Over the last few years, especially with the massive increase in web content and self-promotion online, there is a proliferation of information on polar expeditions. Some of this information is, to put it delicately, better than other bits. On expedition websites, which spring up from nowhere at a seemingly ever-quickening pace, you'll most likely hear claims of -50 degrees, daily encounters with polar bears, back-breaking 80kg sledges and more. In the interests of truth and dispelling some myths, here is a take on the real situation.
Polar expeditions involve a major inherent risk. This is absolute and undeniable. The risks are however very different to those experienced in the often quoted 'sister-activity' of mountaineering. There is a great deal of cross-over in both participants and skills between polar travel and mountaineering and so comparison is unavoidable.
NOTE - A key point is that the difficulty and risks of major polar and mountain expeditions are highly considerable. Please note than a comparison of one expedition as risky does not diminish the intensity or risk of another. Difficulty is not necessarily the same as 'risk of death'.
Here are a few facts:
Since 1990, 19.7% of K2 ascents have resulted in death. Before 1990, 77% of Nanga Parbat ascents were fatal. 5.7% of all Everest summits have ended in death. Over 500 people have died up until 1995 on the Matterhorn. These are statistics which clearly illustrate the risks of high altitude mountaineering and alpinism. The reasons are clear for all to see; falls, avalanches, HACE/HAPE, exhaustion, rockfall and not least, inexperience. In addition to these fatalities, there are countless major injuries every year. Yes, mountaineering is vastly more accessible and popular than polar travel, making deaths more likely, but how do they compare and how does the truth compare to the public claims?
In the 'modern era' of polar expeditions (post 1990), there have been two fatalities on land-to-pole North Pole expeditions (Dominick Arduin in 2004 and Hyōichi Kōno in 2001 [thanks Ben S]) and a few more on the perifory of the Arctic Ocean and on the Greenland icecap (examples every few years). These tend to be due to polar bear attack (a tragic example this year in Svalbard) or suffering an acute illness and having evacuation delayed. Deaths from crevasse-fall or falling into the sea are not common. Freak accidents have cost the lives of South American contractors in the Antarctic peninsula. As far as my research can ascertain, a South Pole expedition has not been fatal since Scott and team in 1912.
You may be surprised to hear that:
- At McMurdo (the place where Scott's expeditions began), expedition-season temperatures average -2.9 to -9.7 degrees C.
- The majority of arctic expeditions will not even see the tracks of a polar bear.
- The average temperature at the South Pole when expeditions plan to arrive there is -25.9 to -29.4 degrees C, not the oft-reported -50 or even -60.
- The average temperature at the North Pole when expeditions reach completion is above -20 degrees.
- For a well-trained skier, on reasonable surfaces, hauling a sledge only becomes highly-exerting above 120kg. Sledges below 80kg can be hauled quickly and smoothly and sledges below 50kg can feel almost weightless, dependent on the quality of the runners and temperature of the snow. I speak from experience having hauled between 30-200kg on a variety of surface types between March to August.
Do these facts mean that full length polar expeditions are easy? Of course not - the real statistics are impressive enough without needing to be bolstered.
There are of course variations. For example, I experienced -38 degrees C in May on the Greenland icecap, much lower than average. In late March 2008, Ben Saunders sent an SMS to my tent in Greenland reporting an ambient temperature of -48 degrees in his tent on Ward Hunt Island (his North Pole start point).
Frostbite is, I believe, the most misreported part of polar expedition suffering and yet is the thing that the public are most intrigued about. Understandably so - it conjures up images of extreme hardship and suffering which grips the imagination. First of all, frostbite is not a trophy. It is not a 'must-have' for a serious polar expeditioner. Quite the opposite - it is a massive embarrassment, as those from the highly-skilled Scandinavian polar community will agree. Frostbite of any kind, from basic skin-peeling and damaged cheek tissue all the way to necrotic loss of flesh (blackened and dead fingers and toes), is caused by one or both of two reasons. The first is a physiological predisposition, poor circulation, due to Raynaud's syndrome/disease of varying seriousness. The second is administrational failure, or incompetence. This could be failure to regularly check extremities for bloodflow and capillary refill or incorrect clothing choice. Also, a constant risk on sea ice is falling through into water. The resultant soaking clothing will often lead to frostbite due to the unlikelihood of being able to dry and rewarm every part of the body fast enough. So, next time you hear stories of daring-do and badly frostbitten digits, before instantly assuming they are at the cutting edge of polar travel, check the circumstances first.
My only experience with freezing injury was on two fingers in 2008. This was luckily very minor, healing within three weeks, but still a lesson-learnt and not my finest hour. There is no need for frostbite of expedition-ending seriousness on a well-planned and executed expedition. What is sad is that the fact I still have my fingers and toes is a disadvantage when securing speaking engagements. I can't thrill an audience with a gruesome sight of short, blackened stumps but I'm sure you can guess I'd rather have it this way round!
Rescue is the most contentious issue surrounding travel in remote locations. Some ultra-purists believe that no communications devices should be taken, meaning that expeditions are entirely self-reliant. I see this as infantile and morbid. There is always a risk to pilots and rescue teams if called to evacuate an expedition and every expedition leader should respect this enormously. However, rescue pilots and their colleagues are volunteers to that line of work and are highly professional. Many will be well remunerated for long polar flights and this is a balance of risk that they have found to be acceptable. Another area of mis-education is that in this day and age, you can just press a red button and have the cavalry appearing over the horizon within minutes. This is not the case. In many situations a single aircraft or helicopter for an entire region must be moved a number of times before flying a rescue mission and depots of fuel laid. Often, as was the case for a diabetic coma rescue this year in Greenland, aircraft can be grounded due to technical problems or bad weather.
Examples of people claiming on insurance for rescues for minor ailments are totally unacceptable and are the sole cause for the reduction in insurance available. I believe that an expedition should always assume that rescue for a life-threatening injury or illness could be delayed for at least a week. If this risk is too much for an individual, then the expedition should not set foot on the ice.
The long and the short is that polar expeditions, although without the fatality statistics of mountaineering, are highly demanding on skills, preparation and robustness. They involve high levels of inherent danger and exposure but my message for the general consumer of online media and articles is that the statistics are very often inflated. This is a shame because the genuine facts and conditions faced on major expeditions speak for themselves without embellishment.
These topics are of course fairly contentious and so I welcome opinions, experience and debate in the comments section.