Written by Simon Ruel, Altitude Sports writer.
Translation: Jodi Mandelcorn
Discomfort Zone: A Solo Expedition Through Antarctica
“There aren’t many places in the world like Antarctica, where you can go and give everything you have only to receive nothing in return except the opportunity to be there and take it all in.”
Between mid-December 2022 and mid-January of this year, Caroline Côté skied the 1,130 kilometres that separate Hercules Inlet from the South Pole. Each night she camped, and each day she pulled her equipment by sled to eventually cut five days off the previous women’s record, which was set in 2016, with a time of 33 days, 2 hours, and 53 minutes. However, with her egoless passion for exploration, she is the first to express hope that her record is soon broken. We had the chance to speak to her about this awe-inspiring expedition.
Upon her return to “normal life,” we spoke to Caroline Côté in her Montreal apartment. This so-called normality is fast-paced and full of distractions, especially for someone who has spent the past month alone in a snow-filled desert with only her thoughts to keep her company. She explained that this extended time on her own gave her time to “work on herself” and to reflect. Taking on such an intense physical expedition may be draining, but it does allow for plenty of introspection. Returning to what once was considered normal isn’t without stress. Still, optimistically Caroline believes that it provides the opportunity to “pay attention to our energy and use it with intention in a constructive way.’’
A little over a year ago, Caroline realized this skiing record was within reach. Ever since her first visit to Antarctica in 2014, she had been hoping to find a reason to return. Without such a tempting goal, she decreed that it would have been hard to rationalize going back to a place where “there is not much to else to do. It is a majestic place of emptiness and purity.” Luckily, becoming the fastest woman to ski those 1,130 kilometres was the perfect challenge.
So, after a year of preparation, she travelled south and spent 33 days skiing kilometre after kilometre in the extreme cold. By her own admission, this was her first expedition where speed was a factor. Every hour that elapsed got her one step closer to her goal, and after making it halfway there, she knew her chances of succeeding were high.
In theory, the second half of her journey should have been faster than the first as the terrain was less technically demanding. However, the tremendous exertion of the first few weeks started to catch up to her. The last few days were long and exhausting and required every last drop of courage and strength she could muster.
With so much adversity, reaching the end was even sweeter. However, Caroline did clarify that “it wouldn’t have bothered me if I failed, knowing that I gave my all.” It was quite literally an uphill battle, seeing as she climbed to 2,800 meters above sea level. The average temperature throughout the first week of her journey was minus 15 degrees, and by the end, it was closer to minus 35, not taking into account the wind. And it’s not as though she was enchanted by this frigid cold: “I freeze while walking to the metro in the city! But when you have no other choice, and you have the right clothing, it just becomes another way of life, and that’s what I think I like about it all. I like to explore my discomfort zone.”
Another challenge that comes with visiting the South Pole during the austral summer is that it is light 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Imagine a cloudless winter day, where you’re blinded by the sun reflecting off the pristine snow. Now imagine that nonstop for a month while trying to sleep in a tent with the sun shining in our eyes like a spotlight without an off button. It is extremely trying and makes recovering at night all the more difficult. But there are a few advantages too. The sun is a reassuring presence, surely better than trying to make the journey in darkness. It’s also practical for helping equipment dry more quickly.
Shop Caroline's Picks
Above all else, this story is one of determination. During an expedition of this magnitude, being afraid is only natural, and Caroline doesn’t want to hide that. She admits to being paralyzed by fear, experiencing major emotional shocks, and worrying that some of the obstacles would be too hard to overcome. But fear comes and goes and shows itself in so many different ways. Sure there’s the fear of dying that’s impossible to ignore on this kind of adventure, but there’s also the fear of getting so close to your goal and coming up just short. Luckily for Caroline, that fear was unwarranted.