Spokane native Todd Carmichael and the Pig race against time, frostbite and insanity

“We’re going to be OK. You’re such a worrywart. I’m doing all the work anyway. All you have to do is hang out back there.” Todd Carmichael is talking to his sled again, whom he affectionately calls the Pig. She carries the supplies, he pulls her and after a couple weeks, they’re starting to sound like an old married couple. “Don’t be afraid. Everything’ll be fine.”

You can’t blame Carmichael for hallucinating. Try setting the world record crossing Antarctica, stomping over 700 miles of snow and ice, your face and feet black with frostbite, your body shedding pounds faster than you can eat a stick of butter, nothing but you and ice and your sled Pig — try all that and see if you don’t go bat-shit crazy.

Indeed, Carmichael says he welcomed the occasional hallucination. Disconnecting from reality made him feel less alone and he could separate himself from what was happening to his body.

But on Day 37 — with only 47 miles left between him and the South Pole — his mind slipped another gear or two. And then it happened: the boneheaded mistake that could kill him. Carmichael was trying to fire up his stoves to melt ice for drinking water when he spilled a fuel canister over the last of his food reserves.

Had he been more lucid, he might have panicked. Or even done the sensible thing and slept for a couple of hours. Instead, he tore down his tent, packed up the Pig and without food or rest just started walking.

“Let’s move, Pig.”

Carmichael always had a taste for adventure, even as a kid in Spokane. Born in ’63, he grew up in a family of women, three sisters and Mom, and felt a bit like their mascot. He recalls having a long leash as a kid, free to explore the world on bicycle. As a teenager, he took up distance running and after class at Northwest Christian School, he’d race his sister’s school bus home, some 15 miles, to the Valley.

“He was very wild,” recalls his older sister, Lisa Wolfe, now an instructor at Spokane Community College. “He talked all the time. He never slept. He couldn’t concentrate on school work if you held a gun to his head because he was really interested in everything.

“My mother tried to rein him in, but he was always in trouble. He was always erecting something, building something, traveling somewhere … probably going somewhere he wasn’t supposed to go.”

Carmichael’s mother later moved the family to Spokane’s South Hill so he could attend Ferris High School, which had the area’s best cross country team at the time. Running became his life and he often did it alone — through wheat fields, down into Hangman Valley, up to Mica Peak. He recalls traveling across central Washington for running competitions and wondering how far he could get on foot through the arid landscape. In 1981, he ran on Ferris’ state champion cross county team.

A running scholarship took Carmichael to the University of Washington, where he studied business and then went to work at an accounting firm. Later, in 1994, with a nest egg built up, he moved to Philadelphia and with a partner founded a high-end coffee roasting company. Coffee became his life, his endurance test, as running had once been. “It was 24 hours a day coffee,” he says. “That’s what I thought about, that’s what I did.”

But by 2000, with the company raking in millions, Carmichael looked to take a break. He arranged to be dropped off at a tiny island in the South Pacific called Nagigia with about 150 villagers. “The idea was to go back in time … to learn from the indigenous people there how to survive,” Carmichael says. He spent the next two and a half months surfing, spearing fish and building a hut. It became a turning point. “During that time, I thought, ‘You know what, it’s very, very clear for you, my friend: Adventure and endurance is just part of your life. And it’s time you take it more seriously.’”

Before long, he was in Namibia, hooking up with a team tracking elephants through the desert and attaching GPS collars to the herd. He quickly moved from team treks to solo expeditions and made several return trips to Africa. “But trekking deserts has its limitations, and the limitation is how much water can you bring,” Carmichael says. “In 2004 [during a desert dune trek] the idea struck me: ‘Wait a minute. Antarctica is a desert, and they have loads of water.’”

A few months later, he was standing at the South Pole in a group that had trekked about 70 miles in eight days. By the end, he was wrecked. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got some work to do here’ — and for the next four years, I went through a physical transformation,” Carmichael says. He gave up cigarettes, wine and fatty foods. He started doing eight-hour bike rides and runs. He dragged weighted tractor tires on roller skis around Philadelphia to prepare for pulling a sled across Antarctica.

In 2007, Carmichael set out with a partner to ski from the edge of the continent to the South Pole. Unfortunately, his partner hurt his leg early on and had to quit after a week. Carmichael continued by himself but — frostbitten and running low on food — he called for a rescue plane after 24 days.

He vowed to return the next year, at age 45. This time he’d go it alone.

To get to Hercules Inlet, on the edge of Antarctica where trekkers begin the 700-mile slog to the South Pole, you charter a bush plane. It takes you to the flat ice shelf at sea level, circles round and round and comes down hard. Moments later, you’re alone, except the powerful winds rushing off the continent and into your face. Even in summer, with 24-hour sunlight, you’re standing in one of the coldest, driest, most isolated places on Earth.

Carmichael arrived there on Nov. 11, 2008, with hopes of making history. He was trying to be the first American and only the fifth person to complete the journey alone and without aid. And he was hoping to do it in world-record time: just under 40 days.

“It’s bone-marrow cold,” he says. “It’s just cold where you go, ‘Oh, my God!’”

He trudged a few miles north and crossed the 80th parallel, so that his journey would encompass a full 10 degrees to the pole, and made camp for the night. The official time clock of the trek started tomorrow. Tonight Carmichael went over his checklist for the millionth time. His feet were already lathered in Super Glue, making the skin tough against blisters, and he wrapped them in athletic tape. He boiled ice for drinking water. He set the alarm. He thought about tomorrow’s climb, rising quickly from sea level and across treacherous crevasses.

Tomorrow the sled would be at its heaviest, about 250 pounds, with freeze-dried food, countless sticks of butter, two satellite phones, two GPS locators, beacons, cameras, a solar-panel recharger, two stoves and fuel.

The next morning, Carmichael checked his supplies and made sure everything was in its place — a ritual he’d repeat a thousand times in the coming days. “Your whole day becomes that — that exact same order, same routine,” Carmichael says. “And on that first day, all those things are coming back to you and there’s a sense of wonderment: ‘What’s going to happen?’ Because no expedition goes as planned.”

Carmichael set off across the hard, slick ice and began climbing the snowy ridge. He smiled. His body warmed up. He felt strong. Then his ski bindings — the ones he had used for months training in Philadelphia — broke. He made just nine miles that first day and spent most of the night inside his tent trying to devise a way to fix the bindings. Already, on Day 1, his shot at the world record looked to be over.

“I had a lot to think about,” he says, “whether I was going to continue and try to do what everyone was saying was impossible … 700 miles in ski boots.”

Walking, rather than skiing, would mean he’d have to nearly double the amount of time he spent moving every day. And as far as anybody knew, nobody had ever done it. It was slow going. On Day 2, he did 10 miles. On Day 3: 13 miles. On Day 4: 9 miles. On Day 5: zero. (Driving winds kept him in his tent, and he took another crack at repairing his bindings).

Fortunately, though, with the passing days, Carmichael was settling into his routine, which became essential. You don’t want to think, reflect or even be fully present in the moment — because you just might want to stop.

“You’re trying to find that area, like when you drive your car and show up at work and go, ‘Shit, I don’t remember driving here.’ That’s the zone you want to stay in,” Carmichael says. “You want to go into this Neverland and lose track of time, especially when you’ve got 14, 15 hours to do.”

The day becomes an endless list as soon as the alarm sounds. Get out of the sleeping bag. Light the stove. Reheat the drinking water you boiled the night before. Cut up your freeze-dried porridge. Dump in boiling water and a whole stick of butter for calories. Slurp it down. Cut up the rest of the day’s food (sausage and chocolate bits). Drink a cup of tea. Bandage your feet again. Commence packing, everything into the same bag it came out of. Load the sled. Stretch for 15 minutes. At 7 am exactly, begin walking. “It starts to happen through muscle memory,” he says.

Every trekker has a different rhythm and Carmichael’s was set to hour-and-10-minute marches. He’d walk that length of time, stop, rest for five minutes and eat bits of chocolate and sausage. Two more cycles and then he’d eat a 10-minute lunch of pasta and another stick of butter. Because he lacked skis, he’d do four, five or six more marches and make camp for the night. Then it’s everything in reverse. Check your location on the GPS, call base camp and report your progress, call your wife and tell her you’re OK, start boiling ice for dinner. Don’t think, don’t worry, just go, go, go.

On Day 7, Carmichael woke, unzipped his tent and his heart immediately sank. Whiteout. Visibility was so low he could barely see his feet when standing. The sky, the ground, inches in front of his face: everything was a blinding, indistinguishable, vertigo-inducing white and without a sense of the horizon, Carmichael’s internal balance failed. He stumbled drunkenly forward, over ridges and snow dunes and ice, and fell time and again.

He pulled out his compass, held it close to his face and worked to keep his heading straight. He tried to keep his emotions — frustration, anger, despair — at arm’s length so he could stay in that Neverland zone. “Once you let that emotion in, you get all tangled up,” Carmichael says. “You’re trying not to think, ‘I wonder when this will be over,’ because now you’re introducing the concept of time. … You just try to empty your head out.”

By the end of the day, after staggering for hours, tumbling into crevasses and crawling for balance, he gained just two miles. The world record kept receding into the distance. He needed to average about 18 miles a day; so far, the longest distance he had traversed in a day was 14 miles.

Each night, Carmichael phoned base camp to report his position. On the other end of the line, a guy named Steve Jones repeatedly warned him that at his current rate he wouldn’t catch up to record pace and probably wouldn’t reach the pole at all.

“‘Carmichael, you’re not thinking clearly,’” he remembers Jones saying. “‘You’re not going to make it past the 88th parallel. All this will be for nothing.’”

Then Jones said, “There’s this fuel cache at the 85th parallel. I’ve left a pair of skis for you with bindings. I want you to take them.” Jones gave him the coordinates, but Carmichael didn’t write them down. Accepting help would change everything — the expedition would then be “supported,” and his accomplishment would come with an asterisk attached.

Over the next two weeks, Carmichael continued to log 12-, 14- and 16-mile days. It wasn’t progress that would bring him the record but, without skis, he was having to walk 16 hours a day (or more) to hit those marks.

It was during this time that Carmichael’s relationship with the Pig started to blossom. In audio dispatches to family back home, he took to using “we” — speaking of the Pig as though it were a person.

Eventually, Carmichael’s brother-in-law, who was charting his progress on a Website, added a clarification: “Note that Todd is still out there solo. The ‘we’ he mentions in the audio dispatch refers to himself and his sled, aka the Pig. Perhaps this is something like Tom Hanks and the volleyball, except much colder” — alluding to the movie Cast Away, in which Hanks’ marooned character develops an unlikely friendship with Wilson.

On Day 22, Carmichael finally busted out a big haul. It was sunny; the wind was gone; he was feeling good. He walked for 12 hours and covered nearly 27 miles. Mentally, it was critical: He had proved to himself that he could still come back and mount a serious challenge to the world record. “I really put on the gas,” he says.

The next morning, he woke, geared up to do it again, and was moving at a good clip when he saw a green speck in the distance, which stood out against the all-white landscape. Curious, Carmichael changed course and headed for it. The green speck turned out to be the fuel cache Jones had told him about — and there, next to it, were the skis. Carmichael stood there for 15 minutes, conflicted. Take the skis and he’d definitely make it to the pole (a decent feat in itself). Or leave them, continue on foot and risk everything. The fact that he had stumbled upon them by chance seemed significant.

“Is this a sign from God?”

Carmichael wondered a moment, then finally tightened his harness to the Pig and tramped onward, leaving the skis where they were.

Carmichael started mounting a string of huge days, but it came at a cost. His gear was breaking down and he spent nearly every night repairing something (mitts, ski poles, tracking beacon), which meant less and less sleep. His body was breaking down, too. He had lost more than 30 pounds by this point. His lungs were so raw from the cold air that he was coughing up blood. And now he was talking more and more to the Pig.

Then on Day 37, after another 19 miles, it happened. Both his stoves wouldn’t fire, so he took them completely apart, cleaned each component and put them back together. Still nothing. He did it a second time. Then he switched fuel canisters. Then he checked the pumps. It was nearly 5 am when he finally got a stove to put out enough heat to melt ice. He packed up the mess he had made, stuffing one bag with all the important stuff: GPS tracker, his cut-up food for the next day, a fuel canister.

Moments later, he discovered the cap on the fuel was loose and the canister had leaked over everything.

“Holy crap!”

To make matters worse, the backup satellite phone was now dead. No way to call anyone for help. He knew his mind wasn’t working as well as it should be. “You gotta think clearly now!” he muttered to himself. “You gotta think clearly!"

He began obsessing that he had become that guy — you know, the guy who in the midst of doing something daring does something so completely stupid that it costs him his life. “Am I that guy who is one mistake away from losing it?” he wondered.

Carmichael shook off the thought and decided, no, he wasn’t that guy. Not him. He packed up the Pig, determined to make 47 miles in one long, self-destructive march.

Carmichael was dizzy. Two freeze-dried meals and a bit of sausage survived the fuel spill, but that was nothing, considering that he was burning 12,000 calories on an average day. The snow was getting deeper and softer, and he had to shorten his stride to the point that each step moved him only six inches forward.

At one point, he stopped for a moment and leaned on his ski poles. A few seconds later, he was startled by the sound of a man snoring. It was him.

Thirteen miles out, he pitched the tent. He had to melt ice for drinking water, but he didn’t want to risk falling asleep and losing his shot at the record. So after he got the stove going, he leaned toward the flame. That way, if he nodded off, he’d fall into the fire and wake up.

He got within three miles of the pole and stopped again. The Pig was practically empty, as light as she had been in 40 days, but Carmichael couldn’t pull her another step. “Listen, I can’t walk anymore,” he told the Pig as he unbuckled the harness. “I’ll be back. I promise. I won’t leave you here.”

He took a camera and left, but once the Pig was out of sight, he got anxious. What if a storm rolls in? What if I can’t find my way back to the Pig? He reached the edge of the research station near the pole, but didn’t want to cross the icy airstrip there because he worried his tracks would be lost. He paced back and forth and a couple of times turned around to retrieve the Pig. “I wasn’t making a lot of sense,” Carmichael says.

Then he spotted a man living at the research station, who pointed him to the actual pole and snapped a photo of Carmichael and his watch. His time: 39 days, 7 hours, 49 minutes. He had beaten Hannah McKeand’s world record, set in 2006, by 1 hour and 44 minutes.

The difference — just 104 minutes — was less than 0.2 percent of the time on the ice, reports ExplorersWeb.com, which collects expedition data. If applied to a 100-meter dash, the difference would equal less than 0.02 of a second.

On his Dec. 28 flight back to Philadelphia — 42 pounds lighter, his face and feet burned with frostbite, his lungs a bloody mess — Carmichael fell asleep in the plane seat and awoke suddenly in a frenzy. He was back on the ice for a moment. We gotta break down the tent, pack the Pig, move, move, move…

Later on the flight, after the panic attack, Carmichael visualized a design for the next Pig, a Pig on wheels, which he hopes to use later this year on 700 miles of open African desert, shattering the world distance record. He wasn’t even home yet, and already he was planning the next thing.

Which raises some basic questions: Why? Why do it at all? Why put yourself through hell?

Carmichael gives a couple of different answers. For one, he wants to be the best — and “for trekkers, this is the Olympics.”

Also, he says, “On expedition, you have one thing to focus on. It’s so beautiful. … You get to pit yourself against something that you think is marginally impossible. Which means you can measure yourself in a very objective way. … We have this fuel in us, but we live just drinking off the top. You don’t know how much is in there. This way, you get to find out.”

But that’s not the real reason, either. “The real reason,” he says, “is I just have to. I just have to. I don’t know why. I feel compelled to a level that talks to me constantly.”

Todd Carmichael discusses his record-setting expedition on Tuesday, Feb. 24, at 7 pm, at Spokane Community College’s Lair Auditorium, Bldg. 6, 1803 N. Greene St. Free. Call 533-7337.

About The Author

Jacob H. Fries

Jacob H. Fries is the editor of the Inlander. In that position, he oversees editorial coverage of the paper and occasionally contributes his own writing. Before joining the paper, he wrote for numerous publications, including the Tampa Bay Times, the Boston Globe and the New York Times. He grew up in Spokane Valley...

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