Antarctica 2018: Last Full-Distance Skier Reaches the South Pole

The 2018-2019 expedition season in the Antarctic is over. Last week, the final full-distance skier reached the South Pole, bringing an end to what has been a long and difficult season for pretty much everyone who ventured out onto the ice. And while a few “last degree” groups remain out on the ice, the logistical team at ALE is preparing to close down for yet another year.

On Thursday, January 17, Japanese solo-skier Masatatsu Abe reached the finish line after a very long and difficult expedition. Abe started at the traditional drop-off point at Hercules Inlet and spent 54 days skiing to the Pole, covering 918 km (570 miles) in the process. Because the journey took longer than he expected, he had to receive an air drop of additional supplies while en route. Still, unlike many of his peers this season, he refused to give up and doggedly stayed focused on reaching his goal. In the end, he was successful despite the continent itself working against him.

As with the other South Pole skiers this year, Abe had to contend with soft snow from the beginning. The soft snow makes it much harder to pull the sled as it creates more resistance along the ground. Throw in the unusual weather conditions, which led to almost-daily whiteouts, and heavy snows, and the 2018-2019 season will be seen as one of the toughest in recent memory. This was in addition to the usual challenges, like high winds, cold temperatures, and sastrugi along the ice. As if all of that wasn’t enough, the Japanese skier even broke a tooth while eating a piece of frozen food, adding just one more difficulty to an already tough expedition.

Normally, the Antarctic expedition season runs right up until the end of January, but this year will be different. With so many skiers dropping out and no late additions to the ice, there isn’t anyone for ALE to wait on. In years past it was not uncommon for us to be watching a final skier race to the Pole, or back to Hercules, in an effort to beat the clock. Not so this year, with the season ending more in a whimper than a bang. The final flight off the continent this year is still scheduled for January 30, taking ALE staff and supplies back to Punta Arenas. There is no word if that schedule will be pushed up considering the circumstances.

With that, the curtain drops on another Antarctic expedition season. Now we’ll wait until November of 2019 for the cycle to start up once again. Which stories will be compelling and relevant next year remains to be seen, but I think it is safe to say we’ll see a mix of new and familiar faces on the frozen continent once again.