Exploration

Meet Caroline Côté, the fastest woman to reach the South Pole

Breaking stereotypes, pushing boundaries and logging an extraordinary achievement

  • Jan 26, 2023
  • 913 words
  • 4 minutes
Caroline Côté at the South Pole. (Photo: Vincent Colliard)
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It’s a record! Polar explorer and endurance athlete Caroline Côté is officially the fastest woman to reach the South Pole unassisted. It took her just 34 days, two hours and 53 minutes to reach her destination at the bottom of the world. Côté, who departed from Antarctica’s Hercules Inlet on Dec. 9, 2022, completed the solo 1,130-kilometre ski trek while dragging all her gear and supplies behind her by sled. Pure determination and grit led the 36-year-old to beat the previous record by four days. Côté had spent months preparing for the journey with rigorous mental and physical training and meticulous planning. 

“I feel really lucky because so many details could have gone wrong, like the weather,” says Côté. “If I even had three days of bad weather, it would have been so much more difficult.” Other than some minor issues with her gear, Côté says the expedition went well. “I also had a team of experts and my husband supporting me. Altogether, we made it work, so I feel really happy that there were all those people there for me.”

Caroline Côté takes a selfie during her expedition. (Photo: Caroline Côté)
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Côté is no stranger to completing acts of extraordinary physical endurance. In 2018, she travelled 2,000 kilometres solo in 74 days on skis, bike and foot between Natashquan in the far east of Quebec and Montreal for the Electron campaign, highlighting the vastness of the province — and its immense power grid. And in 2021, she crossed the Svalbard archipelago in 63 days without refuelling with Vincent Colliard, her husband and a fellow polar explorer. She has also canoed 2000 km of the Yukon River, crossed the ocean on a sailboat between Saint-Malo, France, and Quebec, travelled from Montreal to Banff in 30 days on a fixed gear bike, and led numerous expeditions. 

Although Côté has experienced some gruelling adventures, she says she found the amount of time she spent alone in Antarctica to be the most challenging. “For the first time, I was alone for more than a month,” she says. “This has never happened to me before. Usually, I have a team with me, or I am guiding other people.” She often wished she had someone to compare thoughts with — for example, when to stop or keep skiing and to share admiration for the beauty of the landscape.

Each day, Côté would ski from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., dragging her equipment behind her. To prepare, she built endurance by running and pulling tires. Her mental training included visualizations and thinking about potential obstacles that could occur. “There was not much to see and do,” says Côté. “The landscape is pretty flat and white, so you just ski.” Throughout her journey, Côté used a satellite phone to track her progress online and left audio messages for her supporters.

The landscape in Antarctica, which Côté endured for more than a month. (Photo: Caroline Côté)
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Only a select few (fewer than 10 are women) have ever reached the South Pole solo. Côté’s new record places her in this elite community. She joins previous record holder Johanna Davidsson, who reached the South Pole in 38 days, five hours and 28 minutes. The first holder of the record, Hannah MacKeand, completed the trek in 2006 and is now the South Pole Area Manager for the United States Antarctic Program. These women inspired Côté to embark on her own expedition. “I saw them, and I thought they were really strong,” says Côté. “I wanted to know if I could do it. I think I wanted to learn more about myself by going out there and being in survival mode for a month. That is not something that happens a lot in a lifetime.” 

From a young age, Côté wanted to be an adventurer and a filmmaker. She dreamt of visiting the South Pole after hearing stories about previous explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen and wanted to see for herself what it was like to experience this part of the world.

As part of her journey, Côté raised money for Protect Our Winters (POW), an organization of professional athletes and industry brands uniting the outdoor community to advocate for policy solutions to climate change. Côté explains that climate change could lead popular ski destinations like Quebec to lose more than 20 days of skiing and good snow per year. “I see that if we are collaborating together, we can try and change that.” To support Côté, POW launched a fundraising campaign for individuals wanting to support her journey.

Now back home in Montreal, Côté says that she is grateful for the “small details” of life. “In Antarctica, it was always a lot of work just to survive, and, being home, everything is so easy.” She explains how even heating water and warming herself up after a long day in Antarctica was a huge task.  “At the end of the trip, I thought I would never want to do something like that again in my life. But after one week of sleep, I feel like I can go again.”

For Côté, reaching the South Pole was not just about breaking records; it is also about breaking stereotypes and being a role model for young women. “I was inspired by great women, and now I want to support younger women,” she says. “I am there for them, and I don’t want people to be in competition together but to grow as a community. I think that is really important.”

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