Ocean, Coast, Inner Coast..... Is this really the question?
There has been a massive amount of debate over the last year about how we talk about Antarctic expeditions, how we categorise them and how we judge their merit. A lot of the debate comes down to the terminology that we use to describe starting points. In the early days of polar exploration it was a moot point, the only way to access the frozen continent was to sail a ship there and climb on. Today, with only a few very unusual exceptions, expeditioners access the continent via air. The location of the camps and runways that we arrive at has driven the modern expedition age to a selection of notional start points that we have validated by highlighting various select geographic facts about them.
For the past 20 years the classic starting point for modern polar expeditions has been Hercules Inlet. Hercules, for most of those years, has been broadly described as a ‘coast to Pole’ route, by myself included. The argument for this is that the inlet is located on the technical geographic coast of Antarctica and the ice there some seasons does show a tide crack where the ice shelf rises and falls. I myself have skied 3 times to the South Pole from Hercules Inlet so I am more intimately acquainted with the spot than most. So is this a coast? No! Not in conventional terms. The ocean, that you could drop a hook through a crack into and pull up a fish, is hundreds of miles away. The Hercules Inlet start point is a convenient contrivance of the commercial expedition industry. Hercules Inlet is situated a short flight from polar logistics provider, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions’ operations base at Union Glacier (formerly Patriot Hills). The Hercules Inlet start point provides the most convenient and affordable start point possible from the Union Glacier Antarctic access point. Some of you are going to be thinking at this point that I am in some way about to belittle the merit of skiing the Hercules to Pole route, as though it is somehow less of an achievement for not starting where you get your feet wet. In no way!! Skiing from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole is an extraordinary achievement! It is 690 miles across the barren interior of Antarctica. It takes anywhere between 24 (the incredible speed record set in 2010 by Christian Eide) to 60 days, depending on the execution of the particular trip. These are immense projects and people still fail on them all the time.
I am baffled by the passion with which some commentators want to invalidate these routes. Why can we not just accept them and value them for their individual merits and challenges? The first marathon historically relates to the run of the Greek soldier Pheidippides from a battlefield near the town of Marathon in Greece to Athens in 490 B.C. According to legend, Pheidippides ran the approximately 25 miles to announce the defeat of the Persians to the anxious Athenians. Marathons are run all over the world now but each marathon route is an event in its own right not compared directly to all others or the original feat. Achievements in athletic field and track events such as 100m, 200m, 1500m are condition controlled and results around the world are compared with one another, but the point is that events must have deep similarities in order to be judged against each other. I think we should think of feats of achievement on the various Antarctic expedition routes in isolation from each other in the same way as we do Athletic events or individual marathon courses. We need to update our thinking and get specific with how we describe what people are doing.
A few more dedicated polar minds than my own have been grappling with this question this year and one of the suggested terms I have heard being bandied about is ‘inner coast’ to refer to start points such as Hercules Inlet and the Messner Start on the Filchner Ice Shelf as opposed to ‘coast’. This makes ok sense to me, I don’t mind it, so for the time being, until anything better comes along I’m going to do my best to adopt that phrase into my vernacular about these trips, at the very least as a gesture of willingness to explore the road to greater honesty and clarity on this topic.
That said, it then begs the question as to what it might now mean to do a ‘coast’ to pole trip, I’m not sure. There are start points that have been identified as somehow more legitimately describing a coastal start point, most notably those laudable expeditions that have chosen the north end of Berkner Island for their beginnings. These expeditions are amongst the most impressive achievements in modern polar expedition history, but if we are getting into the nitty gritty about them I could also point out that none of those expeditioners were in danger of getting their feet wet either (the photo posted with this entry is of the northern tip of Berkner Island). I have not done extensive fact checking on this statement, but I am fairly sure that every Berkner Island starting expedition began up on the island, some 10 miles away from its heavily crevassed coast (I am happy to take correction on this if I am wrong). I want to argue that what made these trips more impressive than others is not the assertion that they started on the ‘true coast’, because that is a false statement, they were no more on the coast than the Hercules or Messner starters, it is the fact that those expeditions chose a route that is more than 200 miles longer than those commoner routes. A Berkner to Pole expedition is bad ass.
I wonder if there is an argument for a new term, something so rare that I can only think of one example of it happening in the modern era. Ocean to Pole! Where the first photo of your trip has to be of you splashing your feet in the water. Now that is an expedition gauntlet worth throwing down. To date I think the only modern expedition that has gone ocean to Pole is the indomitable Mike Horn who climbed off his yacht Pangea in 2016 and crossed Antarctica alone with the use of kites. The use of kites, vehicles, dogs, skateboards is a topic for another day. But however he did it, surrounded by whatever controversy, it was one of the supreme human expedition achievements of our time, and indisputably, maybe for the first time since the historic era, on an ‘ocean to Pole’ route.
I believe that attempts to use any of these these monikers and broad descriptive phrases to compare routes one with another are meaningless. Each route on this continent of infinite possibilities is a unique event and we should compare only the efforts of each attempt on a specific route to each other, as we would the specific events on athletics fields around the world or the times on a specific marathon course.
I once held a solo speed record from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole, it was a journey of 690 miles and it took me 39 days, 9 hours and 33 minutes. Period. Coast schmoast. Them’s the facts.