Women's Sport: Wendy Searle's extraordinary adventure

When Wendy Searle, 42, got off the plane in Antarctica, she cried. She only paid for her trip to ski over 700 miles to the South Pole two weeks before she was due to leave. She was fundraising up until the last minute and making sure she’d be fit enough to go. Arriving on the continent was five years in the making.

“It was a combination of so much effort, training, time and commitment. I was completely overwhelmed,” recalls Searle, “it’s such a privilege, so few people get to go there. It’s a stunning and desolate and incredible place, awe-inspiring in the very original sense of the word.” 

This season Searle was one of three British women making their way from Hercules Inlet on the Antarctic coast to the South Pole on skis. She was the first of the three to reach the pole and is only the seventh woman to complete the ski unassisted and unsupported.

We talk shortly after her return to the UK and her return to work – a return to normality that has been made easier by the fact that “everyone’s kind of completely blown away by what I did and wants to talk and hear about it. I got a bit of a hero’s welcome when I got back to work which has been nice”.

Searle had nearly two weeks to recover before going back to work – time that she spent with her family, finally able to do the things that motivated her throughout her expedition: “It’s amazing to be back with my kids. I spent a lot of time while I was away visualizing being sat on the sofa in front of the fire, drinking tea, watching rubbish on TV, and chilling out with them. That’s one of the things that kept me going.”

Polar dreams

It all started for Searle after meeting an army team who were embarking on an Antarctica crossing. It opened up a whole world and the more Searle researched polar history the more she got “hooked on this idea”.

“There’s something about Antarctica that is so otherworldly, extreme, pristine, beautiful and stunning,” explains Searle, “Just actually getting there is a big thing in itself.”

Raising money for the ABF The Soldiers Charity and the Youth Adventure Trust, who give young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to embark on expeditions, Searle had a big goal – to beat the speed record of 39 days.

In the end, she reached the pole in 42 days. Is getting so tantalisingly close something that would motivate her to try again?

“It’s an interesting question. Maybe,” says Searle, “but it was my first time in Antarctica and never having skied before I started training for this expedition, I know I did everything I possibly could every single day.”

“I know that by the time I finished skiing for the day, I was putting my tent up on my hands and knees because I was so done and thinking ‘How the hell am I going get up and do this again for another 12 hours tomorrow’. I’m satisfied. It would have been great to get the record, but I’m satisfied that I put everything into it.” 

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Achieving the extraordinary

As well as raising money for charity, Searle has an important message she wants to share with people who hear about her expedition.

“I am completely ordinary,” she says, “that is a big part of the legacy of the expedition for me is inspiring other people, particularly women, to take on these long term challenges or big dreams. They are huge ambitions, I’ve got kids, I’ve got a job, I’m not a full-time athlete – if I can do it, I think that anything is possible.”

Apologising as the words leave my mouth, I ask Searle a question that only gets asked of women: how did you juggle it all?

She laughs and says she doubts anyone ever asked that of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton but obliges nevertheless. Her answer is a testament to both her dedication and her children’s: “Probably the one key thing for me was that my family were behind me.”

She recalls how she gave up having a social life, dedicating any free time she had to train, sometimes getting up at five in the morning or training late at night to fit everything in.

Looking back, she says: “Everything was a constant juggle. If I hadn’t done something towards the expedition every single day, no matter how tired I felt, then it hadn’t been a good day. You have to set out your week and think this day I need this kit and lots of planning.” 

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For her family, Searle says: “It has been a journey for all of us.” Her husband is in the army and was away on tour for six months in the run-up to Searle’s expedition, returning home three weeks before she left for the South Pole, so her children helped a lot – doing things around the house, joining on training sessions and giving her emergency food.

Searle says: “My children have supported me to the ends of the earth, they’ve been incredible.” She adds: “Teenagers get a bad press a lot of the time, but they have been so supportive.” Ultimately, Searle says she couldn’t have done it without them.

Their journey to Antarctica was five years long as Searle’s preparation included learning to ski, getting expedition experience and undertaking the correct first aid training. Then, on Christmas Eve 2018, Searle started her serious physical training – exercising twice a day, six days a week.

This included running up and down hills, lying in rivers and hours of tyre hauling. “It’s hundreds of hours by the time you add it all up.”

Life in Antarctica

Rigorous training was necessary. In Antarctica, Searle skied for between 11 and 12 hours every day. She recalls: “I never did less than that and being able to do that every single day was hard.”

Even harder was the mental element because, as Searle explains, while she had done everything she could to be physically fit, it is difficult to prepare mentally.

She recalls: “It’s such a vast continent and it’s such a vast distance. You’re doing such tiny increments of mileage every day.” Searle was covering about a quarter of a degree of latitude each day.

The mornings were harder than Searle anticipated: “It’s hard mentally to get yourself out of the tent again and make the miles. I cried more on that journey than I ever had in my life before.”

While there were things to keep Searle motivated once she was skiing – namely returning to her tent – in the morning she recalls waking and realising she had to repeat the previous day’s efforts: “There wasn’t much to look forward to about that.” 

Surprisingly Searle never felt lonely – something that she had worried about before but reflects now she needn’t have. The only time she felt daunted by the extent of her solitude was when she encountered fellow adventurer Mollie Hughes.

After a quick hug, Searle continued ahead of Hughes. About an hour later, Searle turned around: “She was a tiny dot in the distance battling against the wind up the hill. It looked like she was moving so gradually, and I thought: ‘That is what I look like, that is what I am. I’m this vulnerable, tiny thing in this vast landscape of inhospitable conditions.’”

For a couple of days after, Searle couldn’t stop thinking about how “if something went wrong how dangerous it would be and how vast and difficult this place was.”

After that Searle was fine, but she reflects: “Meeting people along the way wasn’t the kind of happy reunion with humanity that I thought it might be, it messed with my equilibrium a bit.”

To complete the expedition, Searle followed a strict routine, waking up at half six, sorting everything for the day and starting skiing about two hours later. In the evening it was the reverse – she’d put her tent up, sort dinner, blog, write in her diary and finally check in with the logistics company before going to sleep.

There was a reason for this discipline: “The closer you get, the more people relax and that’s when things can go quite badly wrong because the altitude is a lot higher and everything’s a lot colder. I was mindful of wanting to be careful the whole time. You can never remove the risk but I wanted to be sensible, I wanted to come back to my kids in one piece and have done a good competent journey.”

“If something were to go wrong, if you were to break your leg or your tent were to blow away or you had a heart attack and the weather was bad there’s absolutely no way [the logistics company] would get to you in time, so the chances of you surviving that would be minuscule.”

This approach paid off for Searle who remained healthy throughout her expedition without a single medical issue and no gear difficulties until her jacket zip broke on the final day.

Her focus on safety meant that even on Christmas Day, Searle chose to save her Terry’s Chocolate Orange treat packed for the occasion for fear of running out of food later. Instead, Searle indulged with an extra two hours on skis.

She laughs and says, “it sounds sadistic,” but by being methodical and not giving in to her desire to have more of a lie in Searle was able to complete her goal of at least 11 hours on skis, even on Christmas Day. Every day was broken into 70-minute ski legs, no matter the occasion.

If a chocolate orange was her luxury, the food that she missed the most was something a little simpler: bread and butter. “I know that sounds plain and it’s not very exciting, but tea and toast is what I dreamed about,” explains Searle.

What’s next?

Now that she is back in the UK she has been enjoying eating a lot to recover. Searle laughs and says: “I’m a bit panicked if I’m ever too far away from a food source, I cannot stop eating.”

Searle might have only just finished her expedition but she is already thinking about the next time she can return to Antarctica.

“I’m still totally on high about being so thrilled to finish and having completed it and done this unsupported journey,” explains Searle, “really the only solution to combat the post-expedition blues is to plan something else. I haven’t quite switched off the whole feeling of needing to get funding for things and all of those pressures from before the exhibition.”

While her children have told her she isn’t allowed to spend another Christmas away, she says “I’ve got I’ve got some ideas, but it’d be a bigger, more expensive expedition”.

It’s not because she feels like she has anything left to prove to herself though, she adds: “It would just be nice to have another focus and go back to this amazing place.” No doubt whatever she does next will show once again just what remarkable things people can achieve.

To support Searle’s charities visit her website

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