Hill skills: how to become a polar adventurer

Posted by Alex Messenger on 03/09/2014
Have you got your eye on a polar adventure? Photo: Helen Turton

Want to be the next Ranulph Fiennes? Helen Turton has some advice for you polar dreamers.

Were you inspired by Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ attempt to cross Antarctica in winter? Perhaps you saw Harry’s Arctic Heroes skiing to the North Pole on TV? Or maybe you read about Leo Houlding’s Antarctic adventures on Facebook? Now you want to go there and experience if for yourself. But, if you’re not called Prince Harry, Lord Fiennes or Leo Houlding, is it even possible?

The bad news

Yes, there is a financial sting; there’s just no cheap way of getting to the ends of the world. Few people will be able to afford it without the support of a wealthy sponsor, but this is part of the challenge. And beware when you’re looking at glossy brochures; if it costs less than £20,000, then it’s probably not the geographic North Pole at the top of our planet at all but, more likely, plain old magnetic north instead.

North or south?

The geographic North and South Poles are not only as far apart as you can possibly be on earth, they also offer entirely different experiences. Skiing to the North Pole across the ever-moving polar ocean offers pack ice, polar bears and leads of open water, whereas the Antarctic South Pole, at a height of almost 3,000m, offers an endless white wilderness – vast and grand, with massive skies and low horizons.

How to get there

There is a range of different ways to experience polar destinations. You could fly in and out, with a couple of days stopover at a basecamp en route, use a dog-sledding team to assist you in reaching the North Pole or choose to ski to the North or South Pole. You can even go skydiving and diving at the North Pole. The ski journeys vary from a few days – experiencing the crisp cold air and unique light on the North Polar Ocean – to taking part in an eight-day journey skiing the Last Degree (approximately 110km). And then there’s the real challenge: skiing the full distance to the North or South Pole, taking up to 60 days.

When to go?

Commercial companies operating access into these remote locations have a short operating season, dictated by the weather and times of year. For example, when it’s not 24 hours of darkness, flights into mainland Antarctica usually operate from mid- November to the end of January. Likewise, journeys to the North Pole commercial base Barneo (established at 89 degrees north each year) only operate during April, although full distance journeys from the coastline of Canada can start as early as the beginning of March. The term ‘weather window’ is perhaps one of my most memorable phrases from the first time I flew to Antarctica; visiting these extreme locations is all about playing the waiting game.

What skills do I need?

Obviously, polar environments are serious locations without adequate training and preparation. Some of this preparation can begin in the UK: logistics, training schedules, nutrition, winter camping and survival issues. However, the UK isn’t blessed with the right kind of snow and really cold temperatures likely to be experienced at the poles. Places like Norway, home of Nordic skiing, and less than a two hour flight from the UK, are the ideal location to develop your skills.

Prepare to meet the challenge

Polar preparation varies greatly from one individual to another. Some put all their efforts into equipment details and adaptations, others concentrate their energies on fitness and pulling tyres to train the body, or even piling on the fat to fight off the extreme cold. However, the most likely aspect to bring your polar expedition to a grinding halt is the mental attitude. The isolation of skiing across a large, windswept desolate icecap day after day could become the biggest challenge of all.

Find out more

There are some inspiring coffee-table books with a wealth of information and stunning photography, especially from the early pioneering days. However, beware of more current accounts, which often highlight vague links between answering global warming on a three-week expedition, or modern day explorers recounting their near-death experiences when ‘conquering’ these extreme environments. With good training, planning and preparation, it doesn’t have to be like that.

Don’t be put off

The best way to discover the difference between fact and fiction is to get out there and try it for yourself. As with most outdoor activities, there can be a yawning gap between those who are striving to push the boundaries of their own personal achievements in these fragile landscapes, and those who can actually teach the skills to match your level experience. Learn from the latter – you’re far more likely to come back with all your fingers and toes. The polar regions demand respect and don’t suffer fools gladly; it can all go very wrong, very quickly. But, for a select few, the rewards will be out of this world.

Helen Turton has visited both the North and South Poles, including skiing the full distance to the South Pole. A winter mountain leader, Nordic ski instructor and first-aid trainer, she has guided groups in polar regions for the past seven years. www.polargirl.co.uk

Watch Sir Ranulph Fiennes talk about what the word adventure means to him on BMC TV:

Expert Q & A

This issue’s expert is Svante Strand. Svante is a polar guide for Newland Expeditions and has led 14 groups to the North Pole and two groups to the South Pole.  Find out more at www.newland.no

Q. Do you have to be super-human to take part in polar expeditions?

A. No. Most of the polar expeditions require a good level of fitness, achieved by regular endurance training, such as walking in the hills with a heavy backpack or pulling tyres for more specific muscle strengthening. Be as fi t as you can possibly be, and you will get the most out of a trip. You’re also far less likely to incur the staggering costs of a plane or helicopter having to be chartered to come and get you simply because you weren’t fi t enough.

Q. What do you need to focus on whilst on a cold trip?

A. It’s a good idea to consider the basic survival aspects: checking that your fingers face and feet are warm, getting a good night’s sleep, and regularly drinking and eating high quality food. These life essentials carry significantly more importance when putting your body to the physical test day-in-day-out. It’s all about the details. For example, we use a food plan from the Nobel Prize winner in nutrition, mixed with tried and tested solutions.

Q. Is being in such a cold environment any fun?

A. Yes. If your preparation and skills are up to the environment then, yes, you can have a really enjoyable trip. Our focus will always be on safety and high quality, but the company’s vision is ‘to deliver more than expected… and have fun’.

Read more hill skills articles

Don't miss: 

British record-breaking polar explorer and adventurer Adrian Hayes will be speaking at the Royal Geographical Society in London on 9 September 2014 about his recent K2 expedition. Find out more.



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