To the ends of the earth

talks to Tom Avery, arctic explorer, about his record breaking journey to the North and South Poles

“It is the most inhospitable, dangerous environment that you could possibly imagine. You’ve got shifting ice flows, polar bears, and 40-foot high pressure ridges – It’s a lethal place.”

In 2005, Tom Avery and a team of four others set off with a single aim: To retrace the steps of the very first expedition to the North Pole, using the same techniques, and to equal or better their time of 37 days. Even with a successful outing to the South Pole three years earlier under his belt, this was his most ambitious venture yet.

“My love of adventure started off when I was very young. I never did it because I thought it would be my career, it sort of turned into my career by accident.”

After leaving University, Avery had worked in an accountancy firm for 15 months, before becoming a ski instructor in the Swiss Alps. Since then he has been to every continent, led expeditions to Kyrgyzstan in 2000, where he climbed 9 previously uncharted peaks, the trip to the South Pole in 2002, and the North Pole in 2005.

There have been some very close calls. “There were some pretty hairy moments”, he laughs. “There was one time when skiing in the Alps I fell 80 feet down a vertical rock cliff, bouncing down, and I thought this is it – this is game over. Very luckily I landed between two boulders in a massive snowdrift. My legs were badly scratched, my clothes were ripped, and I broke skis and poles, but I was ok.”

His Antarctic trip began disastrously, when he fell into a crevasse in the ice within hours of starting the 700 mile journey. “Amazingly, the snow bridge across the top of the crevasse held in place – I stuck my arms out and came to rest in the mouth of the crevasse, but there was a 400 foot vertical drop beneath me. That was the most terrifying moment.”

His most recent expedition was not without its fair share of scares. The team travelled to the North Pole usingdogs and sleds, two team members by each sled and the fifth member out in front to act as a scout. Avery recalls being out in front. “Suddenly the wind picked up and the ground whipped up, and I looked back and I could see my teammates struggling behind me, although I couldn’t see them very well. I turned to go back and see how they were getting on. As I approached it became clear that I wasn’t looking at my teammates, I was looking at two ice-pinnacles on a pressure ridge. I had lost them.”

Being separated is perilous, as there is no knowing where anyone is, and the wind kills all attempts to shout for help. “I couldn’t believe it – it was panic. I had no radio on me, no sleeping bag, no tent, no food, just the clothes I had on. It got to the point where I contemplated digging out an emergency shelter to wait in until the storm stopped. I had to try and think rationally, because if you get this wrong, then survival time is very short indeed.” He reunited with his teammates after half an hour, much to everyone’s relief.

Regardless of the incredible fitness required to make an expedition, Avery insists that the mental side is far more important. “Anyone can make that first step. The South Pole was one and a half million paces – you’ve got to be pretty stubborn to keep going. You have your preparation and your training, but an expedition to the South Pole is 80% mental, 20% physical.”

For some, however, the first step may be an incredibly difficult one. “When I was growing up, if there was an adventure course of camping or doing a day’s hike, you just piled into a minibus and off you went. Today there’s all sorts of Health and Safety regulations, and parents are afraid that their kids might graze their knee or sprain their ankle while doing anything, whether its kayaking or abseiling or mountain biking. There’s a danger that we wrap our kids up in cotton wool and stop them having these incredibly rewarding, character building, life changing experiences.”

Having done both Poles, Avery now has a question to answer: What next? “The problem with being a Polar explorer is that once you have done the North and South Poles, you run out of Poles. Mountains have always been a passion of mine, and you won’t run out as there are thousands of the things all over the world.”

Surprisingly, he has no ambitions to climb Everest, which one might have thought of as the obvious appendage to the Poles. “Everest doesn’t really appeal. Over 4,000 people have now climbed Everest, there’s an internet cafe at base-camp. There are so few windows to get to the top, that the chances are you’d be sharing the summit with another hundred people, quite literally. It’s become a victim of its own success. There are so many mountains out there that are as difficult and so beautiful, and you can have them all to yourself.”

On his trips, Avery often sees very few signs of life other than his travelling companions. “By the time we got to the North Pole, we hadn’t seen any life on the Arctic Ocean except three seals. About half an hour after getting to the Pole, a helicopter flew in and landed next to our tent. The ladder came down, and out stepped the most beautiful 6 foot tall Russian bird with a tray of glasses and a bottle of champagne. We all thought we had died and gone to heaven. She was followed out by a dozen Portuguese tourists, who had all forked out $20,000 to go and spend an hour at the North Pole. They took photos of the real life explorers at the North Pole, who stank to high heaven, so we kept our distance from them. They drank their champagne then flew off waving to us. It was very surreal.”

His success at the North Pole makes him one of only 41 people to reach both Poles on foot. While many people may wonder what the difference is between the two Poles, Avery says they couldn’t be more different:

“The South Pole is in the middle of land, on a continent, and at 10,000 feet above sea level. The North Pole, on the other hand, is in the middle of the ocean, and has ice flows and moving currents. You get these enormous pressure ridges the size of two buildings – the whole place is like a building site. Just blocks of ice strewn haphazardly across the place like a never-ending obstacle course.”

There has been much dispute over the claims of the first person to reach the North Pole – Robert Peary claimed to have taken 37 days to cross the 415 nautical miles, using a team of only dogs and sleds, in 1909. Part of the purpose of Avery’s expedition was to discover whether or not the journey was possible in those conditions.

“We set out to find Peary’s base camp, which no-one had ever found before on the coast of Ellesmere Island. Armed with a photograph of the base camp we trekked back and forth along the coast of Ellesmere Island trying to match up the terrain in the photograph with the terrain in front of our eyes. Just as we were about to give up for the day, incredibly all the terrain just fitted into place and we were there. We started digging around the snowdrift, and within a couple of minutes we started uncovering evidence of Peary having been there – rusty fuel cans, bits of shed, rusty baked bean cans; it was a bit of an adrenaline shock.”

Having found evidence that Peary had certainly been there almost a hundred years earlier, the aim of the team was to travel from Ellesmere Island to the Pole and either equal or better Peary’s time. This was no mean feat.

“Fortunately I didn’t have piles this time around (Avery had suffered severely from haemorrhoids on one of his earlier trips), but what did happen is all my old frostbite wounds from the South Pole opened up again because of the cold. You want to travel in deepest winter when the icepack is locked together, but it does mean that it is bitterly cold – the average is minus 40°C. We had seen photos from Peary’s trip, so we knew what was coming, but it was beyond my wildest imaginations of what it would be like.”

The ground was constantly shifting because of the currents under the ice, even during the winter. Peary had a team of 23 men, who dropped off at various points, leaving only five to attempt the very Pole itself. Avery travelled with five from the beginning, which meant that they had to struggle all of the way to the Pole.

“We had so many falls reaching the North Pole because of the terrain, the ice, being run over by dog sleds, trying to ski through dog turds, trying not to end up in the water. I ended up in the water once, which was pretty harrowing. You’re constantly having to blink in the Arctic to stop your eyes from freezing – it’s that cold.”

This was his first trip with dogs, and he said that they added a completely new dynamic to the expedition. It was one of the dogs who had found him when he became separated from his teammates during the trip. Looking back, he calls the dogs the main stars of the show.

“There were so many incidents with the dogs. They have a real hierarchy, there’s the boss dog who is in charge and sets the example for the others to follow. One of the ways that they assert their authority is to pee on the other dogs. On the first day of training, Julius, possibly the lowest ranking dog of the lot, came and cocked his leg and peed all over my leg, so I knew my place. Thankfully during the weeks of training we made sure that we were very much in charge. The dogs were absolutely fantastic, although there were times when they did push their luck.”

The team did eventually reach the North Pole, beating Peary’s time by just seven hours (they reached the pole in 36 days and 22 hours). However, by the time they were approaching the pole, the Arctic spring was starting to set in, and the ice was beginning to melt. The ground became far less stable and holes in the ice started to appear with increasing regularity.

“Even with two miles to go, the ice pack was drifting at seven miles a day away from the pole. So, we went to bed and we were 18 miles away, wake up and you’d be 25 miles away. The final couple of miles there was more open water than ice, and all the time the ice is drifting at 0.4 miles and hour away from the pole. If you’re not travelling that fast then you’re going backwards.”

There must have been times when he wanted to turn back, or the hardship got too much. “There have been times when I’ve been terrified, and times when I thought that every chance of success might be gone, but not once on an expedition have I thought “I wish I wasn’t here.” Expeditions are my passion – they’re what get me out of bed in the morning. At the end [of the North Polar expedition] it was just such a sense of relief – that we had made it, we had survived.”

Looking back over an intense and challenging nine years of adventure (Avery went to Tanzania, the Andes, and Patagonia before leading the Kyrgyzstan expedition in 2000), it is hard to know which bits were the most rewarding. From peak-naming in Kyrgyzstan to calling the Prince of Wales from inside the Antarctic Circle, Avery has had what can only be described as a very eventful life so far. He is still only 33.

“The South Pole had been my childhood dream for twenty years, but I guess that the North Pole meant more to me because it had so many different elements to it – we were travelling in the purest of styles (by dog-sleds), we were recreating a journey that had been done a hundred years ago, and we managed to break the world record time for getting to the North Pole. We also managed to rewrite the history books. People wondered how he could have got there in such a fast time – he must have cheated, he must have been a fraud. We showed that if we can do it, us amateur adventurers, then surely Peary, with his 23 years of arctic experience could have done it.”

6 April 2009 marks the centenary of Peary’s discovery of the North Pole.
Avery’s To the End of the Earth: The Race to Solve Polar Exploration’s Greatest Mystery out on 23 March from Atlantic Books, rrp £18.99. M

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