Chapter One: The Captain CHAPTER ONE The Captain
The Russian-built Ilyushin cargo plane that rumbled and rolled over Drake Passage toward the Antarctic ice had all the comforts you’d expect from its hard and pragmatic Russian design, which meant essentially no comforts at all. It was built to withstand the worst weather you could throw at it, land and take off on runways of pure ice or war-zone rubble, and deliver cargo where few other planes could go. It smelled like damp canvas, machine oil, and old sweat, perhaps with a hint of spilled vodka for good measure, and it was utterly beloved, or so said our pilot, a weathered, wiry Russian in his fifties who’d wrestled with the Ilyushin’s cockpit controls over the ice for thousands of hours. This plane was a tank that would save you when other planes would fail and falter, he told us as we boarded, giving the fuselage a loving pat. That it was the only way to get to Union Glacier’s windswept ice runway and base camp—and the starting point for just about anybody heading into the continent’s interior—was also totally in keeping with the plane’s lack of frills. “Take it or leave it” might as well have been written on the side.
On this morning in late October 2018, there were only a handful of paying passengers amid the jammed-together jumble of boxes, tents, generators, and mysterious crates being shipped south for the start of the summer expedition season. I was one of them, strapped onto an ancient, rock-hard Ilyushin bench seat, with the plane’s big steel ribs arcing overhead. Strapped in next to me and sharing the same bench for this four-hour flight was perhaps the most intimidating man I’d ever met: Captain Louis Rudd.
Rudd was forty-nine and British, wrapped in a cloak of vaguely scruffy steeliness and BBC English. He sat firmly erect on his half of the bench and looked across at me with piercing hazel eyes. He spoke like a commander, in the crisp declarative sentences of the British military that had shaped and sharpened him for more than three decades. We were each headed to base camp to await further air transport out onto the Antarctic ice for the formal beginning of a historic race to try to become the first to cross the continent alone, unsupported, and unassisted. In planning our course, each of us had chosen different routes. But our paths, though neither of us could fully see it then, would become intertwined.
“Henry Worsley and I were on one team, doing Amundsen’s route. The other team started from Scott’s hut at McMurdo,” Rudd said, leaning toward me as he described his astonishing Antarctic expedition in 2011, which replicated the great race to the South Pole in 1911 between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Just the names of such giants, and Rudd’s connection to them, took my breath away: Amundsen. Scott. Worsley. Frank Worsley had captained what was probably the most famous Antarctic ship in history, carrying Ernest Shackleton off into legend on the Endurance in 1914. Henry Worsley, a distant relative, had continued the family Antarctic legacy, with tragic consequences. Rudd had walked in the company of gods.
“It was a brutal expedition, sixty-seven days to the Pole,” Rudd continued, his eyes boring into me. “Severe storms. Henry and I each lost more than four stone. That’s something like sixty pounds to you Yanks. Anyway, we beat the Scott team by nine days, so I guess history repeats itself and the Amundsen route was better,” he said. He finished with a wry smile that looked like he appreciated the irony: The 1911 race had been a national contest between Norway and England, and Amundsen’s Norwegians had won, beating Captain Scott of the British Royal Navy to the South Pole. Scott and his men all perished trying to get home.
I mumbled something like “wow, that’s amazing,” but in truth I couldn’t stop thinking about sixty pounds and sixty-seven days. My mind was suddenly back on Chile’s southernmost windblown tip, in a tiny Airbnb apartment in Punta Arenas, preparing for my transport flight to the ice. Equipment and food bags were spread across every surface, from kitchen countertops to the bed and the floor between. The featured fare: oatmeal and protein powder, crunchy dried ramen and freeze-dried dinners. Deserving special attention, though, were wallet-sized protein bars that were piled high like decks of cards. They’d been made by a Wisconsin nutritional supplement company that had taken me into their food science lab and produced a one-of-a-kind calorie bomb they’d dubbed the “Colin Bar.”
The checklists prepared by my wife and business partner, Jenna—the logistical road maps for the expedition—were laid out on a table, and she and I were scurrying from pile to pile, organizing, sorting, and weighing all the things I planned to drag across Antarctica in a sled, so absorbed that we nearly collided once in coming around a corner. In the eleven years of our relationship, she and I had been in more than a few exotic and challenging places, but at that moment the stakes had never felt higher, and we both stopped after our near collision, standing there in front of the refrigerator, arms full, leaning forward for a quick kiss.
We were redistributing everything so that I’d have less.
I’d planned on carrying seventy days of food and fuel, which put the sled well over four hundred pounds, a weight I’d realized I couldn’t pull. So on a tight deadline before the flight south, we’d been stripping out what felt like surplus, reducing my margins. Seventy days of food became sixty-five. Now, on the plane, that number sounded suddenly and frighteningly a lot like sixty-seven, Rudd’s number of days to the Pole on his previous expedition, losing around sixty pounds along the way. I started doing the math in my head. Sixty pounds was almost a third of my weight.
I didn’t know what to say. My stomach was suddenly churning as though the whale-like Ilyushin had hit turbulence. Rudd had replicated Amundsen’s route. He’d known Henry Worsley, whose amazing life and tragic death had so moved and inspired me. Worsley had died in 2016 attempting the very goal that Rudd and I were aiming for—the first ever solo, unsupported, unassisted crossing in history, something that many people after Worsley’s passing had come to call “impossible.” And the thought echoed through my head: Rudd is already ahead of me. He knows everything.
“Want to see a picture of me at the end?” he suddenly asked.
“Sure. Of course,” I said, shrugging.
Rudd fingered through the photos on his phone until he found the one he wanted, and handed it over. I immediately wished I hadn’t seen it. He looked almost skeletal—cheekbones bulging like baseballs from an emaciated face; dark, cold-weather wounds across forehead and nose. Rudd smiled broadly as he took the phone back, and I finally understood what he was really saying: “You don’t know what you’re in for, mate.”
It was true. I admitted to myself that what I didn’t know about Antarctica and polar survival could probably fill a book. I was far less experienced than Rudd, so much so that I probably looked like an imposter in his eyes.
He’d fought and been decorated in combat, and through various expeditions over the years had spent more time man-hauling a sled across the Antarctic ice than just about anybody alive. I was from a scruffy counterculture corner of the Pacific Northwest—born at home on a futon on a commune in Olympia, Washington, with Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” playing in the background and clouds of marijuana smoke in the air from the party convened to celebrate the happy occasion. Rudd? Probably hatched from a cannonball.
Yes, I was fit and strong, and at thirty-three years old, sixteen years younger than Rudd. I’d also been a professional athlete for years, racing triathlons around the world, and I’d climbed some of the world’s biggest mountains, including Mount Everest. I’d even been to Antarctica before. But as I looked at the inimitable Captain Rudd, none of those things seemed very important, or even relevant.
I felt like we’d been dropped into the plane from two different planets. We had absolutely nothing in common but this moment where our lives had intersected, each of us gripped by the goal of being the first to do something that had never been done: cross Antarctica alone via the South Pole using only human power and without being resupplied. We each knew a little about the other’s plans and preparations—mine in America, his in the UK—but we were going to start from different places on the Ronne Ice Shelf at the edge of the Antarctic landmass. Rudd was leaving south from the Hercules Inlet; I was leaving several hundred miles away at a place called the Messner Start. We might never even see each other again after our little jammed-in-together cargo flight to base camp.
But all that mattered was that Rudd was getting inside my head from the first minutes, and with every hour that the plane lurched south, and the beginning of what I already knew would be the hardest thing I’d ever thought of attempting, my confidence was sinking. I felt as if he were looking across the seat at me and thinking, Working this guy is child’s play.
The feeling put me suddenly back in ninth grade on the first day of class at the big high school across town in Portland, Oregon. It was filled with kids I didn’t know who were mostly from the cooler, wealthier parts of the city. I’d walked in looking for my homeroom and my locker and felt almost immediately like an imposter then, too, thrown into a place I didn’t belong and didn’t fully understand. Southeast Portland, where I’d grown up, is a hot corner of the city now, with some of the best restaurants and music venues. But in the late nineties, the kids who filled my new school, coming there from upscale neighborhoods in the West Hills, considered anything east of the Willamette River a wasteland of auto garages, machine shops, and small houses built for the old timber-town and dockworker crews of the city’s industrial past. To them, the neighborhood where I lived was poor, uninteresting, and unworthy, if not downright dangerous.
My salvation came in finding a friend. David Boyer arrived for class from the wrong side, too, and like me was keenly aware of the difference that made. Together, we formed an alliance, each of us with something of a chip on his shoulder, and something to prove, if only because we were outnumbered. We’d each helped the other face the unknown.
And that memory brought on another realization: Rudd was facing the unknown, too, just as I was. He possessed reserves of deep experience that I didn’t, unquestionably, but experience would only help so much in a place where the human imprint on the landscape was so shallow, small, and thin. He knew some of Antarctica’s hardest, cruelest truths and had lived through them, but in Antarctica, I knew—from the grizzled veterans I’d consulted and trained with as well as the little time I’d spent there—unpredictability was the defining characteristic.
Antarctica would set the terms of what was possible, in all the unknowns and variables of wind and storm, ice and bone-chilling cold, and neither Rudd nor I knew what those variables would be, day-to-day or even minute-to-minute, or what strengths would ultimately matter.
Improvisation and resourcefulness would decide fates and outcomes—just as they had for the early polar pioneers who really couldn’t know, before airplanes and satellites, even what terrain they’d face. Improvisation was crucial to me and Rudd since we didn’t really know if the thing we were both attempting could be done at all and survived.
Captain Scott’s attempt at motor-powered sleds in 1911 was an improvisation that didn’t work given the technology of the day. The idea was right, just premature. Snowmobiles and modified all-terrain trucks are now the workhorses of the polar regions. Amundsen improvised around food; worried that he and his men would have digestive trouble eating a meat-heavy diet with no fiber, he’d added peas and oatmeal to the rations.
Shackleton honed improvisation to an art form after his ship, the Endurance, was caught in the sea ice and crushed in early 1915. In keeping himself and his men alive and fed on the Antarctic ice for more than a year, and then sailing an open boat hundreds of miles across some of the stormiest waters in the world to seek rescue, he embodied the idea that survival itself can be an act of heroism.
And going through all that in my head helped me straighten up in my seat and think of my own strategy in what had already become a bizarre kind of airborne chess game. Rudd, I decided, was genuinely, amazingly impressive with his military-officer bearing and his crisp monologue of astonishing feats. He was canny and probably brilliant. But I felt he was also working me, or playing me, or using some military mind trick in breaking down my resolve and confidence. And I decided to let him do it. That he knew nothing about me, and showed no inclination to ask, could be an advantage in a way I wasn’t sure of yet.
So from that moment, I mostly nodded and let Rudd talk, keeping my own cards close. I was, in fact, truly intimidated—he could probably have sewn doubt and undermined the confidence of anyone. But having him think me even more diminished than I was also felt like the best hand I had to play. The more he thought me unworthy or unprepared, a probably pampered American millennial with no business trying something like this, the more he might grow too confident himself. I had no idea where any of that might lead or how it might play out. But the lesson, in training for this moment—in seeking out mentors and polar veterans, in reading everything I could get my hands on—had been hammered into me by then like an ice anchor: In Antarctica, overconfidence can be as dangerous as fear.
THE ILYUSHIN SKID-LANDED on the blue-ice runway of Union Glacier just like you’d expect, like a flying tank—as though it had been hurled down from the sky, bouncing and rattling and heaving its cargo until it finally came to a squealing halt and I could take a breath. I was finally on the ice. After the long, intense confinement of the flight and the mind games that had played out across the bench seat, it felt like much more than just an arrival—more like I’d emerged from a long dark tunnel into a new world. In stepping down out of the plane, the tense hours of flying were instantly behind me. Antarctica, from the first seconds, lit up all of my senses. The bitter cold stung my face, yet the unbelievable brightness and the forever white landscape left me in awe. The emotional charge of finally being there made me smile so broadly that my cheeks hurt.
Union Glacier, which functions as a kind of logistical base camp for almost every nongovernment expedition into Antarctica, is a bustling place as the high season of the Antarctic’s summer unfolds from November to January. The company that transports just about everybody and everything to the ice, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (A.L.E.), sets up a small town of food tents and camp offices. Wealthy adventurers chartering guided trips rub shoulders with ecotourists, scientists heading out to study ice cores, and people who’ve simply fallen in love with a strange, harsh place—like our hard-boiled pilot on the Ilyushin. Mountaineers embark from there to Mount Vinson, the highest peak on the continent. Tiny subcultures of Antarctic obsession blossom in the brief months of twenty-four-hour sunshine before dying back in the months of darkness—people coming to the world’s emptiest and most extreme place just to say they’ve been there, or to run marathons, or to see the famous emperor penguins, imagining themselves to be Captain Scott himself, who made a famously arduous side trip to see the emperors and retrieve some of their eggs for science before beginning his sprint to the Pole in 1911.
On this day, camp workers were shoveling huge mounds of snow around prefab huts and steel-framed tents. I thought it was probably a normal start-of-season ritual—the summer cleanup of winter’s mess—until I stopped to chat with a guy who’d paused to lean on his shovel for a smoke. He was from England—season on the ice, season off, and good paying work, he told me, if you could tolerate it.
“This snow is nuts,” he said, blowing out a huge cloud of water vapor and smoke into the cold air. “Way more loose snow than normal and I’ve been coming down here a lot of years.” He paused and took another drag. “The scientists tell us there could be more snow down here in a warming climate because warmer air can hold more moisture, so maybe…” He shrugged, then ground out his butt into a can he’d pulled from his pocket. “Whatever it is, something very different happened over the winter, that’s clear enough,” he said.
Rudd and I needed almost a full summer season, which in the Southern Hemisphere begins to unfold in November, to have even a hope of completing a crossing before the long winter darkness closed in. We were just as ironbound by the seasons as Scott or Shackleton had been, or Reinhold Messner, the legendary mountaineer and namesake of the spot I was heading for, where the sea ice met the continent. Nothing of modern life or technology had changed that fundamental fact: expeditions went out only when Antarctica allowed it.
So we each had to start at the earliest window of possible transport. And what that meant is that we were about the only non-A.L.E. people in camp as October rolled toward November. On the morning of the second scheduled smaller-plane flight that would take us to our different starting points on the Ronne Ice Shelf, we filed into the mess tent, the only people in there at that hour. We took our trays and sat down together, just the two of us. It was clearly becoming a pattern.
Rudd was digging into a huge plate of bacon and eggs.
“One last big load of fat and calories,” he said.
Then he stopped, took a sip of coffee, and looked around the tent for a moment. I thought I saw a shadow of hesitation or indecision cross his face, but then some corner turned in his mind, it seemed, as he looked straight into my eyes and blurted his news.
“I’m starting at the Messner,” he said, digging back into his breakfast.
I stopped mid-bite, my mouth hanging open. What had been, until that moment, two similar but not exactly parallel projects—different starting points, different attempts at answering the same question, whether this expedition we were trying could be done—had just fundamentally changed: we were now on exactly the same course. With Rudd’s words, this journey each of us was taking had become truly a race. Apples to oranges had become apples to apples—same exact route, same goal. There’d now really be a winner and a loser.
I looked down at my own plate of eggs, then back up again at Rudd. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, I’d gotten to him a little, too. Maybe silence and nodding and saying hardly anything about myself and my plans, even if it mostly had come from a place of insecurity, had sent some message I hadn’t intended. The experienced polar giant had flipped his plan to be like mine, not the other way around.
He wanted to beat me. That’s what it meant. Rudd had inched his seat closer to mine. We were bound up together, for better or worse, in everything that would happen next.