Christopher Mike - Explorer

Past Trips

¡°How are you going to feel when you’ve been beaten by a bunch of young girls?¡±

The Team (click to enlarge)

These were the opening words from a member of an all-female team in the 2007 Polar Challenge, a team race from Resolute Bay in Northern Canada to the North Magnetic Pole - the place to which your compass points. The race organisers claim that it is ¡®The Toughest Race On Earth¡¯. They¡¯re not joking. Team Bearing 360 North consisted of myself, James Cheshire and John Black. To our considerable surprise, we ended up as the race winners. This is the story of how we came to be there and the journey that we had.

The decision to enter into the race was made about 12 months earlier. In the intervening period we had to find sponsors, get ourselves up to the right level of physical fitness and develop the skills we would need to cope with the challenges ahead. In a race like the Polar Challenge, physical fitness and mental fortitude are critical factors. When it seems such a distant prospect it¡¯s sometimes hard to approach something like this with the correct level of personal commitment. We all had different approaches to getting ourselves up to the required standard of fitness. In the end, the majority of the personal preparation took place in the last 6 months and it was ultimately down to each of us to decide just how much effort we were personally willing to put in. It is amazing how much you can achieve if you really put your mind to it.

Polar Challenge (click to enlarge)

The race involved up being up against other teams of varying ability. These included elitist adventure racers and tri-athletes, some with impressive track records of ultra-marathon achievements. It also included individuals who simply wanted to test themselves in a truly hostile environment. All of them were very impressive people. There were several people who had signed up as individuals and who later formed teams. We were clearly one of the more mature teams in the race; it wasn¡¯t long before we had been unofficially renamed The Roaring Forties.

At one stage we were told that there was a plan for us to race against the BBC Top Gear team. The format was that James May would race to the pole in a car, Jeremy Clarkson would go with a dog team and Richard Hammond would race with us on skis. In the event, the format was completely changed and we were left to ski race separately.

We set off in the Arctic spring of 2007, arriving in Northern Canada in April. Our route started at Resolute Bay. Ahead of us lay 650 kilometres of frozen wilderness; most of it frozen ocean with just the occasional ice covered island. Some of the ice was flat, most of it however was a near impenetrable jumble of slabs and ice boulders. We navigated using GPS technology and once we had established our general direction we frequently relied on the shadow cast by the sun as a rough guide to our heading. We travelled on skis, man-hauling all our food and equipment behind us in sledges. We split the combined load of food and equipment in a way that matched the strength of each team member. We melted ice when we needed water which used for drinking and to rehydrate our freeze dried rations. When we stopped at the end of the day, we put up a three man tent. Although it was constantly almost unbearably cold, one of our biggest challenges was overheating from the effort of pulling our pulks ¨C the theory being that if we started to sweat, the sweat would freeze in our clothing, putting an end to their insulating qualities.

The Polar Team (click to enlarge)

The walk-in to the start line was just over 80 miles; this was used as a final opportunity for all the teams to get their skills sorted out before the race began. Once the race started we were on our own. Within hours we had lost sight of all the other competitors and in no time at all were in an expanse of ice and snow that stretched unbroken to the horizon in all directions. It was a moment of harsh reality.

We soon came to appreciate that the Arctic is a truly desolate place where polar bears wander about in the hopeful off-chance of finding misguided travellers. To them, we must look like gaily coloured snacks on skis. It¡¯s rather disconcerting to think that all of one¡¯s lifetime ambitions amount to little more than being a frozen smörgåsbord item

The Polar Team (click to enlarge)

The biggest single factor was the cold. It¡¯s hard to describe just how it felt and analogies to being hit by a train somehow fail to fully convey the reality. The cold was with us the whole time ¨C a predator that stalked us constantly just waiting for a chance to catch us off guard.

We quickly fell into a routine that didn¡¯t vary. We kept this up day after day. Our routine was to march for as long as we could, stopping only for a 5 minute break at the end of each hour. In these 5 minutes we ate and drank what we needed to replenish the energy reserves. Each day¡¯s walk varied in duration depending on the terrain we were covering and the state of the team. At the end of each day¡¯s march, we pitched our tent, ate and slept for a few hours and then reversed the process when we woke up. This routine was repeated every day, week after week. In such severe conditions, we found that the tedium of maintaining the routine was a challenge in itself and James brought real discipline to the process. He played a crucial part in ensuring that our routine was maintained.

We had one major disaster. One morning, we had eaten breakfast and were melting ice to produce drinking water. A spray of liquid fuel suddenly burst out from a faulty valve on one of the stoves. It instantly ignited and in a split second one end of the tent was engulfed in flames. We managed to put the fire out and no-one was injured but the tent was badly damaged. We managed to patch it enough to carry on but it seemed so ironic to have been struggling day after day to battle temperatures down to -50 degrees yet here we were avoiding severe burns by the narrowest of margins. I don¡¯t know which one of us was being watched over that day, maybe it was all three of us, but here was definitely a guardian angel nearby. As we set off on the march that morning, the aches and pains that we had all been inwardly moaning about suddenly seemed very insignificant. By any measure, it had been a close shave.

On the 14th May, exhausted and resembling a bunch of Frenchmen retreating from Moscow, we made it to the Pole and learnt that we were the race winners. We were close to exhaustion and we had given it all we had. It¡¯s hard to describe how good it was to see the Twin Otter aircraft circling before landing on the ice to extract us. There was a moment of elation as the engines gunned and the skids lifted from the ice. We were airborne and on our way back to civilisation.

We certainly had our moments and it would be unrealistic to say that it was all harmony and tranquillity, it wasn¡¯t. If you want to find out who you really are, this race will show you. That said, nobody quit, we made the whole journey as a team and we finished in one piece. We had always agreed that this was our minimum objective and we achieved it. To have also won the race was a great bonus.

Along the way, we decided to link our efforts to raising charitable funds for a worthy cause. We considered various different charities and selected Orchid ¨C a small charity that deals with raising awareness of the risks of men's cancers. Through various fund raising activities we raised in excess of one hundred thousand pounds for the charity.

The Team (click to enlarge)

To find out more about the Polar Challenge, go to www.polar-challenge.com

For more about Bearing360North, go to www.bearing360north.com

To find out more about Orchid, go to www.orchid-cancer.org.uk