Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Alone at the end of the world

Todd Carmichael, gourmet coffee entrepreneur and amateur long-distance trekker, was speaking from his tent at the bottom of the world. Outside, it was about minus-35 degrees Fahrenheit.

Todd Carmichael, gourmet coffee entrepreneur and amateur long-distance trekker, was speaking from his tent at the bottom of the world.

Outside, it was about minus-35 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Trekking is my sport," the Gladwyne adventurer said. "I've gone across deserts, mountains, through Africa, Asia, Mongolia."

Now Carmichael is trying to join the slim ranks of those who have crossed Antarctica to the South Pole.

He is a third of the way through the 700-mile journey, battling unexpected snowstorms, the loss of his partner to a leg injury, and a shortage of food.

"As I've learned from the past, usually your body can take a lot more than you think it can, it's just your mind doesn't want to cooperate," Carmichael said via one of his satellite feeds.

Though explorers like Roald Amundsen, the first man to the pole in 1911, disappeared into a white wilderness for months, a solar-powered satellite phone has put Carmichael in daily touch with family and friends.

Daily audio reports are posted on his Web site.

And Carmichael gives interviews.

"Antarctica is the one I always wanted. No fences, no boundaries. Pure, untouched, ancient. To be able to trek across it is a dream," he said Wednesday night.

Also extraordinarily difficult and dangerous.

Carmichael, 44, is dragging a 250-pound sled of food and equipment. Since starting on Nov. 28, he has coped with frostbite on his ears, swollen thumbs, sore legs, feet taped up for relief, and three lost toenails.

Worse, his longtime trekking partner, Jason De Carteret, was forced to turn back about a week into the trip.

Their plan was to ski to the pole in fewer than 45 days, raising awareness of global warming and breaking the record for trekking without outside assistance set by a five-man Korean team in 2004. But that hope started to fade after De Carteret, a professional adventure tour operator, suffered a torn calf muscle.

Located by GPS, De Carteret was picked up by plane and flown to a base at Patriot Hills in Antarctica, according to Brian Hart, Carmichael's brother-in-law, who updates, where Carmichael posts daily audiocasts.

Then, in recent days an unusual summer storm deposited a large snowfall on a surface of hard, packed ice, dramatically reducing Carmichael's pace to as little as five miles a day.

"The travel got exponentially harder," Hart said.

Even if Carmichael's body holds up, it may be necessary to charter a plane to drop in more food.

Carmichael consumes 4,500 calories a day of porridge, rehydrated beef stew, fatty sausage, peanuts, chocolate, and lots of hot tea.

To meet the Jan. 11 deadline for breaking the record - which is also the date his food will run out - Carmichael said, "I'll have to be exceptionally fast." And if he is supplied with more food, his trek will no longer be considered "unassisted."

An additional incentive is that Jan. 11 is the 41st birthday of his wife, the local singer-songwriter Lauren Hart.

"She's not only my wife; she's my mate. I rely on her a lot," Carmichael said in an interview before he left Philadelphia.

But reaching the pole at all would place him in the company of a very small number of fellow adventurers.

"After Amundsen got there in 1911, the next person who went to the pole was in 1954, and it was someone who flew a plane in," said Jeff Stolzer, a spokesman for the Explorers Club, the storied New York City organization that counted Amundsen as a member.

Records kept by the, a separate Web site run by a group of polar explorers, say that only 57 people have made unassisted treks to the South Pole, usually in parties of three to six.

Carmichael could become the first American ever to arrive there solo.

Carmichael first went to Antarctica in 2004, when he did a test trek of 100 miles. He decided to return early this year after undergoing emergency surgery for appendicitis. He set the goal while still in the hospital and called De Carteret, whom he had met on an earlier trek with his company, Voyage Concepts.

"I must've been high; I said, 'Let's get to the pole,' " Carmichael said in a pre-departure interview at La Colombe Torrefaction, the coffee shop he co-founded at 130 S. 19th St.

The store was named one of the top five coffee shops in the nation last year by Food & Wine magazine, which cited its "silky cappuccino" and fresh pastry. Carmichael and his partners also run a wholesale coffee business, and their beans are now served at more than 1,200 restaurants and sold in 25 states.

Since that day in the hospital, Carmichael has undergone a rigorous rehabilitation and training schedule to prepare him for 14 hours of traveling each day, skiing uphill and around sustrugi - massive, icy snow dunes formed by wind - all while hauling his supplies and food.

He trained with Roger Schwab of Mainline Health & Fitness two to three times a week and biked 40 miles per day. Carmichael said he spent time visualizing the effort to mentally prepare himself for the cold and isolation. The trip is costing him more than $50,000, he said.

He has been alone 16 days now.

"It's very strange. You're very lonely for the first week," he said, "then you realize that your mind is a very busy and entertaining place. There's a lot going on in there."

"Every morning, I pick a new person to think about all day. Remember things from everyday, normal life. Memories, ideas, conversations. I won't run out of people. I have a whole list."

To follow Todd Carmichael's trek and listen to his audio reports, go to