Best of ExplorersWeb 2007 Awards: The fastest trek - Hannah McKeand, South Pole

Posted: Dec 24, 2007 09:46 pm EST

We have covered close to a thousand expeditions in 2007. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.

And yet, there are those who linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 8 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in 2007.

Today number 8: Hannah - South Pole world speed record

After breaking the speed record for a solo, unsupported trip to the South Pole, British Hannah McKeand returned to civilization in Australia. My return to the ice-free world was coupled with all those old feelings of disorientation and bewilderment that I had two years ago, she reported. The noise and confusion we live in daily without a thought is almost overwhelming; traffic is terrifying, people unnerving and nighttime darkness fills me with unease.

Quite a few people live the same day of life over and over again. Wake up, go to work, go home, go to bed Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Every once in a while though, one of those people says, f#%! it. Back in 2001, 28 years old, coming out of a seven-year relationship "in which Id felt quite stifled" the UK woman decided to drop everything, mortgage the house, and go for it.

In 2001 she traveled across the Western Desert on the borders of Egypt, Libya and Sudan; the first of several trips to the Northern Africa desert areas. In 2004, she hiked across Afghanistan.

Later that year she joined a guided team for the South Pole. The group suffered a number of injuries, with Hannah one of the few arriving the South Pole. In 2005, Hannah completed half the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, from England to Portugal, Brazil, Durban, Fremantle, Singapore and the Philippines.


In 2006, last fall, she landed in Punta Arenas for the second time. A social animal, she couldnt stand an evening alone in a hotel so she hit the bar in town and rapidly made friends among cargo sailors harbored at this southernmost outpost.

I think it is going to be really hard, she discussed her upcoming quest. Im naturally a gregarious and social person and it will be very interesting managing my internal reaction to the isolation.

"Please get me out of here"

The game plan was simple: Make it to the South Pole in 40 days and break the previous speed record. Arriving a stormy but cozy BC at Patriot Hills, reality hit:

"I try to be honest in these dispatches, and sometimes that means letting you all see that I'm actually a big lazy coward underneath," she wrote, "No matter how hard I've worked to be here there is still this little tiny voice inside saying "Oh my God, please don't make me do this, please get me out of here."

Leaving Hercules Inlet at 10 AM GMT on November 19 2006, Hannah started out hard, covering double the distance of many unsupported expeditions. But her speed took its toll and her mother sent her the poem Invictus:

Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond the place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

(W. E Henley August 23rd 1849 - June 11th 1903)

"I don't have an unlimited supply of days like today in me

Hannah struggled on. She watched Patriot Hills slowly go past, listening to Harry Potter Book 3, "whatever am I going to do in 3 days time when I have finished them all," she fretted.

(Ed: It's amazing that the author of the Harry Potter books struggled for ten years before finding a willing publisher. Her books not only kept Hannah going: McArthur and Tokarev, the 12th crew on ISS, had the plot on their Thanksgiving wish list so Potter was beamed to space in 2005.)

Three Sails grew bigger, "I am still following our old routine of skiing for 1 hour 15 minutes and then resting for 15 minutes. I'm doing 7 marches from 8am to 6.15pm," she dispatched over Contact.

All explorers will tell you that their season is the worst yet. Conditions do vary though and this really was a bad year on Antarctica. Where during the previous speed record virtually all teams, young and old, arrived the pole with very good results - this year was different. All skiers struggled, their images showing unusually tall sastrugi and disturbed ice.

Day after day, Hannah traveled virtually blind and at the mercy of the big invisible sastrugi. Looking at myself tonight I am black and blue, Hannah wrote.

"I have fallen over endlessly and the sharp edges of the icy waves all around are hard and unforgiving. Several times today I found myself trapped in such large patches of giant sastrugi (up to 3 or 4m hig ), that unable to go forward or back I had to take off my skis and feel about for the best escape route and then bodily lift and manhandle my pulk to clearer ground.

I ended the day cold and tired and a sorry 13.8nms from last night's camp. I can only hope and pray that the sun will be back tomorrow. I don't have an unlimited supply of days like today in me.

Sastrugi hell

But it just went on and on. I'm in sastrugi hell, vented Hannah, fighting rough ground. The snow is just piled up in vicious, ankle-breaking, soul-destroying waves and ridges as far as the eye can see in every direction. I've been clambering and tugging and humping through it all day and it shows no sign of diminishing.

My spirits got pretty low by the end of the day, this is the hard part about being alone. All she had for comfort was another poem, this one scribbled on the tent wall by Kevin and Jamie from the Kiwis on Ice team, decorated with Maori designs:

Jamie and Kevin are our names,
Tough Kiwi men on tough Kiwi games.
To the South Pole is our latest adventure,
But Hannah McKeand has a tougher endeavour,
All alone walking across the chilly white ice.
We'll think of you loads, more than just once or twice.
Pulling that big, heavy, nasty, sled,
Sweat, fat and muscle is what you will shed.
We all know the method to stay in touch,
Texting is what we will do very much.
So now we know why you'll travel so fast,
You must make the Pole while your yummy fudge lasts.
You must do your best to beat us there,
Cause we'll eat all their food and drink all their beer.
So don't think you can't walk with it being so bleak,
As you are protected by your sexy nose beak.
So Hannah it's time to get out of bed,
Don't let that wind get into your head!!"

A glamorous business

Charging towards the pole, Hannah was on schedule to beat Fiona's (41 days 8 hours) and Rosie's speed record. But it was far from a done deal. She was losing weight fast and struggling.

Now a debate erupted regarding exact starting points. The British women disputed Hannah, even emailing her about it on the ice. Tired and weak already, the controversy was a big risk to Hannah's morale. In spite of it being Christmas holidays, AdventureStats urgently looked into the matter. Turned out all starting points were valid - except perhaps for Rosie's (not confirmed by Argos).

Hannah could charge on.

Am getting what I guess are chilblains down the front of my thighs where the wind is always hitting them," she wrote, "oh, it's a glamorous business all this!

"These boys are a smashing bunch"

A few degrees later Hannah was closing in - not just on the Pole but also the British RAF and Marine boys. It couldn't have been easy for the hardcore soldiers to have the girl on their heels, especially as she was listening to Pride and Prejudice on her MP3. Mid afternoon I crossed tracks twice, the first time it was hard to tell, but the second time it was clearly four skiers, Hannah reported. "I'm fairly certain it is the Southern Reach RAF expedition. These boys are a smashing bunch, I hope I might catch them, but it will be tough, they are doing a great job!

"Perhaps in part thanks to Elizabeth and Darcy, I managed 15nms, she added.

Yet still it blew and still the sastrugi were huge. Today was a bit of a trial once again and I must admit I was struggling to feel the Antarctic love," she wrote. Switching audio book to A Moveable Feast Hannah got out there, day after day. "I'm really starting to get Hemmingway as I get older. I'm learning to love his spartan prose, she pondered.

Anything could happen yet. With exhaustion, the risk of injury and gear breakage multiplied. Fighting aggressive sastrugi, Hannah wrestled her pulk back onto its runners over and over again.

And then, just like that, she arrived at the pole. On Thursday December 28 at 8.33pm GMT, Hannah became the fastest unsupported South Pole skier in the world and the 9th woman to ski to the Pole without resupplies.

At this historic point, marking the battle between Amundsen and Scott; the UK Marines and the last degree Indian Navy boys made Hannah dinner.

Turning page

Starting out at Patriot Hills (further inland), the British Marines barely made the pole before Hannah. RAF unfortunately had to abort due to health issues. It was a friendly race; but she beat them all - unsupported and alone. Hannah made it in 39 days, 10 hours and 33 min, almost 2 days faster than the previous record of 41 days 8 hours and 14 min.

The flight back to Patriot Hills was full of reflection, Hannah wrote once back in Patriot Hills. It is a deeply profound experience flying back over that vast expanse and trying to imagine how you ever fitted down there, the tiniest speck creeping over it day after day. I think it will be days, weeks, maybe years before I am able to understand the full depth of what I have experienced over the past few weeks. All I can say for sure is that as I flew over it I felt an incredible sense of loss and sorrow and silent tears rolled down my face.

Well she didn't cry long. Within weeks, McKeand slipped lines off Hobarts harbor on board the sailing ship Blizzard she had recently co-partnered and set course southwards to Commonwealth bay. I was not long off watch when a huge wave hit the boat, knocking her hard onto her side; as she came back up I heard an urgent shout, the words you never want to hear, 'Man overboard!'"

But that folks, is another story.

Hannah stays in our memory for her determination, persistence, self reliance, idealism, respect towards competition and Spirit of Adventure.

By their performance, the awarded expeditions have proved themselves outstanding in all or most of the following:
- Courage
- Determination
- Persistence
- Self reliance
- Ingenuity
- Pioneering
- Idealism
- Comradeship
- Compassion
- Respect towards competition
- Honesty

Previous in the countdown:

Special mention:

Jannu West Ridge First Ascent: Valery Babanov and Sergey Kofanov
Torres del Paine Base Jump: Valery Rozov
In the hoofsteps of Genghis Khan: Tim Cope
NW Passage in ice catamaran: Sebastien Roubinet
Lhotse Shar, G2 NF & Jasemba, Lhotse south near-winter ascent

More about Hannah:

After the SP trip, Hannah resurfaced - teaming up with David Pryce, an experienced Antarctic and Southern Ocean sailor. They launched Blizzard Expeditions, an adventure outfit company exploring the Southern Ocean regions including Antarctica, South Georgia, Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego as well as Cape Horn and the Beagle Channel.

#Mountaineering #Polar #Space #Mountaineering #Oceans

Click to expand. Starting positions for Rosie, Fiona and Hannah. Fiona's and Hannah's position as confirmed by Argos. The Hill is the Nunantaks. Skiing East of the Nunataks (upwards in image) is not done due to heavy crevassing.
"The biggest lesson I have learned so far is that with a little patience, you can get anywhere. If you just keep putting one foot in front of the other then vast distances can be covered in time.
Hannah previously at the South Pole. File image courtesy of Hannah McKeand (click to enlarge)
Hannah nearing the last degree - as shown in the Contact 4.0 Geo interactive map. Black dots mark previous dispatches at real-time location on the map - latest report appears in green. The ground surface is a satellite image by NASA Earth Ob. Map by HumanEdgeTech, courtesy of Hannah McKeand (click to enlarge).
She outran them all, including RAF and the Marines. UK Marines leader Sean Chapple (left), RAF Kev Skully (right) Hannah (center).
Quite a few people live the same day of life over and over again. Wake up, go to work, go home, go to bed Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Every once in a while though, one of those people says, f#%! it. Back in 2001, 28 years old, coming out of a seven-year relationship "in which Id felt quite stifled" the UK woman decided to drop everything, mortgage the house, and go for it.
It couldn't have been easy for the hard British soldiers to have the girl on their heels. I'm fairly certain it is the Southern Reach RAF expedition," she said when crossing their tracks. "These boys are a smashing bunch, I hope I might catch them, but it will be tough, they are doing a great job! Hannah dispatched. All images courtesy of Hannah MacKeand (click to enlarge).

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