'I Traveled 356 Miles Across Antarctica, This Is What I Saw'

I home-educated my four children for 20 years, seeing them through high school until they went off to college. It was my profession and I took it very seriously. I created my own curriculum and hired tutors and professionals. It was a life-consuming passion of mine. I didn't allow myself to go out with girlfriends, or to have any hobbies or free time.

At 56, with my youngest through college, I was living in a little cottage near the ocean in Carpinteria, California, with my husband. I finally had the opportunity to ride my bike, go for runs on the beach, and read a book. I was enjoying some peace and quiet.

But one day, I had a revelation that changed everything. I was in my laundry room, folding clothes and looking out the window. It was quiet in the house. I was by myself. At that moment, I listened inwards and heard something I had subconsciously been telling myself for decades: one day I was going to race a car.

I thought to myself, Renée, if you were on your deathbed and you hadn't gone and found out what that was all about, that would be terrible. I wasn't interested in racing, and I didn't want to do it. It was something I felt I had to do.

I planned to do it just once, to check the box. But my first race in 2013, when I was 57, was transformational. My body was shaking uncontrollably as I faced my fears. But pushing through that fear, you find out what you're made of.

For the past 20 years, I had put all of my interests and passions in a box on the shelf, and focused on my children and being a wife. Through driving, I reconnected with this young woman that I'd totally lost.

Renée Brinkerhoff
Renée Brinkerhoff is now a driver and founder of Valkyrie Racing. She drove in her first rally race at the age of 57.

I decided to keep up the rally racing, and my husband and children were all supportive. In 2017, I started Project 356, where I would race across seven continents to raise money to help stop child trafficking. This issue had been brought to my attention by an acquaintance in the FBI.

I completed the final race, in Antarctica, in December, 2021. We raced 356 miles across the continent from our base in the interior, at Union Glacier. Our original goal was to drive half the distance to the South Pole, and return for the final half of the miles, but due to logistical Covid-related issues, we had to stay at a base camp. Every day we would drive as many miles as we could, until the car inevitably broke down.

Challenging conditions

It took us five days to do the 356 miles, due to the extreme weather conditions. It was incredibly cold—at base camp, where we had a thermometer, it was 20 degrees below zero, but where we drove, at a higher altitude, it felt even colder.

There were extreme winds, too. It was hard to drive in these conditions, as the wind pushed the car in a direction you didn't want it to go. At base camp, we had ropes between our tents and the bathroom, so you wouldn't get lost in a storm. While you were sleeping, you would hear someone yelling in the middle of the night because their tent had been blown away.

Our car kept breaking down because of the moisture, the wind and the freezing temperatures. We were towed in to camp a couple of times, but our engineer was able to repair the car.

Renée Brinkerhoff with her Team
Renée Brinkerhoff with her team in Antarctica in December, 2021. It took Brinkerhoff five days to drive 356 miles, due to the extreme weather conditions.

Some days I would be driving and there would be a total whiteout. You couldn't see what was ahead of you, all you could see was white. It was dangerous, as there was a designated path and you didn't want to steer too far left or right from it as there were crevasses all around. You didn't want to risk falling into one of those. But in a whiteout, you can't tell if you're veering off the course. It's dangerous, and one day we had to turn back to base camp because of the lack of visibility.

To be honest, I enjoyed these challenges, having to figure out what to do. I think I have a different level of fear and risk tolerance to most people.

Stunning scenery

We drove on two different surfaces: blue ice and snow. The snow was incredible, and the car performed well on it. You found yourself going too fast. The engineer who developed the car said we shouldn't go above 28mph but sometimes I'd find I was going 44mph, so I had to slow down.

Our vehicle had more trouble on the ice. It was like going over a choppy lake that had frozen over: there were wave-like ripples of ice with sharp edges. As we drove over, the car constantly vibrated and shook. I worried that its bolts would come loose, or its welded seams would fall apart. I even wondered if I would lose all my teeth, as it was so bumpy. We could drive over this ice for anywhere between five minutes and an hour.

Renée Brinkerhoff Driving in Antarctica
Renée Brinkerhoff driving the PXG Polar Porsche Antarctica. Brinkerhoff was impressed by the stunning scenery.

While it was uncomfortable to drive on, the ice was incredibly beautiful. It had all these variations of light blue and deep blue, depending on the light. It reminded me of how the ocean changes colors depending on its depth. It was stunning, I was in awe.

It felt like being on a different planet, especially with the 24 hours of sunlight. You'd look up at any time and the Sun would be going round in a big circle over your head. It was way above the horizon, so you couldn't keep track of time. It would be 10 p.m. but it would feel like 2 p.m. You'd have to look at your watch and tell yourself to go to bed.

I had expected beauty and remoteness from Antarctica, but the landscape exceeded all those expectations.

There was nothing of man anywhere, and there's a purity to that—the air, the ice, the snow. It was incredibly clean, pristine. There were no animals or insects. No birds even flew over. Nothing could live there. It was just snow and ice.

There were mountains, glaciers and frozen formations. We saw Drake Icefall, a frozen waterfall which is two nautical miles wide. There were giant ice structures, including one that looked like an elephant's head.

I felt this immense sense of being so remote in infinity, like a speck of sand on a whole world of sand. It's very humbling, and it gives you time to stop and reflect on who and what really matters in life.

Renée Brinkerhoff in Antarctica
Renée Brinkerhoff, left, in Antarctica with her daughter and team mate, Christina Brinkerhoff. Renée was taken aback by the scenery on the continent.

We didn't want to leave. The low point was having to go home. Quite frankly, as much as I missed my family, I wanted to linger longer and explore.

I think about Antarctica often, and I would love to visit again. For me, the highlight of the trip was the wonderful feeling of accomplishment, of being with my team and looking at each other and knowing we had done what we had set out to do.

So far, Project 356 has raised almost $700k towards ending child trafficking. I am confident that we will reach our goal of raising $1 million, although we don't yet know what our next fundraising adventure will be.

Renée Brinkerhoff, 66, lives in Denver, Colorado. She is a racer and founder of Valkyrie Racing.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Katie Russell.