Woman completes solo ski to the South Pole despite agonising injury

Lawyer, 34, who completed a solo ski to the South Pole reveals she ignored doctors orders to evacuate twice and completed the last 150 miles with agonising ‘polar thigh’ that saw her leg split open

  • WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES 
  • Jenny Wordsworth, 34, from London, completed solo trek in 44 days last year
  • Undertook the 715-mile expedition from Antarctic coastline to the South Pole
  • Afetr a fall, developed ‘polar thigh’ – severe chilblains on your legs caused by severe cold and friction which can become large open wounds if left untreated 
  • Has been left permanently scarred and required two surgeries and a skin graft 

A lawyer who completed a solo trek to the South Pole in 44 days has told how she twice turned down doctors’ pleas to evacuate her after suffering an agonising injury 150 miles before the end.

Jenny Wordsworth, 34, from London, undertook the 715-mile expedition from the Antarctic coastline between December 2019 and January 2020, battling adverse weather conditions, dragging an 80kg sledge packed full of survival essentials, and skiing up to 16 hours a day. 

Ahead of the trip she underwent a gruelling nine-month regime, training six days a week with 14 hour sessions at the weekends, and gained nearly 2st in weight.  

Jenny is only the eighth woman in history to have achieved the incredible feat, and was keen to break the women’s speed record for fastest solo and unassisted ski to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station – which still stands at 38 days.

Jenny Wordsworth, 34, from London, undertook the 715-mile expedition from the Antarctic coastline between December 2019 and January 2020, battling adverse weather conditions, dragging an 80kg sledge packed full of survival essentials, and skiing up to 16 hours a day

Ahead of the trip Jenny underwent a gruelling nine-month regime, training six days a week with 14 hour sessions at the weekends, and gained nearly 2st in weight

But following a ‘benign’ fall, Jenny split her leg open and developed ‘polar thigh’ -severe chilblains on your legs caused by severe cold and friction which can become large open wounds if left untreated.

Recalling a ‘level of pain she can’t physically describe’, Jenny told how she ignored medical advice twice to abandon the trip, and continued to the end – after being medically evacuated from Antarctica with a bowel infection the previous year on her first attempt.

‘I could barely walk, my leg was dragging behind me whilst skiing,’ she told FEMAIL. ‘I still don’t know how I completed the last 150 miles. It was a level of pain I can’t physically describe. 

‘I had a bag of painkillers reserved for crevasse injury and I remember licking it clean before bed as I’d run out. 

‘I ignored medical advice in that last week as doctors wanted to evacuate me, but I refused as I otherwise felt fine. There was no reason for the injury to be this bad other than I wanted to reach the Pole. 

Jenny is only the eighth woman in history to have achieved the incredible feat, and was keen to break the women’s speed record for fastest solo and unassisted ski to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station – which still stands at 38 days

Recalling a ‘level of pain she can’t physically describe’, Jenny told how she ignored medical advice twice to abandon the trip, and continued to the end despite her painful polar thigh

‘I chose not to escape the cold, which would have stopped the injury from worsening. But I never considered stopping, I had to keep going. Some wonder why I pushed through, how I held onto that desire to reach the end; I just had to get there and that belief never wavered.

WHAT IS POLAR THIGH? 

Polar thigh is essentially severe chilblains on your thighs caused by severe cold exposure and friction. 

If left untreated it can form blisters and eventually large wounds.

Jenny’s surgeon Alex Woollard told the Scotsman: ‘As a plastic surgeon, we know relatively little about how Polar Thigh evolves. The reports from the expedition doctors suggested that the injury was best left to heal, but when we took the dressings off the left thigh it showed an extensive area of full thickness necrosis. 

‘An area of skin equivalent to two per cent of her total body surface area had simply melted away and the fat underneath it was looking unhealthy, the injury was the equivalent degree of thermal injury from a burn and we had to operate a skin graft. She will have a permanent scar on the left thigh from the graft.’ 

‘Knowing I’d only just missed the new world record because of the injury wasn’t as hard to deal with, I’m not sure why. I was just so happy with how things had gone until that point – I was two days ahead of the world record and felt like I was flying. Everything was going so well.’

When Jenny returned to the UK she required two operations and a skin graft and has been left with permanent scaring, with her surgeons admitting it was the worst case of polar thigh they’d ever seen. 

‘The UK doctors that treated me are soon publishing papers on my injury,’ she said. ‘Polar thigh is a type of severe chilblain. It is a non-freezing cold injury that anecdotally seems to affect women more than men and is common on longer distance polar expeditions. 

‘There’s little scientific research into the condition and doctors from different specialisms previously had differing views on what could be causing it. Until my surgeries, there had been no opportunity to look under the hood and see the pathology of the injury for the first time. Surgeons now have better insight into what causes it; hopefully that will help shape further guidance and research into polar thigh, its causes and what we can do to pre-empt it.

‘Luckily there’s no damage to my leg function a year, on which I’m so grateful for – I’ve just been left with a pretty impressive scar which to me looks like the outline of Antarctica’s coastline.’

According to a new study by British watch designer Marloe Watch Company, nearly a fifth of Brits (10 million) have taken up a new physical activity since the pandemic began – and a third now hope to push themselves even further in life after lockdown. 

Endurance athlete Jenny told how it had always been her dream to visit Antarctica and follow in the footsteps of her polar explorer heroes Felicity Aston and Scott Shackleton.

Jenny ignored medical advice in that last week as doctors wanted to evacuate her, but she refused because other than her injury, she felt fine. Pictured in hospital afterwards

When Jenny returned to the UK she required two operations and a skin graft and has been left with permanent scaring, with her surgeons admitting it was the worst case of polar thigh they’d ever seen

Jenny was left with a pretty impressive scar which to me looks like the outline of Antarctica’s coastline

In the past she has completed the Marathon Des Sables – a six-day 251km ultramarathon in the Sahara Desert regarded as the toughest footrace on earth – and climbed Kilimanjaro, among other feats.

She attempted her solo trek to the South Pole in 2018, but after 22 days she was medically evacuated with a bowel infection and spent a week in hospital. 

‘Two years prior a British polar explorer passed away in Antarctica from the same condition, so I felt very fortunate to have been evacuated when I was,’ Jenny recalled. 

‘I definitely had unfinished business though, and wanted to return for a second attempt as soon as I could. The season in Antarctica only runs from November to the end of January each year, so November 2019 was the next chance for a return. ‘

Jenny trained her body six days a week with one full rest day. Her weekday sessions averaged from two-and-a-half to three hours, while her weekends lasted between 12 and 14. The main focus was strength and conditioning work, covering weightlifting, endurance and tyre pulling. 

Jenny trained her body six days a week with one full rest day. Her weekday sessions averaged from two-and-a-half to three hours, while her weekends lasted between 12 and 14

Jenny’s Antarctica mission required weight gain before reaching the start line, so she ‘had to eat anything and everything in sight’ and put on 2st

‘Friends soon learnt they’d have to join me on a training session to spend any time with me. The one thing I’d never miss was a training session, so it meant having to be very organised. Luckily I also had understanding employers who loved what I was training to do.

‘I started physical training nine months prior, working with my coaches to come up with a plan to specifically prepare for Antarctica and slowly build the strength and endurance needed to power me to the Pole,’ she said.

‘Training definitely builds up gradually. I also went on training expeditions, using kit in the field and experiencing Antarctica conditions. I trained in a high altitude gym and had breathing sessions at 6,000m. 

‘In the two months beforehand, we slept in a high altitude tent that fitted over the bed. I also took ice baths and cold water showers as part of my mental strength training. Working on the ability to easily get into a “flow state” through meditation made the hours fly by with a real sense of calm. I include mental elements in the training that make it feel especially hard and tiresome, all in the name of preparing me mentally for the main event.’

Jenny told how 80 per cent of her training sessions were done without music or entertainment to mirror the environment she’d face, and would stare as a white wall for nine hours a day while training on a treadmill as mental preparation. 

Jenny told how 80 per cent of her training sessions were done without music or entertainment to mirror the environment she’d face, and would stare as a white wall for nine hours a day while training on a treadmill as mental preparation

‘During the race I thought I heard a dog barking on many occasions, but later found out that’s a common hallucination to have on lengthy solo expeditions,’ she said.

For this expedition, planning began around two years prior. ‘It’s a major undertaking to plan and train for an attempt like this and the required funding is the main reason for starting two years out,’ Jenny explained. ‘I owe a big thanks to my sponsors DHL, Atkins (a protein bar company) and The North Face.

‘You need to source suitable kit in the extreme weather conditions of Antarctica, but you also need to test it. I had over 40 days of supplies in the sled behind me and every gram counts.

‘There is rarely a moment when you’re not working on the logistics of an expedition when dealing with somewhere as remote and isolated as Antarctica. Travel involved flying from London to Chile, then waiting for a weather window to be flown to Antarctica.

‘The Antarctica mission required weight gain before reaching the start line, so I had to eat anything and everything in sight. By the end I had to set alarms to eat often enough and mostly ate junk if I’m honest as it was the easiest way to get calories in. I gained nearly 2st before leaving and came back slightly underweight.  

‘During the race I thought I heard a dog barking on many occasions, but later found out that’s a common hallucination to have on lengthy solo expeditions,’ Jenny recalled

‘I was on a high fat diet so I could carry less food. On the trip I ate 5,000 calories a day. I now crave a lot of the dehydrated meals I had whilst on the expedition like macaroni cheese, pad thai, tikka curry and rice, they were just so delicious. I drank 4–5 litres per day, and I’d melt chunks of ice on my stove to make it. 

‘Sleep was my number one priority – I’d need at least nine hours per night to feel fully recovered and would take more whenever possible.’ 

Jenny, who is one of 12 inspirational figures working with Marloe Watch Company to share a behind the scenes look at what it takes to train and prepare for a range of incredible endeavours, said Britons keen to be more adventurous post-pandemic should make the most of the opportunities on offer to us here in the UK. 

‘I love wild camping in Scotland for example or maybe creating a mountain biking holiday over a week in the Lake District,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t have to be an expensive and remote expedition to reap the benefits of adventure. It’s more about getting away from it all and having time to just be with your thoughts, disconnected from everything. I think we’re all craving those experiences even more after the last year. 

Jenny, who is one of 12 inspirational figures working with Marloe Watch Company to share a behind the scenes look at what it takes to train and prepare for a range of incredible endeavours, said Britons keen to be more adventurous post-pandemic should make the most of the opportunities on offer to us here in the UK

Jenny was supposed to be rowing the Pacific next month, but that’s now on hold as she’s currently eight months pregnant.  

‘Covid-permitting, I’ll be racing the Adventure Race World Championships this October in an all-female team of four,’ she sai.

‘This is a world-first as no all-female team has ever taken part at that level, it’s really exciting and I’m very proud of the team. 

‘I also launched a new start-up in lockdown after my MBA was put no hold due to Covid, in the femtech and fertility space called OVUM (startwithovum.com). 

‘We’re an all-female team and we’re amazed with how the company has taken off. So that’s keeping me busy!’

For more information about Marloe Watch Company’s Planning for Greatness campaign visit https://www.marloewatchcompany.com/pages/planning-for-greatness 

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