Johanna Davidsson doesn’t remember saying goodbye to the pilot who left her alone on a frozen wasteland. Looking back, her strongest memory is a thought that rose up as she watched the plane disappear out of sight. A thought that said, “Oh my God, what have I done?”
The year was 2016 and the Swedish nurse was fulfilling a dream a decade in the making: to ski solo to the geographic South Pole. Starting at Hercules Inlet in West Antarctica, ahead lay 1,130 kilometers (702 miles) of barren nothingness that Davidsson would have to navigate unsupported and unaided, with a 110-kilogram (243-pound) sled in tow.
Anything could go wrong. Injury and illness, freak accident or fatigue; small problems can fast become big ones in the cold. And yet everything went right – better than alright, in fact.
“When I saw it was possible, I couldn’t really not do it”
On winter days up in the mountains, Davidsson thinks of Antarctica. The 35-year-old is based in Tromso, a beautiful community in Arctic Norway with bountiful hiking on its doorstep. Beyond the city limits in search of time alone, the old feelings return.
“If I picture my trip I see the big white with the horizon and nothing else,” Davidsson says. She misses the simplicity of it all: eat, ski, sleep, stay warm. No mobile phone, no internet, no emails. “In one way (it’s) an easier life,” she says.
For years Davidsson has led a double life, both a nurse at Tromso Legevakt medical center and a notable adventurer. She’s kayaked 3,660 kilometers (2,270 miles) around the coastline of Sweden and Finland, climbed on El Capitan in Yosemite, kite-skied Greenland from south to north and sailed across the Indian Ocean. “I think I’m drawn to (…) where there’s not many people,” she says. Wherever she is, “it’s something special to be out there on my own.”
With a peak population of under 5,000 spread across 14.2 million square kilometers, Antarctica held obvious appeal. On November 15, 2016, after 18 months of planning and intense fundraising, Davidsson landed on the fringes of the continent.
Once the plane left she began to ski. For seven hours a day, rising to 12 as the journey progressed, she dragged her sled along the ice, averaging 30 kilometers a day. In clear weather she navigated by the sun and shadows in the sastrugi – the windswept ridges formed in the snow. When the weather closed in visibility was so low it was “like walking in a ping pong ball.”
The isolation and silence didn’t faze the Swede, but the fear of failure – of equipment or her body – was real.
“If you run a marathon, in a few hours it’s over,” she explains. “(The Antarctic trek) keeps on going every day for weeks in a row. So you need to be very determined.”
“When I started to ski in the morning I just let my thoughts wander,” Davidsson adds. “Sometime I was daydreaming, sometimes thinking of … loved ones like family and friends.”
When fatigue set in, the mind turned to the kilometers left to ski that day or the time until the next five-minute break. “I didn’t spend too much time thinking of the South Pole,” she says, “I rather tried to focus on shorter goals like every degree (of latitude), half way (and) my birthday.” (Davidsson celebrated her 33rd birthday during the trip.)
On Christmas Eve, after 38 days, 23 hours and five minutes she emerged at the geographic South Pole – home to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a scientific research base. “It was a little bit surreal, from going for so many days all alone … and then suddenly you were there and there are people around and buildings and everything,” she says.
Davidson didn’t set foot on Antarctica aiming for a world record, but she walked away with one anyway, becoming the fastest woman to ski solo, unsupported and unassisted from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. She beat the previous record by nine hours.
Not knowing how fast she’d ski, Davidsson packed supplies for 50 days. But eventually reality dawned: “when I saw it was possible, I couldn’t really not do it.”
Davidsson resupplied at the South Pole and then, as she puts it, “turned around and kite-skied back to the coast again where I got dropped off.” Wind assisted, she arrived back at Hercules Inlet 12 days later. But on the cusp of rejoining civilization, she faltered momentarily.
“The only time I felt a little bit lonely was when I finished everything, and I waited a day to be picked up,” she says. However the loneliness didn’t last for long. Davidsson returned home to a hero’s welcome.
“Swedish woman smashes record,” declared the Smithsonian Magazine. Davidsson won the Shackleton Award for her meticulously-prepared expedition and for the second time was named Swedish Adventurer of the Year.
Returning to Antarctica
Since her record-breaking exploits Davidsson has juggled nursing, motivational speaking events and published a book recounting her Antarctic expedition. She’s not done with the continent however, taking on the role of guide.
In her two seasons working for tour company Antarctic Logistics & Expedition, Davidsson has returned to the South Pole three times – albeit skiing from closer range – and twice-summited Mount Vinson, Antarctica’s highest peak at 4,892 meters. She’ll be returning again later this year.
“It’s a lot more responsibility” overseeing a gaggle of Antarctic enthusiasts, she says – mostly middle-aged men from Europe and the US. The pace is slower, the distances shorter, and the support given is both physical and mental. “You have to remind yourself how it was the first time (you were in Antarctica),” she says, “how nervous you were.”
The cold, the isolation and, maybe, a rising thought as you survey the frozen wastes for the first time: “Oh God, what have I done?”