Meet the man who will attempt to become the first person in human history to complete a solo, unsupported and unassisted crossing of Antarctica.
On November 1st, 2018, British Army Captain Louis Rudd MBE will become the latest to tackle this 1,500km traverse – entirely alone, with only his equipment and supplies for support. It will draw on a lifetime of hard-earned experience, from his 2011 race to the South Pole with mentor and late friend Henry Worsley, to traversing Greenland earlier this year.
His most formidable challenge to date has been heading a team of six Army Reservists on the Trans-Antarctic SPEAR17 expedition last year. Few will have greater insight into the leadership skills and sheer grit that earned Rudd an MBE in October this year than the men and women who accompanied him on that mission. Here, they explain how their team leader is uniquely equipped to take on the so-far impossible.
“He’ll hate me saying this,” says Ollie Stoten, Rudd’s tentmate for 68 days, “But because he was older and not as fit as us younger ones when we hit the ground – it sounds terrible, but it was harder for Lou to produce the same type of output as us. He had 20 years on some of the team members. The difference was that he is so mentally strong, he simply refused to let anything get him down. He just got stronger as the expedition went on.”
For Spirit of Endurance, Lou will be putting himself through 75 days of brutal solitude. Antarctica will push his body to the edge, but the true measure of his tenacity will be whether he can motivate himself as well as he motivates a team.
“That’s going to be huge,” says Ollie, “So much of it will be a mental battle more than a physical challenge, because he’s going to be totally alone out there. That mental strength is going to be absolutely crucial, so it’s a good thing Lou has it in spades.”
Rudd served in the Marines and British Army for 33 years, but he’s a far cry from stereotypes of military severity. Jamie Facer-Childs remembers him in stark contrast to the splenetic Regimental Sergeant Majors expected in the armed forces.
“Lou doesn’t have that side to him,” says Jamie, “He’s extremely easy to talk to. He’ll say his bit, but he’s always happy to listen too. I think it’s really admirable to have that seniority in an Army position, while maintaining your respect for other people and just generally being a nice guy.”
A robust sense of humour is vital on a treacherous journey, and Rudd has an instinct for lightening the mood during dark moments. “At one point I had frostbite on my lip and the inside of my mouth,” says Ollie, “Spicy foods were out of the question and Lou donated me this bland rice dish, so I wouldn’t have to eat my curry. I start eating it and it turns out it’s a Thai green curry – the hottest thing I have ever eaten in my life. Lou eats vindaloos on the weekend so maybe he didn’t think it was that bad. I was in absolute pieces. We couldn’t stop laughing. It was great to be able to make light of our suffering and keep having a good time. He was an amazing tent partner.”
"I think it's really admirable to have that seniority in an Army position, while maintaining your respect for other people and just generally being a nice guy."
Wendy Searle was camp manager for SPEAR17 - staying in contact with Rudd throughout the expedition - and will hold the same role during the upcoming Spirit of Endurance. She, too, was struck by the warm disposition broadcasting from the coldest place in the world.
“Most people are absolutely exhausted at six o’clock in the morning,” says Wendy, “But he’ll be cracking jokes and we’re just like, ‘how does he have the energy to be so chirpy?’ We’re all getting through but he’s actually approaching it with a really positive, happy, outlook, and I think that is going to carry him a huge distance.”
An easy-going nature under the toughest of circumstances ensured fellowship won out over friction for the SPEAR17 team. “The best thing about the whole trip was the brotherhood we built between us,” says Alex Brazier, “It was a real privilege to be in a team that was so close. We really looked after each other, and we enjoyed the experience because we had each other’s backs and grew exceptionally close. All of that came from Lou, leading by example.”
Physically, Rudd has risen to similar challenges before. Psychologically, his teammates agree he has reserves of mental strength that have seen him through the most punishing conditions known to man. But success is by no means a foregone conclusion.
“It’s just all that time alone,” says Chris Brooke. “Lou kept our spirits up. He made us laugh. He kept us strong when times were hard. The question is: can he do the same for himself? I reckon yes. He has tremendous courage, a positive attitude, and he’s outrageously resilient. That’s why I think he’s going to be the first person to do this and succeed.”
So as Lou Rudd steps into the cold, unrelenting embrace of The Great White Queen, with only his pulk, his supplies and himself for company, he will know there’s a question mark over whether he will come back alone, or if he will even come back at all.
It’s the determination to answer that question – to face down uncertainty in pursuit of the hitherto impossible – that distinguishes Lou Rudd as one of the most indomitable pioneers of our time.
Words | Dan Struthers
Photographs | Rene Koster