American breaks world ski record across Antarctica – without skis

Posted Jan. 01, 2009, at 7:10 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 18, 2011, at 7:23 a.m.

Two days before Christmas, a lone man stumbled to the South Pole. He was on foot, frostbitten and close to starving. His name is Todd Carmichael, and he had just broken the world ski record for speed from the 80th to the 90th parallels — and he did it without skis.

Carmichael had set out 39 days earlier with the world record in his sights. What he hadn’t anticipated was breaking his ski bindings early in the trip. Incredibly, he kept going, though his footsteps in the soft snow were only 8 inches apart. Carmichael completed a 700-mile journey, walking alone across Antarctica, in ski boots. He shaved 1 hour 44 minutes off the previous world record while he was at it.

He very nearly didn’t make it. By the end of his odyssey, he had lost 40 pounds, run out of food and frozen the tissue in his lungs from exerting himself to such an extreme level for so long in the cold. “They said maybe 24 more hours and I wouldn’t have been able to breathe anymore,” Carmichael said, telling me his story from the South Pole infirmary.

His face is covered with frostbite marks and bruises, he looks exhausted and underweight, but when I visited him in the medical unit he lit up. Laughing, joking, just days from a close shave with death, Carmichael is clearly a people person and a storyteller. He seemed to enjoy new company as he told me about a life-changing trip marked by extreme solitude.

Carmichael’s journey was difficult from the outset. “I’m about eight miles in when my bindings broke,” he said. “I can’t go back. Because I’ve got a 250-pound sled, right? And one ski. And I’m going downhill. They can’t fly in to get me, so, I gotta keep going.”

Without skis to support him, Carmichael was particularly vulnerable to crevasses — deep, hidden fissures in the ice that can easily take a man’s life. “I fell in three of them,” he said. Using cable, he managed to kick and climb his way out of each one. “I think you just get into shock. The first one I was breathing hard, terrified. The third one, I swear my heart rate didn’t even go up.”

Not one but both of Carmichael’s phones broke early on. He rigged up a way to send a beacon every night, taping a solar panel to the broken phone and alerting South Pole Communications of his position. We could see that he was alive and moving forward, but that was all. “What was frightening about that was that I never heard any confirmation,” Carmichael told me. “I never even knew if that signal worked.”

Unable to use a phone to talk to his wife or brother, unsure whether he was able to signal anyone at all, Carmichael struggled on alone and took comfort in the gear that kept him alive. “The most unusual thing happened when I really got desperate,” he said. “Over time, you tend to make attachments to physical objects, and create human characteristics for them. … I began to get really emotionally attached to my sled. We hung out together, and there were times when it was 50-50 whether or not we would see people again.”

In the last days of the trek, Carmichael ran out of food and stopped sleeping. “Just as I got about 54 miles away the GPS system failed, and all I had was my compass.” In his overextended state, he couldn’t be sure that he could remember the correct bearing to stay on. “I was thinking, ‘Was it 116? Or 119?’ The difference was life or death. It was a little troubling.”

Carmichael was on his last reserves when South Pole Station came into view on the horizon. As he got closer, he guessed that his body could make it maybe another two miles — but only without pulling his sled. Carmichael unbuckled from the last of his supplies — water and his tent — and continued forward. “It’s a really scary thing to do. It’s like a captain abandoning his ship, swimming for the shore.”

Carmichael walked as far as the South Pole airstrip and stopped, concerned about being able to retrace his steps and find his sled again. “I was in a real altered state, and when I hit the airfield, I became very afraid. I knew that my memory wasn’t very good, and that if I crossed the packed snow of the airstrip I might lose my tracks. I just waved for the longest time. Two or three times I decided to go back to my sled. Which would have been disaster. And then I saw a person, a human. Finally, I saw their little arms wave.

“They came up to me and said, ‘We just got a call, you’re 90 minutes under the world record.’ And I thought, oh yeah, that’s right. I had forgotten all about the world record.”

Now safe and recovering, Carmichael looks back at his arrival and laughs. “You know what the biggest concern was? Letting my friend down. A sled. I’d promised it I’d be back.”

When Carmichael came inside, he asked if he could have a bottle of syrup. “I could smell breakfast in the galley, and I thought drinking syrup would be a beautiful thing.” When one of the cooks gave him two cookies piled high with frosting, he knew he would be OK. “I swear to God, I just began to tear up.” Not long afterward, South Pole personnel spotted Carmichael’s sled with binoculars, went out and brought it back for him. “Life was perfect.”

The official time for Carmichael’s trip was 39 days, 7 hours, 33 minutes. In addition to breaking the world speed record, previously held by Briton Hannah McKeand, Todd Carmichael became the first American to go solo and unsupported to the South Pole. Along the way, he had nothing but his tent to shelter him and a sled’s worth of supplies, losing even his ability to contact home.

When asked why he goes on expeditions, Carmichael said, “Because I have to. I can’t tell you why, I just have to.

“In the last couple of days of the trek, I came close to not living. It’s a tough thing to go through,” he said. “In retrospect, I’m glad it happened, though. Because now I’m the guy who did it.”

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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