Parker Liautaud set a record in December as the fastest unsupported person to ski from the Antarctic Coast to the South Pole, completing the 314-mile journey in 18 days.
At 19, the polar adventurer is also the youngest man to reach the most southern point on Earth by foot, without any assistance.
But the records come second to Liautaud’s main goal, which is to advance the discussion on climate change. During the first part of the mission, Liautaud and four others crossed the continent in a custom-built truck collecting ice and snow samples for a global warming study. Liautaud and his teammate, Doug Stoup, then skied unsupported to the South Pole, while the other men followed at a distance.
“The speed record was to engage people about climate policy,” Liautaud said in an interview with Business Insider. “It was also a good metaphor for the urgency of climate change.”
The mission, called Willis Resilience Expedition, began in late November last year when Parker and a four-man team touched down at a base called Union Glacier near the Antarctic coast on the Ronne Ice Shelf.
The mission was split into two parts. First, the entire team traveled across the continent in the Ice Broker collecting ice and snow samples.
Parker is studying changes in composition of isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen in snow samples from different parts of the continent. The data is helpful for gaining a better understanding of the global water cycle.
The crew also tested a new lightweight and less costly version of a weather station. The data collected by the mobile station will be compared to nearby established stations for accuracy.
Once the scientific fieldwork was done, Parker and his teammate, veteran polar guide Doug Stoup, set out on skis from Leverett Glacier.
In order to set a new speed record, Parker and Doug had to cover more than 300 miles from the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole in just 22 days.
Reaching the South Pole from the Ross Ice Shelf means crossing the Transantarctic Mountains, the mountain range that divides East and West Antarctica.
Parker and Doug were also each lugging 176-pounds sleds, full of all the food and supplies needed to keep them alive during the journey.
Although Parker has trekked to the North Pole three times before, this trip was more rigorous. He worked with trainer during his spring semester to prepare for the trip. 'I'm not naturally athletic,' he told Business Insider, 'That was a learning process.
Parker and Doug were followed by the other three men from the expedition in the Ice Broker. The truck wasn't allowed to help the skiers, but was used to stream live footage of Parker and Doug from the ice.
Alone on the ice, however, the explorers battled temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero and 55-mile per hour winds.
In addition to the dangers of frostbite and hypothermia, the team had to watch out for crevasses, deep cracks in the ice that are often covered in snow and hard to spot.
The two men ran into several large crevasses during their trek, including one that was big enough to fit an aeroplane, Parker said.
On a typical day, Parker and Doug would wake up around 4 a.m. They would start off the morning by melting snow on a stove in their tent. This provided enough water for the day to drink and to make breakfast.
By around 6 a.m., they were ready to head out after taking down the tent and packing up their sleds.
On the ice, both men were burning up to 10,000 calories a day. To keep their energy up, they would snack on high-calorie foods like chocolate, beef jerky, and nuts.
After around 12 hours of travelling on snow and ice, the team would set up camp for the night. Dinner would be freeze-dried meals.
Between September and March, the sun never sets in the South Pole. But Parker never found it difficult to fall asleep at bedtime. He would burrow into his sleeping bag if he needed to block out the light.
Parker faced the hardest part of the expedition in the first week. One of the biggest challenges was climbing Leverett Glacier. The section starts at sea level and hits a high plateau at around 9,000 feet.
Parker had picked up a cold from base camp and was not acclimatizing to the altitude well. He found it hard to breath and was feeling a general sense of hopelessness since he still had so much distance to go. 'I got to the point when I didn't think I would be able to make it all.'
To find the strength to keep going, Parker said he visualized the journey ahead of him as small, manageable chunks: 'Instead of seeing it as 300 miles away, I would start to visualise the South Pole as 10 steps away.'
Although the team didn't see any wildlife except for a few birds, they did encounter two other expeditions. That included a British adventurer, Maria Leijerstam, who was on her way to becoming the first person to bike to the South Pole.
After staying overnight, the team got a flight back to Union Glacier. They were home in time for New Years.
Parker suffered a minor version of frostbite on his fingers, nose, and cheeks. The tips of all of his fingers on his right hand and two fingers on his left hand felt numb for about three weeks after returning from Antarctica. He eventually regained feeling.
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