Antarctica 2018: Sastrugi Slows O’Brian and Rudd

We are now ten days into the 2018-2019 Antarctic expedition season and while most skiers are only now just preparing to get underway, both American Colin O’Brady and Brit Lou Rudd are finding their stride out on the ice.

The two men are traveling solo but chasing the same goal –– the first unassisted crossing of the continent –– and unsurprisingly, so far they’re on a similar trajectory in terms of conditions –– both weather and surface. Today, the two men used a word that every polar explorer dreads and it won’t be for the last time I can assure you.

The word that O’Brady and Rudd used in their updates was “sastrugi,” which are incredibly hard ridges that form from blowing snow and ice. These ridges can actually grow quite large, often a meter or more in height, forcing skiers to go over or around them, but in any case slowing their progress greatly.

They are a fact of life when traveling in the Antarctic however, and both men are likely to pass through a large section of sastrugi as the get closer to the South Pole. A massive field of them is known to exist between 87ºS and 88ºS, which for many skiers is the final major hurdle before the get to the Pole. For these two however, it will only mark the halfway point of their journey.

O’Brady posted an image of what the sastrugi look like on his Instagram to give us an idea of what they are like. He also reminded readers that the Antarctic is far from flat and he and the other skiers must go from essentially sea level up to 9000 feet (2743 meters) while dragging a heavy sled behind them.

That is no easy feat, but it also one of the major challenges that skiers face on their way to the Pole. For a good section of the journey they are climbing uphill all day, every day, until things level out on the Antarctic plateau.

In Rudd’s update he mentions a milestone of sorts, hitting double-digit distances for the day for the first time. That is an indication that he’s getting his legs under him and is starting to move a bit faster.

He’s also happy to have the first ten days behind him as that means his sled has dropped 12kg 26 pounds) in weight from the food he has eaten. Considering the sled started at about 150 kg (330 pounds), that is only a small amount, but it is a start and it means he’ll begin to get faster as more weight comes off.

The next flight out to the Antarctic from Punta Arenas is scheduled to take place next Sunday, November 18. It is likely to deliver more skiers heading to the South Pole. When that happens, we’ll have more individuals to follow, but for now we’ll continue to keep a close eye on O’Brady and Rudd.

Kraig Becker