Wendy Searle is an expedition leader who is normally to be found working as a polar guide for the British brand Shackleton, named for the famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. She points out that in her chosen field of polar exploration, women are in the minority. Though the continent was first discovered in 1821, the first woman did not travel to Antarctica until 1935, when Norwegian Caroline Mikkelsen made the trip. Today, Searle is trying to break the speed record to the geographic South Pole – she set off on 21 November – by skiing for more than 700 miles. Before she departed, she shared some of her favourite remote places.
My first secret tip is the Hardangerjøkulen glacier in Norway. Set in the Hardangervidda National Park, the glacier is the highest point for miles around. Imagine gently undulating hills, covered in sparkling pure snow. Behind them, dramatic, dark rocky outcrops. Further away still, lies Hardangerjøkulen. The tiny settlement of Finse sits in its shadow, by a frozen lake. And Finse itself feels like it’s frozen in time. You can only reach it by train, or by ski. No roads lead there.
The main buildings are the station and Hotel Finse 1222. Built in the early 1900s, its windows are covered in snow for the winter. Inside is cosy, and there is a library with a huge fireplace. This is where the explorers Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton all trained for Antarctica, and you can imagine many an expedition was discussed in front of a roaring fire here.
Conditions here can change fast, and it has every extreme of weather in the winter season. This place was my first experience of a polar environment, and so for me it’s truly special, and somewhere I know I’ll always come back to. Despite the wildness, it has a welcoming feel; there are huts dotted around that you can ski between if camping on snow isn’t your thing, and you sometimes see one or two hardy souls about. But it’s still quiet, and unspoilt. If you’re prepared for the conditions, it’s a wonderful experience. As the Norwegians would say, ‘It’s good to feel the weather’.
Then there’s Langjökull glacier in Iceland. Iceland is a strange place. It has a sense of otherness, of ancient history. Fairytales seem believable in its wild landscapes, where it feels that the power of the Earth is closer to the surface than many other places on the planet. I struggled to fall in love with it at first – finding its treeless, desolate uplands bleak.
But as I’ve visited it more, I’ve been seduced by its culture, its people, and its offer of extreme adventures. The Langjökull, “the long glacier”, is the second-biggest glacier in Iceland (the largest being the Vatnajökull). To reach it, you must first travel by road, then by gravel track, and finally by huge ice truck. My first experience was a brutal one; complete whiteout, where visibility is down to your skis in front of you, and your compass. Storm-force winds made progress slow. Icy rain soaked our gear. And yet, when you have an occasional glimpse of the glacier itself, and conditions are good, you can see for 300km, and the view across valley and mountains is extraordinary.
And so the glacier, and Iceland, keeps you coming back, for just a glimpse of its magnificence. This is another location where you rarely see another group. No jostling for your own part of the wilderness; this is a truly remote place.
Finally: the South Pole. Not a glacier at this point, but a permanent ice sheet. One that, in places, is more than 3km thick and contains more than 75 per cent of the Earth’s fresh water. When Amundsen and his team arrived there in 1911, it was a desolate place. Now there is a bustling scientific research station, a runway and a tented camp.
If it wasn’t for the buildings, this place would look like many other patches of Antarctica; 360-degree white horizon for hundreds of miles. It’s not so much the landscape of that particular place, but what it represents. Exploration, yes. Adventure, most certainly. But also, for those arriving by ski, with their sledges behind them loaded with kit and equipment, it represents the end of a long journey into the unknown. For the first Antarctic explorers, it was a very literal expedition into an unmapped, unknown environment. For those of us who come later, it represents the final moments after weeks, sometimes months, of hardship, solitude and endurance.
Wendy Searle now takes other people to these extraordinary, isolated landscapes as a polar guide for Shackleton. It offers polar and Alpine challenges for every level. For more information, visit shackleton.com