Solo and unassisted, Vincent Colliard reached the South Pole in 22 days and 6 hours on the 11th of January 2024, beating the previous record. “I fought very, very hard during this expedition. When I got to the South Pole, I couldn’t believe it was over.” Børge Ousland’s friend and heir, Vincent Colliard has just returned to his adopted home, Norway, to tell us all about his extraordinary Antarctic adventure.
It’s a small black dot on a white horizon. A single human being on the horizon, in a desert of snow and ice. On the 11th of January, Vincent Colliard has just a handful of hours left to complete his challenge. He has informed Cedar, the base manager at the South Pole, of his arrival. He looks through binoculars, then gradually sees Vincent approaching his goal. They fall into each other’s arms. It’s over: Vincent Colliard has reached the Pole faster than any of his predecessors. His first feeling? A mixture of joy and sorrow, emotions, relief and unreality, of someone reaching his goal and above all the world of the rare humans who live at 90 degrees south latitude.
It didn’t just take him twenty-two days to get there. It took a lot of experience, over fifteen years of expeditions and frequenting the polar and arctic worlds. It also took luck, but “you have to make your own luck“, says Vincent. When he set out on this challenge, the weather was not good. From the very first days, Vincent had to contend with the white out, the permanent white day that makes orientation difficult. The wind blows the snow away, and the skis sink into a layer of powder. “All I could think about was tomorrow. I said to myself: imagine that tomorrow you’ll suffer less. I could only thing one day at a time, which was the only way I could keep my spirits up.“
“If you think about the finish, you never finish.” So Vincent didn’t think about it. He didn’t have the time, either. Eleven to thirteen hours a day on skis. Add the time to set up and take down the tent, melt snow for water, make his meals. “I’ve been sleeping a lot and eating a lot to recuperate ever since“, he exclaims. Eleven to thirteen hours on skis was essential if he was to beat Norwegian skier Christian Eide’s record of 24 days and one hour, set in 2011. That’s a crazy average of fifty kilometers a day, pulling a pulka weighing sixty kilos at the start. “My hips and knees have been aching ever since“, confides Vincent.
Vincent Colliard already has many Arctic and polar expeditions to his credit. He crossed Spitsbergen in winter, independently, with his wife, Canadian Caroline Coté. Spitsbergen’s difficult terrain put the adventurers to the test, but after 63 days, they had succeeded.
Vincent’s challenge for the South Pole was quickly matured after a double setback. An explorer’s dream often remains a dream: twice, his project to cross the North Pole solo was not attempted. Last March, he was in Resolute Bay, in Canada’s far north, when the Norwegians and Russians announced the closure of the Barneo base. No alternative? Abandonment. Financial loss. Vincent soon switched to the idea of the South Pole. His wife had also set the women’s record, in thirty-three days. Vincent remembers with emotion his arrival at the Pole in 2022. He was there when Caroline emerged from the great white.
Eleven to thirteen hours on skis a day. 50 km average, with a 60-kilo pulka
The polar worlds are a small world, in which many people know each other. Christian Eide is a friend, where Vincent ate sushi on his return from the South Pole this week. He calls him up, already asking if trying to beat his record would jeopardize their friendship. Eide gives Vincent his blessing and, above all, his precious advice. His roadmap, day after day. “It’s easier to beat a record once it’s been set than to set it for the first time“, insists Vincent, to whom Eide lends a cottage for training.
Colliard spends his time training, cross-country skiing. “I turned the page on the North Pole, and did hundreds of kilometers of cross-country skiing, until the first week of June. After that, I went to work as a glacier guide in Norway, so I could continue training on skis !” Vincent Colliard is well supported by his wife, friends and fellow adventurers. “Without Christian, I’d never have made it this far, or kept to this schedule.”
One thousand one hundred and thirty kilometers, solo and unassisted: how does one become ready for such a challenge? Born in the Basque country, Vincent Colliard studied in Pau, to be closer to the Gavarnie cirque, which he loves to visit in winter, and where he practises ice climbing. After an expedition to Nepal and Patagonia, a trip to Spitzbergen made him fall in love with the polar world.
He decided that office hours were not for him. “I became a fisherman in Alaska, on Kodiak Island, then I went north to Norway, for the same job. I was on a cod fishing boat in winter. The night, the cold, the humidity – it was an experience that stood me in good stead later on.” Young Vincent read Amundsen, dreaming of the Norwegian “warriors“. He sent messages to Børge Ousland, the great explorer of the two poles, asking to meet him. “He finally agreed, probably because I insisted. I came to the appointment to see him with a ten-kilo block of frozen cod that I had caught.” Well-known in Norway, Ousland agreed to let him come on his boat for the circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle, his next expedition, in 2010.
Børge Ousland was proud of me. I told him thank you for giving me a chance fifteen years ago
It was Vincent’s first polar expedition, and the start of a friendship that has lasted ever since: Børge took him under his wing, and together they mounted expeditions to cross the planet’s great glaciers. The next date for this Ice Legacy project? Next September, on the Juneau glacier in Alaska. In 1994, “Børge Ousland was the first man to reach the North Pole alone and without assistance. I must say that the solitary aspect of this feat impressed me greatly.” And inspired, no doubt.
Endorsed by mentor Børge Ousland, the young Frenchman never stopped. He moved to Norway and found work as a polar guide. “Børge is not expansive, but when I saw him on my return from the Pole [last week], he was proud of me. I told him thank you for giving me a chance fifteen years ago”. He adds, “I think we’ve become a soft generation. To get good sponsors you need followers, as if having followers would be better than having skills! When I see what the old-timers were doing, the extraordinary expeditions…“
Going to the South Pole is a dream that doesn’t come cheap. Not even to those who can raise the funds from sponsors to make it happen. For Vincent, the South Pole is first and foremost a question of style: solo, but also without assistance, “nor food and equipment drop-off” in advance, as is sometimes the practice. Vincent Colliard has also taken care to mark out his route far from the track that winds from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole, a track groomed by a few machines and used by the American Colin O’Brady, without saying so, which earned him the disavowal of his peers during his pseudo-crossing of Antarctica.
Just a few days after Vincent’s departure, O’Brady set off to attempt the South Pole record. Before falling into a crevasse and being repatriated. “There are two known crevasse areas. Shortly after the start, and around 87° degrees. Colin took a shortcut, but crossing this zone put him at great risk“, explains Vincent. He mapped out his route, taking care not to get lost, and limiting the zigzags that were sometimes unavoidable. “I have a compass mounted on a small plastic tray in front of me, so I can see it at all times. Of course, I have a GPS backup that I check every morning. But during the day I use the sun… and especially the compass when I’m in the white out.” You have to take into account a magnetic declination of over 30° when aiming for the South Pole, otherwise you won’t find the geographic South Pole.
I almost gave up twice
“The first week of tracking was very tiring. I have Nordic touring skis, with edges on three quarters of the sole. I had a terrible day when my pulka turned over seven times, and I fell four times“, says Vincent Colliard. “I took thirty packs of food, one per day. I reached the limit because I gave some up on the way, to lighten up. I didn’t know if my body would hold out, but I had to take the risk of pulling a lighter sled.”
During the day, Vincent wears relatively little clothing, to “keep himself moving as much as possible.” In the evening, he sets up his tent and melts his daily four liters of water. When it comes to equipment, Vincent’s mindset is simple: “You must never use force, because if you do, you’ll break the equipment!” He didn’t break anything serious, but the white out made him doubt himself. “I almost gave up twice. I told my weather router that if he didn’t bring me good weather, I was going to crack“, confides Vincent. “I was crying every night at that period.“
He puts heavy metal or hip hop music in his ears. The weather changes, and the spirit is freed. Fortunately because, from 86, 87° south latitude, Vincent has to climb to the Antarctic plateau, at an altitude of 2,500 meters. The temperature was minus thirty, minus forty, with a slight breeze.
On the 11th of January 2024, Vincent Colliard reached his goal. No doubt he was thinking of the kid who, from Gavarnie, didn’t want to deprive himself of freedom, but never imagined he’d get this far.