One woman’s solo suffer-fest to the South Pole

Few of us wake up one morning deciding to ski across Antarctica. And fewer still would contemplate doing it solo and unaided. But few of us are as determined as endurance athlete Jenny Davis.

Late last year, Jenny flew to Hercules Inlet to attempt the women’s solo speed record for travelling to the South Pole from the the Antarctic coast. It’s a journey of over 1150km (715 miles) and the time to beat was 38 days, 23 hours and 5 minutes.

The Journey

The journey is a steady uphill push in a barren land of rock and ice. Even in summertime, ravaging storms can whip up 160km (100 mile) an hour winds and dump snow on the usually dry landmass. And this is exactly what happened to Jenny on her first attempt, the year before, though it was peritonitis rather than the unseasonably harsh storms that forced her to abandon her attempt. And yeah, you read that right: she’s already been through hell on ice once.  

Second time round, she was more determined than ever. And for the first 800km (500 miles) she was tracking ahead of record-breaking pace. But then disaster stuck.

Let The Suffer Fest Begin

“I had around 350 kilometres to go,” explains Jenny, “but then a wound on my leg properly split open and I was in absolute agony.”

This wound  turned out to be Polar Thigh, a painful abrasion-induced injury that disproportionately affects women when venturing into extremely cold environments. And as little is known about it, Jenny wasn’t really prepared for it. At least for it to develop in the way it did.

“I had one small sheet of dressing to put on the wound. And it had to last. With so much distance still to travel, I eked it out and cut off just enough to cover the wound as it expanded. In the end I looked like a patchwork quilt of sticky bits.”

After a while, Jenny was out of dressing. At this point, in so much pain and with no idea of the severity of the situation, many of us would give up. Yes, there’s the agony of missing the world record and returning back to normal life unsuccessful. But the agony of pushing on would deliver some pretty sobering perspective. But Jenny didn’t give up.

“I was in an immense amount of pain, but I’m used to feeling uncomfortable. I’m an endurance athlete. And when you do races like the Marathon des Sables you have to be good at managing the mental side of things. I can go into this zone, where I can be running for seven hours but it feels like one. I can compartmentalise and focus on what’s important.”

Jenny The Athlete

Jenny has been playing competitive sport since her teens, but it wasn’t until 2015 that she really took things up a notch with the Marathon des Sables, a 250km multi-stage race through the Sahara Desert. Since then, she’s been hooked and divides her time between working as a corporate lawyer, ultra-running and inspiring and enabling other women to fulfil their athletic goals and dreams.

“I want to be a role model. I care a lot about promoting other women’s achievements and inspiring our kids, particularly our girls. When they draw an explorer, they draw a man. I guess you can only be what you can see. So it’s so important to have all different kinds of female role models.”

This helped spur Jenny on during some of her darker, more challenging moments. Although she was undertaking this journey solo, she wasn’t alone.

The Bigger Picture

In fact for Jenny, the going solo part, was the main raison d'être. She wanted to see what she was capable of without team mates or a support crew to rely on.

“In a team everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, which is brilliant because you can work well together. But when you’re alone everything is on you. This makes it more dangerous. For example, if the wind is picking up that tends to mean a storm is coming in. In a team you might push on because there’s three of you to put up a tent in high winds and that’s fine. Putting up the tent in high winds on your own is just dangerous. If you lose the tent that’s it. Game over. There’s a lot of things you need to be aware of about yourself and the environment. It’s on you to motivate yourself and get up every day and keep going and I find this really interesting. I wanted to see how I could handle it. I was interested to see what it would be like to do such a major expedition by yourself.” 

And clearly Jenny is capable of a lot. She pushed through pain, three storms including an all-encompassing white out that felt like “walking in a marshmallow”. But there was still beauty to behold.

Beauty On Another Scale

“In the beginning you walk through deep valleys with massive mountains either side. The ice formations are spectacular, and the compacted snow and ice is eroded by wind to look like waves. Later, as the landscape flattens out it does get quite monotonous. But the sky, filled with shape-shifting clouds means it never gets boring. In fact, you can see so much sky that the white is less dominating. It’s really beautiful.”

Though as the days wore on, it got harder to block out the pain and the beautiful scenery was not enough of a distraction.

“I realised then that the world record was out of reach. But by this point I just wanted to reach the pole. Last year I didn’t make it and then I’d done all this training… I didn’t want to not reach the pole for the second time.”


The Pole

After 42 days, Jenny skied into the small basecamp that occupies the pole with no fanfare. The two scientists based there didn’t even know she was coming until they heard noises outside their tent.

“I think I’d skied for 18 hours that day. You can see the pole quite far out and I just wanted to get there. I didn’t really feel much when I arrived. I was very happy to be there, of course. But I was in a lot of pain, so I just had a couple of beers then went to bed.”

The End?

The journey didn’t end at the pole. After three days waiting out a storm, Jenny was flown to the main base camp in Antarctica at Union Glacier. And there, perhaps, was her biggest challenge yet: to remove the bandages that were on her leg; bandages that needed a long soaking in a hot shower before they could be removed.

“I knew it was going to hurt when the doctor gave me a bottle of whisky to drink in the shower and he stood behind the curtain ready to provide me with painkillers for what were to be the most painful 40 minutes of my life, peeling off the layers of Granuflex dressing.”

Two days later, Jenny arrived back in the UK, and was whisked straight to hospital where she had not one, but two operations – including a skin graft – on her leg. It wasn’t until three weeks later that she could really take in the experience.

“It took a while to process it all. I know I’m good at pushing through pain, but I didn’t think I had it in me to ski through that. Of course I’m over the moon about making it to the pole, even if I didn’t break the record. Though actually, right now, I’m more excited about the fact I can bend my knee again. It’s funny how you take this really small movement for granted. I spent 42 days skiing, 15 hours a day, and suddenly being able to bend my knee is a big deal.”

This pretty much sums Jenny up. She’s incredibly humble and down to earth. It’s not that she underestimates her achievements; it’s more that she just doesn’t think she’s more special than the rest of us.

“I believe anyone can do this kind of thing with the right training, equipment and support. There’s nothing special about me. You just have to really want to do it. You’ve got to figure out what’s the end goal and how to get there. Your why has to be strong because if you don’t really want it, you’ll give up when it starts to get hard. But if you truly want it, I honestly believe you’ll make it happen.”

Jenny’s Training

Jenny’s training was intense, to say the least. 

She started about eight months out and her social life went out the window. She trained for up to 14 hours at a time. The most common method was walking on a treadmill, at max incline, pulling a weighted (with 100kgs) sled looking at a wall with nothing like music or Netflix to distract her.

“Training was tough, particularly training without any external stimulus. But it’s important to be able to empty your heard and stay calm. You can’t be dependent on stuff like music. Because what if it breaks out there? Would you still be able to carry on?”

Depending on where she was in her training schedule, Jenny would do roughly three weight-lifting sessions per week, four general strength and conditioning sessions, including “boring stuff” like foam rolling and core training, a weekly swim and some bike sessions for cardio fitness. And seeing as Jenny was still working during this time, she had to use annual leave to take longer training sessions closer to departure.

But the hard work clearly paid off. Jenny wasn’t just physically strong, she was mentally strong, too.

Follow Jenny's next adventures here