pole through both Americas to the South Pole. In the process, he raised funds for the International Red Cross. (Photo: Eric Philips 2011)

If you don’t want to walk or glide, you can roll and ride a bike or tricycle. In December 2013, for example, Maria Leijerstam became the first person to pedal her tricycle from the inner continental edge of the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole in 10 days, 14 hours and 56 minutes, a distance of 638 kilometres. The Brit not only used the established ice track McMurdo-South Pole, but was also supported by a vehicle.

Australian Keith Tuffley uses not only skis but also a fatbike to pull his gear sled halfway through the 2016 South Pole expedition across the untraversed Reedy Glacier. (Photo: Eric Philips 2016)
In 2013, the British woman Maria Leijerstam became the first person to pedal to the South Pole in just under eleven days: 638 kilometres from the inner edge of the Ross Ice Shelf at the foot of the Leverett Glacier on the South Pole Traverse, an ice track prepared to supply the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. (Photo: Archive Maria Leijerstam)

Exploration of Antarctica has also been transformative for climbers, opening the door to a new age of alpine exploration, as impressively demonstrated by world-class climber Leo Holding (UK), Mark Sedon (NZL) and Jean Burgun (FRA) in 2017/18. Their spectacular expedition first used flight logistics to reach the starting point in the interior of Antarctica, from where they climbed the 2,020-metre Spectre in the remote and difficult-to-reach Transantarctic Mountains in a long-distance journey. With fixable ski touring boots, alpine racing skis and high performance snowkites, they then hurriedly returned to Union Glacier, briefly using the South Pole run as well. For me, this style embodies the ideal form of a polar adventure expedition in the 21st century: Traveling light with skis, sleds and tents, completely self-sufficient in the remoteness of inner Antarctica, exploring and climbing pristine, at best even nameless mountains.

Jean Burgun (F) jets into the remote Transantarctic Mountainswith a high-performance powerkite and heavy polar sled in tow during the 2017/18 Spectre expedition. (Photo: Mark Sedon 2017)

Through creativity and technological development, new sports equipment is constantly being created. They bring new disciplines and new methods of travel to Antarctica. The different forms of the game have little to do with each other, except that they are played on the same playground. Modern vehicle technology and flight logistics are also increasingly making it possible to use the Antarctic to the South Pole for tourism. Thus, “ski-last-degree expeditions” are carried out, i.e. ski tours to the Pole, marathons or other extreme events at the southern end of the world reduced to the last one or two degrees of latitude (1° = 60 nautical miles = 111 kilometres walking distance). In 2020, a first Ironman was even held in Antarctica – albeit by a single athlete.

Antarctica is increasingly being used as a stage for extreme sporting events. There is no end in sight to this development. It will be interesting to see what the next generation of polar travellers will come up with. In the mountains, fortunately, huge crevasse zones (still) prevent vehicles from driving around. Nevertheless, prudent heads are needed to use vehicles cautiously in Antarctica. Otherwise, modern polar tourism ultimately runs the risk of destroying the very thing that adventurers seek: The wilderness character of this unique, remote world.

But whether it’s solo ski traverses, long-distance kite expeditions, sailing sled laps, races on shortened circuits or pioneering voyages of discovery into new polar territory: Antarctica offers enough scope for everyone and will certainly not lose its appeal and the fascination of the silence, the sheer endless expanse and the remoteness at the end of the world, which has already captivated adventurers of the calibre of Shackleton, Amundsen or Scott, for today’s adventurous travellers with all their different goals, motives and demands so quickly. On the contrary! It would just be nice if all the different journeys, the sporting feats and the innovative expeditions, which still follow the spirit of discovery of the pioneers, could then also be properly presented and perceived.

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