I’m sitting with a middle-aged engineer named Leah—and maybe 60 others—at a small table in a cafeteria at the bottom of the world. Todd’s at the next table over, crooked in his seat, wearing blue hospital scrub pants, a synthetic long sleeve shirt, and mismatched wool socks.
Nose and cheeks worn to gritty brown scabs by frost and wind. Face blotchy and red. Eyes swollen to a squint. He looks as though he’s just woken up. He looks lost. He looks like he’s been in a fight, been beaten with a bat.
And he looks like what he really is—exhausted and unwell but filled with a gladness most of us will never know. It’s a taut, manic kind of gladness, an energy gained at the expense of something else.
He twitches. He smiles.
One of Todd’s legs is bouncing beneath the table, his long, thin frame dark against the window, the unsetting sun. It’s an evening of horizontal clouds, bright gray streaks like the sky’s been layered with gauze. A fake Christmas tree stands nearby, ornamented with crocheted snowflakes, red tinsel, and colored lights. A fake tree is the best we can manage at the South Pole. Bacteria can’t even live here.
Todd lifts a mug of coffee to his mouth, fidgets with a pen. The hands are half-deformed, filled with fluid. “By profession I’m a coffee roaster,” he begins, voice low and raspy but coming through loud. “And I’m what’s called an amateur trekker. There are not lots of us out there. Actually, I don’t think there are professional ones. I don’t know why we add the word ‘amateur.’ Our love is the earth and crossing big parts of it without burning anything and without using transportation or animals. We try to experience it in its rawest form.”
As a young man he ran marathons and traversed his entire home state of Washington. Now he’s 45, lives in Philadelphia, and has trekked nearly all of the planet’s major deserts. He practices something called the “unaided solo.” It’s an ethic, maybe an aesthetic, and it’s simple, which is part of the allure. Todd moves under his own power, carrying or dragging all the supplies he needs for the duration of a trip. No assistance. No resupply.
“The most difficult place to do that is on this continent,” he says. Then, through a goofy, endearing grin: “But it’s also the most rewarding.”
Four years ago, on an expedition in Namibia, Todd lamented to a friend the “short chain” that water scarcity imposes on hot desert exploration. The friend mentioned Antarctica: “There’s always water below your feet. Just melt it. You can go as far as you want.” With that, Todd’s focus shifted. A handful of months later, on December 21st, he skied the last degree to The Pole as a “tourist.” (He was dropped by a plane 60 nautical miles out; it was reconnaissance, hardly an unaided solo). Looking down into the polished silver ball that marks the famous spot, he saw his own reflection. Only three people had ever completed the unsupported trek from the continent’s edge. That day Todd decided to be the first American and the first man to do it.
And he decided to set a new speed record as well.
“For the last four years this place has been very important to me,” he says, scanning the room, speaking to the audience but also to the space beyond the walls, to the cold and white and wind one can’t ever forgot, even indoors. He talks of making it to the 88th parallel last year only to be pinned down by a storm. He talks of losing nearly a quarter of his body weight as he ran out of food in a tent. He talks of a frustration that grew into anger, into rage. Of a flight evacuation once the weather finally cleared. Of a low feeling that said, “Never again, never again, never again.”
He lifts the coffee, continues. “But this is way off track, which I’ll keep doing because my mind isn’t really clicking the way it should be after losing 50 pounds or whatever.”
The mug looks funny, his hand so swollen.
“For me the trek breaks up into three parts. The three parts are between the 80th and 82nd, the 82nd and 88th, and then finally the 88th to the 90th. You start out at Hercules Inlet, on the sea, and you have about 230 pounds of weight, primarily food and fuel. You don’t bring extra t-shirts. Everything you need to survive is in that sled. That’s it.” The Pole sits at 9,301 feet, atop nearly two vertical miles of ice, and the sea is, of course, at sea level. Which is to say the first two degrees are steep. Which is to say they account for a 95 percent dropout rate of all Pole-bound skiers. “It’s the highest failing mission. Sometimes it takes minutes—literally minutes—to go one step.”
He lunges forward in his seat, grunting through mock exertion and strain.
“Like pulling a car. Or like pulling a frozen pig.”
It’s 700 miles from Hercules Inlet to The Pole. For Todd, the difficulties start eight miles in. One of his ski bindings breaks. He stays up until two in the morning fixing it. It breaks again, he stays up another night, a third night, and then the other binding breaks. He’s losing sleep to save the skis, and though he knows that nobody has ever made it to The Pole post-holing in ski boots, he decides to ditch the useless gear.
Late in the first week, a whiteout overtakes him. Normally he wouldn’t dare pack up the tent in 50-knot winds—“It’s like fighting an animal”—but the fear that he’ll run out of food keeps him on the move. His prescription goggles come apart. His air mattress pops. He loses his wool hat and has to sew a new one from cut up socks.
Worse, he falls in crevasses, three of them, each time pulling himself out, saved by the line linked to the obstinate sled-pig. The falls terrify him; he knows that now there’s no turning back, not by that route at least. But the falls also embolden him. More and more he feels like a superhero. He imitates crawling out of a death-hole, brushing a dusting of ice crystals from his shoulder to the cafeteria floor. Nonchalant. No biggie.
Soon he’s reached the East Antarctic Plateau. There’s nothing from here on out.
The second leg of the trip commences with a declaration and a realization. “At the 82nd parallel, I was 42.5 miles behind record pace, which equates to around three and a half days. I was just so euphoric, though, I decided I was going to break the world record anyway.” He reasons that the bad luck must be exhausted and the rest of the trip will be nothing but “full houses.” That night, in the tent, he gets out the logbook and calculates what it will actually take. The record was set by the British polar explorer Hannah McKeand—“the Lance Armstrong of what we do, not just some lady.” McKeand’s best day was 17.3 miles. Todd will have to average 17.2 for the remainder of the trip. Without skis.
“I think it was the impossibility of it that made it easier for me to do the next phase of the expedition, which is incredibly long hours of just one thing, just moving, moving, pounding, moving, moving.” His heavy, paced speech mimics the rhythm of his days. “The second you stop it’s water, it’s water, it’s repair what’s broken, sleep, eat, get up, water, food, move—it’s just not a second to do anything else.”
The trance breaks with a pause and a breath of air, a fumble of the pen.
“That’s the big work in there.”
Such an exciting time, these blurring days of drudgery on an endless, trackless plane. Blinding snow. Blue sky. Sound of breath and heartbeat and invisible air scratching against the jacket. He receives good feedback from his wife on the satellite phone every night and additional support via text messages posted on his website. (Todd gives his brother-in-law a five-minute debrief each evening that gets fleshed out and posted as a daily blog). Cancer patients say they’ll survive because of what he’s doing—“and you don’t put up your tent at noon after reading something like that.” Rather, you respond in kind, defying records in place of diagnoses.
A degree in three days, then again, then again. Then a 20-mile day (the previous record had been 18.1). Then 21, then 23. “I’m doing most of the pulling here,” he hollers back at the Pig, digging in, the snow to his knees, to his thighs. He feels the humor deeply, like he’s laughing with a friend. He feels the elation of being the only person for hundreds of miles in any direction. He surges with strength. When he reaches the 88th he’s overcome the deficit. He’s caught McKeand and is headed for the record.
There is a problem, though. When you start doing big days you cut into future rations. With food for six and a half days remaining, he must maintain record pace across these last two degrees. It’s not a question of ambition, but of survival. “The commitment was pretty….” He starts to say fucking but catches himself. “It was pretty deep.” Everyone in the room understands that he is saying something that we can’t really understand. “That’s where for me the expedition changed character.”
He lifts his mug, but there’s no coffee left.
A normal trekking day is ten hours. As supplies dwindle, Todd bumps it up to 13, then 15. Then he’s doing 24-hour shifts—an hour and ten minutes pushing, a ten-minute break. Repeat, repeat, repeat. “Nothing can go wrong. I’m on a wire,” he says, as if he’s out there again.
He looks up, directly at me: “And that’s when everything went wrong.”
Through a “lazy error” (lazy with antecedents like malnourishment, sleep deprivation, and nearly inhuman physical exertion) Todd drowns all his food and communications equipment, as well as his GPS, in fuel. Huffing 70-degree-below-zero air flash-freezes his lungs so that, like an asthmatic, he’s able to inhale but can’t exhale. He starts to cough violently and soon spits bloody gobs into the brilliant white snow. The stove breaks and will only produce a weak yellow flame. A busted stove means an increase in the time it takes to melt water, and that means a decrease in time spent traveling. For weeks now Todd’s been eating three pounds of butter, sausage, and Kendal Mint Cake each day, burning approximately 12,000 calories. Now his body is beginning to eat itself. His muscles get thin and loose. Sort of mealy. They’re the muscles of a sick old man.
“Something snapped in those last two days. I went into like automatic survival mode. That was it. I had no more food. The only thing I had was water. And I still had 30 nautical miles to go.” He sort of trails off—a slow drift, a dreamy pause. It’s as if he’s hearing the words in his head just before they come out and doesn’t believe them, doesn’t believe their validity or that his mouth could be their source. “30 nautical miles to go… on dead reckoning.”
He laughs. “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried dead reckoning out here, but it’s tough to figure out where you are.”
He laughs again and some of us join him, though nervously.
“The last couple days became very strange for me, very surreal. I invented people. I invented an ‘us’ environment that was me and my equipment, me and the Pig. I wasn’t alone. Your mind will generate other people and other beings to comfort you. My left field of vision was my grandfather’s yard and house for three days. I have frostbite on this side of my face”—he points to scabs running from his temple to his jaw—“because the hallucination annoyed me so much. I would close this eye to block it out and moisture would develop and freeze. But I was in his front yard. For three days. My mind was saying, ‘You’re safe, you’re in Grandpa’s front yard.’ There were his rosebushes, right there in the window, not foggy, but real, touch it, yeah.”
Todd describes these long final marches with an analogy. A little girl is playing with a doll. You look at the little girl and think, “She knows that thing isn’t real. She’s playing make-believe.” Said differently: The child is playing along with fantasy rather than becoming the plaything of it. Todd doesn’t see the beloved humans of his past walking along next to him; they don’t leave footprints in the snow and so they can’t really be near. He knows this. However, during rest breaks he sits down on the edge of the Pig and catches himself saying aloud, to Grandpa, to somebody: “You don’t have to stand so far away.” These encouraging and comforting figments, these tremulous friends of the deep psyche, they lose their presence when he’s not moving. He stands up, and there they are again.
“I think that once you get past a certain point your mind is just a beautiful thing,” he says, the earnest, heartfelt simplicity of the statement moving across the room like a muting wave. We all turn to statues in our seats. “It just takes care of you.”
On what will turn out to be the final day of a 39-day expedition, Todd admits to himself that if he doesn’t find the station by seven p.m. he will die. Then, at two o’clock, he spies a dark smudge on the horizon. With this vision of a faraway salvation, his silent, ghostly traveling partners disappear into the Antarctic desert for good. Literally asleep on his feet at times, he pushes forward, beyond that place where the mind acts as guardian.
“The most difficult challenge was when all those things fell away, when I saw the station. I had an hour where I was so much energy. Then all those things that I was holding fell away and I became… that was the life… I don’t know how to express it… for a long time up to that point I was not….”
This fumbling of words says so much. Instead of maintaining a self that acquires or loses energy, Todd’s very being is energy—a living something or a dead nothing. He shifts in his seat, turns to the window, searching. “I was just a machine that was walking and walking. I wasn’t concerned and I didn’t have to motivate myself to do anything. I just had to get out of the way. But as soon as I saw the station I had to work again. And that was hard. That was really hard.”
The smudge won’t separate into distinguishable buildings; the station won’t come closer. With about three miles left, Todd can no longer pull the Pig. The situation ravages him. The Pig is his best friend, his family, his tether to reality, to life, to home, to everything that would be swallowed by snow, crusted by ice, blown over by wind.
He unhooks his waist harness and turns.
For weeks he’s been saying: “We’re going to make it, we’re going to make it.” For weeks he’s been sharing with the Pig his fears and plans, his hopes and strategies, his humor, his hardship.
And now: “I promise. Don’t worry. I’ll come back.”
Tense, listening into the long pause, waiting for more, I recap Todd’s progression toward fundamental isolation, playing it out a second time in my imagination. It starts with choosing to trek alone on a continent famous for its inaccessibility, its emptiness, its aversion to life. Then the skis go and he’s on the move twice as long each day. The phone breaks and he can’t call for help. The GPS is ruined. The food is saturated with gas. All he has is a sled called Pig, a tent, the possibility of slowly melting snow into water on a broken stove.
He takes a deep breath.
“When I left the Pig I left water and that was the most disconnected I’ve ever been in life. I had no security whatsoever. Just clothes.”
Three times on that three-mile walk Todd stops and a voice in his head that is not exactly his own says, “This is it,” a euphemism for, “I’m going to sit down and die in the ice.” Each time, though, he’s revived by a thought that’s become habit after long years of trekking. It’s another voice, not exactly his own, saying, “No, Todd, you’re not the guy making the decisions anymore.”
“You see, there are two people,” he explains. “There’s the sane person who’s in a comfortable, well-nourished area of life and can make sound decisions, like me at 230 pounds two months ago when I finalized the plans for this expedition. And then there’s me when I’m out on the ice and I’m going”—he heaves in his chair as if vomiting—“and I need advice.” He sits upright and regains his composure. “At those times I go back to that first guy and I think, ‘You know what, he was thinking clearly and I’m not, so don’t trust the person you are right now.’”
In other words: Don’t sit down and die.
It’s a good philosophy, one that keeps him moving through critical hours, but eventually it all shatters and there’s nobody left to trust. The person doing the trusting has been eaten by effort. The sane person hunched over maps in Philadelphia is an insane fantasy. On the entire East Antarctic Plateau there’s no voice to listen to. There’s only some guy standing at the edge of the skiway, the airplane runway of smoothed snow that marks the edge of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. He’s maybe a quarter mile from his dreamed-of destination, from that shiny reflective ball and the safety of a human community. He’s pacing, rounding about on his heels, beginning to trace his footprints back to the Pig. Then stopping. Then tapping the skiway with his toe as if it were thin ice or boiling water. Then heading back to the Pig again. He’s standing at the edge—the edge of the skiway and the edge of life, the beginning of death—terrified to move for fear of losing the path back to the one thing he knows still exists in the world.
Crossing the skiway is suicide. It’s never finding the Pig again. It’s stumbling through exhaustion only to be exhausted. The opposite of energy. A dead nothing.
Helpless, battered, frightened, Todd vacillates between the decision to turn around and the indecision to move forward. Finally, after 700 miles of go-go-go and push-push-push, he finds himself paralyzed. He wonders if this big building before him is actually The Pole. “It could just be a Wendy’s,” he says. As in Dave Thomas? As in 99-cent chicken sandwiches? Everybody laughs. “If it is a Wendy’s, then where am I? Am I safe?”
Unable to command his legs in any direction, he lifts his hands above his head and waves. Like a child who’s messed his pants but doesn’t know how to remedy the problem, he’s reduced to a desperate plea. He’s a small man on the planet’s biggest sweep of snow, waving, praying to be seen.
And someone does see him. Her name is Leah and she’s the engineer sitting next to me at this table in the cafeteria. She sees Todd through a window and puts on her hat and gloves and coat. She walks out to the skiway. She welcomes him.
Todd is lost somewhere in the murk of hallucinations and deprivation, fatigue and loneliness, irrationality, emotion, pain, and a dozen other states of being yet to be named or catalogued. Still, he’s human enough—alive enough—to know what he wants. This weird little thing with the friendly smile and bright blue eyes walking towards him, this is not what he wants. What he wants is to return with the greatest haste to save the Pig. Forget The Pole. Forget Hannah McKeand. Forget frostbit lungs and gobs of blood. What he wants is to honor the commitment he made to his best friend.
And he wants a bottle of syrup. Sugar is the only means of energizing the backtrack to the Pig.
“To get my syrup I have to sound sane, and talking about racing out to rescue my most cherished companion, who happens to be a pig, and not even a real pig but a sled full of gear—that doesn’t sound sane.” In the lapse of a second, Todd surveys different ways of presenting himself, different ways of “speaking her language.” He recreates the moment of absurdity, straightening in his chair, adjusting his posture and voice to imitate the calm, controlled, fully rational person he’d hoped to present.
Todd: “I need to get my sled because my passport is in it.”
Leah: “You don’t have to worry about theft here.”
The cafeteria erupts with laughter, all of us picturing Todd, mangled by exhaustion and the pressure of his Pig-obsession, crumpling on the edge of the skiway, the last of his vital life-energy directed into the realization that his world simply isn’t compatible with Leah’s. The laughter is thick and loud for a few seconds before mellowing. Todd’s giant smile turns into something smaller, something that doesn’t shout humor but whispers depths, mysteries.
He’s dark against the glowing window. The sky’s gauzy gray is coming apart. The midnight sun beats down into the cold and windy whiteness. It’s an animal, a beast. We feel it against the walls—an animal pressing up against our shared lives, this shared moment in this frozen place.
A voice emerges from the rustlings of 60 listeners trying to be quiet. Todd’s looking straight at Leah, his eyes so honest, so pure, so swollen and bleary. It looks as if he’s crying.
Is he crying? Is this man from the outside, this survivor, weeping? He’s like a child again, like a desperate pleading child, but this time the desperation stems not from an inability to move, but to express. It’s like he’s living again those moments when they walked across the skiway and Leah took video of him and read the time off her watch to verify his arrival. It’s like he’s living again that moment exactly four years and a few hours after he declared to set the world record, that moment when he learns he’s done so by an hour and 31 minutes. It’s like he’s at the shiny silver ball, looking into his own reflection, lingering in that moment when he knew he was finally safe, when he gave himself over to this woman who was literally and symbolically his safety, the two of them wrapped in gusts and light.
“And you came and you got me and you took me to The Pole,” he says, as if that’s the only part of the story that matters.
Leah smiles like a proud mother who doesn’t need to hear the words that her son can’t really say.
Todd lifts his mug, having forgotten that it’s empty, his eyes so honest, so pure, so swollen and bleary—so full of tears.
Author Bio: Leath Tonino is the author of a collection of essays, The Animal One Thousand Miles Long. A freelance writer, his work appears in Orion, The Sun, Outside, Tricycle, New England Review, Utne Reader, and elsewhere.