Posts Tagged ‘Explorers Journal’

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.

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Nick Smith’s article on his North Pole adventure as published in Winter 2009 Explorers Journal

January 22, 2010

Ninety degrees North, the easy way

A century ago no one had been to the North Pole for certain. Today you can sail to 90° North as a tourist on a Russian nuclear icebreaker. Explorers Journal contributing editor Nick Smith did just that and, glass of chilled vodka to hand, ponders the issues involved when you travel to the end of the earth the easy way

Nick Smith at a ceremonial North Pole with the Russian nuclear icebreaker '50 Years of Victory' in the background

Nick Smith at a ceremonial North Pole with the Russian nuclear icebreaker '50 Years of Victory' in the background

For more than a decade I’ve been writing about North Polar affairs, the history of the region’s exploration, its climate, ice cover and biodiversity. And although I’ve interviewed climatologists, photographers, conservationists and sea captains, the people associated with the Pole that I’ve enjoyed listening to most are those explorers who have travelled in the region on foot. These are the people who seem to instinctively understand the big picture, the people with ice in their blood. I’ve learned much about the Arctic from classic explorers such as the late great Wally Herbert, as well as from today’s most notable expedition leaders such as Pen Hadow. Over the years I’ve become fascinated by what draws human beings to this desolate frozen desert at the end of the earth, but never once thought I’d go there myself.

Prior to the 20th century no one had even seen the North Pole, much less set foot on it. We know that a century ago – in 1909 – U.S. naval Commander Robert E Peary might have got there on foot with a team of dogs. He certainly believed he’d achieved his goal, but some commentators think he may have fallen short by as much as 100km. Richard Byrd may or may not have reached ninety degrees north in an aeroplane in 1926. In 1948, Russian Alexandr Kuznetsov set off under the instructions of Joseph Stalin to fly north for scientific and strategic purposes, and in so doing became the first person to undisputedly set foot on the Pole. In 1968 Ralph Plaisted reached it from Canada by combination of snow scooter and air. In 1969 Briton Wally Herbert broke new ground, and his arrival at the North Pole by dog-sledge was the crowning moment of one of the greatest ice journeys of the century.

Since these landmark expeditions there have been many successful arrivals at the Pole by fixed-wing aircraft, helicopter and even parachute; by surface traverse, whether complete, one way or partial; by submarine (USS Skate was the first in 1959) or surface vessel. Of these, the first was the Soviet icebreaker Arktika, which reached the Pole on 17th August 1977. Since then there have been 65 Soviet or Russian voyages to the Pole, of which 64 have been in nuclear powered ships. Twelve other icebreakers from five other nations have made token expeditions to the top of the world, but the Russians are the experts.

The reason for this, according to Captain Dmitry Lobusov of the Russian nuclear powered icebreaker 50 Years of Victory, is simply that there is a need. Of those countries with extensive Arctic Ocean shorelines, only Russia relies on the commercial transportation of goods through the sea ice. ‘We have very vast country from west to east and there is need to carry cargo by sea and so we need an ice fleet.’ Captain Lobusov explained how the development of nuclear technology has led to icebreakers of increasing power and range, with the ability to remain at sea for long periods without refueling. In the Arctic summer, when the atomic fleet is less in demand for keeping open commercial seaways, the 50 Years of Victory – or the ‘50 лет Победы’ – becomes available to adventure tourism companies such as Quark Expeditions, who commission the ship in order to make the armchair explorer’s dream of going to the North Pole a reality.

I joined the Victory at Murmansk on the extreme northwest of Russia, on the Kola Bay. Way inside the Arctic Circle, the world’s northernmost city consists almost entirely of glum communist tenements hastily thrown up after the Second World War. After near annihilation by the Germans, who had an airbase only eight minutes away, Murmansk was designated one of only 12 ‘Hero cities’ in Russia. In 1943, Harper’s published an article about Murmansk by Dave Marlow called ‘How it Looked to a Merchant Seaman’, in which he quotes a Scots-Canadian mess-man: ‘they’ve took a beating here.’ The mosquitoes are like flying fortresses and the only dabs of colour are the buttercups and dandelions that seem to grow everywhere in Murmansk.

We sailed for a week via Franz Josef Land, the northernmost Russian archipelago, and landed at Cape Tegetthof, where we saw the wind-blasted remains of explorers’ huts. Then to Cape Fligley on Rudolf Island from which Kuznetsov departed on his successful flight to the Pole. We saw polar bears, kittywakes, walruses, ivory gulls and memorials to dead explorers. As we reached the higher latitudes we navigated through the last of the open water before crunching our way through the pack that got denser and denser as we approached the Pole. Were there any ice conditions that the Victory couldn’t negotiate, I asked the captain through his interpreter Irena. ‘No’ was the reply.

When I set foot on the ice at the North Pole I was the 22,500th person to do so, give or take a small margin for error created by the possibility of unrecorded military expeditions reaching ninety degrees North. The Pole is, of course, an imaginary place; a point on a grid of invented geometry, that in reality is no more or less impressive than a thin membrane of ice floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The ice that is here today is not the ice that was here yesterday or will be here tomorrow. There is no marker other than one you may bring yourself, and the sapphire blue pools of water that lie on the surface of the multiyear ice here are just as beautiful here as they are at 89°N.

T.S.Eliot wrote in his poem ‘Burnt Norton’ of what he called ‘the still point of the turning world’. At the earth’s ‘axle-tree’ he imagined the past and future to coalesce, a place where the spiritual and terrestrial worlds meet. And although it may be too fanciful to say that to stand at the Pole is to stand with one foot in another world, if you look directly upwards along the earth’s axis you will come to Polaris, the North Star, the so-called celestial pole. Look down and beneath your feet after a couple of metres of sea ice, there are 4,000 metres of sea. Then, after 14,000km of planet, you will reach sea level at the South Pole, after which there are then another few hundred metres of rock, followed by 2,835 metres of ice. If you have managed to maintain a straight line down through the globe you will end up almost in the middle of the geodesic dome of the Amundsen-Scott science research base at the South Pole.

The significance of the intersection of all lines of longitude depends as much on who you are and how you got there as anything else. I arrived at 11:57pm 15th July 2009 sitting in the bridge bar of the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker with a glass of ice-cold Russian vodka in my hand. Something like a hundred passengers from 24 countries had gathered below me in the bright midnight sun to wander around with their global positioning systems, anxious to be the first to claim that theirs read ‘90°N’ exactly. Of course, any such claims were irrelevant because the icebreaker was only at the Pole when the Captain said so, and his GPS on the bridge was the only one that mattered.

As champagne corks popped we cheered and congratulated each other on our passive achievement, as if we’d arrived on skis after weeks of doing battle with pressure ridges, half-starved, frostbitten and with exhausted dogs. A ringed seal popped its head out of a channel of inky black water to see what the commotion was about, to find out what was breaking the rhythm of the creaking ice. There were no birds and despite the razzamatazz that goes with this extraordinary adventure tourism, it was possible to detect something of the deep primal spirituality that has lured the great explorers of the past to this pinprick of nothingness in the middle of nowhere.

Accounts by explorers who arrive on foot after weeks of man-hauling sledges over pressure ridges vary wildly on how time at the Pole is spent. Some scrape together the last of their tobacco and alcohol for an all too brief party, while others become stranded while waiting for the twin otter to get in to pick them up. Tom Avery describes how in 2005 he arrived at the Pole with 4 other humans and 16 dogs only to see an immaculately dressed woman step off a helicopter with a bottle of champagne. She was leading a small group of tourists who had flown to the Pole (presumably from an icebreaker) on a once-in-a-lifetime ultimate tourist experience, as marketed by top end adventure travel companies.

The jury will probably remain out forever on whether tourists should be allowed to travel to ecologically sensitive destinations such as the higher latitudes of the Polar Regions. But the prevailing sentiment on the 50 Years of Victory was that, provided the operator transacted its business responsibly, that the environment came first and that we didn’t cause any unnecessary stress to the wildlife, then not only did we have a right to enter this pristine world, but we would come home as ambassadors, to write articles and tell our friends exactly what it is we’re supposed to be protecting.

As we returned from the Pole the sense of anticlimax was inevitable, but on the 20th July I reminded some of my fellow travellers that we should celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing. After all, we had more in common with one of the astronauts than most of us might have suspected. In 1998 Buzz Aldrin travelled to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear icebreaker. He too went with Quark, only he sailed on the Sovetsky Soyuz, on a trip organised by the Explorers Club and headed by Mike McDowell. Aldrin’s experiences were remarkably similar to ours aboard the Victory, and indeed, ‘except for comments about the cold, I never heard a negative word.’ While at sea Buzz spend much of his time skipping lectures and designing a new rocket on the ship’s stationary, and like me he kept a journal. ‘There’s something about being at the top of the world that’s exhilarating,’ said Buzz. ‘We set up a baseball diamond and played a game of softball at the North Pole, and a group of younger passengers even took an extremely brief swim. The adventure was priceless.’

Nick Smith went to the North Pole with Quark Expeditions. Visit their site www.quarkexpeditions.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

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’s feature on ‘Nimrod Centenary’ for Explorers Journal, Summer 2009

July 6, 2009

The mighty Nimrod – a century on

This year sees the centenary of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909, otherwise known as Nimrod, after the ship on which Ernest Shackleton and his men travelled to the White Continent. Explorers Journal Contributing Editor Nick Smith discussed the significance of the Sir Ernest’s first major expedition as leader with his only granddaughter, the Honourable Alexandra Shackleton.

The story of Nimrod, the first major expedition to be led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, is one of the great tales of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Admiral Sir Edward Evans – who had been on Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1902–1904 with Shackleton – described it as ‘a good, sound, scientific programme’.

But the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909, to name it correctly, has been overshadowed by other events in the Polar Regions, including the failure of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition and Shackleton’s heroic rescue mission of the crew of the Endurance. So well known are these later expeditions that it is easy to forget the real impact of Nimrod, the stout little sealer that departed London on 20th July 1907. Having been tugged from New Zealand to the limits of the Antarctic ice, the vessel, overloaded with coal, had a steaming radius that would allow its captain to explore as far as the Bay of Whales, before settling on Cape Royds as the expedition’s shore base.

From this historic hut – where Shackleton wintered in 1908 – a party of four men set out on one of the greatest sledge journeys in history. After passing Scott’s ‘farthest South’, every new feature became Shackleton’s own discovery. His expedition attained the South Geomagnetic Pole, made the first ascent of the White Continent’s highest mountain, discovered coal and fossils, experimented with motorised transport and made an heroic attempt on the Geographical Pole. Despite the many brushes with death, Nimrod was, as Evans later wrote, an ‘eminently successful expedition.’

On 4th March 1909 Nimrod departed the Antarctic ice edge on the home leg of the British Antarctic Expedition. And although the expedition had not succeeded in its ultimate goal ­– the attainment of the South Pole – it was arguably the most important and significant excursion to Antarctica up until that date. Every one of Ernest Shackleton’s heroic band of men returned to safety.

Nick Smith: How did the Nimrod expedition come about?

Alexandra Shackleton: Nimrod was Shackleton’s first expedition as leader. He went South originally with Captain Scott on the Discovery expedition. He was part of Scott’s Southern Party that got to within a few hundred miles of the Pole. But he regarded the Pole as unfinished business. And so he put together the Nimrod expedition. There were scientific objectives as well as those of exploration, but in fact what he really wanted was the Pole.

NS: What do you think that Nimrod achieved?

AS: Nimrod did achieve a lot: The first ascent of Mount Erebus as well as the publication of the first book in the Antarctic, Aurora Australis. Lots of valuable scientific work was undertaken. Coal was discovered and the South Magnetic Pole was reached. It sounds quite simple to reach the magnetic pole, but in fact it moves about according to the angle of the earth’s magnetic field. After an epic trek of 1,260 miles unsupported ­– a record that stood for 80 years – the expedition managed to achieve that. But it wasn’t all success. The first motorcar was taken and that didn’t work out.

NS: But your grandfather didn’t get to the South Pole?

AS: Ernest Shackleton did not get what he most wanted from the Nimrod expedition. He did not get to the Pole. He got 366 miles nearer than the Discovery expedition, but at 97 miles from the Pole he took the decision to turn back. They were all in a bad state physically. The altitude of the Polar Plateau was affecting them badly as well as the lack of food. He could possibly have struggled on to the Pole, but he knew it was unlikely that he would bring his men back alive. So he decided to turn back: a decision that has been described as one of the great decisions in polar history, one of which I am extremely proud. To turn his back on glory for the sake of life – it really defined him as a leader and it defined his priorities. We are all defined by our priorities. His priorities were quite simply his men. Afterwards he said to my grandmother: ‘I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.’

NS: The British Antarctic Expedition 1907–09 is more commonly known after the ship Nimrod. What can you tell me about the ship itself?

AS: The ship was a very small, forty-year old sealer, originally called Bjorn. Small and tatty. All my grandfather’s ships were secondhand. In fact, the only purpose-built polar ship of the time was Scott’s Discovery, which cost Scott as much as the entire Nimrod expedition. Nimrod set sail from London, but in fact Ernest Shackleton joined the ship in New Zealand. In order to save coal Nimrod was then towed ­­– the longest tow for a very long time – down to the Antarctic Circle. Nightmare tow, nightmare weather. The Koonya was the tug that carried out the tow and at one stage the weather was so bad the ships could only just see the tops of each other’s masts. It was an incredible feat of seamanship that the line was kept as it should have been. And Nimrod was quite overloaded with supplies for winter. My grandfather said that the ship looked like a reluctant schoolboy being dragged to school.

NS: In the context of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Nimrod is not the best known of expeditions, but perhaps is one of the most important. Why do you think it has been overshadowed?

AS: It’s not Shackleton’s best-known expedition, but I think it was as important as the others, quite honestly. Of course, with the Endurance expedition there was an epic rescue involving the James Caird, not quite 23-foot, 800 miles across the stormy seas of the world, with the men waiting on Elephant Island and the rescue party climbing the unclimbed peaks of South Georgia.

NS: In 1908 Nimrod returned to New Zealand and then in 1909 it arrived back in Antarctica to collect the expedition team…

AS: Every single man returned. That’s why when I recently went to visit my Grandfather’s Nimrod expedition base hut at Cape Royds – beautifully conserved by the Antarctica Heritage Trust – it looked as if they had just stepped out. It was an incredible experience. First you notice the smell of wood and leather, and then you notice that it’s lit by natural light. And then you notice the hams hanging up and the socks and the clothes and the Mrs Sam stove. I felt a great wave of grief because I’m looking at the past, and the past as the cliché has it, won’t come again. But afterwards, after I had processed the experience, I decided that the hut itself is not a sad place because everyone came back alive.

NS: The point of your recent voyage to Antarctica to visit your grandfather’s hut?

AS: Yes. A documentary was being made about me by a New Zealand filmmaker called Mary-Jo Tohill to record the visit to my grandfather’s hut for the very first time in the Nimrod year. It’s a long voyage. The Ross Sea is a very long way away. The ice was extremely bad and we couldn’t get to all the places we wanted to get to, even in a powerful icebreaker. But we did get to Cape Royds and it was an astonishing experience, for which I’m very grateful. All my life I wanted to visit it.

NS: What is the hut like?

AS: It’s about 30 by 15 feet. Fifteen men wintered in it, and other expeditions used it too. It’s a permanent building in that it’s still there, but it was prefabricated in England, taken apart and re-erected there. The packing cases were taken apart and used for things like furniture, and of course the covers of Aurora Australis. Two members of the expedition took a short course and they were lent a small press. But of course it was incredibly difficult because there was all the volcanic dust – the scoria – that one walks through because Erebus, a live volcano, is nearby. And the ink would freeze and you’d drop a plate and you’d have to start all over again. It was painstaking and a huge achievement of very high standard. You would not think that they had not printed before.

NS: Do you think Aurora Australis tells us much about the Nimrod expedition?

AS: Aurora Australis is effectively a Nimrod anthology. The subjects range from science to fantasy, from humour to poetry. Ernest Shackleton contributed two of his poems. The humour has changed a bit – some of the things they thought funny we don’t think quite so funny today. And of course generously illustrated too. We don’t know exactly how many were produced – probably not more than a hundred. One was discovered recently in a barn in Northumberland. I think it was sold for about £56,000 (around $100,000 dollars) and I think that was the top price. Obviously, condition makes a difference and whether Shackleton or any of the others had signed it. I think Aurora not only throws light on the members of the expedition and how they thought a hundred years ago, but also on the leader who chose these men. They are like this, and he chose these people.

NS: What do you think s the legacy of Nimrod?

AS: The significance of Nimrod is that it defined Ernest Shackleton as a leader. There has been a great upsurge of interest in him over the past ten years for one reason: Leadership.

Nimrod expedition in cold, hard facts

Party of 15 men wintered at Cape Royds on Ross Island; climbed Mount Erebus (3794 m), 10 March 1908; Shackleton and 3 others (Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Stewart Marshall, and John Robert Francis [Frank] Wild), discovered and sledged up the Beardmore Glacier to the farthest south of 88 • 38º S (01 • 62º [180km] from the South Pole) where Shackleton took possession of the Polar Plateau for King Edward VII, 9 January 1909; insufficient supplies necessitated their return; discovered nearly 500km of the Transantarctic Mountains flanking the Ross Ice Shelf; discovered coal at Mount Buckley. Tannatt William Edgeworth David leading a party of three reached the region of the South Magnetic Pole (72 • 42 º S, 155 • 27 º E) and took possession for Britain of Victoria Land there, 16 January 1909, and at Cape Bernacchi, 17 October 1908. Dogs and ponies used for some sledge hauling. Visited Macquarie Island, searched for ‘Dougherty’s Island’. First experiments in motor transport in Antarctica, an Arrol Johnston motor car was used with limited success; ciné photographs of penguins and seals were made. The expedition use New Zealand postage stamps specially overprinted ‘King Edward VII Land’ and an expedition canceller; Shackleton was appointed Post-Master. Book Aurora Australis, printed at Cape Royds, 90 copies made. [To conserve coal, in January 1908, Nimrod was towed 2700km from Lyttleton to the ice edge by Koonya (reached 66 • 52º S) which visited Campbell Island during the return voyage. The hut at Cape Royds is now protected as a ‘historic site’.]

Extracted with permission from A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: a Synopsis of Events and Activities from the Earliest Times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09, by Robert Keith Headland

Feature on ‘Nimrod Centenary’ for Explorers Journal, by Nick Smith May 2009]

Interview with controversial explorer Tom Avery published in Explorers Journal

March 21, 2009

The Spring 2009 edition of the Explorers Journal has been published and I’m pleased to say that I managed to interview polar adventurer Tom Avery in this issue. For those who don’t know, Tom sparked off a wave of controversy in 2005 when he replicated Commander Robert E Peary’s 1909 attempt on the North Pole. Popular opinion has it that the American naval man couldn’t have achieved the pole in the 37 days that he claimed and s the credit for being the first man to walk to the North Pole normally goes to Wally Herbert, who arrived there in 1969. Herbert’s claim is not universally accepted as there is a lobby group for Peary among academics, historians and explorers. Avery decided that he would try to replicate Peary’s expedition, and the outcome was that Avery and his team managed the journey in 37 days. So theoretically it was possible that Peary had done it as he had claimed. I met Tom at the Royal Geographical Society and asked him to put his side of the story… the result is what I think is a very interesting interview.