Posts Tagged ‘explorer’

Nick Smith interviews Pangaea Expedition leader Mike Horn in the Explorers Journal, Summer 2011

October 3, 2011

Pangaea’s Progress

Explorer Mike Horn is now at the mid-point of his epic Pangaea expedition, a four-year enterprise that will cross all seven continents without using motorised transport. Explorers Journal contributing editor Nick Smith caught up with Mike in the Gobi Desert. If it’s Mongolia it must be camels…

Leader of the Pangaea expedition, explorer Mike Horn. Photo: Nick Smith

Leader of the Pangaea Expedition, global explorer Mike Horn, in Mongolia. Photo: Nick Smith

Sitting in a tent in the Gobi Desert Mike Horn describes what he does as ‘normal. It’s just normal.’ At the mid-point of his four-year Pangaea expedition he’s taking a well-earned breather from weeks of camel trekking in the blazing sun. We’re planning our route for the day on a map spread out before us on a makeshift table strewn with coffee cups. The idea is to meet the camel wranglers, saddle up and trek westward through the Mongolian Steppe. It feels anything but normal.

I’ve flown in from London to join Horn on part of his Asia leg of his expedition, changing planes at Paris, Moscow and finally Ulan Bator, where I hop onto an old Soviet military helicopter and fly a further four hours west into the desert. As we make our descent into the fabled Singing Dunes I reckon I’ve been in the air for 24 hours and so it’s nice to be greeted by a woman in a red jacket offering me a chilled glass of champagne. Horn’s sponsor – the house of G.H.Mumm ­– is holding a press conference to update the world’s press on Pangaea’s progress.

Mumm Champagne makes its mark on Mongolia's Gobi Desert as sponsor of Mike Horn's Pangaea Expedition. Photo: Nick Smith

Mumm Champagne makes its mark in Mongolia as sponsor of the Pangaea Expedition. Photo: Nick Smith

Horn is one of the world’s highest profile adventure-style explorers and his exploits are legendary. One of the reasons for his visibility is that he embraces the triangular relationship between exploration, sponsorship and media, regarding it as healthy and symbiotic. He’s all about the message, telling me that exploration may once have been about discovering new lands and mapping the world, but now it’s about communicating environmental issues. To do that you need a financial means of propulsion and a media conduit to the wider public.

But before we can get down to the interviews and photo shoots there’s some real work to do, because Mike Horn likes to share his experiences rather than just talk about them. ‘How can you understand what I do unless you share part of that experience with me.’ An opportunity too good to miss, I make the token gesture of swatting a few flies off me, take a swig of water and with the early morning sun on our backs we wander through the Singing Dunes.

Local camel wranglers preparing to set off in the morning, Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo: Nick Smith

Local camel wranglers preparing to set off in the morning, Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo: Nick Smith

Nick Smith: How did the Pangaea project come about?

Mike Horn: When I walked around the Arctic Circle I had a lot of time to think. That’s when I developed the project. Without noise pollution or visual pollution your mind is your own and you can pull projects together very quickly without being disturbed. After 20 years of exploration I’ve seen a lot of changes in the environment: polar bears being killed by grizzly bears, birds migrating in the Arctic that shouldn’t be there. I’ve seen brown polar bears, and the changes in Antarctica with the ice shelves breaking up.

It bothered me a little bit that I wasn’t doing anything and that my playground was being destroyed. That’s when I thought I’d like to reunite the world through a project called Pangaea, referring back to a time 250 million years ago when there was this one pristine supercontinent. I thought it’s impossible to put the continents back together, but you can put people together. And they can be used to channel data about the state of the environment.

NS: What resources did you need at the beginning of the project?

MH: The biggest untapped source of energy today is our youth. I am from an age of consumerism, but my two daughters are young enough to change the way their generation thinks. We are consuming, but they can conserve. As a boy I dreamed that I could go on a boat with Jean Cousteau. But I was never given the opportunity. I am now giving that opportunity to young people around the world who would like to experience the beauty of nature. I wrote down three key words: Explore, learn and act. The exploration is to go out and find the beauty of the planet. The learning part is to find out how to conserve that beauty for future generations. And the action is to work backwards to erase the human footprint on that beauty. And that’s what the project is about.

NS: Who can take part in the Pangaea expedition?

MH: Any kid between 15 and 20 years old can apply. Our team in the office goes through all the thousands of applications. It’s like American Idol: there are interviews, they have to post videos online and so on. I’m aiming to work with influential kids that will be the leaders of tomorrow. People who can change industry, politics, the world. We select 24 and they get put through a strenuous further selection process of communications training and then wilderness survival in the Alps. At the end of this process we filter out 12 – two from each inhabited continent – to join me on my expedition. Having these people with me gives me the chance to communicate with the whole world from the Gobi Desert.

Early morning start rounding up the camels in the Gobi desert in preparation for trekking with global explorer Mike Horn. Photo: Nick Smith

Rounding up the camels in the Gobi desert in preparation for trekking with global explorer Mike Horn. Photo: Nick Smith

NS: How does the expedition translate into tangible scientific fieldwork?

MH: When the young explorers get home, they get posted out and start on the ‘act’ programme where we reconstruct coral, clear the garbage out of the ocean, plant trees and so on. We have three pillars: biodiversity, social community services and water. All the projects based on these pillars are sustainable. We don’t just go in there once. These are five to ten year projects, and we are giving the youth a starting point to rebuild the world.

NS: What effect will Pangaea have on the Gobi Desert?

MH: We’ve taken soil samples to give us an indication of the fertility of the region. We’ve looked at water here, which is one of the biggest problems. Then we looked at the desert people who are living here, vegetation dispersal and over-grazing. We’ll give all that information to the university of Munich in Germany, which will examine how we can scientifically work with the youth in Mongolia to save the ground water and to prevent overgrazing. Then our young explorers come back to help to implement the project.

NS: Why do you put such an emphasis on media coverage for Pangaea?

MH: We don’t get our money from governments. My personal sponsors fund this expedition and so we want to give something back to them. But more important is the idea that we can somehow tell our stories to guys in the bars back home. If you walk into a bar the one thing you can guarantee is most people will be speaking about what’s in the newspapers, on TV or on the internet. The platform is there for us, and we need to create a buzz. And this is basically to what explorers do today. We go out, find knowledge and share that knowledge.

For further information on the Pangaea Expedition 2008-12 visit Mike Horn’s official site

Explorer Mike Horn toasting the Pangaea Expedition in Mongolia with a glass of Mumm Champagne. Photo: Nick Smith

Mike Horn toasting the Pangaea Expedition in Mongolia with a glass of Mumm Champagne. Photo: Nick Smith

A small toast to a century of exploration…

When Captain Jean-Baptiste Charcot became the first Frenchman to set foot on Antarctica, he celebrated in true style with a bottle of champagne, a newspaper and his trusty pipe. The year was 1904 and the bottle was a gift from his friend Georges Mumm, head of the Champagne house that sponsored the explorer’s Français expedition. The famous toast on the ice shelf lent Charcot’s expedition was immortalised in one of the great expedition photographs from the Heroic Age. For Charcot there was a synergy between his fine wine of choice and the pioneering values of his adventures.

A century later the association lives on. In May 2008 Mike Horn set sail from Monaco under the watchful eye of Prince Albert, on one of the most ambitious journeys of discovery undertaken in recent years. Spanning four years, Pangaea will – if all goes well – take him through the North and South poles, far-flung desert islands and the oceans of the world, as a celebration of ‘the beauty of planet Earth.’

Horn teamed up with Mumm Champagne to help spread an environmental message through a co-ordinated press offensive that would use every type of media available to him. Ever mindful of the significance of Charcot’s iconic toast in Antarctica, Horn and Mumm prepared to celebrate each successful leg of the trip with an exceptional ‘Explorer Experience’ – a champagne-paired dinner where press photographers would be able to reinterpret digitally the classic photo taken a century ago.

Author Nick Smith acknowledges the role Mumm Champagne played in getting him to Mongolia to report on the Pangaea Expedition

Author Nick Smith acknowledges the role Mumm Champagne played in getting him to Mongolia to report on the Pangaea Expedition

Horn’s ‘Explorer Experience’ in the Gobi Desert was the exact midpoint of the expedition. So far he has hosted dinners on an ice shelf in Greenland, a sand bar on the Great Barrier Reef and in Antarctica. Next up, he will head for the top of the world when his next field press conference will be held as close to the geographic North Pole as logistics will allow. This will be followed by expeditions into the Amazonian rainforest and the wilderness of Siberia. He says: ‘we’re all explorers today. There is no message other than we must take positive action to save the planet. And we must do it today.’

This article first appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York.

Nick Smith reviews ‘The Quest for Frank Wild’ by Angie Butler in Geographical, October 2011

September 30, 2011

One of only two men to ever be awarded the Polar Medal with four bars, Frank Wild was a giant of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. He went South on five expeditions: once under Scott and Mawson and three times under Shackleton, eventually completing the Quest expedition after the death of the Boss. No serious aficionado of polar history doubts the significance of Wild’s contribution, so it’s something of a mystery that until now his memoirs have remained unpublished.

What little we know of Wild’s life after Quest seems to indicate that it was all downhill. If we believe contemporary newspaper accounts, Wild returned to southern Africa, tumbling from one failed farming project to another, taking dead-end jobs in hotel bars, scraping a living out of mining and railway projects. For decades the world, if it has noticed at all, has seen post-Antarctica Wild as a broken alcoholic who died in penury, the whereabouts of his remains unknown.

Sensing an injustice to the man, Butler sets out to find the real story behind the reports. She finds out that her instincts are good, but only to a point. Wild’s is a sad tale, but one with an unexpected outcome. In the process of metaphorically looking for the man, Butler, on her seventh visit to South Africa, finds his ashes. We probably all join her in the hope that they will one day be taken to Antarctica.

While it’s fascinating to see Butler’s spirited defence of Wild, her biographical sketch is really the curtain raiser for his previously unpublished memoirs. It seems inconceivable that it has taken so long for them to come to light, but the wait was worth it. It’s a shame that the memoirs were never finished, cut off abruptly with a cliff-hanging tale of life on Elephant Island during the Endurance expedition. At least that chapter in Wild’s life has a happy ending.

The Quest for Frank Wild, by Angie Butler, Jackleberry Press, pp214, £25

Catching up with explorer Mike Horn in Mongolia

February 7, 2011

A glass of champagne in Mongolia

Nick Smith travels to Mongolia as a guest of Mumm Champagne to catch up with explorer Mike Horn. Like you do…

Mike Horn in the Gobi Desert - photo: Nick Smith

Mike Horn reads Nick Smith's 'Travels in the World of Books' in the Gobi Desert. Photo: Nick Smith

 

When Jean-Baptiste Charcot became the first Frenchman to set foot on Antarctica, he celebrated in true style with a bottle of champagne, a newspaper and his trusty pipe. The year was 1904 and the bottle was a gift from his friend Georges Mumm, head of the Champagne house that sponsored the explorer’s Français expedition. The famous toast on the ice shelf lent Charcot’s expedition an air of style and suavity that polar travel previously lacked. Mumm’s distinctive red sash – or ‘cordon rouge’ – was inspired by the insignia of Napoleon’s Légion d’honneur. For Charcot his fine wine of choice symbolised the heroic and pioneering values of his adventures.

A century later the association lives on. In May 2008 one of the world’s greatest living explorers, Mike Horn, set sail from Monaco under the watchful eye of Prince Albert, on the most ambitious journey of discovery undertaken in modern times. The Pangaea project was born, with Mike’s ambition to reunite the seven continents of the world through an expedition that used no motorised transport. Spanning four years, Mike’s journeys were scheduled to take him through the North and South poles, far-flung desert islands and the oceans of the world, as a celebration of ‘the beauty of planet Earth.’

Mike teamed up with Mumm champagne to help spread the environmental message that the Pangaea expedition was to deliver. Ever mindful of the significance of Charcot’s iconic toast in Antarctica, Horn and Mumm prepared to celebrate each successful leg of the trip with an exceptional ‘Explorer Experience’ – a champagne-paired dinner prepared by a Michelin-star chef in the most remote, exquisite and challenging environments they could find.

Mike is now halfway through the Pangaea project. In fact, the ‘Explorer Experience’ in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert was the exact midpoint of the expedition. So far Mike has hosted dinner parties on an ice shelf in Greenland, a sand bar on the Great Barrier Reef and in the frozen Wastes of Antarctica. After Mongolia, he will head for the top of the world when his next gastronomic celebration will be held as close to the geographic North Pole as logistics will allow. This will be followed by expeditions into the Amazonian rainforest and the wilderness of Siberia. His mission is to ‘encourage respect for the environment and actively participate in the preservation of the planet’s natural resources to protect the world for future generations.’

Despite the conviviality and audacious luxury of champagne in the desert, as the dinner progressed, Mike used the beauty of the surroundings to describe his deadly-serious vision of sustainability for the planet. ‘I want to show the world through my explorations that there is so much beauty out there that needs to be protected. We are all explorers today. There is no moral message other than we must take positive action to save the planet. And we must do it today.’

I’ll be posting updates on the progress of the Pangaea expedition… next stop, the North Pole.

For more about:

Mumm Champagne visit www.mumm.com

Mike Horn’s Pangaea expedition www.mikehorn.com

Nick Smith’s interview with explorer and environmental scientist Tim Jarvis, as featured in current edition of E&T magazine

December 8, 2009

Words with the environmental explorer

As an explorer he’s walked from pole to pole. As an environmental engineer he’s worked on sustainability projects the world over. As a motivational speaker he sets new goals for tomorrow’s management and gives the odd talk about cannibalism. Nick Smith hears Tim Jarvis’s story…

‘Environmental engineering is exploratory by its very nature’ says Tim Jarvis, whose CV says he’s an environmental engineer and explorer. ‘Both disciplines are in some ways looking for solutions to energy and sustainability issues. During the course of my journeys I’m taking water and soil samples, documenting what I see in articles, books and films. It’s the photographic evidence that has the greatest impact of all.’

Jarvis is also a motivational speaker on the corporate circuit, where demand for what he’s learned in the field has never been higher. ‘Ironically, I find that I use my expeditions more than the engineering degrees when it comes to communicating environmental or management messages. This is because expeditions to the Polar Regions throw up so many lessons relevant to the business world.’

Jarvis was for some time best known for his Antarctic expedition a decade ago. This propelled him into the record books with the fastest journey to the Geographic South Pole and the longest unsupported Antarctica journey in history. He is the author of ‘The Unforgiving Minute’ a book that recounts his expeditions to the North and South Pole as well as the crossing of several Australian deserts. More recently he recreated the Antarctic journey of Douglas Mawson, the subject of a TV documentary and a best selling book entitled ‘Mawson: Life and Death in Antarctica.’

He is currently serving under Yale’s World Fellows Program for 2009 that aims to broaden and strengthen the leadership skills of emerging leaders as they work on progressing thinking on global issues and challenges. Jarvis has co-written a course for the Open University on environmental management. The course will be linked in with the BBC’s Frozen Planet series due to be broadcast in 2011. If that weren’t enough, his immediate plans include the recreation of legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ‘Boy’s Own’ voyage of heroism from Elephant Island to South Georgia in replica of the original open whaler, the James Caird.

As an environmental scientist Tim Jarvis is used to cold places. An Associate Director at engineering and environmental professional services firm URS Corporation Jarvis says he’s ‘committed to finding pragmatic solutions to global environmental sustainability issues.’

E&T: Describe a typical geo-engineering project you’ve worked on recently…

Tim Jarvis: Last year I was project manager and technical peer reviewer of Environmental/Social Impact Assessments for a number of large open cast iron ore mines in Sweden and Finland. These were situated in sensitive locations adjacent to human populations and sensitive river and wetland environments. I was responsible for developing various extraction, waste disposal and rehabilitation options.

E&T: Typically what sort of training and lecturing do you do…

TJ: I normally speak about the lessons I have learnt related to problem solving, teamwork, change management and goal setting with perhaps a little bit of cannibalism thrown in. After a decade of polar travel, and almost twice that long working as an environmental scientist, I also talk about topics related to human-induced environmental change and how industrial and domestic consumers can reduce our environmental impacts. I also look at the associated opportunities and costs, how to manage change in our personal lives, as well as at a corporate level.

E&T: How do you think that your role as explorer helps cast light on this?

TJ: I provide first-hand information on the fascinating regions in which I have travelled and worked, with expedition analogies offering insights into the parallels in the business world.  I think my expeditions provide motivation for those looking to embark on the process of achieving their personal and professional goals, set against a topical background of polar ice cap melt and an ever more interconnected world.

E&T: As an engineer and an explorer, are there any conflicts of interest?

TJ: No. The expeditions I do involve going to remote places of high environmental and wilderness value. This gives me the chance to highlight their value in the books, films and articles produced. This allows me to draw to the wider public’s attention any environmental change I observe in the regions I visit.

E&T: Do you feel that expeditions are in some ways businesses in microcosm?

TJ: The whole process of planning expeditions is an exercise in business planning: determining an original concept and an understanding of whether a niche exists for it in the marketplace; what level of support there might be for it; taking it through to marketing, planning, risk assessing and costing all aspects. These are all parts of the process of project management.

Expeditions can demonstrate and highlight areas of business execution, including problem solving, teamwork and so on. Typically, the talks I deliver focus on the parallels that exist between extreme expeditions and running a business.

E&T: Who was Douglas Mawson and why did you recreate his sledging epic?

TJ: Douglas Mawson was a scientist, geologist, explorer and industrialist. He accompanied Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition, when he famously trekked to the South Magnetic Pole. I retraced Mawson’s subsequent journey – his famous survival journey of 1912/13 in which two of his colleagues died. The modern expedition used the same clothing, equipment and starvation rations as Mawson to allow us to test various theories about what had happened. At the time many believed that Mawson had been forced into cannibalism in order to survive.

E&T: What conclusions did you draw that are transferrable to business/engineering?

TJ: I learnt a lot about how difficult it is to conduct al forms of business the old way. But I learned to make the best with what I have – old, often unreliable gear and starvation rations – and work towards more manageable goals when bigger, more optimistic goals are not possible. I planned and risk managed accordingly to cope with these eventualities. Operating with limited resources has good parallels with the corporate world in that business often has to make do with budgetary and resource constraints and plan accordingly (although often fails to do this).

E&T: The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration is almost a century behind us now. Why do we keep going back to it – and in particular Shackleton – for our leadership lessons?

TJ: Shackleton had many characteristics that made him a phenomenal leader –charisma, fund-raising ability and general empathy with people. He was brilliant at managing change, and ensuring that his team really worked as a team. In terms of everyone pulling together, he was very inclusive, being careful not to isolate anyone and was prepared to muck-in with the men. He also broke down the very real class divides that existed amongst his men.

E&T: What do you think was his key leadership characteristic?

TJ: Shackleton’s ability to change direction was a key strength too. Once the South Pole had been reached by Amundsen Shackleton saw that he must switch his goal to crossing the whole of Antarctica on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition. His esteem, reputation and legacy were all wrapped up in this one trip. But then with the sinking of his ship Endurance he was forced to re-evaluate his goals once more and, despite his desperate disappointment he pursued the new goal of getting his entire crew home safely with the same dedication and determination (see box ‘recreating the voyage of the James Caird’).

This showed tremendous presence of mind and a great leader who not only recognised the original goal is no longer achievable, but is prepared to act unequivocally on the new goal. This is a valid message for the changed world in which we find ourselves post-credit crunch, where financial plans of a year ago are no longer viable and we need to re-set goals and pursue them with the same vigour as the now unachievable goals of a year ago.

In Shackleton’s footsteps – recreating the voyage of the James Caird

Explorer Tim Jarvis uses his expeditions to communicate positive leadership and self-development messages. His next major expedition will be an attempt to retrace Ernest Shackleton’s journey in the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia. This is often cited as one of the greatest rescue missions in the history of exploration: Shackleton, with a handful of men set forth in a plucky little open top whaler of just 23ft traversing 800 miles of the most hostile seas in the world.

As a result of Shackleton’s leadership the mission was a success, and to this day the great man’s leadership style is still central to curricula at many business schools. Whether it be looking at environmental issues such as climate change, or the state of disarray in the credit markets, Shackleton’s message of individuals putting differences aside and working to their strengths to collectively overcome seemingly insurmountable problems has real resonance.

The expedition will start from the Antarctic Peninsula, where much of Antarctica’s ice cap melt has occurred, several hundred kilometres from the infamous Larsen B Ice Shelf. The expedition aims to document the status of Antarctic ice with Jarvis in his role as environmental scientist.

Jarvis takes up the story: ‘In terms of the relevance of exploration, I think we need to challenge ourselves to find out more about the world and our place in it. This is because mankind relies upon adventurous souls taking a few risks to progress. This human spirit of adventure lies at the heart of artistic expression, advances in science, medicine or politics, or any other sphere you care to mention.’

To this day no one has been able to replicate Shackleton’s ‘double’ – sailing a replica boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia and then climbing over the mountains to Grytviken in the way he did. In 2011, Jarvis will attempt this, under the patronage of The Hon Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter and closest living relative of Sir Ernest, in an expedition that has been dubbed the Shackleton Epic Expedition. A documentary film and book will be made about the expedition. ‘I want to do it honour Shackleton’s legacy, and because I want to see if a modern team can accomplish such a feat in the modern era.’

The expedition will set sail from Elephant Island at the end of the austral summer 2011 in a replica of the James Caird and, in an attempt to relive Shackleton’s experience, will use only technology, food and equipment that he would have had available in 1916.

Shackleton Epic Expedition appeal for sponsorship

The Shackleton Epic Expedition is seeking sponsorship support from both corporate sponsors and individuals to assist with funding the expedition. A breakdown of expedition costs and opportunities associated with sponsorship can be obtained by contacting Tim Jarvis (via http://www.timjarvis.org). Opportunities include wide international media exposure, and presentations to staff and clients of sponsoring organisations. Costs relate mainly to logistical support, clothing and equipment, the construction of the replica James Caird boat, and transport of the expedition team.

To find out more about the Shackleton Epic Expedition visit http://www.timjarvis.org

To find out more about URS Corporation visit http://www.urscorp.com/

Nick Smith reviews ‘The Shackleton Letters’ in Bookdealer magazine, November 2009 edition

November 5, 2009

Yours faithfully, Ernest Shackleton

Nick Smith reviews

The Shackleton Letters: Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition

By Regina W Daly, Erskine Press, HB, £27.50

The trouble with history of course is that it’s not really very good at telling you what happened. It creates reputations and myths that so often seem to have so little to do with the facts. When it comes to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration we are traditionally served up two protagonists – Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton – and as the wheel goes around one takes the ascendancy at the other’s expense. At the moment Scott is in the doghouse and Shackleton is in the firmament, and if you had only read Regina Daly’s The Shackleton Letters you would have no difficulty in seeing why. Whether by accident or design, the way it falls out portrays the Boss, or ‘Shackles’ as he often signs off, as a decent bloke in love with his men, his ship and his wife (in that order), while an imperious (and I think misunderstood) Scott comes across, in the argot of the day, as a thundering ass. Of course, these letters were written a hundred years ago, when people wrote letters and didn’t have phones to shout down, but on the other hand there isn’t and never was any compulsion to write with such vaunting self-aggrandizement as Scott does.

There had always been a history between the merchant seaman and the naval officer. As far back as 1902 Scott is supposed to have called Shackleton a ‘bloody fool’ to which the Irishman retorted: ‘You are the worst bloody fool of the lot, and every time you dare to speak to me like that you will get it back.’ This was on the Discovery (‘National Antarctic’) Expedition 1901-4, where Scott was the leader and Shackleton was his third lieutenant. It seems that this extraordinary insubordination – if it ever took place – was soon overlooked, because by Christmas they were lying in their sleeping bags reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to each other (not ‘Origin of the Species’, as Daly erroneously calls it). By the time Shackleton was scouting around drumming up funds for an expedition of his own, their relationship was under strain again due to a conflict over rights to an existing expedition base in Antarctica. Scott’s letters are arch and seem to accuse Shackleton of upstartishness, while Shackleton, who feels more sinned against than sinning, never once loses his thoroughly infectious charm (‘My Dear Captain Scott, To make everything clear as regards our arrangements… I am following your suggestion and writing it down.’) Incidents like this have lead commentators – especially Roland Huntford – to surmise that each man was the antithesis of the other. If only it were this convenient and it were true that Scott was an iconoclast and Shackleton a loveable rogue punching above his weight, how much easier our lives would be. But, the truth is that they were both fallible human beings whose passions for the Polar Regions informed their extraordinary lives and dramatic ends.

Another area where history seems to get Polar exploration all wrong is in its insistence that we remember Shackleton above all else for his impossibly romantic Endurance (‘Imperial Transantarctic’) expedition, 1914-17. This was the one in which he lost his ship in the ice and famously (although not strictly true) never lost a man. With a handful of men, Shackleton set forth in the plucky little whaler – the James Caird – across the seas of the world to fetch relief for his crew. Although this is without doubt one of the greatest stories ever told, we must remember that it was a rescue mission, and that Endurance in essence achieved nothing. As with Dunkirk, the British heart has never been so proud of something that shouldn’t have happened. But on the other hand the earlier Nimrod (‘British Antarctica’) Expedition 1907-1909 – the subject of The Shackleton Letters – was a triumph. Among its many successes were the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the attainment of the South Magnetic Pole and the publication of the first book on the White Continent, Aurora Australis.

As we celebrate Nimrod’s centenary, Daly’s new book couldn’t be better timed or more welcome, especially as the true significance of the expedition seems to have been lost on some sectors of today’s exploration community. In terms of the range and diversity of the material assembled, both written and photographic, it’s hard to see how this anthology could have been any better, although the stickler might complain that it could have been better named. After all, many of the 165 letters, reports and telegrams collected here aren’t by, or to, Shackleton (although in fairness to Daly, they perfectly satisfy the book’s sub-title – ‘Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition’). In the section of Letters called ‘Kudos, Criticism and Rumours of a New Expedition’ there are epistles from Charles Dorman to Emily Shackleton, from Roald Amundsen to J Scott Keltie, from Robert Scott to Major Leonard Darwin, from Clements Markham to Keltie, from Markham to Darwin, from Fridtjof Nansen to Emily, from Nansen to Darwin, from Markham to H.W.Feilden and even a report from Markham to the Royal Geographical Society (‘letter’ 124). But there is very little either to or from the Boss himself, and while this all makes for interesting – compelling even – background material, it is hardly sufficient to allow for the title The Shackleton Letters. The counter-stickler might argue that this isn’t the first time a book has set sail under the wrong flag, and that to judge a book by its title might be only one step away from judging it by its cover. But titles and covers set up expectations, and here sadly it’s all gone a little bit awry.

For all these niggles, The Shackleton Letters should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. This is the first time this collection of documents has appeared between one set of boards, arranged thematically, specifically to deal with the Nimrod expedition, and so it will prove useful to the scholar and the historian for years to come (especially if a second edition is graced with an index). Daly has done a good job tracking down and compiling the material and her historical sketches that set the papers in context are superb distillations of some of the classic Shackleton analyses by the likes of Hugh Robert Mill, Margery and James Fisher, Roland Huntford and Beau Riffenburgh.

Above all The Shackleton Letters is important because it gives the Nimrod expedition the credibility and attention that it so richly deserves, allowing us into the methodology, planning and execution of a grand scale expedition the way it used to be. And it’s quite comforting to realise how little has changed. Behind the scenes there is still the same mad scramble for sponsorship and patronage, the begging letters, the broken agreements, lonely wives and expectant public. Perhaps even more reassuringly, in the wings the cast of explorers still comprises the same unsung geniuses and braying bigheads, dignified elder statesmen and chancy upstarts, men of iron and posturing fraudsters as it did in the Heroic Age. And there’s not a damned thing history can do about that.

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York

Nick Smith reviews Christopher Ondaatje’s ‘Woolf in Ceylon’ in the Literary Review (archive stuff)

August 26, 2009

Candour in Kandy

Nick Smith reviews Christopher Ondaatje’s ‘Woolf in Ceylon’

Christopher Ondaatje’s best book to date is a refreshingly creative illustrated biography of Leonard Woolf in the years preceding the Great War. Woolf in Ceylon is simultaneously a reconstruction of its subject’s term of office as a civil servant on the colonial outpost; a photographic archive of a long-vanished society in the heyday of empire; a literal journey in Woolf’s footsteps through war-ravaged twenty-first-century Sri Lanka; and an autobiographical travelogue. These four threads are woven together to make a well thought-out book, similar in genre to Ondaatje’s Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari (2003). The literary world may well be thirsty for Victoria Glendinning’s much-anticipated biography of the man of letters, but Ondaatje’s timely offering constitutes a valuable analysis of Woolf in his most formative years.

Ondaatje is well placed to comment on Woolf: born in Ceylon, the son of a tea planter, his early life is a curious mirror image of his subject’s. While the young Woolf, freshly graduated from Cambridge, sailed eastward to Ceylon for a stint in the Civil Service in order to learn the imperial ropes, Ondaatje was packed off in the other direction to a private school in Devon to discover how to become an English gentleman. The parallels continue, and it’s not hard to see why Woolf holds such a fascination for Ondaatje. Nor is it hard to draw the conclusion that Ondaatje’s return to Sri Lanka in 2004 to take photographs for the book has a personal significance akin to that of Woolf’s triumphant return to the island in the 1960s.

Woolf in Ceylon contains detailed explanations of some of the imperial workings of the British Civil Service, a system that plagued the highly-strung Woolf. He was one of the first to see the cracks appearing in the British Empire, and his understanding of the situation clearly influenced the thinking of the Fabian Society and the Labour Party in the years leading up to 1945.

The volume also comprises an important reappraisal of Woolf’s early novel The Village in the Jungle, which is set in Ceylon during the time of his posting there. Currently revived under the Eland banner (having been out of print in the UK since the early 1980s, though it has never gone out of print in Sri Lanka), the new edition has an afterword by Ondaatje. In this essay, as in Woolf in Ceylon, he convincingly contends that The Village in the Jungle ‘s importance lies primarily in its being one of the very few books to deal with a colonial situation from the perspective of the colonised rather than the coloniser – a blatant clue to Woolf’s developing mistrust of, and later disgust with, imperialism. In his epilogue Ondaatje indulges in some literary forensics as he sets out to find the original village of the title, long thought to be fictional. Working on the basis that Woolf’s fiction is nearly always rooted in established, demonstrable fact, the author makes the not unreasonable assumption that the double murder central to the novel’s plot must have happened in a real place. True to his explorer’s instincts, Ondaatje not only finds the actual site of Beddagama, but also makes a plausible case for Woolf’s association with it. Importantly, Woolf in Ceylon also offers an insight into and critique of Woolf’s incredibly rare Stories from the East, three brilliantly revealing short pieces relating to his time in Ceylon that have previously only been available in a 1921 Hogarth Press edition limited to 300 copies (expensive!), or as an appendix to the improbably entitled Diaries in Ceylon, 1908–1911: Records of a Colonial Administrator, being the Official Diaries maintained by Leonard Woolf while Assistant Government Agent of the Hambantota District, Ceylon … ; & Stories from the East: Three Short Stories on Ceylon , available as a paperback only, and after considerable effort, in Sri Lanka.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ondaatje focuses much of his critical attention on the second volume of Woolf’s acclaimed autobiography, Growing – the instalment that deals specifically with the Ceylon years. Much of the attraction of Woolf’s five-volume autobiography is his lucid and candid self-examination. Sometimes this can border on the downright odd (as when, for example, he ponders humankind’s relationship with its companion animals), but for the most part he is simply and elegantly matter-of-fact (and often very funny). His recollections of his youthful sexual promiscuity are only sensational in as much as they are an intellectual exercise in candour. He even reproduces a letter to his closest friend Lytton Strachey, in which he reveals how he lost his virginity to a Burgher girl in Jaffna.

But, sexual awakening aside, the real issue and defining characteristic of Woolf’s Ceylon years – something that was to serve him well in later life – was his punishing work ethic: his ability to ‘stick at it’ was to effect his meteoric rise to influence in Ceylon. He did the work of his superiors in Jaffna, organised social events in Kandy with great efficiency for Sir Hugh Clifford (the acting Governor of Ceylon and a notorious ladies’ man), and was rewarded with the job of Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota, the youngest civil servant ever to be appointed to the post. Woolf’s efficiency and industry in the dry, south-eastern Hambantota district resulted in its becoming the best-run region in Ceylon. He doubled salt production as he had doubled pearl-fishing profits during his earlier posting in Jaffna.

Ondaatje is probably at his best when analysing Woolf’s strange courtship of Virginia Stephen, whom he saw, with characteristic honesty, as less beautiful than her sister. Ondaatje is also observant on Lytton Strachey’s influence on the couple’s early relationship, as well as on the sensitive issue of Virginia’s sexual abuse as a child by her elder half-brothers Gerald and George Duckworth (published posthumously in Sketches of the Past). These passages illuminate the loving but sexless marriage between two of the most influential figures in Edwardian literary circles.

The text of Woolf in Ceylon could easily stand on its own, but the inclusion of more than sixty photographs of Ceylon in the first decade of the twentieth century, drawn from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, add real value. These heritage photos are more than ably supported by the author’s own documentary shots of modern Sri Lanka, which serve to broaden the book’s appeal and take Leonard Woolf on a quite unexpected journey into the mainstream. Woolf in Ceylon is certain to give today’s reader a much clearer understanding of why his importance goes way beyond simply being Mr Virginia Woolf.

To find out more about Christopher Ondaatje’s books visit http://www.ondaatje.com

Nick Smith’s exclusive interview with Buzz Aldrin – ‘Out of this world’ – taken from E&T magazine

August 13, 2009

Out of this world

Not only was NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon one of the great voyages of exploration of the 20th Century, but it was also one of the greatest collaborative feats of engineering co-ordination. Nick Smith, spoke with Buzz Aldrin about how the project got off the ground…

On 20th July 1969, when the first men stepped on the moon, mankind had finally achieved its ambition of reaching another celestial body. Mr Armstrong and his co-pilot, Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. of the Air Force, as the New York Times of the day described them, had managed to bring their ship to rest on a level, rock-strewn plain near the southwestern shore of the arid Sea of Tranquility.

It was one of the great human stories of the 20th Century, a measure of how far we had come. But it was also a technical story; a story of how computer coordinated re-entry and rendezvous had made space travel and an all–too-brief walk on the moon possible.

It’s now forty years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history, and although NASA and other bodies have since made great strides in space exploration, there seems to be a lack of political will to get back out into space. Although we regularly go into Earth’s orbit, many, including Aldrin, believe that the real mission before us is today is to find a way to get men on Mars.

As a fighter pilot serving in Korea, and with a career in the military, Buzz was an all-American hero even before becoming an astronaut. By the time he’d been into space with the Gemini programme and then actually set foot on the moon, he was seen by the world as superman. But despite the universal adulation, Buzz Aldrin was a troubled man.

While some have mid-life crises, Aldrin went into meltdown. Today we tend to think of what happened to him as a combination of ill health and bad luck. But in the 1970s the military wouldn’t tolerate mental illness such as depression, and to admit to being a sufferer meant curtains for any further career development. Moreover, Buzz was what we now call a ‘high-functioning alcoholic’, meaning that while he was perpetually locked in mortal combat with alcohol, he could (and did) at least attempt to keep his career on track with a degree of success.

Unfortunately, the problem for Aldrin was that he wasn’t able to star in a career befitting a moonwalker, and as his new book Magnificent Desolation explains, back then merely being a celebrity didn’t pay the bills. He was dogged by ‘Status versus income disequilibrium syndrome’, which meant that while he was invited to the most elevated of social occasions that America could offer, by day he had been reduced to selling second-hand cars.

Things started to look up when, in his fifties, he married banking heiress Lois Driggs Cannon. This turn of events provided him with the opportunity to clean up his act, and he has now been sober for three decades. But it wasn’t all plain sailing, and in the recession of the 1990s Mrs Aldrin’s financial affairs took a turn for the worst, leaving them (by their standards at least) penniless.

Resolved to work his way out of his newfound poverty, Aldrin became a ‘freelance astronaut’, and ever since he has devoted his life to touring the world advising governments, the aerospace industry and the public on what is needed to get space exploration moving again. Outspoken, opinionated and sometimes a thorn in the side of the establishment, Aldrin is renowned for talking to those who will listen. Especially about technology…

Engineering & Technology magazine:  Apollo 11 has been called one of the greatest collaborative ventures of the 20th century. Do you think that this is true and can you describe, 40 years on, the sheer scale of the technical coordination required to land a craft on the moon and bring it home to Earth?

Buzz Aldrin: It certainly was a cardinal event. Apollo 11 will probably go down in history as one of the major responses of two nations facing each other with threatening technologies – sometimes called mutually assured destruction. It was also our response to the apparent superiority of the Russians in putting objects into space before we could. Both nations gave assurances to each other that it wasn’t going to be just dogs and monkeys, but it was also going to be humans. And in the case of the US, it was going to be very out in the open. I think the Russians responded to that by realising that they needed to be more open with what they were doing. Even though they launched and recovered well inside their boundaries and didn’t necessarily need to expose a lot of the technology, they became more open about what they were doing.

In the US we were faced with the question of who was going to carry this out, and the Navy’s Vanguard mission was chosen. When this didn’t succeed – the Atlas missiles were blowing up on the launch pad – the army then brought in its Explorer satellite programme and matched what the Russians had done with Sputnik. Then it became clear that humans were going into space and it also became clear that we weren’t progressing with Atlas as we had hoped. In 1961 Yuri Gagarin shocked the world by becoming the first man in space and the best response we had – less than a month later – was a sub orbital flight.

But then shortly after that I guess the world was surprised by Kennedy’s announcement about going to the moon.

E&T: Did you have any sense that the technology was ready for this, or did you think ‘this is way too ambitious’?

Buzz: There was still a long way to go with the not-so-successful launches of the Atlas and other rockets. But I think we charted a course at that time. As I reflect back on it from where we are now, we had two features that assisted with the transition from not having a space programme to reaching the moon – flexibility and continuity. When the President said we were going to the moon, the air force had already been studying missions to the moon – including manned flight – so it wasn’t a totally unexplored area. And we had a unity of purpose that was missing in the Soviet Union. The Russians at the time really had two space programmes competing with each other. Sometimes it’s a good idea to have alternate ways of accomplishing something. But when we said we were going to the moon we also had a Mercury programme and an Apollo programme, and we realised we couldn’t stretch one until the other started flying. And so we filled the gap and retained continuity between the two with the very ambitious and successful Gemini programme that accomplished long-duration flight, computer-controlled re-entry, space walking and rendezvous.

E&T: The computers of the time. It’s passed into urban legend that there is more computing power on your mobile phone now than there was on these missions. Is that true? How much computing power was there? What did the computers do, and how much computing power was there back at mission control?

Buzz: (Laughs) I can’t quantitatively give you the numbers, but there was no way you could possibly have had any kind of mechanical calculator and made the corrections needed to be able to get to the moon. Our computers gave us the sophistication of the mathematical smoothing techniques for the equations of motion and the perturbations. We were able to squeeze out of limited capacity some very, very remarkable achievements. We chose to use humans to execute and aid things like re-entry, final closure breaking and docking manoeuvres. We made use of the humans there, rather than try to automate everything and I think we made wise decisions when exploring how to do these things.

E&T: How important is it to have flexibility in developing your approach to solving huge collaborative efforts such as Apollo 11?

Buzz: We had the flexibility when the President said to go to the moon to look at the Nova rocket that was just on paper and wouldn’t be ready until 1970, as well as and two Saturn Vs that were the legacy of Werner Von Braun. But then an engineer came along and said: ‘wait a minute. If we optimise here and there, shed a little weight and send two more specialised spacecraft to the moon we can make do with just one Saturn V. One will land and the other will be available to take people home that doesn’t make the landing manoeuvre an operational asset’. And of course now this is the obvious way of going to the moon, instead of direct there and direct back. These were wise decisions. The Russians looked at other short cuts that we didn’t evaluate very much. We chose flexibility.

E&T: In 2004 George W Bush, then president of the United States, announced a goal for US astronauts to return to the moon by 2020. What are your views on that?

Buzz: That doesn’t impress me too much. Going back to the moon 50 years after we went there in the last century, without having a clear development plan for what we were going to do – other than to say it is a rehearsal for when we go to Mars – doesn’t make much sense. As a project, going to Mars is quite a bit different, much more advanced, and I think we ought to be much more about doing that.

My schedule says if we economise on certain areas and develop what we really need to develop, we can get to Mars by 2031. But we really need to get to a moon of Mars by 2025 first. And that I think we can do, but we can’t do that and go to our moon as well. We should leave that to other nations and encourage them to accept our advice, consultation and assistance and let them experience the development issues associated with going to the moon.

E&T: What are the issues politically or technically that might prevent this? Also, what you achieved 40 years ago… if you hadn’t done it then, would it be possible to do it now?

Buzz: Well sure it’s possible. I’m not really in a position to weigh that personally, but I do think that some of the consolidations in the industry have restricted innovation and new ideas, and the overheads have gone up as well as other costs plus contracting. And then there are changes that mean that we’re not making maximum use of what we’ve previously developed.

E&T: So, do you think these are potential threats to going to Mars by 2031?

Buzz: Yes. If we continue to develop two different launch vehicles, Aries I and Aries V we can go to Mars by a different way. But if we think we can do it by going to the Moon in 2025 it’s going to take a whole lot of time to transition away from the moon to Mars … I think in the US we have lost a tremendous investment in leadership.

E&T: Here in the UK it is often said that we need something or someone really inspirational to attract new talent into the science, engineering and technology (SET) sector. Can you describe what effect Apollo 11 missions and the Lunar Ladings had on the youth of that time?

Buzz: All sorts of people from engineers to airline pilots say it was the Apollo programme and the expansion into new and different technological adventures that inspired them. That can exist again – but I don’t see it as clearly now, because a lot of things can be done by robots as they increase in capability.

E&T: What role will robots play in our efforts to get to Mars, and do you think that they will do away with the need to send humans into space?

Buzz: We can control robots pretty well at the space station, but we need human experience. Once we factor in human experience, robots are much more effective, especially when they are using somebody else’s ability to fix things and do the human housekeeping efforts as they learn how to operate in low-earth orbit. The same thing can apply to the moon: robotic efforts can determine which development industries’ products and activities can be sufficiently productive to justify the big investment in maintaining human habitation. After we’ve experienced that and are in a position to expand our human habitation to fly-by comets, to station-keep with asteroids, to look at asteroids that could possibly threaten us, then we can begin to use human intelligence at a moon of Mars (much safer) to control robots on the surface in real time and assemble items necessary for occupancy on the surface. But to go direct to the surface would be a great mistake. The more prudent way is to make an incremental commitment to a pathway first that can clearly lead toward permanence at Mars and then reinforcing that commitment with resources at a later date. But not on the surface. The great cost in sending people there is not returned if you bring them back after two, three or four trips. You need a certain critical number of people to develop the resources to become self-sustaining. Think about the pilgrims on the Mayflower who left your jolly land to come over and establish a colony here. They didn’t hang around Plymouth Rock waiting for the return trip. But this an adjustment to how we think of human beings participating in space flight. They go somewhere, they do their thing, they turn around and then they come back.

E&T: Are you optimistic that this will happen?

Buzz: I think we have to make a decision one way or another to re-evaluate the destination, and who’s going to do what. Not everybody can do everything over and over again and I think co-operative ventures don’t gain much by simply being a race to the end. Maybe a race to develop something better, that we can do something with, so then you decide whose rocket is better, whose spacecraft is better and you can consolidate your efforts there. We haven’t got to the point where we have the luxury of dual competing efforts.

E&T: Looking back on Apollo 11, what have we learned from that great voyage of exploration 40 years ago?

Buzz: Apollo 11’s legacy is one of significant investment and pioneering effort that achieved a new degree of sophistication in leadership, technology advance and reliability that has become the pattern for how to do these things. But we need to keep doing that and we need to keep draining minds in order to keep doing new innovative things. We can’t just keep recreating the same thing over and over again. But then, we don’t want to terminate good operable machines like the Saturn V prematurely and venture out on something that may not live up to its expectations. There’s a great temptation to claim that something can do a great deal more than it may actually do. And then we have to pay the price of increasing costs.

E&T: What do you think you’ll be feeling personally on the anniversary? Apollo 11 must have dramatically changed your life?

Buzz: For sure Apollo 11 changed my life. But each individual has their lives changed by different events. I had to turn my life around at a very crucial point of transition at the age of 45-50. What I knew about was the future of space, but not being affiliated with a big company that made it kind of difficult to do all those things. So I started projecting, talking, discussing and designing future improvements and learning. It’s in my blood to want to look at better ways of doing things. Several of us engineers were 15 years ahead in looking at reusable booster rockets, ejectable pods and spacecraft that could come back and land. But those things just didn’t seem to meet the fancy of what the air force, the military or NASA wanted, but it seems to be getting a whole lot closer now. I’m just not sure that we have the right destination and I’m not sure that we have the right means of carrying it out. But there are so many political and business contractual activities, that it may seem evident that it needs reevaluation when things don’t seem to be working out quite the way we hoped. There’s this attitude: ‘Don’t change what we’re doing – let’s keep with it – right or wrong – let’s do what we said we’re going to do.’

E&T: How important in a project such as Apollo 11 are the qualities of leadership and the ability to work as a team? How highly do you rate these managerial skills?

Buzz: In forming an organisation we looked around to try to find out where to get the talent we needed. Some of it came from Canada because they had some cancelled programmes. A good bit of it came from military leadership. Of course internationally we made use of some of the German technology and used a pattern of development that they seemed to be able to contribute. That worked out well. There were significant leaders in industry that banded together, and instead of trying to win all the contracts they just took what came out. There was more than enough for everyone involved. Everybody got a reasonable piece of the action, and it all came together in a very well managed, integrated way. When it came to testing and advancing the testing so that we could progress to what we called ‘all up’ testing, a lot of people had to get a lot of things together at the same time.

E&T: You’ve got a new book out at the moment – Magnificent Desolation: the Long Journey Home from the Moon – can you tell us a bit about how that came to be written…

Buzz: One theme is the evolution of change from short-term thinking about the details of future space modifications to an even bigger picture of what is our destiny and how we should go about preserving the investments we have made. Going to the moon was pretty much an American event. We started out the Space station and the Space Shuttle in that direction, made it international, but not quite free and open. We need to change these things regarding the moon and help other nations to catch up with us, while we pioneer what we are able to do in the pursuit of US leadership in the technology of aerospace that allows us to pursue science in outer space.

E&T: So you think that the future of space exploration can be a unifying thing in terms of international political harmony?

Buzz: Certainly. It can also be an increasing irritant unless we begin to make efforts to open up and understand. We need to set a boundary for what will happen in space, say once you get past 100km. Certain things will happen on the surface of the earth to do with conflict, human rights, piracy and we’ll need to deal with those down here. But in space for the betterment of many, many people, we’d like not to see communications technology encroached upon.

E&T: Thank you

Buzz Aldrin: A great pleasure.

A Trio Triumphant: Where are they now?

On July 20, it will be 40 years since Apollo 11 astronauts—Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins—reached the Moon, with Armstrong and Aldrin walking on its desolate regolith.

In the years since, Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin, 79, has remained a staunch advocate for space exploration, particularly in the realm of private space ventures, which includes his own rocket design company, Starcraft Boosters. More recently, he launched the ShareSpace Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to advancing education and affordable access to space, one of several new entities now operated under the aegis of Buzz Aldrin Enterprises.

Collins, 78, who has remained rather circumspect when it comes to his critical role as pilot of the command module Columbia, has chosen a quieter life, retiring to the Florida Everglades after directorship of the National Air and Space Museum and involvement in several private space companies. There, he has authored several critically acclaimed space-related books and indulged in his love of watercolors.

Mission commander Armstrong, 78, who saw no need to return to space after Apollo 11, chose instead to pursue his passion for teaching at the University of Cincinnati, near his Ohio home. In addition to serving on the corporate boards of several companies, including booster-rocket manufacturer Thiokol, Armstrong has remained committed to aerospace education. He recently donated his space-related papers to his alma mater, Purdue University, an institution with a long history of producing candidates for the American space program.

Whether staying in the limelight, fostering an interest in aeronautical engineering for the next generation, or enjoying more leisurely pursuits, all three have campaigned for a “return to the glory days of the space program,” particularly when it comes to the exploration of Mars. Aldrin has gone so far as to devise a spacecraft system known as the Aldrin Mars Cycler, which, he contends, could remain in perpetual orbit between Earth and Mars. For Collins, it is Mars and only Mars that should be our current space focus. In terms of time and money, he says, further exploration of the Moon could be “a bottomless pit.” When asked if he might be up for a journey to Mars, Armstrong has said simply, “I am available.”

Time travellers

Omega is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing with a replica of its Speedmaster ‘Moon Watch’, as worn by Buzz Aldrin

When it comes to pushing back the frontiers of human achievement, landmark years don’t come much bigger than 1969. British explorer Wally Herbert and his team of Arctic scientists were conquering the North Pole on foot, while Robin Knox-Johnston was becoming the first person to sail single-handedly, non-stop around the world. But the off-world activities of NASA’s Apollo 11 space mission outshone these terrestrial endeavours, as a trio of American astronauts fulfilled their late president John F Kennedy’s dream of ‘landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.’

On July 20th 1969 the Lunar Module Eagle landed lightly on the moon’s powdery surface after a protracted descent. Following technical checks and preliminary contact with Mission Control the ceremony began. As the Eagle’s hatch opened and Neil Armstrong stepped out, 600 million watched the events unfold on their TV sets. A static glitch in the audio transmission muffled a vital syllable of the most famous line delivered in space, ensuring it will be debated and misquoted for evermore. ‘That’s one small step for a man’ is what Neil Armstrong actually said before delivering the historic payoff: ‘one giant leap for mankind.’

What is beyond doubt is that the time was 02:56 GMT exactly. Armstrong led the way, and Buzz Aldrin followed wearing his Omega Speedmaster Professional wristwatch. Armstrong had taken the precaution of leaving his chronograph aboard the Lunar Module as a backup to the electronic timing system, which had not been functioning correctly. Armstrong was right in thinking that his timepiece was one that could be relied upon.

In NASA tests the Speedmaster had withstood temperature fluctuations of over 100°C, shocks of 40g, acceleration of 16g – twice that of a fighter pilot. After two years strenuously testing models from different manufacturers NASA was left with an easy decision – the Speedmaster was the only contestant still in one piece. This famous chronograph was later to get Apollo 13 out of a jam when astronaut Jim Lovell used his to time the firing of the re-entry rockets after a power failure had knocked out the onboard electronics. It’s easy to see why Armstrong put so much faith in his.

To commemorate the Lunar Landing, watchmaker Omega has announced the release of the Speedmaster Professional Apollo 11 ‘40th Anniversary’ Limited Edition, or ‘moonwatch’. Powered by the same movement Omega used four decades ago and fitted with the same Hesalite crystal – a man-made shatterproof material ideal for low-gravity environments – this replica watch is almost exactly what Buzz and his friends were sporting on their wrists back in the late Sixties.

And yet a few neat additions distinguish it from the original, such as the inclusion of the legend ‘02:56 GMT’ in red on the dial beneath the maker’s mark, while the stainless steel body design has been updated to make it even more durable. The Apollo 11 Eagle ‘mission patch’ is stamped on the back along with the words ‘The first watch worn on the moon’. Other information on the back includes the timepiece’s production limitation. But don’t worry: with the edition limited to 7,969 there should be plenty to go around.

Delivered in a black presentation box with a certificate of authenticity, the Moon Watch is accompanied by a 42mm silver medal bearing the mission patch again. Michael Collins, the third member of the crew – who never made it to the moon’s surface – designed this famous logo of a bald eagle with an olive branch in its beak, symbolising NASA’s ‘we come in peace’ mission statement. While Aldrin and Armstrong conducted scientific experiments, Collins was at the controls of the orbiting Command Module Columbia, counting the minutes until he was reunited with his colleagues, mission accomplished.

Men Walk on Moon – how the New York Times saw it

The following is an extract from the front page of the New York Times, Monday, July 21, 1969…

Houston, Monday, July 21 – Men have landed and walked on the moon. Two Americans, astronauts of Apollo 11, steered their fragile four-legged lunar module safely and smoothly to the historic landing yesterday at 4:17:40 P.M., Eastern daylight time. Neil A. Armstrong, the 38-year-old civilian commander, radioed to earth and the mission control room here: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

The first men to reach the moon – Mr Armstrong and his co-pilot, Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. of the Air Force – brought their ship to rest on a level, rock-strewn plain near the southwestern shore of the arid Sea of Tranquility. About six and a half hours later, Mr. Armstrong opened the landing craft’s hatch, stepped down the ladder and declared as he planted the first human footprint on the lunar crust: ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’

His first step on the moon came at 10:56:20 P.M. as a television camera outside the craft transmitted his every move to an awed and excited audience of hundreds of millions of people on earth…

The ultimate gastronaut

When NASA initiated their space programme they soon started cooking up ideas for foods that astronauts could bring on spaceflights. The food needed to last without being refrigerated and not weigh too much. One of the more inventive ideas was to freeze-dry food, which removes almost all the food’s water content. The super-dried food then rehydrates in the astronaut’s mouth. The result was food that could keep for years which weighed almost nothing. Later astronauts were able to use hot water to boost the culinary merit of their space chow. And today’s space station even has a freezer for those hydrated chocolate chip goodies. But for the real freeze-dried McCoy, log on to Astronaut Foods for beef flavoured space dinners and astro-pack ice cream. Visit www.astronautfoods.com

With additional reporting by Angela M H Schuster, Editor of the Explorers Journal, and with thanks to the archivist of the Explorers Club, Dorothea Sartain, who made parts of this article possible.

Nick Smith’s feature article on the launch of the Solar Impulse aeroplane in E&T magazine

July 27, 2009

Solar powered flight grows wings

With the unveiling of the first prototype – the HB-SIA – the Solar Impulse environmentally friendly aeroplane project has entered its final test phase. Nick Smith flew (on a fossil fuel powered plane) to Switzerland to find out more

The curtains pull back to reveal the true scale what it takes to build a long-range solar-powered aircraft. Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the two main pilots of the Solar Impulse HB-SIA aircraft, embrace; thumbs up signs are given, arms held aloft. Meanwhile the curtains are still retracting to the walls of a hangar that could easily house a commercial passenger airliner.

The wings go on forever. And they need to: not only are they there to provide the as much lift as possible, they also provide the largest possible surface on which the solar panels that will power the aircraft are mounted. Every spare centimetre is covered. To save weight the fuselage has been designed to be minuscule relative to the wingspan, hardly bigger than a conventional glider. Make no mistake: Solar Impulse HB-SIA is a huge presence. And it’s not even the size of the aircraft that the team will use to fly around the world using nothing but the power of the sun.

During Piccard’s presentation, fact after startling fact emerges. With the wingspan of a Boeing 747-400, the Solar Impulse aeroplane weighs less than an average family car (1,600kg). Close to 12,000 wing-mounted solar panels supply renewable energy to four electric motor gondolas that propel the plane. During the day these panels will also charge the lithium-polymer batteries that will supply power for the night-phase of Solar Impulse’s flight. With the batteries weighing in at 400kg – a quarter of the plane’s total weight – getting the balance right has been one of the key challenges in developing the aircraft.

Piccard explained that the HB-SIA is the first prototype in the Solar Impulse project. In order to save weight and space, the aircraft’s cabin is unpressurised (restricting the maximum height to 8,500m), and this is where the test pilots will assess the feasibility of a complete day-night-day flight over 36 hours, propelled only by electricity generated on board by solar power technology. After fine-tuning, the aircraft is scheduled to make the first of a series of three types of test flights before the end of the year, cumulating in a maiden night flight in Switzerland in 2010.

The prototype has three main objectives. The first is to validate the results of the computer simulations and materials selection decisions. The flight will see how the aircraft performs in real life. Attaining a 63m wingspan with the necessary rigidity, lightness and flight controllability with just 1,600kg take-off weight is an aeronautical challenge that has never been achieved to date. And the flight will show how efficient the energy capture and storage system really is.

The results from the test flights will be fed into specification changes for the second aircraft – the HB-SIB – that will carry out the actual project mission of circumnavigating the world in five stages, each lasting several days, in 2012.

Bertrand Piccard is one of the great explorers of the modern era, perhaps most famous for the first ever non-stop circumnavigation of the globe by balloon. Accompanied by aeronaut Brian Jones, Piccard’s Breitling Orbiter 3 landed in Egypt after a 45,755 km flight lasting 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes, prompting the pilots to co-write the best-selling book ‘Around the World in 20 Days’. But it could have all gone so badly wrong. It was the realisation that the whole project could have been scuppered by lack of fuel that drove him to attempt a further circumnavigation flight – only this time without the use of fossil fuel or its attendant polluting emissions. Solar Impulse was born.

Piccard, who is not known for his ease with measured understatement, said: “If an aircraft is able to fly day and night without fuel, propelled only by solar energy, let no one claim that it is impossible to do the same thing for motor vehicles, heating and air conditioning systems and computers. Through this project we are proclaiming our conviction that a pioneering spirit and political vision can together change society and put an end to fossil fuel dependency.”

In summarising the achievement of the 50 staff employed by the project and the hundreds of experts and advisers who have co-ordinated the technology behind Solar Impulse, Piccard’s colleague Borschberg kept his feet on more solid ground: “A challenge like Solar Impulse,” he said, “can be met only by bringing together engineers from every background.”

At the unveiling of the aircraft the Solar Impulse company hosted a display of some of the components, materials and electronics that went into making the HB-SIA. These include carbon fibre structural pieces such as the wing ribs that give the aerodynamic profile. Despite being so light they can be easily lifted with just your little finger, perhaps the most interesting item is a cockpit instrumentation panel that is effectively a power status summary indicator. Parameters such as rpm and temperature are clearly shown for the four wing-mounted engines, but there is also a series of slider bars that show the condition of batteries or energy accumulators. The batteries are, of course, crucial to the success of the circumnavigation because this is where the surplus energy generated during the day will be stored to power the night-time flying.

Beneath the wings are four gondolas, each containing a 10HP motor, a lithium-polymer battery set and a management system controlling charge/discharge and temperature (represented in the cockpit on the instrument display). The thermal insulation has been designed to conserve the heat radiated by the batteries and to keep them functioning despite the outside air temperature of -40C at 8,500m (roughly the height of Mount Everest). Each engine is fitted with a reducer that limits the rotation of each of the 3.5m diameter, twin-bladed propeller to within the range of 200-4,000rpm (another parameter displayed inside the cockpit).

The energy is gathered by 11,628 monocrystalline silicon cells plastered all over the upper surfaces of the wings and horizontal stabiliser at the rear of the plane. Each cell is 150 microns thick, and has been selected for its light-weight and flexibility. But not, it would seem, for its efficiency. At 22 per cent, the Solar Impulse technical documentation is first to admit, these are nowhere near the most efficient available, but the additional weight required to improve efficiency would have thrown out the mathematical balancing act and the less efficient option won out on other considerations. The designers say that the maximum energy density for the aircraft prototype is 220Wh/kg and only the test flights will be able to provide clues as to whether this needs to be improved upon.

There is only a relatively small part of the day when the solar panels are illuminated at such an angle that they are operating at full efficiency. At midday, each square metre of the wing surface receives the equivalent of 1,000 watts of light power. Over the course of a day this averages out at just 250W/m 2. With 200m2 of photovoltaic cells and with 12 per cent total efficiency of the propulsion chain, the aircraft’s engines achieve, even after extreme optimisation of the energy chain, an average of just 8 HP, which is about the same power as a 50cc motorcycle. Or, in aeronautical terms, roughly the same amount of power the Wright brothers had available to them in 1903 when they made their first powered flight. The difference is that Solar Impulse is generating its own power on board from renewable resources.

Energy management aside, one of the most critical developments has been the electronic instrumentation panel in the cockpit. This allows the pilot to monitor the condition of the flight in two key parameters – ‘bank-angle’ and ‘side-slip’. The Omega instrument panel was the brainchild of Claude Nicollier, former European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, with four space flights under his belt as well as an eight-hour EVA (spacewalk) to his name. Nicollier also sits on the Swatch Group board of directors that has provided financial assistance for the project, as well as the technical expertise to develop a performance simulation and testing system for the aeroplane’s propulsion chain. Omega already had the technical experience in the field of hybrid propulsion, but, more importantly, was in a position to align its own reputation for engineering excellence in the field of high-end horology with an environmentally friendly sustainable energy project.

“I came up with the idea for what we needed from the instrumentation and I made a drawing to show how I thought it could be implemented,” said Nicollier, demonstrating a prototype schematic at the Dübendorf airfield launch. According to Nicollier, there are two fundamental aspects to the instrument. First, there is a precise indication to the pilot of the bank-angle. This is a critical parameter on Solar Impulse, because, according to Nicollier: “Ninety nine per cent of the turns will be made with a bank-angle of less than 5 degrees. If you go beyond 10 degrees it becomes a little bit more difficult to recover. From our simulations we know that if you go beyond 15 or 20 degrees then you cannot recover. You will end up in a spiral dive and you will have to jump out.”

Second, because of Solar Impulse’s large wing-span to length of fuselage ratio, there is the tendency to pronounced sideslip, an error where the plane drifts off course relative to the direction in which it is pointing – in other words, it won’t go in the direction it’s being steered. Nicollier, who will be taking part in the later phases of the test flights, says that in the early simulator runs there was sideslip of up to 15 degrees, “which means that, because you are flying pretty slowly, as you approach a runway, you will not immediately be able to figure out which direction the aeroplane’s flying.” To indicate sideslip, Nicollier has devised an array of blue LEDs with a green light superimposed that tells the pilot at a glance whether he is good to land.

The wider environmental implications of a flagship technical challenge such as Solar Impulse is largely symbolic, giving bodies such as the European Commission a platform to display their green credentials. And there’s no doubt that Bertrand Piccard has made the most of the opportunity to display technology as a force for environmental sustainability. Piccard and Borschberg are travelling the world spreading the word. At the Beijing Olympics they presented Solar Impulse, and they have taken models to India and the UAE. Along the way they have been helped by a group of high profile ambassadors, including Prince Albert II of Monaco, Buzz Aldrin, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Paulo Coelho and Al Gore.

But it is probably the quietly spoken Nicollier who makes the message clearest. “We have not really made any quantum jumps in technology here today,”he said, “but what we have done is used technology at the limit of what is do-able. Ten years ago it was impossible. In ten years it will be much, much easier. If we can use stronger, lighter materials with more efficient energy management systems drawing on renewable resources, we are simply engineering for a better future.”

Solar Impulse HB-SIA – technical datasheet

Wingspan                  63.40m

Length                         21.85m

Height                          6.40m

Weight                         1,600kg

Motor power               4 x 10 HP electric engines

Solar cells                    11,628 (10,748 on wing, 880 on horizontal stabiliser)

Ave. flying speed        70km/h

Take-off speed            35km/h

How Solar Impulse got off the ground

1999 – Birth of an idea. Idea of Solar Impulse comes to Bertrand Piccard as his first round-the-world balloon flight nearly fails due to lack of fuel.

2001-2003 ­– Scientific support. Piccard scours world researching solar power technology and meeting solar aviation specialists. Teams up with André Borschberg. Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) agrees to conduct feasibility study.

2004 – Birth of a company. Solar Impulse SA is founded on 29 June 2004. Core technology team assembled and scientific partnership agreements are signed with EPFL, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Dassault Aviation. Dassault commit to review design of Solar Impulse while providing expertise in fields of aeroelasticity and flight commands, safety and systems reliability.

2004-2007 – Project start-up. Private asset management company Semper become first official supporter, while Belgian industrial group Solvay join as first main partner, providing innovative materials, modelling and simulation. Altran join as engineering partner offering project and risk management as well as aerospace expertise. May 2006 Swiss watch manufacturer Omega join team bringing with them technical expertise of former ESA astronaut Claude Nicollier, who develops instrumentation crucial to landing the plane. Feasibility study confirms that an aeroplane with large wingspan and high aerodynamic efficiency is possible.

2007 – Growing wings. After 4 years of research, Piccard and Borschberg present the final design of the first prototype, HB-SIA. Virtual flight mission in May confirms that the battery arrays can store sufficient energy to run engines all night. Pilot training starts.

2008-2009 – Construction assembly tests. Assembly of cockpit and tail boom begin in September 2008. Central wingspar is made from three rectangular carbon fibre and honeycomb sandwich beams laid end-to-end, totalling 63 metres. Vibration tests confirm that modulus of elasticity is lower than expected; meaning that structural rigidity of Solar Impulse is stronger than expected.

2010-2012 – Flight of tomorrow. After six years of design, calculations, simulation and construction the HB-SIB will embark on night flight tests, culminating in the first circumnavigation of the globe by a solar powered aeroplane.

For further details about the Solar Impulse project visit www.solarimpulse.com

Arctic adventurer Tom Avery discusses his controversial 2005 North Pole expedition with Nick Smith in the Explorers Journal

July 9, 2009

Following in Peary’s frozen footsteps

One of the greatest controversies in polar exploration is that surrounding Robert Peary’s disputed attainment of the North Pole on 6th April 1909. On this centenary, Explorers Journal contributing editor Nick Smith talked to British explorer Tom Avery, who in 2005 set off to prove that the Commander just might have done it…

One of a new generation of young British explorers, Tom Avery is a high achiever in the field of polar adventure. He was the youngest Briton to walk to both the south and north geographic poles – a feat that has only ever been achieved by 41 people. The Guinness Book of Records recognises the second leg of this achievement as ‘the fastest surface journey to the North Pole’. But this was no ordinary sprint. Avery’s 2005 Barclays Capital Ultimate North Expedition set out to retrace Robert Peary’s polar epic of 1909 in an attempt to ground-truth the American’s often disputed claim to have reached the pole in 37 days. In beating the US Naval Commander with merely hours to spare, it was a trip that was to propel Avery – then in his twenties – into the media limelight as one of an exciting new breed of ice adventurer.

But his achievements were met with a frosty reception from the British exploration ‘establishment’, who in a storm of controversy closed ranks around Sir Wally Herbert, the man usually recognised as the first to (undisputedly) walk to the North Pole. Herbert, whose British Trans-Arctic Expedition reached the North Pole on 6th April 1969 (sixty years to the day after Peary) wrote letters criticising Avery’s expedition, accusing Avery of being a ‘glory-seeker’, claiming that the ‘inexperienced’ young Briton had proved nothing. Herbert was understandably defending his widely accepted claim to the Pole as he had done in 1989. This was when he published The Noose of Laurels, in which he analysed Peary’s expedition before concluding that it had no validity. In the absence of any other plausible claim, Avery says, ‘he was effectively crowning himself as the conqueror of the North Pole by default… he acted as both judge and jury.’

Tom Avery’s To the End of the Earth is his account of his controversial expedition as well as an analysis of the historical record that means the names Peary, Herbert and now Avery will always be linked to the place veteran UK polar explorer Pen Hadow called a ‘pinprick of nothingness in the middle of nowhere’. Its publication coincides with the centenary of Robert Peary’s ‘discovery’ of the North Pole on 6th April 1909.

Explorers Journal: What were the objectives of your Ultimate North expedition?

Tom Avery: The plan was to recreate Peary’s journey as closely as possible. You can never do it exactly – that’s impossible. But we said: ‘let’s do it – let’s go from Cape Columbia to the Pole in 37 days.’ It seemed to me that the controversy over whether Peary had got to the pole centered around his travel speeds. There were questions about his navigation and omissions in his journal, but the main crux of the argument was his speed. He’d started off at a fairly moderate pace and rapidly increased towards the end. In his book The Noose of Laurels Wally Herbert said that these daily distances were physically impossible on the polar pack. That was something I was very keen to test.

EJ: How is that possible, with the ice conditions as they are today?

TA: The Arctic Ocean of 2005 and of 1909 are two completely different playing fields. There is far more open water now and the ice pack is thinner, so when pressure ridges form they are actually smaller than in Peary’s day. But they are more numerous and less stable. So in some respects it’s harder to make the journey today. We said that if we could do this then we would demonstrate to Peary’s detractors that his speeds were in fact reasonable.

EJ: You weren’t trying to prove the Peary had got to the pole?

TA: No. It is impossible to prove whether Peary and Henson and the Inuit men reached the pole. When Amundsen reached the South Pole and left his tent there, so when Scott arrived 35 days later, it was all too obvious he’d been beaten. But if you look at Amundsen’s travel speed, had Scott not seen the evidence of Amundsen’s success, it wouldn’t surprise me if some would now doubt the Norwegian’s claim. Even if you could find the glass bottle that Peary left at the Pole you could always argue that it had been left a hundred miles away and it had simply drifted there on the ice.

EJ: Do you think Peary got to the North Pole on 6th April 1909?

TA: All you can do is look at the available evidence and make your own decision. But I believe, having travelled in the same style in slightly faster time, that he got there. Without GPS you can only be certain to a point, of course. When Wally Herbert got to the Pole in 1969 he got to within a mile using the instrumentation he had, set up camp and then boxed it. If Peary got within a couple of miles, then that’s good enough for me.

EJ: What about the trip itself? What’s it like travelling with dogs?

TA: It’s the most exciting, bonding experience I’ve ever experienced on an expedition – we got so close to those animals. We started off a team of 5 people and 16 dogs, but we very quickly became a unit of 21. I probably talked to the dogs far more than my fellow teammates. What they are capable of is awesome. Those animals are at their happiest when they are pulling a 50 stone sled across ice and snow. You wake up in the mornings and they are jumping and barking and wagging their tails and that is all they want to do. Sure towards the end of the day they get pretty grouchy when they’ve had enough. I formed a very close bond with one dog called Ootah named after one of Peary’s Inuit, who was the strongest dog on the team, but for some reason wasn’t very popular with the other dogs.

EJ: What happened to Ootah?

TA: He fell ill and couldn’t pull his weight along with the others. This actually caused the biggest disagreement we had as a team. Some of us were saying ‘he’s not going to make it, let’s replace him’, but I felt very strongly that we should finish the expedition with the same dogs we started off with if possible, and I wanted to nurse him through it if we could. Peary didn’t have the benefit of being able to fly in extra dogs and so why should we? Anyway, Ootah pulled through and he made it to the pole.

EJ: When you returned from the Pole you walked into a media controversy…

TA: The storm blew up pretty quickly and it came about through Wally Herbert –probably the UK’s greatest ice traveller since the days of Scott and Shackleton – who tried to pour cold water on our expedition. I said that based on what we’d achieved Peary’s travel speeds seemed reasonable to me, and that I though that Peary had reached the pole. You’ll never be able to prove it, and some people may disagree, but this is what I think. Sir Wally took this very personally and launched a campaign within the exploration community in the UK to discredit my team’s expedition.

EJ: Do you think Herbert was simply mistaken in claiming he was the first there?

TA: In The Noose of Laurels Sir Wally says some nice things about Peary and how much admiration he has for him. He then analyses Peary’s expedition in minute detail and completely discredits him. He doesn’t actually say the words ‘Peary cheated’, but that is the conclusion the reader draws. We were a bit hurt and insulted about some of the allegations Sir Wally came up with – for example he said that because we’d only spent 37 days on the ice compared with his 400-plus, we were in no position to comment on Peary’s expedition, which is nonsense.

EJ: What do you think Sir Wally would have made of your new book?

TA: I think it’s incredibly sad that Sir Wally is no longer with us, but if he were I think he’d go through this book with a fine-toothed comb and come up with all sorts of arguments about what we had and hadn’t done on the 2005 expedition. That would have been not bad thing because it would have been nice to have an argument about the facts as opposed to my motives, as was the case three years ago.

EJ: What next for Tom Avery?

TA: For me, 2009 is all about telling the world about Peary and Henson’s remarkable journey a century ago. I’m going to be spending a lot of the time in the US, lecturing around the country, including at the Explorers Club. The highlight of the North Pole centenary celebrations takes place on the morning of April 6th at Arlington National Cemetery where I have been working closely with the US Navy to organise a big military ceremony in Peary and Henson’s honour at their gravesites. The presidents of both the Explorers Club and the National Geographic Society will be there, along with members of Peary and Henson’s families, my North Pole team, plus a host of other dignitaries. It’s going to be a very special, emotional, goose-bumper of an occasion.

Published in the Explorers Journal, Nick Smith, Spring 2009]


Nick Smith interviews polar photographer Martin Hartley in Outdoor Photography magazine

June 19, 2009

Following in the footsteps of his heroes Frank Hurley and Herbert Ponting, Martin Hartley literally walks to the ends of the world in search of the perfect photograph…

Put simply, Martin Hartley is one of the leading expedition photographers of today. His extraordinary images are drawn from the Polar Regions, deserts, mountains and other remote corners of the world. He is fascinated by landscapes and the people who live in them.

As an expedition photographer he often ends up covering more ground than the actual explorers. ‘I hate the phrase Yorkshire terrier’, he says ‘because I’m from Lancashire. But I do end up doing a lot of running around.’ He ruefully admits that because of his job he ends up having ‘more cold dinners than most people.’

Inspired by the great explorers of the Golden Age of Scott and Shackleton, Martin has been on plenty of tough expeditions. And yet he refuses to call himself an explorer: ‘Too many people use the word when they’re little more than adventure tourists.’ He prefers the word ‘photographer’.

Martin’s work has recently featured in Land Rover’s ‘Spirit of Adventure’ Exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society and ‘Face to Face’ at the Scott Polar Research Institute. This exhibition of polar portraits – which is the subject of a forthcoming book of the same name – also includes historical expedition hardware, including Martin’s battered, gaffer tape covered Mamiya 645 Pro-TL. He also has a permanent exhibition on display at the Royal Geographical Society.

When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

When I realised I wasn’t going to get four straight ‘A’ grades at A-level, and when I came runner-up in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 1993.

What was your first camera?

It was one I coveted for quite a while. It was my Dad’s old Pentax ME Super. The thing I liked about it was that it had two little buttons to change the shutter speed, which I thought was pretty tasty. He gave me that when I was about 17, and it was probably my first serious camera. Somebody at my college nicked it, so I didn’t even have a camera when I left college.

What formal training do you have?

I did a National Diploma at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. At the time it was the best photography course in Europe. I didn’t learn much about photography, but I did have a great time being among other photographers. The freedom of the course was the most important element. You were allowed to do anything you wanted to do. You could really experiment.

How important is it to specialise?

Unless you’re extremely good at one particular thing you can’t afford to specialise because you won’t get the work. I’m an expedition photographer, but last Saturday I photographed an 85th birthday party and I had a great time. It was a great brief and I was able to roam free and take photos of anything I liked. And I got paid the day after. The days of the specialist are over. If I were an athlete I wouldn’t be doing the 100 metres… I’d be a pentathlete.

What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

I’ve done a couple of jobs for National Geographic. Doors swing open and opportunities arise because you’re working for these people. But there is a lot of pressure to come up with the goods all the time. I did Brazil and Yemen for them. The beauty of those jobs is you’re working for a prestige magazine, you know you’re going to get paid, and you go to very interesting places.

What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

I find it quite hard to understand why certain magazines employ you, print your pictures and then refuse to pay you. There’s one in particular that does this and then even hides your credit in the gutter. That to me is a magazine that does not respect the value of photography or photographers.

Film or digital? Why?

They’re different. You can’t compare red wine with white wine and you can’t compare an oil painting with a watercolour. Digital is another tool in the toolbox. If Herbert Ponting or Frank Hurley were alive today, they’d be shooting digital and probably film too, because they would want to achieve what the client wanted. Ponting and Hurley were way ahead of their time.

What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?

It was from a book by Galen Rowell called ‘Galen Rowell’s inner game of outdoor photography’, where he talks about pre-visualisation, which is thinking about the shot before you take it. On the basis of that I always gather a shot list in my head before going on an expedition.

What does photography mean to you?

The camera is a better passport than a passport. You can use your camera to get into places that no one else can. I love the expedition photography best. I know a lot of photographers that earn a lot more money than me, but I have the best job in the world.

What makes a great travel photograph?

A great travel photograph is one that makes you want to be a travel photographer.

Martin’s 5 golden rules

1 Make sure you have a shot list

2 Shoot RAW. Don’t mess about with jpegs

3 Use proper gear – cheap stuff falls apart

4 It’s okay to shoot weddings and parties

5 Photograph what the client wants

Martin’s machinery

Nikon D3, Mamiya 645 Pro TL, Fuji Provia 100 F220, Fuji flash cards, Gitzo tripod