1. The Man with Two Toes
AT 3:34 P.M. ON DECEMBER 28, 2002, WE ARRIVED at the South Pole, becoming the fastest and youngest team in history to complete the journey. The Pole had filled my dreams ever since I was a young boy, when my mother gave me a book about the adventures of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. I was immediately captivated by Scott's heroic story, and my imagination ran wild trying to picture this otherworldly place called Antarctica. From that moment I knew my life wouldn't be complete until I had stood on that hallowed patch of snow at the bottom of the world.
Now that I actually was standing there, beside the red-and-white barber's pole that marks the exact position of 90° south, I felt strangely unfulfilled. While I was overjoyed and proud to have realized my childhood dream, I wasn't sure what my dreams were anymore. I needed a fresh challenge to get my teeth into but I wasn't sure where to start looking for it.
On my return home I was gradually overcome by a feeling of lassitude, unsure of where my life was going. For weeks I drifted around London, jumping fromone idea to another. Friends commented on how vacant I had become. The question on everybody's lips seemed to be, "So, what are you going to do next?"
Things got so desperate that I even considered dusting off my calculator and retaking my professional accountancy exams. Still, going back to my former life as an accountant, or in fact to any job that involved putting on a suit and tie and sitting behind a desk all day, now filled me with dread. London life, which I had thrived on before going to Antarctica, had suddenly become claustrophobic and boring. I had to escape.
In early 2003 I headed straight for the ski resort of Verbier in the Swiss Alps. I had worked there as a ski guide three years earlier, and it was the place I thought of as my second home. I figured that being up in the mountains, detached from the real world, skiing, climbing, and writing the book about our South Pole adventure would be the perfect way to sort out my head. Unsurprisingly, my decision didn't go down well with my parents, with Dad in particular growing increasingly worried about my total lack of a career plan.
One afternoon toward the end of the winter, I was enjoying a drink with some old climbing friends on the sun-drenched terrace of Chez Dany, a picture-postcard, chalet-style restaurant nestling in the woods above Verbier. A man approached me whom I recognized instantly from my first ski season as Mark Dearlove. Little did I know that the next ten minutes would change my life forever.
Mark and a few work colleagues had come out to Verbier in 2000 for a few days' skiing. As well as guiding for them on the mountain, I had also had the job of collecting a bleary-eyed Mark and his team from the Farm nightclub in the early hours of the morning and driving them back to their chalet. I never managed much sleep during their visit but I did remember them as being an entertaining bunch, so it was great to catch up with Mark again. While chatting about my time in Antarctica, Mark told me that he had been in the office the day the news broke of our arrival at the South Pole.
"There are TV monitors all over the trading floor, which we alwayshave tuned in to Sky News. When your face appeared on one of the bulletins, one of the team pointed to the screen and said, 'Bloody hell, it's Tom from Verbier! He's just become the youngest Brit to ski to the South Pole!' Soon everyone was on their feet cheering."
Then came the bombshell. "Anyway, seeing what a great reaction your success had on the team, I think it would be great if we could get Barclays Capital to consider sponsoring your next trip. Where are you off to next?"
I was speechless. I had no idea where I was off to next. Our journey to the South Pole had been the tenth major expedition that I had put together. I had begun my outdoor career as a mountaineer, leading expeditions to the Alps, Africa, the Andes, New Zealand, and a previously unexplored range of virgin peaks in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. The toughest and most challenging part of each of those expeditions hadn't been the extreme altitude, the precipitous rock faces, or the mountain storms. It was trying to secure the sponsorship. Convincing an organization to pay for me and my friends to go gallivanting off to some far-flung corner of the globe was an exhausting, demoralizing, and hapless task.
Over the years I had written thousands of sponsorship letters, sent countless e-mails and faxes, and tried to arrange meetings with whichever company would listen to me. Some had tenuous connections with the cold (things got so desperate that even Fox's Glacier Mints got a letter); others did not. Most of my pleas for cash fell on deaf ears, and as a result, some of those early expeditions had to be aborted. Of the ones that I did miraculously find the money for, sponsorship was usually only forthcoming at the eleventh hour after much stress and a truckload of postage stamps.
The South Pole had been a massive undertaking. The physical effort of the journey, during which we each walked more than one and a half million paces, had taken a huge toll on me both physically and mentally. Nevertheless, that effort was nothing compared to the hard slog of raising the funds, so much so that I did not even know if I could ever face putting myself through the whole expedition process again. I hadn't lost my passionfor adventure; in fact by spending a winter in the mountains it was now probably stronger than ever, but I just wasn't sure I had the energy anymore for the often fruitless quest for sponsors.
Suddenly, for the first time in my life as an adventurer, I had a potential sponsor (and in Barclays Capital a sponsor that wasn't short of a penny) talking positively, and voluntarily, about funding my next venture. It was the sort of situation any expedition leader would give his right arm for. The only problem was, I had no expeditions in the pipeline. After an awkward silence, I mumbled, "Ummm, well, I'm ummm, thinking of maybe errr, going to the North Pole."
"Excellent news," replied Mark. "Unfortunately, I don't have much of a say in these things, but I'll set up a dinner with a couple of key guys at the bank. Then it will be up to you to tell them about your plans and convince them that your mission will succeed."
As I walked back to my apartment that evening I kept asking myself, "What on earth have you just got yourself into?" To this day I have no idea what prompted me to give Mark the answer I did. Maybe it was the third glass of Dôle Blanche doing the talking, but up until that moment the thought of going to the North Pole had only ever been a pipe dream. I could have just as easily said, "I'm going to be an accountant again in London," and my life would have continued down a very different path.
For many polar adventurers, it is almost a rite of passage that after a successful expedition to the South Pole, they should don the skis again and set off for the other pole. I had always wondered what it must be like at the North Pole, but I had never even toyed with the idea of one day mounting my own expedition up there. With the ski season almost over, my escapist existence in the mountains was drawing to an end, and I had resigned myself to a return to normality and a search for some form of employment. Quite suddenly those plans had been thrown out the window.
I knew very little about the North Pole, but what I did know filled me with sheer terror. Unlike the South Pole, which is located ten thousand feet above sea level in the heart of Antarctica, the fifth largest continent on the planet, the North Pole lies in the middle of the sea, the frozen ArcticOcean. It had defeated such legendary figures as Reinhold Messner and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and those explorers who had been fortunate to escape the clutches of the North with their lives often came home with a few less fingers or toes than they started out with. No wonder, then, that the North Pole was often referred to as the "Horizontal Everest."
What seemed to make North Pole expeditions particularly grisly was that they traditionally took place during the bitterly cold winter months before the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean had started to break up. As if things weren't hard enough, there was precious little daylight, making pressure ridges and areas of open water all the more treacherous to negotiate. And then there were the polar bears. As far as I could make out, the Arctic was a sinister place where most days were a battle for survival. Messner, the greatest mountaineer of them all, described the frozen ocean as "ten times more difficult than Everest." It made our route to the South Pole seem like a simple nursery slope.
My stomach was so tied up in knots that following my conversation with Mark, I hardly slept a wink. Most of this could be put down to blind panic, but despite the obvious dangers, my natural wanderlust sparked into life. I was intrigued by the Arctic and wondered if I had what it took to survive up there. Yes, I was filled with fear and trepidation, but I was totally exhilarated, too. At last I had found a new dream to follow. There was no getting away from it, the North Pole was beckoning, and the sooner I started learning about what I was letting myself in for the better.
The romance of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration has stirred my imagination ever since I can remember. I had been very conscious of the link between our journey to the South Pole in 2002 and the giants whose footsteps we followed. Our expedition had deliberately coincided with the centennial of the relatively unknown Discovery Expedition (Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton's joint attempt to reach the South Pole in 1902), and I had spent many hours lying awake in the tent at night trying to comprehend what they must have endured. Despite unimaginable hardship, inadequate...