Antarctica 2018: O’Brady and Rudd’s “Unassisted” Status Called into Question

While we were away for the holiday break (and busy launching a new website!) a lot happened in the Antarctic. In case you missed the previous updates, both Colin O’Brady and Lou Rudd finished up their independent traverses of the frozen continent, writing their names in the history books as a result. O’Brady finished a few days ahead of his British rival, putting in an epic 32 hour final push to the finish line. In the process he became the first person to complete a crossing of the Antarctic in a solo and unassisted fashion. But, as it turns out, there some questions have arisen regarding what “unassisted” actually means.

Explorers Web first published a story that called into question O’Brady and Rudd’s unassisted status when it was revealed that both men skied along a road for nearly the entire return trip from the South Pole to the Antarctic coast at the Ross Ice Shelf. That is a distance of about 600 km (372 miles), which O’Brady covered in just 15 days. That’s a fairly quick pace for an Antarctic skier, but not necessarily unheard of, particularly with Colin’s massive final push to the end. Rudd wasn’t far behind, wrapping up just two days behind the American.

Reportedly, this road –– which is called the McMurdo-South Pole Highway, or the South Pole Overland Traverse Road (SPOT) ––  is used to bring supplies to the Amundsen-Scott Station located at the Pole. Although it is made of packed snow and ice, it allow vehicles to make the journey safely and much more quickly. The same can be said of the two skiers as well.

Polar guide Eric Phillips described the SPOT to ExWeb by saying, “It is a highway.” Adding that the road “more than doubles someone’s speed and negates the need for navigation. An expedition cannot be classed as unassisted if someone is skiing on a road.”

The reason Phillips says that the road eliminates the need for navigation is that it features flags that have been put into place ever 100 meters. These flags are meant to help break up the endless white of the Antarctic for vehicles traveling along the “highway,” helping them to know where the road is located. For skiers, that means they don’t have to look at their GPS or compass at all, and can simply glide along what amounts to a groomed trail, saving themselves a lot of time in the process.

The so called “rules” of exploration and adventure indicate that using a road of this kind would be seen as having some assistance, just the same as using a kite or dog sled or instance. That would also indicate that neither O’Brady or Rudd finished the traverse in solo and unassisted fashion, meaning that someone could still claim the first traverse of Antarctica in that fashion.

Personally, I have to say I was surprised when Colin reached the finish line so quickly after arriving at the South Pole. I expected that it would take both he and Rudd well into January before they would wrap up their expedition. I even indicated as much in the post announcing O’Brady’s achievement. At the time I was unaware that either of the men were using a road to help speed things along. I guess explains how they wrapped things up so quickly, especially since both men estimated at 65-70 day expedition length and they finished 54 days in the case of O’Brady and 57 days for Rudd.

What say you adventure community? Unassisted or not? It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

Kraig Becker

6 thoughts on “Antarctica 2018: O’Brady and Rudd’s “Unassisted” Status Called into Question”

  1. Not exploration – just extreme tourism. Like so many of the bench marks of exploration in the world, traversing Antarctica is now a box one can check – granted requiring above average endurance – but utilization of a road should only qualify this as a very extreme unaccompanied excursion, like hiking the PCT, the AT, or the CDT by yourself. Sure it’s not easy, and accidents can happen, it probably sucks the entire time! But, skiing down a road is by no means on the scale of Shackleton’s retreat to Elephant Island after a failed attempt to reach the South Pole; a scramble for survival that took three years of almost continual improvisation (1914 – 1917), and resulted in all hands safe return, was actual exploration. A road that is maintained also means the potential for rescue, which is simply not a ” solo unsupported” endeavor. The fact that two people could finish almost simultaneously also indicates that this is a path that is about to become well beaten by the determined and well funded accomplishment seekers of the world. The next time we will hear about traversing Antarctica will be when a freak blizzard kills an entire Chinese tour group making this exact same trip, and somehow Beck Weathers will stumble out of the snow again! And, everyone will be shocked and outraged that the traverse went so wrong when they were being charged tens of thousands of dollars to take this trip! But, at least none of them will claim that they made an unsupported journey.

    • Agreed on all points Scott. I think the general public won’t see the difference, but the exploration/expedition community won’t find these two traverses to fall into the “unassisted” category. They also took shorter, and very different routes, from what Henry Worsley was attempting a few years back.

  2. It seems that the question that must be answered is, are they both claiming unassisted crossings? And, if so, I would love to hear their perspectives. Undeniably, what both achieved, is phenomenal, it is now for history, and more experienced individuals than me, to judge the merits of their feats. My sincere hope is that these two adventurers don’t get savaged by by armchair adventurers, and internet trolls.

    • No question that that their achievements are exceptional. A traverse of the Antarctic is definitely something for both Colin and Lou to be proud of and for the rest of us to admire. But others have traversed the continent before using “assistance” of some kind, such as kites, dogsleds, etc. If they did indeed use a road for the return trip, they would fall under that category and wouldn’t technically have achieved the first solo, unassisted, unsupported crossing. It will be interesting to see if either of them responds to this controversy in any way.

      And this isn’t coming from just armchair adventurers and Internet trolls, but Antarctic guides and other explorers who know the so called “rules” well.

      • I agree completely, and I am not suggesting that any of the criticism has come from unqualified sources. So far, there have been nothing but legitimate questions about the expeditions. I am looking forward to hearing from O’Brady and Rudd. What I meant by my comment about armchair adventurers and trolls, was just about how sometimes a mob mentality can pervade the internet, and it would be unfortunate if the discussion got ugly. This blog has always managed to be very factual, and unbiased, which is what makes it such a useful, and credible source. Keep up the good work. The new website looks great.

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