Women's Sport: Mollie Hughes' record-breaking ski to the South Pole

After 702 miles and 58 days of skiing for up to 12 hours a day across Antarctica, Mollie Hughes became the youngest woman ever to ski solo from the continent’s coast to the South Pole.

She is no stranger to adventure. She is also the youngest woman to summit Everest from both the north and south faces of the mountain, but talking over skype from Chile six days after she finished, the scale of her feat still doesn’t seem real. 

“I still don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” reflects Hughes. Her schedule has been packed since she finished – after a couple of days at the pole, she went to basecamp on Antarctica before flying to Chile. “I don’t think it will sink in until I get home,” she concludes.

Hughes is candidly talked about her challenge, relieved to have reached the South Pole. Laughing she says that the thing she is most pleased about having finished is “Not having to ski anymore, not having to wake up every day and put my skis on head out there for 12 hours of skiing.”

She is very matter of fact about it, explaining that not all fun is the same. There’s type one fun, where you enjoy the activity while you’re doing it. Then type two fun is where it’s not fun at the time but is when you look back on it and finally type three fun that’s never really fun, it’s simply scary.

For Hughes, this expedition falls squarely in the second category: “This trip was type two fun. At the time you don’t really enjoy it, it’s just pain and suffering. Once you stop and you look back, that’s when you get the glazed good memories of how incredible it was, how amazing everything looked.”

Hughes admits that she hasn’t fully reached the misty-eyed, rose-tinted that-was-fun stage, laughing and saying she definitely doesn’t miss Antarctica. In response to a question about what her low points were, she says “most of it”.

The challenges started straight away for Hughes. For the first two weeks, she battled through an awful weather system struggling through a whiteout for eight days in a row. “I couldn’t see more than a metre in front of me, that’s strange. It was really cold and windy,” she recalls. At times Hughes was in sub 45C conditions.

Hughes has been in whiteouts before, but this one was different. It was the first time she was in one on her own.

“At first you don’t think it is going to last as long as it does,” she describes. “So when the whiteout came on the first day I was like ‘Okay this is cool, I’ve got this, I’ve trained for this, I can follow my compass. I know what I’m doing.’ And then day two came, it hadn’t lifted, day three, it hadn’t lifted. And by day eight I was pretty desperate.” 

The conditions were draining: “It takes a lot of energy to, to move in a whiteout.” The only thing Hughes could see was her compass, attached to a chest harness: “All you do is just stare down at it, make sure the needle is pointing the right way and follow it. If you look up you feel quite dizzy and a bit sick.”

Eventually, the weather turned: “The sun came out and I was just so thankful that I could finally see a little bit and could see the horizon and lots of mountains for the first time.”

These breaks in the weather were her high points, she recalls: “There were a few days where there was zero wind and it was sunny. It was still around minus 15, minus 20, but it feels warm, so you can ski just in a base layer.”

“When you stop for a break, it’s just so silent. There is absolutely no noise at all and you look around and just see how amazing a place you’re in.”

Each day Hughes followed a strict routine: “I tried to be as consistent as possible. I think that’s the best way to get the miles done is if you do the same chunk each day.”

Her day would start at six in the morning when she would spend a couple of hours melting snow and ice for drinking water. By half eight, Hughes would be on her skis, at first for ten hours, then 11 and finally 12 hours a day.

It would take Hughes half an hour to set up her tent, before melting snow again and finally going to bed.  

Sleeping was a mixed experience, recalls Hughes: “If it was windy outside it was quite hard to sleep because you hear it and you’re a little bit worried about everything, like: ‘Have I put my tent up securely, is it going to blow away? Is my sledge secured?’ You have these annoying little worries.”

In good weather Hughes explains how her tent could get quite hot due to the 24-hour sunlight in Antarctica: “I’d have a little eye mask to try and sleep.”

The only time she broke her routine was on Christmas day when Hughes gave herself a two-hour lie in before calling her girlfriend for a chat. Hughes recalls: “I tried to just view it as another day but when it came to it, it was a little bit sad.”

“Really I wanted to be there with them. I didn’t really get homesick until Christmas.”

Surprisingly, Hughes says she didn’t feel lonely while she was on her expedition. In bad conditions, her mind was focused and “when conditions are okay you want to let your mind go for a little wander,” she says.

Hughes recalls how memories surfaced that she hadn’t thought about for years: “I could almost see things that I hadn’t seen for ages or smell things that I hadn’t smelt for ages.” 

Being on her own was the main difference Hughes found between this expedition and previous ones. She says: “It was the first time I’ve ever been on my own on a big trip and that had its challenges – there’s nobody there to motivate you or pick you up. You’ve got to do everything yourself and be the best teammate you can imagine for yourself.” 

Another difference was the lack of visual stimulation. While on Everest, for example, she would look around and be motivated by her surroundings, Antarctica was different: “In Antarctica for maybe two-thirds of it or more, all you saw is plain white, no mountains for much of it, just pure white snow. So it wasn’t particularly motivating in that way. It was very barren.”

It makes sense then that, besides being reunited with her family and celebrating a delayed Christmas, what Hughes says she is most looking forward to about going home is “being in a nice environment”.

She explains: “The things that I missed are the sights that you can see and the smells. Even grass, because Antarctica is so barren and nothing there but white.”

It’s an adventure that sounds like it could be exhausting, and Hughes says she does feel tired but that otherwise, she is recovering well: “Everything else is good, my body feels fine. I’ve lost about ten kilos but I still feel strong which is good.”

Now Hughes’ focus for the next few weeks is to sleep and eat as much as she can. She got a head start on the eating, too. “I arrived at the South Pole at eight in the morning and I got there, and they were making breakfast,” she recalls, smiling. 

While she was skiing, Hughes was living off dehydrated meals and says: “They’re proper meals but you have to add water to them and it’s not the same.” She missed fresh fruit and vegetables.

It is too soon to say if Hughes would do the ski again. At first, she says no. Then immediately: “I don’t know, as soon as I got to the Pole they asked ‘How was it?’ and I was like ‘It was awful, never doing that again!’ but it’s that type two fun thing where you forget the pain after a while.”

When the pain is a more distant memory and the views are her lingering memories, “who knows”, she concludes. 

This was a dream of Hughes’ for two years before she decided to tell someone and then she trained for a year before setting off. If Hughes does have some ideas about future expeditions, she isn’t letting on: “I think I need to take some time to recover. With these big trips, I think of something I want to do. And then I obsess about it for ages, work super hard to get the funding together and the training.”

Through her ski solo, Hughes has been raising money for Cancer Research UK. Now that she has achieved her goal, she will be doing events to fundraise further.

She picked the charity for multiple reasons – its focus on research and her desire to support women’s cancer and women’s health. It was also an act of gratitude: “One of my main sponsors is this incredible woman who’s an ambassador for Cancer Research. She sponsored me quite a lot of money and has always supported me so I wanted to find something that would give back to her as well.”

It is fascinating hearing Hughes’ stories, her sense of adventure infectious. Embarking on a similar expedition might seem unachievable to many on the face of it, but Hughes has simple advice to those inspired to follow in her skis: “It’s about absolutely going for it and no matter how big or scary it seems, it is achievable.

“You’ve got to put your mind to it. It’s taking that first step, saying you want to do it and working out a way to do it. There’s are people out there who can help, all you have to do is ask. Just go for it.”

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