Meet the adventurer: polar explorer Wendy Searle on consistency, comfort zones and her new Antarctic challenge
A latecomer to polar adventure, Wendy is the seventh woman ever to ski solo from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole. Departing 5 December, Wendy Searle aims to break the women’s speed record for the same 715-mile feat.
What ignited your passion for polar exploration?
In 2016, I was working for a charity and Louis Rudd’s SPEAR 17 team came to us looking for an expedition manager for their attempt to traverse Antarctica, so I agreed. I found myself wondering if someone like me — no money, no spare time, four kids, office job, couldn’t ski — could train and compete in something like that. I think everyone has at least one big adventure in them. You just have to scratch the surface and see what it is.
This year, you’re aiming to become the fastest woman to ski solo from the Antarctic Coast to the Geographic South Pole. What will it take?
In January 2020, I completed the same 715-mile challenge in 42 days, travelling solo and unsupported. To beat the record this time, I need to finish in 38 days and 23 hours, which will mean moving at least 7% faster. I’m hoping to break the record significantly, but there are at least two other women attempting the record as well. Which of us will achieve it? We’ll see!
The record’s not my only purpose: I want to inspire women, especially those in mid-life who have dedicated a lot of time to the family. It’s never too late. No one tells the men ‘you shouldn’t take risks or push yourself’, just because you are a parent.
How do you cope with the solitude of solo expeditions?
It’s incredibly difficult, but on reflection, I quite enjoyed the solitude. I find the simplicity of skiing solo quite addictive — it’s why I plan to go back to the Antarctic. When you’re out of your comfort zone, but not quite in your panic zone, that’s where the magic happens. But there are certainly two sides to it. I really missed my family, my kids. I’d have this elaborate visualisation of what I’d do when I got home, and that would take up quite a chunk of mental space each day.
How do you train in the UK?
I go and take my tyre on a long walk. My pulk [Nordic sled] was 86kg when I started my first expedition, so heavier than me, but with the sled providing less resistance on the snow, it feels quite similar to pulling a 20kg tyre along a road. I train mostly in the Welsh countryside. I do get some strange looks, but most people stop and chat. Many end up telling me their own crazy adventure dreams or amazing things they’ve done — everyone’s got a story.
What moment from your expeditions has stuck with you?
I was in Greenland for 27 days, and for 26 of them there were terrible whiteout conditions — really deep soft snow that was impossible to ski in and hurricane-style winds. Locals call them spiteraq storms, which literally means ‘that which wishes you harm’ in east Greenlandic dialect. They’re legendary in their ferocity and you have to be really careful to use equipment correctly in order to ensure your tent can withstand them. Some of our team had a really bad experience at one point towards the end of the expedition. But the next day, as we were skiing off the ice sheet, this beautiful peach-coloured sky appeared on the horizon, lighting up the mist over the fjords. We knew we were going home, and it was such an incredible, awe-inspiring moment.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into polar adventuring?
What’s worked for me is consistency. Figure out where you need to get to and give yourself a time frame to do that. For me, there was a total void of experience. I’d never done a polar journey, hardly even skied except for one disastrous college trip, so I started small with a two-week training course and then a ski expedition across Greenland. I thought my South Pole trip would be like a marathon, but it’s just been the start. I want to make adventure accessible. There’s room for people of all backgrounds.
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Published in the Winter Sports 2022/23 guide, distributed with the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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