Monday, October 10, 2016

Walking on thin ice

Happy birthday David Kim Hempleman-Adams, 60 today and still on board Northabout, in the final stages of his voyage to circumnavigate the North Pole anticlockwise. One of the world’s great modern adventurers, Hempleman-Adams was the first person to reach the Geographic and Magnetic North and South Poles as well as to have climbed the highest peaks in all seven continents. His 1998 book about reaching the North Pole - Walking on Thin Ice - is based on diary entries written during the expedition.

Hempleman was born in Swindon, Wiltshire, England on 10 October 1956. After the divorce of his parents, he moved with his mother to Stoney Littleton near Bath; and, when she remarried, he took his stepfather’s surname Adams. He studied at Manchester and at Bristol Polytechnic, and joined his father’s chemical manufacturing business. In time, he became the company’s managing director, and later sold it. He retains non-executive business interests in the industry. He is married to Claire, they live near Bath, and have three daughters.

Hempleman-Adams interest in expeditioning began through the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. In 1984, he was the first person to complete successfully a solo expedition to the Magnetic North Pole; and in 1992 he led the first team to walk unsupported to the Geomagnetic North Pole. He continued to notch up various notable firsts. In January 1996, he became the first Briton to walk solo and unsupported to the South Pole, and in February he sailed to the South Magnetic Pole becoming the first person do both feats in the same year. In 1998, he and his Norwegian partner Rune Gjeldnes walked unsupported to the North Pole. The achievement meant Hempleman-Adams had become the first person to complete the so-called True Adventurer’s Grand Slam (i.e. to reach the North and South Poles, the North and South Magnetic Poles, and climb the seven summits). The same year, he was awarded an OBE.

In the noughties, Hempleman-Adams turned his attention skyward, in 2003, becoming the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an open wicker basket rozier balloon; and the following year, he and co-pilot Lorne White flew a single engine Cessna from Cape Columbia in the north of Canada to Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. In 2007, he broke the altitude record for a small-sized hot air balloon record, ascending to 9,906 meters over Alberta, Canada. He has also won the Gordon Bennett and Americas Challenge Balloon Races. In 2016 - at the current time - he is undertaking the Polar Ocean Challenge - an attempt to be the first British yacht to sail around the Arctic Ocean in one summer season. See Wikipedia, Guide to Swindon, or World Biography for more information.

Hempleman-Adams has written or co-authored several books. The first - A race against time: British North Geomagnetic Pole Expedition 1992 - was published in 1993. Then came Toughing It Out: the adventures of a Polar explorer and mountaineer in 1997, and, in 1998, Walking on Thin Ice (written in collaboration with Robert Uhlig) published by Orion (in association with Telegraph Books). This latter is based on Hempleman-Adams’ diary of the expedition. Here are extracts from two entries.

17 March 1998
‘We need to get to 84°10' North as soon as possible and get the airline companies lined up for an immediate resupply. I have decided that we might as well go for a resupply as soon as possible, while we know the weather is clear. Our fuel will run out in two days and the last thing we want is to spend three or four days hanging around waiting for the plane to come in. There is no point in having a resupply before we reach 84°10' North. We will have heavy sledges again after stocking up on new food rations, so if the resupply comes in any earlier it will defeat its whole purpose.

I budgeted for fifteen days on the first leg, but did not think for a moment we would be so far north by them. According to my initial plan we were scheduled to reach 84° 10' on day twenty-four, so we are ahead by around ten days. It is a delicate balance: every mile further north is nearer the Pole before the thaw starts, but the further north we go the more the air companies will charge us for the resupply. We will need to move very fast on the second leg to reach 86° 30', another 150 miles, by 15 April. This next third of the trip will be critical.

Our immediate concern is to start looking for a pan for the plane to land on, not an easy feat in the ice conditions we have encountered so far. I really thought the rubble would have ended by now and we would be on a succession of long, wide ice pans, interrupted by the occasional pressure ridge. The ice this year is different to any other I have experienced and my plans are in danger of being shot down.

Even today we do not encounter a single sizeable pan. It is bitterly cold with rubble all the way. It is staggering how we manage to cover six miles with our skis on and off every few minutes. In some spots it takes both of us to lift one sledge through the rubble. For over an hour it is one forty-foot ridge after another. It’s a very heavy workout, like doing six hours in the gym; we are really pushing it and I have to grit my teeth and dig deep.

I have a huge frostbite blister on my thumb and my toe is still causing me problems, made worse by the backbreaking conditions. I have now discovered that I also have some small spots of frostbite on my knee, brought on by kneeling down whenever I need to take off my skis, which in these conditions is frequently. My boot is still damaged and is secured to my ski by a length of wire. If my bindings were able to hold my boot I would normally simply push my ski pole down on the binding to release my boot; now I have to kneel down on one knee, pull up the clip and take the wire off the back of the boot. This tedious process makes my hands and left knee very cold, and I have to repeat it when we get to the other side of the rubble or pressure ridge.

We are in the middle of all this crap and I am worried about finding a landing strip - it seems ridiculous. Tonight I will radio for a resupply for tomorrow and hope we can find a landing strip in the meantime. It is a dangerous gamble because we will still have to pay for the flight if the plane has to turn back. [. . .]

At the end of the day we have covered six miles, extremely good considering it was the worst rubble so far on this expedition, and we are only a mile short of 84° 10' North. Last year we would have been happy to manage two miles in such conditions.’

12 April 1998
‘It is Easter Sunday and once again for both of us it is a wrench being away from home. All our thoughts are with our families. It is at times like these - birthdays, anniversaries and family holidays - that the homesickness is most acute. I must strive to be at home for more of them next year. ‘My mama and papa will be out skiing on the fjord right now,’ Rune says. ‘I would like to be there, but I have something else to do.’

We are two and a third miles behind schedule and wake up an hour late. It is the first time we have overslept on the trip, and we cannot understand why. Outside it is a beautiful day, there is not a cloud in the sky, and we have high hopes of a good mileage today.

Almost immediately things go wrong. First the wind picks up and it becomes much colder, then the bindings on my skis, which were mounted in the wrong place, begin to work themselves loose. Whoever fitted the bindings to the skis did not use enough glue, or the glue resin is losing its adhesion in the cold. Every time I stop I have to take off the ski and tighten the screw. It is a tedious business.

We come to our first open lead after only half an hour and walk west until we find a crossing place. Unfortunately it is not a straightforward crossing. Instead of one simple route across we have to negotiate several stretches of open water and leap from one rubble island to another, using them like giant stepping-stones. I am about two thirds of the way across with another fifteen feet to go when Rune starts to drift away from me on an island of rubble that is only nine or ten square feet in area. The danger becomes more acute when the rubble island I am standing on starts to sink. I am very scared, even more than when I fell in the water as I am out of Rune’s reach and it will be very difficult for him to rescue me from his island of equally precarious ice. I make a jump for Rune’s floe and get my foot wet, but he pulls me to safety. We then cross some porridgy steel-ice to the far side of the lead. I am mightily relieved not to have fallen in.

Within half a mile we come to another lead, so this time we walk west to find a crossing-point. We cross the lead and head east, only to meet another lead after one mile. We then turn south, find a crossing and head northwards again, but within a couple of hundred metres there is yet another lead. These leads are sending us on a wild goose chase. There seems little hope of making any headway northwards. We are walking at sea level and cannot see more than about a quarter of a mile ahead, so it is very difficult to see where the leads lie. I reckon we must have crossed around 500 of them so far.

To make matters worse, we both feel ill. I am swallowing pain-killers like smarties to cope with my back pain and Rune’s navigation is off today. He does not know whether it is the compass that is playing up or his solar navigation, but we will have to sort it out tonight.

By the time we pitch camp we are two miles behind schedule and have managed only six miles to 87° 06' 40" North and 71° 00' 25" West. It is a shame as I had hoped we could do as well as yesterday, but luck was against us today. Maybe we shouldn’t have been walking on Easter Sunday. Rune agrees with me and rustles up a special Easter dinner of lobster pate, sent to us on the resupply by Thierry, and an Easter egg for pudding.

We have a radio schedule with John who tells us that the Girls on Top are having problems after they lost their tent in high winds, and they need to be rescued. All round a terribly depressing day.’

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