On January 8, 2015, Swiss sports center Aranea received a text. It read: “More than half the way to the South Pole I have behind me. I am sure that I will break the record;)” The message came from German adventurer Martin Szwed, who had paused somewhere on the flat, frozen surface of Antarctica to update his girlfriend and his sponsors, including Aranea, about his status.
Szwed was skiing across the bottom of the earth, starting from Hercules Inlet, a massive ice cube off the Antarctic Peninsula, where the continental land mass ends and the ocean begins. He was on a 24-hour, berserker-style push to finish the final leg of a record-breaking solo expedition to the South Pole. The sun was out, but temperatures hovered between -20 and -30 degrees Fahrenheit, and a biting wind left Szwed with minor frostbite on his face, fingertips, and part of his left leg. When the spindrift settled, the previous world record of 24 days, 1 hour, and 13 minutes—set in 2011 by Norwegian Christian Eide—lay in pieces. Szwed released a statement saying he had shattered the mark by nearly ten days, covering the entire 730-mile route in a total elapsed time of just 14 days, 18 hours, and 43 minutes. It was an unprecedented achievement.
You may have seen photos of Szwed cascading through your social media feeds during his trip. News outlets around the world circulated images of his adventure. In one, Szwed appears to have arrived at the South Pole. It’s an apparent selfie of the man wearing mountaineering glasses, bearded and smiling through chipped front teeth, in front of a bright yellow sign that reads: “Welcome to the South Pole.” Headline after headline in Germany and abroad hailed the new world record.
News of Szwed’s achievement quickly spread to the handful of guides and logistics providers who support most private land-based adventures in Antarctica. They couldn’t believe it. In fact, they didn’t believe it. Szwed is a virtual unknown in the tight-knit community of polar explorers, and his reported time snapped the previous record nearly in half. “Anyone who has skied to the South Pole can easily see that Martin’s claim is laughable,” says Hannah McKeand, a former solo South Pole explorer who completed six ski expeditions there between 2004 and 2012. “It’s simply inconceivable.”
Once the polar community took notice, several people began to poke holes in Szwed’s claims. For example, on December 30, Szwed said he was summiting Mount Vinson, a claim that directly conflicts with the flight log of airplane charter company Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), which on that day shows that Szwed was on an airplane flying from southern Chile to Antarctica to begin his journey. ALE notes that Szwed left Antarctica by plane for Chile on January 9, the day after Szwed claims to have been halfway through his 730-mile journey to the pole. That means he would have had to ski and hike hundreds of miles in 24 hours while dragging a loaded sled—a feat that polar travelers contend is impossible even in the best of conditions. Szwed was traveling with a GPS tracker but he said it wasn’t linking to a satellite network, so there was no trail of digital breadcrumbs for observers to follow. Also, Szwed said bad weather and failed satellite communications hindered his ability to check in with his mainland contacts at reasonable intervals during his final push, when in fact satellite communications are rarely a problem in Antarctica because the path of an orbiting satellite network travels almost directly above the South Pole.
Finally, to illustrate his arrival at the South Pole, Szwed released that selfie by the yellow sign. What drew suspicion is the fact that the yellow sign isn’t actually at the geographic South Pole, though it is in the vicinity. The true marker is a separate sign in front of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and that’s where everyone who makes it to the pole typically sets up the camera. Also, Szwed’s image clearly looks Photoshopped. (When German magainze Der Spiegel pressed him on the issue in February after his return, Szwed said the image was “a montage,” and not a real photograph.)
At this point, few who are familiar with Antarctic expeditions believe that Szwed achieved his goal. German gear company Tespack Oy, one of his key sponsors, released a statement last February saying that questions about Szwed’s claims “need to be answered and all information regarding the expedition validated. Therefore Tespack Oy suspends Martin Szwed’s sponsorship, effective immediately, until Mr. Szwed provides proof to support his claims.” More than a year has passed, and Szwed hasn’t provided any evidence.
This is the first section of a feature story at Outside Magazine.