Friday, March 18, 2005

North face to the North Pole!

By Dominique Searle

Chilling out, Extreme! Usually fashionable words in youth media culture but now an apt description for a long established Gibraltar insurance leader.

No, John Harrison of Ibex has not come up with a new advertising gimmick for his business. We'e talking about, well, a sort of adventure holiday that most readers would happily turn down for a few weeks on the Riviera or a cruise around the world. Not John. He has put a substantial deposit down and spent the last six months training and preparing for the voyage of a lifetime – a walk to the North Pole!

Of course for a man in his early fifties he is exceptionally fit and has tried most of the challenges like parachuting, hang gliding, owning a sailing boat. But he recognises that his previous perilous treks across snowy mountains of the Alps and the high seas are nothing compared with what April has in store for him.

"I got a call and was asked ‘How about the North Pole?’,” he says knowing that those who listen to his story will swing between thinking the he’s either really quite brave and adventurous or has read too much Hemingway. After all the journey’s not cheap, it is dangerous. The trek is 120 kilometres on foot dragging your essential possessions with temperatures dropping down to -68C, averaging –25C and not even a widdle stop (the loo issue is probably enough to put most people off) once you start the day’s walk.

Survival

It didn’t start out as a charity event but the expedition has decided to raise money for a children’s HIV home in South Africa.

The ten man team is led by world class professional adventurers and is made up of businessmen who have got through the requisite medical and are determined to make it through what will be a life-changing challenge.

“There will be 24 hours of daylight which is something we have to get our minds around. People who have done this before say that the challenge is 30 per cent physical and 70 per cent psychological,” says John who has been working with a personal trainer Jonathan Cruz. John is effusive about the way in which Jonathan has prepared him. Whilst he has to build up specific muscles and strengths he has not been trying to lose weight. He needs some of the stored fat to deal with the cold and will almost certainly lose most of it as he pulls 65 kilos of kit on the 12 hour a day slog through the frozen waste.

Readers will remember John’s father who first came to Gibraltar in 1960 with Rock Insurance and John himself was involved in recovering a Phoenician anchor in the Bay that George Palao wrote about in the Chronicle.

April is about the only month this journey can be made. The Russians set up a temporary weather station and have rescue facilities available at a cost. The insurance for the team alone will run into some £40,000.

Arctic Transcience

The Arctic Ocean is one of the world’s seven seas. Its top is frozen and covers an area greater than the US. With the coldest temperature measured at –68C it represents one of the most hostile environments on earth.

While Everest still holds a magic grip on most people, it has been heavily exploited in the recent years.

The North and South Poles, by contrast, are still very much an unknown wilderness and in the case of the North Pole, few expeditions have been attempted since the first successful crossing by Rob. E Peary, an American, in 1909. His team was made up of 24 men, 10 sledges and 133 dogs. This is No 198.

Setting off on April 2, the international team’s attempt at an unsupported expedition to the Geographical North Pole starts from the Borneo Ice Camp at 89 degrees. The distance is some 120kms and they have planned to reach the North Pole in 10 days. No dogs, no sherpas....just them pulling sledges with all of their food and equipment.

They will be using today’s technology including a satellite tracker, satellite phone and a positioning beacon and have also invested in the best clothing and equipment.

Couture & Cuisine

The clothing is custom made and includes gortex and down feathers set out in six layers for the changing extremes – the warm spot will be the North Pole itself at a basking –5C! Four layers of gloves, complete facial protection and extreme UV protection now necessary because of global warming. The satellite telephone and cameras have to be used for seconds and then returned to a warm place near the body or the batteries will collapse.

Special food is in bite size portions – a bar of chocolate is like a steel bar at those temperatures – will be portioned out and water produced from ice.

To prepare for the greatest danger, which is slipping into a crevice or into water, John has been training in Britain and the Alps. If a person falls into the water and isn’t out of his clothes wrapped and given a warm drink within five minutes they are dead. It’s that bleak.

Guns & Bears

Guns will be carried too because there is a danger of being stalked by polar bears as the adventurers walk and stop at two hour stretches. But the base camp where rescue would come from will be 900 km from the pole, about the distance from the Rock to Barcelona and several days for an injured party.

The two expedition leaders are ex-marines who between them have been to the North Pole three times and the South Pole twice. Alan Chambers and Pete Goss are well known adventurers. Alan planned, prepared and led the first successful British unsupported walk to the Geographical North Pole from Canada. After immense setbacks the loss of two team members and extreme frostbite and hunger. The walk on the ice lasted a gruelling seventy days; near starvation and dwindling fuel supply the team covered 500 miles against the worst polar weather in twenty years. With both team members falling through the ice and going blind due to a three week blizzard they managed to raise the Union Flag on top of the world at 23:16hrs 16th May 2000.

He also cycled from Gibraltar to Britain for charity. Pete is most recognised for taking part in the 1996/7 Vendee Globe non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race in his yacht ‘Aqua Quorum’. It was during this race that he dramatically rescued fellow competitor Raphael Dinelli for which Pete has been awarded the MBE by HM The Queen and the Legion d’Honneur by the French President. He later became the fastest Briton to sail around the world single handed with a time of 126 days and 21 hours.

Tough Training

John admits the preparation has been tough and his trainer Jonathan seems “ to relish putting me through the grinder with power walking to the top of the rock as his favourite activity!”

“In April, it will be daylight for 24 hours each day and average temperatures are typically –25C. Any storms are usually short and winds should be light. Not forgetting that the Artic is a frozen ocean, the expedition takes place between the periods of new moon and full moon making it the most favourable time,” he says.

On arrival at the North Pole, they will tuck into what has now become the traditional meal of a bacon sandwich whilst they wait, hopefully, to be picked up by a Russian military helicopter. Frankly a cup of hot cocoa sounds good just thinking about the trip.

Charity

Recognising the opportunity to raise money for a well deserved cause by their journey through what has been called a “horizontal Everest”, the team will be raising money for a children’s HIV home the Khulani Children’s Home in South Africa. The children aged between 3 and 16 are orphans and all were born with HIV. The home is partly a school and work centre where the older children make hand made shoes which are purchased by several UK companies. This not only provides them with training and a trade but also, more importantly, with ongoing revenue. 100 percent of the money we will be raising goes direct to the home and the children. All expedition costs have been met entirely by the 10 team members and through corporate sponsorship John has already raised £15,000. £150,000 is enough for a new orphanage for people whose life expectancy doesn’t go much beyond 20.

Corporate

With a minimum contribution of £500 companies will receive a daily expedition dispatch, by way of e-mail from base camp, and a CD disk of expedition photos. In addition, for a further donation of £250, he will carry their company flag to the North Pole where appropriate photos will be taken at the Pole to mark the momentous occasion. John will also wear company logo patches on clothing and assist, where possible, in any promotional campaign.

Individual

Any contribution, large or small, will be most welcome and if a donor wishes to be included in the daily expedition dispatch then this can be arranged.

How to Sponsor

This is the easy part! All you have to do is to send an e-mail pledging the amount of donation you wish to give. Please be generous. The e-mail address for your pledge is northpole@ibexinsure.com

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