Glaciologist and explorer Wen Xu became the first Chinese to reach the South Pole solo, unsupported and relying only on his muscle power, on January 10. For 58 days, Wen pulled a sledge across the ice and snow, but he had to abandon his original objective of crossing the entire Antarctic continent. His primary goal, however, was not to set polar records, but raise awareness of global warming among Chinese youth and collect valuable climate data from the remote interior.
Wen’s career as an educator and explorer started in May 2017 when he fell through glacial ice into a lake high on the Tibetan Plateau. Such a lake should not have formed in the first place, but, created by abnormally high temperatures, it delivered Wen a personal awakening to the dangers of global warming.
Wen, 32, and wife Hu Jiaojiao had recently become parents and decided it was their duty to tell people what global warming meant for their child’s generation. In 2018, the pair set up an NGO called Polar Hub, with the aim of raising awareness of climate change and its consequences. The best way to do so, they concluded, was for Wen to become an explorer and report from where climate change was the most rapid – the planet’s glaciers and ice caps.
Wen had ample qualifications – as a glaciologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences he had already spent months on the Tibetan Plateau. A mountaineer, in 2008 he reached the summit of Mount Everest as part of a national scientific expedition.
Antarctic exploration is a costly business and having been unable to secure full sponsorship for their project, Wen and his wife paid a large part of the costs out of their own pockets.
The route they chose started from the coast of Berkner Island, which is locked within Ronne Ice Shelf in Eastern Antarctica, meaning Wen would then have to negotiate three different types of terrain – the island, the ice shelf and the Antarctic Plateau. In his preparation, he was assisted by legendary Norwegian explorer Borge Oslund, the first man to cross Antarctica solo in 1996.
Difficulties started before Wen even set foot on the ice – the delivery of equipment to Chile, his jump-off point to Antarctica, was held back by street protests which paralysed the country. Having arrived in Antarctica, Wen was further delayed by bad weather. When he finally skied off on November 12, dragging a 180kg sledge, Wen already knew he might only be able to go as far as the South Pole.
Bad weather lashed him with winds of 26 metres per second and temperatures of minus-35 degrees Celsius. Sastrugi – hard, sharp, uneven ridges sculpted in the ice by winds – threw Wen off balance, dropping him on the ice over and over.
Warmer spells and snowfall brought their own set of difficulties – the sledge would sink into the sticky, fresh snow, making the daily 12 hours of hauling especially exhausting.
Having reached the Antarctic Plateau, Wen had to tread carefully not to crash through a snow bridge and into a crevasse – a glacial crack hundreds of metres deep.
However, he says, the only moment he truly felt scared was when the wind blew away his down jacket. With no resupply possible, he crafted another jacket out of his spare sleeping bag.
All along his route, Wen took hundreds of samples of surface ice and snow for chemical analysis to obtain data on the climatic changes deep in the hinterland.
Having pulled his sledge for over 1,400kms, Wen arrived at the South Pole “in better psychological and physical condition than everyone expected”, according to Hu. He did not even have a single case of frostbite. It was, however, too late to continue – there were only 13 days left before the scheduled, and expensive, pickup at the final destination on the coast of the Ross Ice Shelf.
Wen arrived home to a hero’s welcome and yet more hard work – now he must engage the attention of young people in China with tales of climate science and personal adventure and nurture this engagement into long-term, practical results.