What it’s like to trek to the South Pole, as told by a 19-year-old

December 19, 2013

(Willis Resilience Expedition)

While his Yale classmates are at home enjoying winter break, Parker Liautaud, 19, is attempting to set a world record for the fastest unsupported coast-to-pole crossing. He’s journeying with Doug Stoup as part of Willis Resilience Expedition, which began with a research mission. A three-man team in a truck is following the duo and documenting the trip online. Liautaud made a very long-distance call to me after covering 16.7 nautical miles Wednesday and shared what the experience is like.

Hunger is difficult to escape.
Ramen packets were his go-to breakfast early in the trek. But he’s switched to a heaping four servings of oatmeal to fill himself up. “In the past few days I have been feeling so so hungry. And almost feeling a burning, a really painful type of hunger,” Liautaud told me. For dinner he’ll have freeze-dried foods such as pasta.

There’s no lunch in Antarctica.
It’s not efficient to stop, set up camp and eat, especially when you’re trying to set a world record. The duo skis for seven 60-90 minute chunks each day. The spans are broken up by a 10-minute snack break. Liautaud will sit on his sled and chomp on chocolate, nuts and dried foods.


(Willis Resilience Expedition)

Melting snow is a daily chore.
Each night Liautaud and his partner Stoup put chunks of ice in a huge pot and melt them down on a stove in their tent. The water fills a Nalgene and several thermoses. It will need to last them until they set up camp the next evening and melt more snow.

Simple tasks become extremely taxing.
Adjusting a zipper on a coat isn’t simple. Liautaud would rather not remove his gloves in below-zero temperatures. He tried adding large loops of string to zippers so that he doesn’t have to remove his gloves. “It’s sort of a constant challenge to do things that would only take two seconds,” he said.

Finding the perfect amount of layers is essential.
Sweating must be avoided because the water may end up freezing. So Liautaud strives to find the right balance that keeps him warm, but not too hot. While on his cross-country skis, and generating heat, Liautaud will wear only two to four layers. During breaks, he’ll put on his 800-fill down jacket to stay warm.

“The key to staying out longer, being okay staying out longer, and being able to perform is making sure you’re comfortable and not compromising on things during the day so they gradually grow during the day and build up,” he explained.


(Willis Resilience Expedition)

Warmth is crucial, but so is staying dry.
Liautaud will sleep with a wet face guard close to his body, and sometimes in an armpit. The face guard, which becomes covered in ice throughout a day’s travels (see above), needs to be dried out. First he’ll melt the ice by leaving it on the stove in their tent. Sleeping with it overnight will dry it out. While somewhat uncomfortable, it’s preferable to starting the day with a wet face guard.

Don’t expect March of the Penguins.
Liautaud and Stoup have seen no animals on their journey. The only living beings they’ve encountered are a few fellow adventurers, including a woman on her way to begin a bike journey to the South Pole.

The real world isn’t that far away.
No trip lasts forever. Liautaud, a sophomore at Yale, has a geochemistry exam from the fall semester to complete once he returns. As for his next adventure to promote awareness of climate change? He hasn’t decided yet.


This 2.6 ton truck is following Liautaud and Stoup, who are pulling all of their own supplies on sleds. The truck is home to a communications team that’s documenting and broadcasting much of the trip. (Willis Resilience Expedition)
Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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