On the third floor of Shackleton’s London HQ, the sleek studio doors open into a small, airy room full of cool white lights and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. In the corner there is a man pinning a lambswool jumper to a wall, stepping back and assessing its shape, and there is a woman sketching a coat on some paper. In the middle of the room are two strapping men in crisp white shirts. One is sitting upright in a chair, his forearms flat on the table, scanning the notes in front of him.
The other man is Louis Rudd MBE.
He is slouched over, gnawing on a chunk of chocolate cake the size of a door wedge, at least three portions larger than politely acceptable. He sizes me up and continues chewing. Chocolate frosting and crumbs the size of boulders are avalanching from his hands. He’s nodding and making an mmmm noise, which is presumably a mixture of cake appreciation and conversational response.
Louis Rudd is the first British man to cross Antarctica on skis. He did it unsupported and solo. That was almost a year ago: he is seemingly still replenishing the calorie deficit.
“So he turned up?” asks the note-taking CEO of Shackleton, the exploration apparel brand where Rudd is Director of Expeditions.
“Yeah, he rocked up in this clapped-out VW Beetle. You could see the neighbours looking at the car, it was spewing black smoke everywhere. He was dead casual, stayed the whole day forming ideas for the film, learning my story. I guess they need to decide if it would work commercially,” replies Rudd.
I have to chip in: “Sorry, who visited?”
“Oh, Danny Boyle. He’s considering making a film of last winter’s expedition, and my backstory. I’d quite like to be played by Hugh Jackman, apparently they’ve spoken to Brad Pitt.” Rudd returns to the cake.
You may be wondering what kind of backstory is needed to interest an Oscar-winning director. Well…
Into the wild
Rudd has always been a man of excess. There is an unrelenting, 120%-mentality about him. The story, should Boyle decide on a film, ought to begin when Rudd was 14.
It’s the summer of 1983. Sepia camera. Young Rudd is at home in Whaplode, a small Lincolnshire village, reading Ranulph Fiennes’ Living Dangerously. One day, he decides he’s done with reading about adventures – he wants his own adventure, and he wants to be the main character. His dad has recently moved to Aberdeen, following a divorce. Rudd decides to cycle the 500 miles from Lincolnshire to Aberdeen on a standard kid’s bike, armed with a sleeping bag, a puncture repair kit, and some pocket money; no tent, no lights, no helmet (it was the 1980s, after all).
“I didn’t tell my mum because I knew that she wouldn’t be up for it. On the first day I cycled to the Humber Bridge, about 85 miles, rolled out my sleeping bag and slept in a field somewhere. I called my mum from a phone box the next day, and told her what I was doing. She wasn’t happy.”
Six days later, Rudd walks into his dad’s house, unannounced. “He was convinced that I’d just cycled from the train station. It wasn’t until he phoned my mum that he realised.”
That was Rudd’s first adventure. Fast forward to 16, and he’s in the Marines, learning how to cope with discomfort, with being cold and wet and tired and hungry. Lessons that will be invaluable when, 33 years later, he prepares to cross the Antarctic. “You go through a roller coaster of emotions every single day out there. The place is so hostile you have an unrelenting sense it is trying to kill you. For the entire time you’re there, you think: Antarctica wants to kill you.”
So what methods will Antarctica use?
Any mistakes can be life threatening. But it’s the worst place in the world when there’s a whiteout
There’s falling down a crevasse (those narrow, deep, breaks in the ice that the squirrel in Ice Age keeps making), which is easily done – you often can’t see them. Rudd would have nobody to pull him out.
Getting hypothermia is a huge risk, as nobody can spot your symptoms. You can’t deal with hypothermia yourself because you start to lose bodily functions. You can quickly slip into a coma, and then you’re in trouble.
Losing the tent: you have to worry about whether the wind is going to increase throughout the day. If you misjudge it, and the wind gets too strong to pitch a tent, you have to keep skiing. Tiring, yes. You’d also run out of drinks, meaning you’d have to stop to melt snow to make drinks, and you’d get hungry and exhausted, and probably hypothermic.
Rudd knew the hostilities of Antarctica, having previously crossed it as part of a team. He remembered the extreme temperature drops that can give you hypothermia in seconds; the hidden crevasses; the wind conditions; the storms; the whiteouts. Although the loneliness presents the biggest danger, as he learned through his friend, Henry Worsley. Worsley died attempting what Rudd managed to achieve.
The New Yorker wrote on his friend and mentor’s journey to Antarctica. The first subheading says it all: I. Mortal Danger. ‘The man felt like a speck in the frozen nothingness. Every direction he turned, he could see ice stretching to the edge of the Earth: white ice and blue ice, glacial-ice tongues and ice wedges. There were no living creatures in sight. Not a bear or even a bird. Nothing but him.’
Rudd carried a flag bearing Worsley’s family crest for the journey. “Any mistakes can be life threatening. But it’s the worst place in the world when there’s a whiteout.”
Imagine being inside a -30°C ping pong ball. You can’t see a horizon, the sky, you can’t even see the ground beneath you: it could be undulating, or it could be lumpy with ice, but you cannot see it at all. You can get onto your knees, trying to retrace the tracks made by your 130kg cargo, and they aren’t there. Everything looks smooth and undisturbed. No shadows, no corners, no real sense of depth. You might think there is a wall right in front of you, and find yourself grabbing at bitterly cold air. The only thing you can feel for certain is your body moving. Often, Rudd would be skiing along until he realised he was not skiing – he was in fact lying on his side, having gradually tipped over some invisible hummock, only realising this at the powdery crunch of snow on a shoulder.
“It’s weird. People get motion sickness in a whiteout. Obviously, it’s scarier still if you’re in a whiteout and you know you’re also near a cliff edge. Because you won’t see it.”
There is the option of waiting these things out. But time wasn’t a luxury Rudd had, having packed a limited supply of everything. He even cut the tags off his clothing to reduce the weight; the cargo weighed 130kg, and he was 87kg when he started.
So Rudd had to ski through whiteouts.
It’s OK for the first few hours, apparently. You have U2, or Churchill audiobooks offering a sense of company through the headphones while you stare at the compass to ensure you’re on course. However, after nine or ten hours of staring at that compass needle, you are done. You are mentally, just, done.
I was starting to really struggle. I sank to my knees on that fifth day
Then you have to set the tent up and turn the GPS on to see how much progress you have made, because you start to wonder if you have even moved at all. Your location will load, and you’ll be in complete shock, because you will be able to see something moving for the first time all day. “It’s only the GPS that keeps you sane.”
Then you pray for clear skies the next morning. Like a millennial on a mobile, there’s a temptation to be constantly checking the GPS, but this will burn the battery. So you have to trust the compass and be confident that you have spent the entire day skiing in the right direction, and not back where you came from. “I remember clocking 16 nautical miles once. That was motivating.”
(Rudd works in nautical miles, which are typically reserved for the sea or air. A nautical mile is 1.2 ‘normal’ miles. Literally, 120%.)
One whiteout lasted four days. “I was starting to really struggle. I sank to my knees on that fifth day, when it had cleared up.
“It’s mad, though. A few hours later the sun might be out and you’ll be skiing along in a beautiful -20°C with your shades on, absolutely loving life.” His voice has gone from grizzled veteran to excited child.
He lists the beauties of Antarctic landscape: the snow, the sastrugi (ridges), the crevasses (if you can see them), pancake ice (frozen sea ice that looks like a pancake), open leads (where ice splits and you get seawater between it), high-velocity ice, diamond-hard blue ice (which you can’t ski across), multiple shades of light from bright blue to dark grey. And the sundogs – a pair of bright spots, either side of the sun, caused by frozen ice crystals.
The Thing We’re All wondering...
There is one question I just have to ask. How do you go to the toilet out there?
He laughs, and reels off the options:
Stopping for a piss
If I’m outside I’ll just turn my back to the wind, and I’ll have my mitts on, to cover the area (there’s a big zipper on the trousers so that I don’t have to take my gloves off). It’s a bit of a faff getting through the next two or three layers to get to the old man, and then you just have your hands cupped around it.
Peeing in the tent
I had this specialist medical pee bottle, it was brilliant. If I woke up needing a wee I wouldn’t even need to get out of the sleeping bag. I’d just roll on my side and pee into that, and make sure it’s tightly secure afterwards.
Going for a dump, generally
I’d go first thing in the morning because going during the day, when you’ve got all your layers on, is just horrendous. It disrupts the entire day. So I trained myself to go first thing in the morning, while the tent was still up. I’d be in my thermals and tent boots, I’d dash outside and dig a hole with my shovel, squat down and go to the toilet as quick as possible. I wasn’t using much toilet paper because it would disrupt the environment, so I was wiping with chunks of snow.
Going for a dump, luxuriously
There were a few days where the weather was so bad – 50mph winds, -50°C – that going out for a poo would be dangerous. On those days, I used the vestibule of my tent. It didn’t have tent flooring, it was more like a porch. I did my cooking there too. I’d just dig a big hole, a really deep hole, because it was my kitchen. Provided you filled it back up with snow straight away, there was no smell. It was luxury doing a vestibule poo, you didn’t have to put gloves on, and you could take your time. I was tempted to do a vestibule poo every day, but it was more time consuming.
Further questions of domesticity
How do you make drinks?
Melting snow. I have a little cooker and a three-litre kettle, and you pack snow into it and melt it into water. It takes forever, because it is such a dry environment – it’s a desert, after all. And it’s one of the driest places on the planet. You don’t even need waterproof clothing in Antarctica.
It takes about two and a half hours of constantly filling up the kettle each evening to get enough snow to make up my drinks, to rehydrate the food (freeze-dried, very much like a pot noodle) and to fill up the flask. In the morning, another 90 minutes of snow melting makes my porridge and fills my flask.
What were you eating?
Porridge for breakfast. The flavours ranged from blueberry to caramelised egg and onion. It was a rolling five-day menu. I’d drink a litre of Cadbury’s hot chocolate, which is full of calories. Hot chocolate was a saviour out there. It tastes nice, it’s warm, and it isn’t a diuretic like tea and coffee.
In the evening, the priority was to get into the tent and rehydrate. Two one-litre flasks isn’t much to ski on for 13 hours. So I’d get into the tent, make a litre of energy drink, and neck that straight away; then my evening meals were freeze-dried classics like spaghetti bolognese, or chicken korma with rice.
Every ten days, I had a chocolate pudding, which was a real treat. I broke the entire journey down into these ten-day blocks, because I had this chocolate pudding – it gave me something to focus on. Plus it was 2,000 calories and proper gooey.
Ideal luxury item?
A box of doughnuts. Food was everything.
Even with a mind preoccupied by death and cold, there’s a lot of time for thinking…
“There’s a lot of self-reflection, especially when you’re having a hard time. You begin to focus, perhaps unnecessarily, on what you have done in your life. You beat yourself up.”
One whiteout, Rudd thought about his son, Luke. As a kid, Luke began racing motocross, spurred on by his dad. Aged ten, he started racing national championships. Rudd bought a motorhome big enough for the two of them, plus the bike and equipment. “I became a competitive dad. While skiing, I thought about the times where we had arguments about strategies for races. I was having arguments about racing strategies with a ten-year-old.”
Trudging blindly through the snow, Rudd flashbacked to a Friday evening. Luke had been misbehaving; as a punishment, Rudd said the weekend’s racing was off. He also made the crying Luke unload all of the gear from the motorhome back into the garage.
I was beating myself up for days. Antarctica is surreal
“I was too hard on him there. I felt like I hadn’t been a good father. I tortured myself with that memory for hours and hours. As soon as I got back I would take him out for a beer.”
Luke is now 22 and a marine. Back home, Rudd bought his son a beer and began to apologise for being a bad father. Luke looked perplexed throughout – Rudd isn’t one for expressing feelings, but he poured his heart out, apologised over the motorhome incident, thinking it had a huge impact on him.
Luke replied: “I can’t even remember that”.
Rudd looks dismayed at the memory. “I was beating myself up for days over that incident. Antarctica is surreal.”
Residing in Southern Chile, just days before the expedition was due to start, Rudd received a phone call from an American named Colin O’Brady. O’Brady had decided to do the exact same journey as Rudd, at the exact same time. This was now a race to be the first person to cross Antarctica on skis – at least from the media’s perspective, anyway.
“I didn’t want to get drawn into a race because it could jeopardise my decisions, and I might end up taking too many risks. Plus the chance of us both finishing a trip that’s never been completed before is a million-to-one anyway. Why even worry about this guy? I might not finish, he might not finish. I didn’t need that pressure.”
Rudd is a 49-year-old army officer; O’Brady is 34, and a professional endurance athlete. The American reached the Ross Ice Shelf, the vast slab of floating ice that served as the finish line, a mere three days before Rudd. Then he pitched a tent and waited for the man who would join him in the history books.
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What now for Louis Rudd (other than copious cake)? He’s left the army, and spent five months touring the country’s schools, universities, and cadet centres, sharing his remarkable story. “I’ve done 150 schools and events. I think it was roughly 24,000 people that I spoke to in total. Which was fun, but I did drive more than 10,000 miles…”
You drove more than 10,000 miles?
“Yeah, I did the tour on my own. The army hired me a car, put all my kit in there and sent me off to do the talks. I finished three weeks ago. Now I’m looking forward to my new role at Shackleton, as their Director of Expeditions.
What does that entail? “At the moment, we provide clothing for adventures. We’d like to offer the opportunity for these clients to push the clothing to its limits. Something pretty exclusive and high-end. A proper adventure.”
Rudd wants to be on adventure all year round: from taster sessions in rural Norway to retracing Shackleton’s route through South Georgia, where the great explorer is buried. Maybe even crossing the Greenland ice sheet…
There’s contemplation of more Antarctic exploration: reaching the ‘pole of inaccessibility’, 400 miles in-land from the South Pole; to travel from water’s edge on one side of the continent to water’s edge on the other, solo and unsupported – which is practically impossible, although naturally he doesn’t seem to think so.
As we’re packing up, Rudd makes a phone call to O’Brady. They are meeting for a pint in London this evening – their first encounter since the meeting at the edge of the world.
I ask whether Rudd would ever consider doing warmer exploration? He says he has plenty of plans there, including walking across the Gobi Desert. Would he not mind the heat?
He puts on a hat and gloves, opens the door, and says: “Not at all, I bloody hate the cold.”
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