NatGeo’s “Race to the Bottom of the Earth” follows Todd Carmichael and his attempt to become the first American to trek solo to the South Pole. Before you tune in, revisit our 2009 profile of Carmichael’s expedition.
Todd Carmichael set out to become the fastest person to reach the South Pole on foot. He didn’t count on having to fight for his own life.
By Darren Reidy
Just past 4 a.m. on December 19, 2008, American Todd Carmichael sits in a tent below Antarctica’s 89th parallel. Outside it’s 40 below, windy, and otherworldly bright, as the solstice sun circles tirelessly overhead, inching toward the South Pole. That’s where Carmichael is headed too, in the last stage of his attempt to break British explorer Hannah McKeand’s record for an unassisted trek to the pole. She traveled the 690 miles from Hercules Inlet to the pole in 39 days, nine hours, and 33 minutes. Right now, on day 37, despite overcoming a series of accidents that would have broken weaker men, Carmichael is coming up short.
He’s been coughing up blood for 10 days, even while he sleeps. This morning the 45-year-old notices fleshy black bits in his spit — pieces of frostbitten lung. When he lies down his breathing is reduced to a wheeze. He turns on his video camera, and for the first time his eyes have the hollow, swimming look of desperation. His phones are dead; he thinks he was able to beam out a signal to let his wife know he’s alive, but he’s not sure it worked. Right now he has heavier concerns. After five hours of repeatedly breaking down and reassembling his gas stoves, he still can’t get either one to light. Antarctica may hold two-thirds of the world’s freshwater, but its icy interior is a desert. The only way to get water is to melt that ice.
“I just don’t know what to do,” Carmichael says to the camera. “No way of communicating with anyone. No way of making water.” His voice rises with resentment. “I have no water! That’s it. I have no water. If you don’t have water, you don’t have life.”
Then his situation takes a turn for the worse: Carmichael discovers that he has made a crucial mistake, packing a leaky fuel canister in the wrong bag, together with his remaining food and GPS. Both are now ruined, leaving him in the middle of nowhere with no food, having to navigate a whiteout with nothing but a compass and a vague memory of his last coordinates.
But first he needs fire. He assembles his stoves again and prays for a tiny blue flame.
For most of the year, hercules inlet is empty except for the pigeon-like snow petrels that nest along its icy crags. This plain at the foot of the Patriot Hills allows small Twin Otter planes to land from November to January, depositing arctic tourists and their guides, along with climbers attempting to summit the nearby 16,000-foot Vinson Massif. From that plain it’s a grueling 700 uphill miles to the pole. Winds upward of 80 mph sweep down off the ice shelves, forming sharp, narrow dunes called sastrugi as high as a man’s shoulder. The frozen wasteland is full of ridges and crevasses covered by thin snow bridges that can collapse without warning, dropping trekkers into dark recesses, never to be found.
Instead of taking the traditional route around these hazards, Carmichael hopes to save time by heading directly up the hills, pulling gear and supplies on a 250-pound sled he calls the “Pig.”
Carmichael has never taken the easy route. He started hiking the hills around his home in Spokane at age 11. At 17 he hiked 120 miles across the Columbia Basin Desert, alone. After graduating from the University of Washington, where he ran long-distance, he worked in shipping in Monte Carlo and repaired a 1927 Barquette Marseillaise yacht that he later sailed solo across the Atlantic and back. A job as a Saudi prince’s attaché gave him access to deserts usually barred to Westerners, and he hiked two dozen of them. The Congolese jungle, Zimbabwe’s scrub plains, the Sahara and Namib deserts: By 40 he’d crossed dozens of the Earth’s most forbidding regions. But not Antarctica.
From the start Carmichael encounters demoralizing mishaps. On day one, eight miles into the steep, 45-degree climb, the bindings on his right ski snap, along with his right pole. The next day his other binding and pole break. He calls base camp. “They offered to bring me new skis,” he says. “But that would make it a supported trek. I said no.” No one crosses Antarctica without skis or snowshoes; the risk is too great. Besides making a person 50 percent faster, skis also spread out body weight, reducing the chances of falling into a crevasse. “At that stage,” he says, “the good money wasn’t on me.”
After four days Carmichael is 44 miles in, not far off the record pace. Around noon clouds gather, darkening the vast pewter sky. He sets camp just as the storm hits. For two days gale-force winds batter his tent, tearing a hole in the nylon. When the storm relents, he’s three days behind schedule.
“It was like the continent was against me,” he says. “Recapturing that distance seemed impossible without skis.” Even if he somehow treks 18 or more hours a day, even if his body holds up, simple math is still working against him. But when he turns to his camera, he looks matter-of-fact, calm. “I became possessed,” he says. “I was required to do it.”
His body rapidly deteriorating, Carmichael keeps a blistering pace over the next two weeks, covering 520 miles and setting a record by traveling 27 miles in 24 hours. Then, on day 37, only 50 miles from the pole, his stoves fail, and the leaky canister ruins all of his remaining food and kills his GPS. He starts to lose his mind. “I was way out on the edge,” he says. Carmichael’s lung capacity has dwindled to a feeble 15 percent. His goggles are broken, forcing him to rely on sunglasses to fight glare and wind. His left eyelid is frostbitten, and moisture has collected underneath, freezing the lid to his eyeball. He’s down to 169 pounds, 50 less than when he started, and with no food he can’t replenish the 500 calories he’s burning every hour. Worse, he now forgets his coordinates. “I had two numbers in my head: 116 degrees and 119,” he says. Being three degrees off would send him miles in the wrong direction; he’d miss the pole and possibly never be found. Carmichael picks 116, hoping this time luck is on his side.
He takes a step toward where he believes the pole might be. Then another. A mile. Ten. After 43 straight hours trekking through the snow with no food and only a small amount of water, Carmichael sees a cluster of black dots in the distance, like flies shifting behind a screen. At first he thinks it’s a mirage, but the specks grow larger. They’re buildings, maybe three miles off, and he pushes hard, nearly burning himself out. To save energy he unbuckles the Pig, leaving behind everything he needs to survive. “It was a scary thing,” he says. “Like swimming from ship to shore and hoping you don’t hit any rocks.”
Lurching like a beaten fighter, he eventually crosses a deserted airfield and passes a junkyard. Suddenly he sees a red figure. It waves. It’s a woman. “Would you like to come inside?” she asks. For a moment Carmichael forgets why he’s there. His words are jumbled, his face a mosaic of scabs bandaged with peeling duct tape. “Where’s the pole?” he asks. She motions behind her, past a building shaped like a crushed beer can. Worried, she follows him behind the building, past a ring of flags, to a stick planted in the ice: the South Pole. “What time is it?” he asks. “What time is it?! Can you confirm it’s 6:04?”
It’s 39 days, seven hours, and 49 minutes since Carmichael started. He snatched the record by a mere hour and 44 minutes.
“I was going to get there no matter what,” says Carmichael, a week after the expedition. “I never questioned it.” He sits in his Philadelphia office, above the La Colombe coffee factory he co-founded in 1994. His voice is still raspy, cracked from cold and the edema ravaging his lungs. His frostbitten cheeks have the texture of exposed rock. His toes are worse. “The tips will slough off,” he shrugs. “I’m not a flip-flop guy anyway.”
There is little debating how close Carmichael came to not being here. “One more day out there and you’d be dead,” the doctor at the U.S. polar station told him. In retrospect it appears Carmichael brought himself to the edge of death by a combination of bullish pride and self-destructive determination. But those same qualities, coupled with his extraordinary fitness, ultimately saved him.
“I’m capable of doing it so much faster,” says Carmichael. “I try not to let in regrets.” But regrets aren’t far from his mind. Ten days after he returned, three Canadians arrived at the South Pole, making the trek in just under 34 days. Their faces were splashed over the news worldwide. The worst they suffered was a few foot blisters. Carmichael’s scabby mug barely made the local paper.
“They took a guide, one of the most experienced on the planet,” says Carmichael. “They’re saying they’re the best in the world. No, you’re fucking not. Learning how to survive on your own takes a lifetime.”
Carmichael still holds the solo record, but he wants one for the ages. “Part of me is happy it happened this way,” he says. “No one can say I got it because it was an easy year.”