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30 Years Later | President McClure reflects on historic ski expedition to the South Pole

Steve Jones

Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of Spalding University President Tori Murden McClure completing a 50-day, 750-mile skiing expedition in Antarctica that ended with her becoming one of the first two women and first Americans to reach the geographic South Pole overland. She was part of an 11-member travel party who all agreed to reach the pole at the exact same time. At the time, McClure was a 25-year-old graduate student at Harvard University. Ten years later, she became the first woman and first American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. On Thursday, McClure, who is also a Spalding MFA in Writing alumna, reflected on the South Pole expedition.

Now 30 years later, which are your most salient memories and the first things that come to mind?

One thing that’s sort of weighing on me is that the oldest members of the expedition team were about my age now. I was the youngest member of the expedition team by about 10 years, maybe even more, and the oldest member of the expedition team was 58 and another was 56. I was like, ‘Man, they are so old!’ (Laughing.) Now I’m 55 and going, ‘Would I ski to the South Pole today?’ The average temperature was minus-25, the terrain was really rough, and you’d ski 20 miles and go to bed in a place that looks just like the place you started in the morning. But it was amazing. It was an amazing expedition.

Summarize the details of the trek – how far you went, where you started, etc.

We started at the edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf and were the first expedition to fly in – most expeditions sail into Antarctica – and we flew into a blue ice runway at latitude-longitude 80° S, 80° W, and then we had to fly out to the edge of the continent to the ice shelf. And then we began our ski in. We skied kind of through our base camp where we’d landed and kind of realized in our first couple days of skiing past back toward base camp that we had way too much stuff that we were hauling. So when we got to base camp, there were lots of big fights – that I wasn’t a part of because I didn’t have enough chutzpah to really be a part of them – about what we were going to bring. We jettisoned all the ropes, jettisoned all the ice axes, jettisoned all the stuff we would need really to get out of a crevasse if anyone fell deeply into a crevasse. So we just dumped a lot of gear and began to ski proper all the way to the South Pole. We did have one crevasse fall, Jerry Corr, but he only went in about shoulder-deep, so we just pulled him out. When we flew out, we sort of flew out over our route, and we crossed over crevasse after crevasse after crevasse and didn’t know what to think. We were lucky.

Describe some of the party you were with.

There were nine men and two women. Joe Murphy was the oldest gentleman and wrote a book about it (called, South to The Pole by Ski: Nine Men and Two Women Pioneer a New Route to the South Pole). Joe Murphy had climbed Everest and done a bunch of other stuff. We teased him and called him, “Three-toe Joe” because he’d lost some toes on Everest. Jerry Corr was 56 and was sort of the next-oldest. He was a businessman and a good skier. We had a gentleman from Chile, Alejandro Contreras-Steading, who was probably the best skier in the group and we called him Directo Alejo because there was all this sastrugi that you had to negotiate, and most of us would find a route skiing around these big hummocks and stuff, but Alejo, even if he was skiing over a book case, he would go straight, up and over, and because he was such a good skier he could pull it off. The rest of us had to go around. We had Col. J.K. Bajaj from the Indian Army who was a great mountaineer in India. He was always complaining about our pace. ‘Slowly and steadily,’ he would say. ‘We will get there, but we most go slowly and steadily. If we come to a stone, we’ll put our heads down and keep walking, but we absolutely must go slowly and steadily.’ The leader of the expedition was Martyn Williams from Canada. He was pretty extraordinary. It was a pretty good group.

How long did it take?

It took 50 days to cross Antarctica.

Describe what a day of skiing in Antarctica feels like or what you would see.

We skied nine hours a day, seven days a week. Skied on Christmas, skied on New Year’s, and there was just a couple days when we couldn’t move because the winds were too strong. So we averaged about 20 miles a day. There were seven days when we traveled in whiteout conditions, and whiteouts would come down on the surface of the snow and you couldn’t see anything. We’d build these cairns to help folks navigate. I took great pride in that I led the first hour and a half each morning. Everybody else did one-hour stints, so we had an extra half-hour in the day for a five- or 10-minute break. Each time we changed a leader, we would take time to gather up and put wax on our skis or eat a little something. I discerned the great advantage of having a bra because I could put my Snickers bar or whatever it was I wanted to eat the next hour in my bra and let it thaw. The guys had to put stuff in their underwear, which I’m sure was much less comfortable. (Laughing.)

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How long could your skin ever be exposed before it would freeze?

It would freeze pretty quickly. As I recall, true cold begins at minus-40, and there were a couple days that got that cold, and we couldn’t ski because your skis stop at minus-40. Nothing slides. There’s not enough moisture left to let any skis slide, so it didn’t get that cold very much, but there were a couple days. That’s also about where our thermometers stopped. That’s also the place where if you have spit or have any liquid leaving your body, it freezes before it leaves the ground.

Did you ever try that?

In terms of relieving myself, you would end up with a stalagmite when you were peeing, which was pretty funny. (Laughing.)

So going back to the very start, what made you want to do this? How did you even get hooked up with this trip?

It’s one of those shaggy-dog tales where I had been climbing a mountain in Bolivia, and a French woman told me about this expedition where they were looking for a few good women. Obviously men had skied to the South Pole, but no women had skied to the South Pole. I thought, ‘That’s crazy. That’s going to be really cold, and I’d never want to do that.’ But it was one of those ideas that got ahold of me once I heard about it. So I heard that they didn’t want anyone on the expedition under 30. I was 24 at the time. I’d done a bunch of stuff. (But for an expedition like this one), the physical hardship is one thing, but the sort of wear and tear psychologically is even more challenging; hence, they didn’t want any kids on the trip. So I wrote to the expedition leader sort of thinking I’d be set aside just on my age. But they were going to be doing a training exercise on Mount Rainier and invited me to come out. He didn’t make any promises, said, ‘I think you’re too young, but come meet the folks who might be on the expedition.’ So I went out, and I was bigger and stronger than anybody else. We climbed Rainier and did a bunch of skiing around Rainier. It was pretty early in the season – there was still about 10 feet of snow at Paradise Inn. And I got in a snowball fight with Martyn Williams, the expedition leader, and at one point, kind of picked him up and threw him over a car. (Laughing.) We were just tussling. I didn’t really think too much about it. The other thing was it was storming pretty badly on Mount Rainier, and we crested a sort of a ridge. And I remember standing on this hummock and spouting a passage from King Lear: “Blow wind and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!” So that sense of being comfortable in adversity and then throwing him over the car are what got me on the expedition. (Laughing.)

What was your skiing background?

Oh, virtually none. So I trained on roller skis, skiing the bike paths along the Charles River while I was a student at Harvard. I had to get permission from Harvard to take off 2 ½ months in the middle of the academic year to ski to the South Pole. I said, ‘I think if you let me do this I’ll be able to get a thesis out of it.’ So I wrote thesis at Harvard called, “The Theology of Adventure,’ where I juxtaposed the backcountry adventure with what I consider the vastly important more urban adventure. It’s sort of like where Spalding is. Spalding is the urban adventure, and the backcountry adventure is where you can practice the persistence, the resourcefulness, the endurance to make a difference in this world.

So back to the actual skiing, what did it feel like as you started to get close to the South Pole?

When you’re starting the journey, 750 miles seems daunting. I remember that we had to change our route a little bit because when I was heading into the expedition, I had it in my head that it was going to be 600 or 650 miles. There was something – I forget if it was a political thing or something else – that made us change our route, and it added another 100 miles. I remember thinking that I couldn’t conceive how far that was on foot. I’d been on an expedition that covered about 300 miles on foot, so I knew it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, but that extra distance was like, ‘Wow, I hope we can make it.’ When we started, as soon as we got off the ice shelf, we were in really gnarly sastrugi, and you always had the sense, ‘Over the next hill, this is going to go away. Over the next hill, this is going to go away.’ And it didn’t for, hmm, 700 miles. There were better patches and worse patches. But then you got on the Polar Plateau, and the Polar Plateau was flat, and it was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ So you’re skiing along the Polar Plateau and you hear this (imitates loud rumbling, whooshing, shaking sound). And what was happening was that as we were skiing along the Polar Plateau, we were breaking off huge sheets of frozen snow that were settling down into softer layers of snow. And to anyone who has spent time in avalanche country, the sound of that ice breaking and the sound of the ice settling or really hard snow settling into a softer layer, just makes you think, ‘I’m going to die,’ because it’s just the sound of an avalanche kicking off. We were starting to kick off these big, probably miles-long, these ice cracks. If you’re leading and you’re the one who kicks it off and can kind of feel the ice settle a couple inches down, you’re like, ‘I hope this stops dropping!’ and looking at each other. Then when we realized what was happening and that we were probably just fine, you settled into it. But being on the Polar Plateau was just awesome. As you approach the pole, the wind gets less because the wind blows north off the Polar Plateau toward the ocean, so it doesn’t matter what direction you’re skiing to the South Pole from, you’re going into a headwind and it picks up speed as it approaches near the coast. So in the start of the journey, you’re in the worst snow and the hardest winds. So on the Polar Plateau, the winds started to drop a little bit, the snow settled down and you had a sense, ‘It’s just another 100 miles. I can do that.’ And there is a photograph of that last day of, ‘We’ve done it,’ with the looks on our faces as we’re approaching the pole. There were thoughts of home, thoughts of all sorts of other things in that introspection in that one photograph.

There’s a research station at the South Pole. They have a snow runway for ski planes, and the scientists aren’t allowed out past the runway. There were sort of rules of where they can go and can’t go. So here we are skiing in from across the continent, and there’s this group of people lined up along this line of runway that they’re not allowed to cross. And we come skiing in. There were lots of congratulations. They took us into the South Pole station, which is geodesic dome. And inside the dome are refrigerator trucks that are heated, instead of refrigerated. They took us into a cantina. I don’t really remember what they gave us. (What was memorable) was the heat and the smell of both of the researchers and mostly us, because if your clothes aren’t thawed out, they don’t smell all that badly. But once we started to thaw out, we smelled pretty badly. It had been 50 days since I’d had a shower. And I’d wear two pairs of socks that I’d alternate back and forth, and by the end of the expedition they really could stand up by themselves. (Laughing.)

I don’t remember if we spent the night or not, but as I recall, there was a Twin Otter (airplane) that came out to get us from our base camp, and we packed the airplane and left. As we were flying back, we had dropped the fuel cache for the airplane because it didn’t have the fuel capacity to get back from the South Pole to base camp without that fuel camp. But it was storming and we couldn’t land where the fuel was. So we had to land elsewhere, and the pilot brought us down between two huge crevasses, and we spent a couple days waiting for the weather to break to get back to the fuel cache to get back to our base camp. There was a little bit of radio communication from there but not much, and when we got back to base camp, there was a good communication system. So there were all sorts of folks who wanted to talk to us. I remember feeling kind of ticked off that they were paying all this attention to me (as one of the women on the trip) and none to the men and not paying any attention to the men on the expedition and just feeling the unfairness of that. When we got back to Chile and there was a press conference or something, they’d say, ‘What was it like to be a woman skiing to the South Pole?’ I answered the question as politely as I could and as often as I could, ‘Look, it was just like being a man skiing to the South Pole. I did everything they did. They did everything I did.’ Finally, something in me snapped and said, ‘The only difference is when nature called, I had to drop my trousers and they didn’t.’ (Laughing.)

You all arranged it to where you all would reach and touch the pole at the exact same time. What was that moment like?

There was something really sweet about it. There are sort of two South Poles. There’s the ceremonial South Pole, which is like a barber pole with a globe on top. The actual South Pole is more of a giant nail or a spike, and it says, ‘Geographic South Pole,’ and every year on the first of January, they relocate it and it moves 15 or 20 feet because the ice shifts. So they had just moved it the first of January, and we were there on Jan. 17, so I’m pretty sure we were right over the actual pole. We all circled it and stopped and touched it. Then it was the letdown of going home and making sense of it all.

Which was harder between skiing to the South Pole and rowing solo across the Atlantic Ocean?

Physically, the ski was more difficult. Psychologically, the row was more difficult because of the solitude. You really couldn’t talk much while you were skiing because it was really hard to ski side by side and the wind was always blowing and you had to shout to be heard just a few feet away, but there at least in the evenings and the cook tent, you could converse a little bit.

Now, 30 years later, as this comes up in your speeches and conversations with students, which lessons or themes do you try to impart when you talk about the journey to the South Pole?

(McClure summarized that one story she tells frequently is of the time when, while wearing her glacier glasses, she was skiing toward what she thought was an ice landmark in the distance. She kept trying to ski toward it even as a member of her expedition kept telling her that she was veering off course. And as it turned out, what she was seeing was a piece of ice that was stuck to her glasses.)

The one I tell most often is the glacier glasses story, which is to say we get to choose the path we follow. I don’t know how many times I’ve told that story, but it’s always a little bit different lesson for every audience. For young people in particular, though, it’s we get to choose the landmarks that we follow, the people with which we align ourselves, the organizations we choose to serve. We get to choose those things, and choose with care, because it does matter.

 

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