BENDIGO adventurer Linda Beilharz has accomplished a rare feat, crossing the world’s four largest polar ice caps.
Linda has trekked through freezing temperatures, blinding snow, extreme storms and melting ice on four different ice caps across the world.
The accomplishment is the first for an Australian woman.
In 2010 she was the first Australian woman to conquer the North and South Poles on foot.
She overcame treacherous conditions in Greenland and has recently come back from an action-packed trip over Chile’s South Patagonian ice cap.
Linda’s first ice cap crossing was in 2004 when she conquered the South Pole, travelling more than 1000 kilometres in 56 days.
She said the reason for her deciding to travel to the South Pole was a spontaneous one.
“I did the South Pole one at the start and I thought that would be the one magnificent trip of my life and I came back and thought ‘that was fun, what can I do now?’” Linda said.
“Then the four ice cap idea came up.
“I set a goal, thinking that if I had a goal it would give me something to work towards.
“I wanted to see what was possible.
“It has been a challenge for myself... it has been an adventure.”
Linda said the in the last decade she had been on a journey of self-discovery.
“It has been a personal challenge,” she said.
“I kept thinking ‘can I do it?’
“Can I do the organising, and can I physically and mentally do the trips?
“It is so much about your approach and your mental attitude.
“I am pretty lucky; it is a special thing to say that I have been to all of these places.”
Linda’s last trip to South Patagonia in Chile began in last October with her husband Rob Rigato and friend Kerryn Wratt.
“I had left on October 29 with Kerryn,” she said.
“We spent two weeks, travelling and buying food trying to sort out the stuff we needed for the trip.
“We had to buy the food in Argentina, which was an experience.
“They don’t have the same things as we do; it was a small little town.”
After attaining food supplies the next step was to gather their load and take it to the ice cap.
“We had a lot of gear and we had to carry up our gear in loads onto the sleds,” Linda said. “Kerryn and I did four trips along the valley to the bottom of the climb and then we hired some people to help us take our things to the top of the ice cap so by the time Rob had arrived we could start.
“We did that in rain and wind. Some of it was beautiful forest but some of it was climbing over rocks and terrain.
“It would take us a full day to go with one load; it would take about six hours one way but we were motivated and had to do it.”
When Linda’s husband arrived the weather was perfect to begin their trip; however, they were still waiting on a permit to cross the Argentine border and travel into Chile.
“We needed a permit to cross the border at a non-official border crossing,” she said.
“We had been to the Argentinean police and they had stamped our passports but we didn’t have permission from Chile to enter.
“We waited on top of the ice cap because that was still in Argentina.
“We got the permit the day after we got to the top so we were able to continue on.”
From then on, the focus was firmly set on crossing the ice cap, with the team of three officially beginning their extraordinary trip on November 11.
“Once we got up there on the ice it was fairly warm, sunny,” Linda said.
“We actually got sunburnt.
“Kerryn and Rob got sunburnt and got really bad swollen lips.
“We were travelling north west on the ice cap; we were surrounded by these mountains, it was really quite spectacular.
“We had long days; the sun was coming up at 4.30 in the morning and then going down at 10 at night.
“It is an awe-inspiring environment.”
Linda said although the trip had peaceful and serene moments, there was a time when Kerryn had some trouble.
“On day three or four we had some bad weather, it was raining, windy and a bit miserable,” she said.
“Kerryn who was at the front took of his glasses for a few hours.
“We didn’t think the sun was an issue but he managed to get sunburn on his eyes, we call it snow blindness.
“The next day was clear but he was really feeling the sunburn. We spent the day hiding in the tent with his eyes closed and had patches of paper soaked in water on his eyes.”
Linda also said being able to judge the distance between each mountain was deceiving.
“The scale was a bit hard to tell,” she said.
“Things looked close but actually they were really far away.
“It was hard to judge distance but, nevertheless, we gradually passed the mountains.
“We started at 6am some days so we could go on the ice before it melted.
“Then each day we would go a bit further, some days we went 13, 14, 15 kilometres and then we had some 20-kilometre days which we were excited about.”
Linda said the trio was moving at a fast pace and thought they would be able to finish the trek in almost half the time.
But as they descended one of the final glaciers, the Jorge Montt Glacier, they learned it would take a lot more time and work to get through to the end.
“We knew it would be a steep descend with a lot of crevasses, it actually took us an extra 10 days to get through,” Linda said.
“Some of the crevasses were 40-feet deep.
“It was warm and the snow was rotten in some parts and some of the crevasses would just crumble.
“We had some days were we could not see very well and that was really hard because if you can’t see the shape of the snow in front of you, you don’t know where you are going and what the snow in front of you is doing.
“Some days we were only doing a few 100 meters because the crevasses were so hard to get through.”
Linda and Rob first tried to cross the South Patagonian ice cap in 2009.
“Last time when me and Rob tried to do it, we came the other direction and we were intimidated by the environment and kept thinking ‘how do we do it’,” she said.
“The fact that we did all the ice cap crossing and we only had that little bit we could smell the end.
“We were going to do it no matter what.”
The team of three then reached the edge of Lago Jorge Monte and were waiting for a boat to take them to the town of Tortel, the first contact with civilisation since they began their journey.
At the end of the trek on November 29, Linda had a moment of reflection, looking back at what she had just achieved.
“I am really relieved, having tried it once and to then succeed the second time.
“Kerryn was a young person that just had this confidence that made Rob and I a little bit more confident too.
“If we didn’t have him we might not have made it.”
The 2010 Australian Geographic Adventurer of the Year said she wouldn’t have been able to do what she did without the support of her friends, family and work colleages.
“I have had fabulous support from people who have helped me directly but I don’t think I could go on these trips if I didn’t have that strength in my community,” Linda said.
“The fact that I have got the freedom to go off and do something pretty wild and risky most people would say is partly because home is so good.
“It helps me appreciate it more.”
Linda has been the chief executive officer of Women’s Health Loddon Mallee for the past five years and says she is looking forward to see what happens next.
“I am doing a leadership program this year so I will focus on that and see where that takes me,” she said.
“It might take me in a new direction.”