Missing a few toenails and 25 pounds from his already lean frame, the wind-whipped snow blindingly thick and his food supply running out, Todd Carmichael decided he had had enough of Antarctica.
So the Gladwyne adventurer called for the rescue plane and ended his quest to become the first American to arrive at the South Pole solo.
"I thought, 'I'm going to take my toys and go home,' " Carmichael said yesterday of his decision to pack it in on the 24th day of his grueling trek. He accomplished about 40 percent of the 700-mile adventure he had planned.
The gourmet coffee entrepreneur left Antarctica on Saturday and reached Philadelphia Christmas Day.
He will try again next November, emboldened, he said, by more than three weeks "in the worst conditions ever," but not embittered over the failed attempt. Missed goals, he said, are part of an expeditioner's life.
"Sometimes Mother Nature says, 'Not this year.' "
Carmichael had set out on Nov. 28 with a partner to raise awareness of global warming and break the 45-day record for trekking without outside assistance set by a five-man Korean team in 2004. Two years later, Hannah McKeand of the United Kingdom made a solo, unassisted trek in 40 days.
Crews at the Antarctic trekker's outpost of Patriot Hills had been urging Carmichael to call it quits for days - well after a calf injury had ended the journey for his friend, trekking partner and professional tour operator Jason De Carteret of the United Kingdom.
"Everyone had decided the window had closed except me," Carmichael said yesterday from his coffee business in Philadelphia. "I had to learn to accept that over a period of 10 days."
What helped persuade him was the unrelenting snowfall, which he had not encountered on a 100-mile test trek he made during his first trip to Antarctica in 2004. Skiing through as much as two feet of snow - when he had expected to be crossing a slick ice-packed landscape - was far more physically punishing and calorie-consuming than planned.
Temperatures of minus-35 degrees Fahrenheit were the least of his problems, he said. The blowing snow made seeing so difficult, Carmichael said, that visibility was no better than when his eyes were closed. The loss of perspective on such an uneven surface caused him to lose his balance and frequently fall.
Add to that scenario this spirit-crushing detail: The 44-year-old Carmichael was pulling a 250-pound sled of food and equipment.
All of it raises the question: How did he manage to last as long as he did?
His answer: "You almost have to go into a state of shock and stay there." He said that was his existence for the final 10 to 15 days in what he called "unforgiving territory."
Once he managed to snap out of that, he had to wait for weather conditions to cooperate sufficiently for a Twin Otter ski plane to land.
Even though there is 24 hours of daylight in the Antarctic summer, the pilot found it nearly impossible to distinguish the sky from the snow-covered ground. Touchdown required about a dozen fly-overs and some help from Carmichael, who laid out a landing strip in the bright white snow using an assortment of blue, red, orange and green nylon bags that held his food rations and camping gear.
At 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 22, a grateful Carmichael welcomed the rattled pilot, who he said "was white as a ghost." Two hours later, he arrived at Patriot Hills to a standing ovation and a breakfast of beef and potatoes - the first nonfreeze-dried fare he had had in more than three weeks.
"It was the best meal I ever had," he said, despite "the grossest coffee I've ever had."
The camp was serving instant, not the gourmet blend offered at the coffee shop he cofounded at 130 S. 19th St.: La Colombe Torrefaction.
Next came an overnight stay - and a 45-minute hot shower - at a hotel in Chile and a visit to an orphanage there, where he donated the remainder of his food supplies.
It was about 1:30 p.m. Christmas Day when Carmichael walked into his home in Lower Merion, where he dined on a vegetarian pasta dish, "an entire apple pie and half of a cake."
The good news for his wife, singer-songwriter Lauren Hart, is that Carmichael will be home for her birthday on Jan. 11 rather than where he planned to be: just reaching the South Pole.
Carmichael will be 45 when he tries to get there again. And once again, he'll have her blessing. He said she sent him a text message to that effect when he was en route home.