Never Give Up

Gallery___The_Scott_Expedition-3

I should say this is a story about an expedition,  a grand adventure, a test of human endurance. I should say that. This is a story about failure.

Right now, one of the people who knows me better than anyone else in the world is sitting in a hut in Punta Arenas, Chile and staring out at a plane destined to take him down to Antarctica and the greatest test of his life. He may be sitting there a while, the weather of the Drake Passage does not play well with aircraft and this is a dangerous journey at the best of times. Every day’s delay makes his dream a little more uncertain, but he’s been waiting ten years for this flight so he has learned to sit with a certain equanimity while the wind blows spiderwebs of snow across the runway. A part of him may even be thankful for the delay; after all this time, all this sacrifice there’s still a part of him that wonders if it can even be done. He’s not crazy to think that. After all, the last team who attempted to do what he is about to do died in the attempt.

Let’s step back for a second. It’s April 2001 and I’m a bowman on the good ship Logica, a 72-ft yacht deep in the Antarctic convergence zone racing from Sydney to Cape Town. One-third of my watch is out with injuries and I’m popping some special pills that our medic, a Mississippi gynecologist back home, has given me after a nasty fall from the mast in a storm had my back screaming with every move. I’m called on watch every four hours and  I went past exhaustion several weeks ago, but below decks, torch attached to my head I’m reading a bedraggled copy of a biography of Ernest Shackleton and I’m in awe. When it comes to the poles, the British have a long proud history of abject failure; the stories of men with frozen feet, indomitable will and inadequate preparation somehow move us more than most and I just a hundred miles north of that last continent could almost taste it.

March 2002 and I still haven’t got the poles out of my head. I’d spend every penny I had  getting myself up to the Arctic on small expeditions and every time I would put on my telemark skis and step out onto the ice I would think about Robert Falcon Scott.

In late 1911, Scott and an eclectic team of scientists and sailors set out from Mcmurdo Sound on the Antarctic coast hoping to become the first to reach the South Pole. They manhauled unimaginable loads for 900 miles across the highest, driest, coldest, windiest continent on earth. By January 1912, they reached the pole to find a black tent buffeted by the winds and inside a letter to the Norwegian King. They had been beaten to the prize by the dog teams of that master polar traveller Roald Amundsen. Morale broken, bodies spent they turned for home. Slowly starving with each passing day, the team died off one by one. None survived.

To this day, no one has ever been able to walk unsupported from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. It is the last great journey left, the longest unsupported polar journey in history and to the 2002 me, fresh off a round-the-world yacht race and slowly going crazy behind a desk in London, it felt like the ultimate challenge.

Once an idea takes you, it’s amazing how fast the world can step towards you and a few months later I was sitting in a Putney curry house talking to Ben Saunders, a guy my age who already had a respectable but unsuccessful North Pole expedition under his belt. Something between us clicked and we decided to finish what Scott started. I quit my job and Ben and I started working together as a team, putting together expeditions that would build our skills and prepare us for the big South Pole expedition we would undertake in 2003 after the small matter of raising the money to do so.

Fancy doing an unsupported return journey to the South Pole? Great! Let’s get started. First, strap a 400lb sledge to yourself and start pulling that across uneven terrain for 1,800 miles. Luckily only the first 900 miles are uphill. Now bring the temperature down to −40 degrees and add a fierce headwind that seeks out every inch of exposed flesh and freezes it within seconds (good luck if you need to pee!). Your body is going to be burning up to 10,000 calories a day and can only absorb about 6,000 so calorifically speaking you’re doing the equivalent of a double marathon every day for four months on a starvation diet. Just to keep things interesting, let’s add the constant possibility that the snow beneath you collapses and sends you hurtling into a crevasse the size of a cathedral that you never saw coming.

In short, a South Pole expedition is pretty much the worst way to spend four months you could possibly imagine, but if you were to ask Ben I don’t think he would say that’s the tough part. The tough part is getting to the start line in the first place. Antarctica is far away from everywhere and doing anything in Antarctica is ridiculously expensive. Imagine if you kept a car in New York but the only way to fuel that car was to charter a private jet and fly fuel in from England. That’s the logistics of an Antarctic expedition and between us we had no cash and no clue how to get any.

We didn’t go to the South Pole in 2003. Or 2004. Or 2005. Living month to month on whatever I could scrounge together, putting together small expeditions or managing other people’s just so I wouldn’t lose my connection to the cold places, I grew to fear and then hate my parent’s yearly Christmas letter to their friends which would explain ‘Anthony has decided to postpone his South Pole expedition for another year to raise more funds’. For Ben and I, we had proclaimed a grand goal. We had told people year after year this was the year we were finally going to go south. And every year we had to look at the nervous smiles as we publicly failed. Again and again.

2006 passes and by now Ben is scratching by giving talks to schools and I am making money holding the boring end of the tape measure for my flatmate as he measures disused office buildings. My parents have started to have very real fears about my future and I can see the strain on their faces as they ask whether I think it’s ever going to happen. I fake a smile and say ‘this year for sure’.

2007 begins. It’s been five years since I decided to go South and I’ve blagged my way to New York on a friend’s airmiles to see if Americans are more willing to fund a crazy dream than the cynical brits. While I’m there, I get talking to some guys running a funded startup and they ask me if I fancy coming in with them. I tell Ben that it will only be for a few months until expedition season starts and say yes. I never go back.

Oh, I tell myself that I’ll go back eventually and that this startup thing is just a phase, but in my heart I know that I was done. Exhausted with a broken dream and the certain, public indisputable knowledge that I had set myself an audacious goal and failed. In fact I had not even come close.

By 2008, while I plunged into a world of media startups and heard phrases like ‘sharing is the key’ come out of my mouth, Ben never lost faith in the dream we had shared. That january, he called me to let me know that he had raised enough money for a bare bones solo North Pole expedition. It wasn’t the South Pole yet, but it was something. Eight days in to the expedition, Ben’s ski binding sheered in two and there was no possibility of repair. It took him two more years to raise enough money to try even that expedition again only for a cracked fuel bottle to contaminate all his food after a fall from an ice ridge. In 2011, while I’m on stage spouting off about the importance of real-time adaptation for superior business results, Ben is sitting in a hut in Resolute Bay, Canada watching a storm obliterate the weather window he has for even a chance at reaching the start point. I get on the satellite phone with him and the anguish in his voice is so great that it makes me well up to even remember it now.

For ten years, Ben hustled, trained, evangelised and dreamed. For years after I had given up, he was beaten and bloodied by the harshest storms, broken equipment, a thousand no’s from potential funders and the sly and cynical smiles of those who have never left their armchairs. He sat alone in a tent hundreds of miles from the nearest human and watched as his dreams were shattered again and again and again. And somehow every day he got back up, faced the sunrise and pushed on.

Early this year, Ben rang me with news. Finally, thanks to the combined efforts of Intel and Landrover he had the funds he needed to go south. The dream that began in a South London curry house a decade before was actually happening.

So now he sits, watching the wind in Punta Arenas and steeling himself for the biggest challenge of his life, the first unsupported journey to the South Pole and back. And I find myself speechless. Well almost. I couldn’t say much to Ben when I saw him off earlier this month. We’re both British and emotions are an awkward bunkmate at the best of times. A simple handshake and a firm ‘don’t fuck it up’ were all I was able to say. This is what I should have said.

Ben, to many the journey you have ahead of you is incredible and impossible. Its success lies on a knife edge of survival and good luck, but it pales compared to the journey that got you here. You are the best man I know and whatever Antarctica throws in your way, whether you reach your destination or not, you are already the greatest inspiration and symbol of hard-won success I could have. Thank you for never giving up, always check for frostbite and I’ll see you on the other side.

……

For those of you struggling with your own startups or other at-times seemingly fruitless challenges I would highly recommend following Ben on his site, twitter and instagram. It will bring instant perspective and hopefully inspiration.

Furthest North

On 6 March, Rosie Stancer stepped off Ward Hunt Island and on to the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean. With temperatures sinking past -50C, her eyelashes elongated with ice and every millimetre of exposed skin burning with the cold she pulled her sledge over serried ranks of 30 feet high barriers of ice stretching before her for miles and miles. The Arctic, still shaking off the hold of winter would make each night a concert of shivering limbs and chattering teeth as the lightweight stove strove against the world with its rationed fuel and thin blue light.

The cold took no prisoners this year, and the toes of Rosie’s left foot were hit the worst as they froze, thawed, refroze, rethawed and frostbite took hold. As the temperature crawled up through the –40s and into the more temperate –30s, the sun became a fixture in the sky, no longer rising or setting but simply circling Rosie as she pressed north. However, the sun became a fleeting visitor as the rising temperatures brought burnished clouds each staking a claim to their piece of the horizon before enveloping the world completely in a deathly white.

As the clouds fell, Rosie’s senses became almost redundant. What use are ears when there is nothing to hear, what use eyes when all around you is white, what use touch when its only function is to remind you of the pain in your feet? There is no up, no down, no far away, no close up, no sky, no ground, just white and the dead weight of your sledge behind you as your only comfort against complete isolation.

At least as Rosie hauled, climbed, pushed, pulled, levered, smashed and at times dug her way north, the ice conditions began to improve. Then came the storms. Whipping across the Arctic, the snow was coerced into vortices around Rosie, burrowing into every crevice as the wind fashioned the encircling ridges into sails taking her east and south, away from her desired route and course. Continue reading “Furthest North”

Paralysis

There’s a certain blog paralysis that creeps in after a certain amount of time has passed that makes going back to the blog yet more difficult. The urge to precis events is suffocated beneath yet more events, none of which necessarily make for a particularly coherent story. On reflection, I have decided to provide some bullet points and then continue on as though nothing has happened. Since I last posted on this site I have:

  • Put together a major solo North Pole expedition
  • Simultaneously tested new polar equipment while entertaining a small five-year-old boy with my monster/giant impressions.
  • Spent time in Toronto, Ottawa, Iqaluit, Resolute, Montreal, London and New York
  • Performed two snowmobile rescues for individuals stranded on the sea ice (mentally playing the Ride of the Valkyries all the while)
  • Had my name appear on the inside cover of a major label album release.
  • Moved continents and set up in New York
  • Met Barbara Bush (the twin, not the Granny)
  • Learned what shuffleboard is
  • Screamed at UPS “just who the hell do I have to wake up in which country to get this package delivered on time”
  • Learned that my street is the major route of choice for all night-time emergency services in New York
  • Tried Ashtanga yoga
  • Met the Inuit grandson of one of Roald Amundsen’s flings
  • Competed in a Scotland 10K in Central Park
  • Written a soon-to-be published piece for the Grauniad

And met innumerable interesting and warm-hearted people along the way.

Inching SOUTH

Early morning trekking 1Winston Churchill once said that success is merely the ability to hold on one minute longer than anyone else. I feel that recently Ben and I have been testing that out.

We’ve met some incredible people over the last six months from some of the most powerful media players in the world to ultra-connected corporate operators. We’ve met kit manufacturers who have come up with fantastic new ways to create equipment that will keep going for as long as we need it to, no matter what the conditions. We’ve met and been inspired by teachers and educators who saw in SOUTH something of the dream and passion that they wanted to instill in the children in their care. However, we also heard a consistent refrain: ‘Do you know what we could do with this, do you know what we could do if we had a little more time?’

A huge part of us both, the part that only truly feels alive when standing at the precipice of our abilities, is in anguish right now. But we know we have made the right decision: we are postponing SOUTH until October 2007. From the kernel of an idea that I had when being thrown around by waves far south of Cape Horn, SOUTH has grown into something far bigger than I ever imagined. It has become about more than two men seeking to understand and extend the limits of their own potential, it has, for us, become a chance to inspire people to seek out the edges of themselves, to approach their own limits. Maybe this wider vision is too ambitious to be a reality, but it is not too ambitious to be a goal. We get one chance at this and we will do it right.

We won’t be spending this year sitting on our butts, waiting for October to come around. We have a lot of work to do to make sure that we don’t limit the potential of SOUTH itself. Ben is heading down to South Africa in the next few weeks to build on relations wth local schools there, and I am making preparations to move to New York in the new year, where I will be able to work more closely with the people who have put their hearts and souls into SOUTH. I would like to thank you all for all the support you have shown us thus far, and I hope that next year our legs will do the talking.

Saying goodbye to Greenland

Coast

This morning, lying in our tent at the top of the Hann Glacier we heard the familiar whup-whup of a helicopter heading our way. Our taxi had arrived. We jumped into action, threw sleeping bags in sledges and dismantled our tent in short order. Helicopter pilots do not like to hang around in the cold just in case their birds don’t start again. This would be embarrassing.

I am now safely back in the relative comforts of Tasiilaq, wading through email while Ben has been joyfully reunited with his music collection after forgetting it for the second expedition in a row. Tasiilaq has changed since we left, to be accurate it has melted, and the mountains across the inlet from my hotel room are perfectly reflected in the still water between us. I would say the view was stunning if beauty did not seem so commonplace here.

We are due to fly (via helicopter, then fixed-wing) to Iceland tomorrow before heading back to London and the myriad glories of Kentish Town. Apologies that I wasn’t able to blog from the ice, but we had a little trouble getting my shiny new version of wordpress to work with the home-made software we use on the ice. I hope to make up for it in the near future.

I will do a proper review of the expedition at some point, though, if you haven’t already, check out Ben’s site for the unfolding action. For now, I am relishing getting water out of a tap without having to dig and then melt ice, I am loving that I can have a shower and feel truly clean for the first time in weeks, and I am slightly worried about the colour(s) my face seems to have gone. I have posted a bunch of photos to the Gallery page, if you fancy a squizz at expedition life.

In Greenland

We touched down this morning in Kulusuk East Greenland and immediately made our way over to the helicopter taking us to Tasiilaq. We went, but our kit didn’t as the helicopter was overloaded. We are now waiting for the rest of the kit to turn up tomorrow. Good news is that we have seen our sledges and they survived the journey pretty well. They may not even need new runners, which will save us a job.

Looking out my window, I can see snow-covered mountains, a frozen sea and a rather forlorn wooden boat trapped by the ice. There are a few small colourful houses interspersed among the rock and it is hard to believe that this hamlet is the biggest town in East Greenland. I cannot imagine anything more diametrically opposed to the Manhattan streets of a week ago. Hopefully, we will be able to reach the ice cap tomorrow, but we will have to see how everything pans out. In the arctic, patience is a necessary virtue.

Foiled again!

When I was managing Ben’s solo expedition in 2004, we were stuck in Khatanga, a town that is best described as the armpit of Northern Siberia. Each day we would head for the airport in the hope that the vodka-fuelled disagreements between the owners of the helicopters and the pilots had resolved themselves. On the first day, we barely got out of the hotel before we were told to head back, the next day we actually managed to get into the entrance. By day eight we had all our baggage loaded and were on the back of a lorry taking us to the helicopter when we were told to turn round. That was the night we got drunk. In the end we were stuck there for ten days and the delay had a huge effect on the weather conditions Ben had to face.

Today it feels like we are back in that situation, each day a little closer to getting on the plane but still not quite making it. Today, we checked in our baggage, we got our boarding cards (two dot-matrix style receipts) and then waited for four hours to find out that the flight had been cancelled. Jon Russill, who has been looking after the logistics for us pointed me towards a useful site – weather forecast.com and since then I have been the most knowledgeable person on East Greenland’s weather in the airport, including the staff, which hasn’t exactly inspired me.

Nevertheless, Ben and I are taking this in true stoic fashion. In an attempt to discern a small silver lining, Ben pointed out that this at least would be good training for the inevitable delay in Punta Arenas before we head down SOUTH. We’ll just have to see how far we get tomorrow. . . . . .

Closer to Greenland

We got the all clear this morning for a flight into Greenland at midday. It’s hard to say how I am feeling at this point so I will let John Masefield have a go for me.

“I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.”

Ok, so he is talking about sailing but you get the picture.

New York

Ben and I touched down from New York early on Wednesday morning knowing that between us we had two days to attend six different meetings, give two speeches, MC an awards ceremony, hire an assistant and pack everything we would need for a month-long unsupported training expedition to Greenland.

To say that we were not approaching these tasks feeling completely bright-eyed and bushy-tailed would be something of an understatement. Our SOUTH reception in Chris Anderson’s fantastic loft had been a huge success, introducing us to a host of fascinating people who sparked new ideas about how we might reach out to the people who could get the most from SOUTH. The meetings that followed were fascinating and allowed us to visit everything from a school in a deprived area of Brooklyn, to the swanky Explorers Club, to the studios of a nationally-syndicated radio show where I proceeded to make an utter tit of myself. However, this all took its toll and by Tuesday we were knackered.

Those few days in London passed in a kind of semi daze; anyone looking in Ben’s window would have seen something akin to a cocaine den as I poured hundreds of portions of energy drink powder into nondescript plastic bags. Skis were checked, tech equipment was repaired and hats were bought. As the hours began to close in I had to call in my father who spent his Friday afternoon mixing Muesli, carbohydrate drink and groundnut oil into a high-cal but fairly disgusting mix (Thanks Dad).

We made it with minutes to spare, to find we were some 60kg over our baggage limits. Ben turned the full power of his charm on the French lady at the check-in desk to get our charge reduced, and when that didn’t work we tried abject begging to the Iceland Air rep. This worked better. We were supposed to be in Greenland by now, but bad weather at our insertion point meant that they couldn’t get a plane through so we are still stuck in Reykjavik.

There are worse things than being stuck in Iceland and Ben and I did get a full night’s sleep last night for the first time in weeks, but we are both still itching to get out on the ice. Feeling that familiar arctic wind as we wandered down Reykjavik’s main street made me hunger to be out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but the ice, the sky and the sounds of skis cutting through snow. Ben is trying to find a way to get the latest wordpress version working from the ice, and if he is successful I will be able to update this site while we are in Greenland. If not, you will have to follow the action on Ben’s fine site. Either way, it will be a pleasure to have you along.

A final word, thank you Sunny and Jennifer. You are a continuing inspiration to me and Ben and I feel most undeserving of the work you put in while we were in New York. One day, somehow, we’ll make it up to you.

With their natural habitat disappearing fast, polar bears seem to have been trying different ways to speed up their evolutionary response. Hunters near Iqaluit have managed to shoot a hybrid polar-grizzly bear, the first recorded in the wild. Well, at least it was until they killed the poor thing.

Greenland

Sunset over the mountainsLife has taken a turn for the hectic here as I once again get into expedition mode. Ben and I are off to Greenland for a month for our final test and training phase before we go SOUTH and I am juggling phonecalls, kit orders and eccentric email servers.

In mid May we are taking a helicopter from Ammassalik and will do two round trips out onto the ice cap. One with SOUTH expedition-weight sledges and full skins where we will lay depots and one with backpacks and short skins where we will eat the aforementioned depots. One of the key elements of SOUTH will be our ability to switch to backpacks at the South Pole and use skis with short skins and more glide for our return to the coast and we are looking to fine tune our calculations to see how far and how fast we can go. Getting these as accurate as possible is crucial: too optimistic and you force yourself to ration, limiting the body’s ability to recover, too pessimistic and a heavier-than-necessary sledge will slow you down, compromising your chances of success. It’s a pretty fine line and when you are out there on the very edges of human capability, there’s not much room for screw ups.

We’ll also be testing out a range of equipment from solar water heating systems to backpacks to special mp3 players and making our final choices as to our nutrition strategy. Testing expeditions like this are always fun because they are a huge spur to creativity as Ben and I question every process and every action we take; could we do it better, more efficiently? It’s amazing how you can find little areas to improve even after all this time.

I think what I’m really looking forward to is just being out there on the ice again. East Greenland is one of my favourite places, when the weather isn’t trying to kill you it’s stunning. Each view is enhanced by the knowledge that you are the only person in the area for hundreds of miles and all you have to do is lean into the harness, check your bearings and haul. There’s a saying that East Greenland isn’t scenery, it’s savagery, but to me, sometimes, it’s a little bit like heaven.

The little blue passport

Let me start with a disclaimer: Bribery is bad, really bad. In fact, it should only ever be used with small children. The trouble is, when you sometimes operate in areas that have a morally ambiguous  business environment combined with a weaponised bureaucracy, the requests can get pretty persistent and persuasive.

Having had to get past military roadblocks, petty bureaucrats and dodgy customs officials in various somewhat remote countries, often carrying stuff they don’t want me to take through (ranging from people to, in one memorable instance, high explosives), I’ve learnt that handing over money can sometimes be circumvented by charm, talking about football (or whatever sport they are most passionate about) or mentioning your close personal relationship with their boss. However, if all else fails there is one thing, more highly prized than money, that will always open doors and persuade bewhiskered military types to look the other way: the little blue passport, Viagra.

If there is one thing that your average machismo-ridden border sadist wants more than the ability to buy the expensive kind of vodka, it is the mythical status that they believe Viagra can supply. They can always get money from the next poor sap, but only you can turn them into a love god. In short, Viagra opens doors and should always be part of your travelling kit. Moreover, today I find out that it can improve physical performance at altitude. Truly, is there anything that little blue pill can’t do?