As each of us languishes in isolation, one man is about to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for being on his own. When the next edition of every aspirant child’s bible comes out later this year, Richard Parks will be included for skiing more miles (2,299) in Antarctica, solo, unassisted and unsupported, than anyone else.
If geographical isolation is the measure, no one has been lonelier. And yet over the phone in our new reality he can be heard handling the demands of his two-year-old son, Freddie, with aplomb, even as he handles those of this interviewer on the other end of the line.
“Speaking frankly,” he says, when asked whether isolation is easier with wife and child in a flat in Cardiff Bay or on his own in the sprawling, frozen wilderness, “there are pros and cons. Every moment of every expedition I wish I was able to share it with my family and friends. It seems this cruel twist of fate has now landed us with exactly that wish. Managing the space together poses its own challenges. The other day I found Jo, who holds a pretty senior position, working in Freddie’s treehouse on the balcony in the flat.”
Parks’s relationship with isolation is long and poignant. Forged in the boisterous rough and tumble of professional rugby, he was plunged into turmoil when his career, which included four caps for Wales, was cut short by a shoulder injury in 2009. In his award-winning autobiography, Beyond the Horizon, he describes how he retreated into the bare, white room at the back of the house his parents were renting. Crippled by despair and fear, he holed up for 21 days, emerging from the room only for the toilet and, from the house, for an operation on his ruined shoulder.
“That first period of isolation was really painful,” he says. “I felt at sea with nothing to hold on to. I was completely powerless – over my emotions, over what had happened, the injury. That was terrifying, right. I can imagine there might be people going through feelings related to that now.”
A line from his grandmother’s funeral two years earlier – “the horizon is only the limit of our sight” – had resonated so deeply he had it tattooed on his forearm. While staring at it in that white room, he was struck by an epiphany. His horizons had closed in, but thenceforth he would embrace the brilliant whiteness of mountains, wildernesses and the unknown, where the horizon stretches farther than anywhere else on earth.
He launched himself into his new vocation, acquiring the skills of a mountaineer with remarkable facility. In 2011, he became the first to stand, in the same calendar year, at the highest peak of each of the seven continents and at the North and South Pole, known as the adventurers’ grand slam. He managed the feat in six and a half months.
Since then, he has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity and worked with scientists as a kind of guinea pig at the extremes of human endeavour. But his current world record is not the one he had been seeking in his four expeditions to Antarctica, the first a training run in late 2012. Parks has been chasing a world record they say will never be broken.
In 2011, his friend Christian Eide of Norway skied the 715 miles from Hercules Inlet on the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole in an astonishing 24 days, smashing the previous record of 39. The reason no one expects it to be broken is that the conditions were perfect throughout. Good weather is not something to rely upon in Antarctica, the driest, windiest and coldest continent.
Parks, in that sunny Antarctic summer of 2011, was on the first two legs of his adventurer’s grand slam and testifies the weather has deteriorated since, becoming snowier, wetter and warmer. Despite the conditions, in 2014, he became the second-fastest skier to the South Pole, in a time of 29 days.
The magnitude of the challenge beggars belief. A month’s worth of supplies and equipment must be hauled on a sled weighing roughly 70kg, as the challenger skis uphill from the coast to the Antarctic plateau, 3,000m above sea level, the height of an average Alp.
Parks expended the calorific equivalent of two marathons a day in the most hostile environment on earth. Forced to abandon his second record attempt last year, because of even worse weather than usual, this year he skied for 16 hours a day, and slept for three, as he lowered his British record to 28 days in January. At halfway he was on course to break Eide’s world record. Then, sure enough, the weather turned, the wind howling at him from the pole with a chill factor of -45 degrees. By the time he finished, he had lost 14.5kg.
“I’m genuinely at peace with it,” he says of the knowledge the speed record seems out of reach in the current climate. “There are some things I can’t control. That’s what makes this different from mainstream sport. And there’s a beauty in that.”
He has not decided whether to try again. For now, the kind of isolation we are all wrestling with is preoccupying him more. “For any given expedition, there is years of preparation and training. With the current situation, we didn’t have that luxury. So we are all going through something akin to the grief curve.”
Identifying and honouring what he can and cannot control is Parks’s mantra. Through it, he has transformed isolation from the scourge of his very soul to the field in which he is now a world-record holder.