The first question at every public speech or at the head of every enquiring email is consistent: why? This can be in the most innocent form of curiosity or in the more challenging tone of 'what's the point'? What is the point of polar travel? Even after considering the responses of countless polar travellers, I still did not have an answer for this when writing my first book, The Long Haul. I sidestepped the question clumsily. My mind was reignited on this question by the discussion following the supersonic freefall by Felix Baumgartner and the ignorance it can expose from one or two with the privilege of writing for national newspapers.
It is now time. This is the point:
- Firstly, we must strip away the easy additions which can give a polar expedition purpose - charity, medical research and the like. Let's just consider the expedition on its own as an end in itself.
- If someone is to say that a polar expedition has no point, he or she must also ask themselves the following questions: do they listen to music, watch or play sport or visit the cinema? If the answer is yes, they must instantly boycott all of these things. That includes reading this blog post or any other website apart from the news, weather or wikipedia. None of these things have ANY biological purpose of any sort - they are pointless too.
- You can say that a polar expedition costs a great deal and so is different to kicking a ball around in the park, plus it can commit vast government resources in the event of an emergency. Compare this cost though to that of policing and treating injuries at major sports events worldwide and we can safely say it wouldn't even show up on a pie chart.
- We are all different. I loathe football but I do not even for a moment suggest it should be banned on the basis of being pointless. I accept that plenty of people find inspiration and intrigue in the game and leave it at that. The exact same is true for polar travel and for its own audience which reads the books and watches the footage.
- The origins of music were as a way for cultures to pass on vital information and stories to benefit the subsequent generations - something which has mostly become absent from modern music. The origins of polar travel involved a desire to find new living space and natural resources and to add to our knowledge of the world. Both of these historic bases are biologically important to a person as a living entity. Now, music just has mostly entertainment value and polar travel has morphed now that we know what is at the Poles.
- Does this mean that polar expeditions are now reduced to banal forms of alternative entertainment? Absolutely not. These 'pointless' uses of our time lead to creativity, progress, culture and empathy.
- Wally Herbert said 'and what of those who ask? It is as well for them that there are others who feel the answer and never need to ask.' Superiority complex, maybe. But he was right. There is something intangible about the lure of the Poles, as there is with so many valuable parts of life.
(- The similarities with music do not end there. On a slight tangent, a song designed on a computer with plenty of sampling ('borrowing'), automation and a generous dose of autotune can be compared to a heavily commercial, guided and foreshortened polar trip. Similarly, an exquisitely crafted song with dozens of components and expert musical skill and unique talent can be compared to an inventive, independent, full-scale and unprecedented polar journey. All of these have a similar end result but simply are not equal.)
- In general terms then, if you accept that there is a need for something in life apart from those necessary to survive, you therefore agree that there is a point in polar travel. Life would be a colourless and insufferable experience without these.
I am usually of the opinion that every view held should be subject to counter-arguments and new perspectives. Without this, we have only stubbornness and no progress. In this case however, I will place my neck on the block and say that I would be very surprised to hear a view which does not find the above inherently definitive.
Thank goodness there is a point in the pointless.