Women's Sports: Meet Jenny Davis, the adventurer attempting to become the fastest woman to ski to the South Pole

Jenny Davis

Jenny Davis’ upcoming solo expedition to the South Pole is so tricky, to attempt it you need permission from the British government.

She had to prove that she could look after herself in an extreme environment, including being able to perform a self-rescue from a crevasse. 

Despite this, Davis insists that for her, skiing from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole is not dangerous, thanks to years of experience as an ultra-runner and mountaineer. She laughs and says: “Just don’t go down a crevasse.”

Evacuation from Antarctica

This isn’t Davis’ first attempt at crossing Antarctica. Last year she embarked on her first attempt but developed a bowel infection and was evacuated to hospital.

Doctors couldn’t identify the precise cause of Davis’ infection as there is limited research done on people pushing their bodies to such extremes, skiing 12 to 14 hours a day. Davis explains that they do have a working theory: “They think you can get something called leaky gut and in language that I understand it means that your body is working so hard to let you perform at that level, that it's not paying attention to things like your gut function.” The leaking microbes could have been the cause of her infection.

All things considered, it would be understandable if Davis didn’t want to return to Antarctica. Instead, she knew she wanted to try again almost straight away. She explains how it only took her a few weeks to recover, followed by a month testing to see if they could identify the cause of the infection so it wouldn’t happen again.

In fact, Davis says she wants this even more than last year: “I didn't think I could possibly want something more than I did then. But coming back to do it again after getting sick last year, I've never felt this determined about anything in my life. It does feel like extra pressure, but it's me that wants to do this.”

To try and avoid a repeat of last year, Davis has been taking probiotics and spending more time adjusting to the calorie-dense dehydrated meals that she’ll live off on the expedition. Not that that’s much of a burden to her: “I love the food. I don't like cooking, so when I’m at home I will sometimes have a packet of the dehydrated meal at any time of the year rather than cooking. I think the majority of the population who do camping would say they're awful though." US brand Backpacker's Pantry does her favourite: a three macaroni cheese that's apparently “to die for”. 

Does last year’s experience help with gearing up to try again? The opposite, says Davis: “It’s actually one of those where you might be better off not knowing what’s in store.” 

Jenny Davis

Davis describes experiencing some of the worst storms on record during her attempt last year, something which she expects again this year: “They’re really hard to ski in. You're in a complete whiteout, and the best way I can describe is that it's like being inside a marshmallow. There’s nothing to look at; you can't look up, you can't look down, you’ve got no depth perception. And it can make you feel nauseous.”

All Davis can do is keep staring at her compass for 12 hours straight, unable to take her eyes off it in case she goes the wrong way: “Those are the seriously tough days.”

Embarking on her second attempt

Davis is aiming to beat the women’s record of 38 days, 23 hours and five minutes. To do this, she is training alongside her full-time job as a lawyer, preparing to cover over 715 miles. Each week she does three strength and conditioning sessions, three power-lifting sessions and then a few cycling sessions to increase her cardio fitness.

On top of that, there is one session a week that is designed to mimic what it will be like when Davis is pulling her sledge – she spends seven hours on a treadmill, at maximum incline connected to a bungee rope weighted with kettlebells.

Much of Davis’ training is done in conditions that mimic high altitude, but as she gets closer to leaving she is sleeping at 3000 metres too. Davis has a tent surrounding her bed and spends another hour a day sitting in a separate machine at 5000 metres. All this is designed to save Davis time: “It’s a way of not wasting the first week feeling a bit rough with altitude sickness.”

For Davis, sleeping at high altitude isn’t anything too new, but for her husband it’s not so ideal: “My other half he has a few ropey nights because if you’re not used to high altitude, or sleeping at it it can make you want to pee all night and get headaches.” 

It’s of little surprise that Davis has no time for anything else: “People say it’s a sacrifice, but it’s short term, and it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice because it’s something I want to do.”

All the training and impact of high altitude sounds physically draining but spending over a month trekking across a white wilderness would surely be just as mentally challenging. Davis says the loneliness is a side that doesn’t bother her.

Last year, even though she took recorded messages from her family, she barely listened to them. Davis explains: “I find that I’m quite good at getting into what we call a flow state. When you’re doing ultra-running or anything really long, you kind of switch off and go.” Instead, Davis relishes the thinking time: “You come up with these amazing ideas of things you can do, you’re going to change the world.”

Where solitariness can be life-threatening is knowing your physical limits. Davis says: “When you’re with a buddy if you’re having a day where you feel a bit rough, you’ve got someone you know you can rely on so you can take turns being the more alert one. When you’re by yourself, you don’t have that luxury. You have to be sensible.” Having the discipline to take a rest when needed or back off when you’re alone is “harder than it sounds”, adds Davis.

Davis is going to be unsupported, meaning no help from anyone else, and unassisted with nothing but her skis to get her to the Pole. Despite this, there are processes in place to mitigate the risks. On Antarctica, there is a base camp with a team who can step in, if need be. Davis will have a tracker on her, can perform a self-rescue and has a pre-arranged ten-minute slot each evening when she must contact the team via satellite. She says: “If you miss two of those calls, they will send out a plane to find you, no matter what.”

It is a vast logistical operation. Davis says: “You’re not going to get much change out of $60,000.” Davis is sponsored by Atkins – a US protein bar company – and has support from DHL to sort her logistics. She even has her clothes provided – Davis has just signed as a North Face athlete.

Surprisingly, Davis explains that she can’t wear lots of clothing because of the body heat she will generate. “With too many layers on, you would sweat and sweat. If that sweat freezes then you’re in serious trouble, you’ll get very ill very quickly and get hypothermia.” All she will wear is base layers and wind-proof salopettes and a jacket. 

Jenny Davis

The wind can be particularly problematic, especially for women who can get “polar thigh”. This is where the wind causes the fat on upper thighs to die. Davis experienced it last year after a day skiing without enough protective clothing and recalls: “It’s itchy and painful. It eventually goes away, but you don’t want to get that.” She also covers her entire face to protect it from the elements – Davis describes wearing a “Darth Vader mask” as well as a balaclava.

A family adventure

Davis will carry all her clothes and gear in her sledge – called a pulk – including around 45 days’ worth of food, a tent and solar panels to keep everything charged. She will spend a week getting ready at the bottom of Chile, in a place called Punta Arenas. Her Dad is her expedition manager and will join her there, helping pack the pulk before it is transported to Antarctica.

It’s appropriate that Davis’ expedition is a family affair, as it’s through adventurous holidays and travelling the world as a child that she got her love of adventure. Her parents worked in the oil and gas industry, and Davis remembers growing up in Borneo: “I spent a lot of time mucking around in the rainforest”.

Her family are supportive, but she does suspect that her four brothers are slightly over Antarctica. She laughs and says: “It ends up being all you talk about because it’s what you live, you don’t have time for anything else.”

When Davis’ family moved back to Scotland, she started swimming at a national level, then fell into ultra-running after deciding to enter a 35-mile race while on holiday. Davis decided she wanted to see what would happen if she trained for a similar event, and that was it. She says: “Once you start getting into the world of ultra-marathons you find out about all sorts of crazy events all over the world that you can get involved in.” 

Jenny Davis

All this begs the question, what is it about Antarctica that first enticed Davis. It turns out it’s been something she’s dreamt of since childhood, having read about the race to the pole between the Norwegians and the British. She says: “I’ve always wanted to go; I just didn’t know how I would get there or what that would look like.”

After initially looking into doing a mountaineering expedition with friends, the costs were too high. Through research, however, inspiration struck: “I suddenly thought: 'Oh I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to go for the women’s solo attempt.'”

Davis is setting off on the 11th of November and will join an elite club if she succeeds. She would be the seventh woman to complete the solo.

There is one thing that excites her: “I am most looking forward to seeing the South Pole from a distance because on a good weather day, you can see things coming up. I keep visualising seeing the South Pole for the first time.” She’s got a long journey ahead of her, but after one unsuccessful attempt, that sight will surely be even sweeter.

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