What’s up with the polar expedition world over the past few years? It’s a far cry from the excesses of the mid-2000s playboy bubble. We’ve most certainly not seen a return to the cradle of modern exploratory expeditions that grew through the 1990s. Further, the financial crash ‘retreat and reset’ of six or seven years ago is at an end – a time when funding for polar travel was decimated. Whether another crash is now upon us in the UK is too large a topic for this post.
The last twelve months or so have been brutal for those who follow journeys in the coldest parts of our world. For a group who takes more than their share of risks, we aren’t used to death. The world of polar travel has a sister discipline linked by ropes, cold camping and endurance - mountaineering. Since its first days, that community has had to deal with the sheer objective danger of many of the situations they find themselves in. From rocky crags to frozen icefalls, to vast 8000m Himalayan peaks, the sombre reality that dozens of climbers and mountaineers lose their lives ever year is ingrained. It doesn’t stop most, but it’s at the back of their minds. It’s reality.
Naturally, equipment, training and therefore survival rates have improved enormously over the past century. Historically a pastime with a near-hippy culture and a relatively accessible entry barrier, plus the ability to climb on a low budget, popularity has boomed recently and mountaineering has almost entered mainstream culture as a proper, well, sport. It is also the darling of the ‘wellness’ crowd.
Us polar bunch have long since diverged from them. Costs remain astronomical, partly because you can’t jump in a car and drive to the Peak District to get polar conditions. Participation has also stayed low and the gap between it and climbing is widening, both in numbers and culture.
It is for this reason that many have been so poleaxed by the events of 2015 and 2016 so far. The polar community isn’t tightknit. Save for a few neighbours who may know each other, former teammates or guiding collectives, we’re all spread thinly around a limited part of the globe. Most are based in Canada, Northern Europe and Russia. Many are lone wolves and others, often the soloists, actively shun cooperation or community. It attracts alpha-types, and with that comes competition. Sometimes you’re competing for the same shrinking pot of funding cash too. Isolation breeds divergence in skills and equipment too, meaning that soon a polar traveller might become manifestly unable to work with another who has different routines. As such, it can end up fairly fragmented.
Regardless of this though, there is an understanding shared by those who have experienced true, committed independent cold weather travel. It might be a grudging or aloof respect – a sort of metaphorical nod of the head from a home thousands of miles away. When someone is injured or loses their life – it doesn’t take long for memories to surface of moments when you yourself have had close calls. It’s sobering and it connects, even if that person is a stranger. When they are a friend, it hurts. To the core.
In April of 2015, I was in Canada. Having sustained a head injury travelling in the polar High Arctic region, I was recuperating in the south – in Ottawa and Montreal.
News broke as I returned from the gym, mid-rehabilitation, that tragedy had struck comparatively close to where I’d been in the north. Two polar skiers on a scientifically focussed man-hauling journey had apparently perished. As the details slowly followed, the full horror grew. The order of events was not known, but one and then both of the polar skiers had fallen through thin ice, an emergency beacon had been activated, but no trace remained of either. Their bear-alarm dog was seen from a search helicopter sat patiently and heartbreakingly by the hole in the ice.
Their names, both Dutch, were the worst shock. The first was Marc Cornelissen, a veteran polar traveller who I’d not met, but had heard of only in the most positive terms as a professional and advocate for scientific integration for expeditions. The second was Philip de Roo. Only thirty years old, he and I had first met a couple of years before and were musing plans to work together. Whilst a committed mission by the RCMP (the ‘Mounties’) and other authorities to reach the site of the accident recovered both Marc’s body and Kimmik, their still-healthy dog, Philip is still missing. One of them had activated the beacon, but it was too late. They had been exploring an area of sea ice renowned for thin ice and dangerous conditions.
Fast forward to the close of January 2016. A British polar skier of significant note, a man of formidable calibre as a full-career soldier had succumbed to a serious infection whilst making a solo, unsupported crossing of the Antarctic continent (excluding ice shelves). Henry Worsley was only a marathon away from completion when his stamina gave in entirely to the illness and he requested an evacuation. It was too late and doctors in Argentina were not able to save his life. His tragic end became headline news and I was sad to see publicity hungry ‘polar types’ who’d barely met Henry clamour to be interviewed. His family and close friends must have found this very difficult to stomach. My final communication with Henry was when he was in Chile and about to fly south for his journey. He lamented having to have a solitary final beer, and thanked me quite unnecessarily for some minor assistance to set up satellite communication gear. I promised him a non-solitary beer once he returned home.
In less than a year, the global total of a few dozen professional polar travellers had lost three. ‘Explorer’ fatalities aren’t unheard of, and of course native populations of Arctic Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia suffer losses too, but this is not unexpected if you consider that thousands of people live in remote communities year round.
The last person prior to lose their life on a classic polar expedition (that is a Point A to Point B journey with a novel geographical aim, and not a static science camp or an adventure tourist visit) was the Finnish-Frenchwoman Dominick Arduin. In 2004, during the period of rapid expansion in privately funded polar expeditions, a Russian helicopter flew north from a restricted refuelling stop in Arctic Siberia with the intention of launching the expeditions of a number of North Pole hopefuls. Most were soloists. A full length North Pole expedition demands that a skier steps off from land onto the sea ice, but to their collective dismay, reduction in ice thickness had left the Russian ‘cape’ mostly free of ice. What remained was mobile, thin and a death-trap.
Faced with the indignity of instantly compromising their ideals and purist view of ‘correct start points’, it was agreed for the helicopter to fly to the edge of safe polar pack ice, from where they would begin their ski journeys. At a particular point, exactly when is unclear, Arduin (not a character famed for her diplomacy) stated her disgust at the new plan and demanded a shoreline start, which she was granted. She was never heard from again and her body was not recovered.
The years spanning the millennium and the today have not been clear of other tragedies, again not taking into account locals perishing whilst snowmobiling inter-village or on dogsled hunting trips. A British Antarctic Survey biologist was drowned by a leopard seal in the Antarctic in 2003, a British teenager was killed by a polar bear in 2011 after a bungled Svalbard youth tour, and a 2013 charity trekker in an inexperienced team was killed by a katabatic storm on the Greenland ice sheet. These examples aren’t exhaustive and were all harrowing in their own ways.
What sets the recent losses aside though was the fact they ‘could happen to any of us’. Animal attacks and super-storms are, whilst always a risk, uncommon. These earlier catastrophes also bore the dreadful tags of being to some extent due to human errors that were entirely avoidable. Marc, Philip and Henry though were operating within fairly typical bounds – albeit on highly committed journeys on sea ice and alone on a vast ice sheet. Every single one of us who travel on ice, whether on the frozen sea or glacial ice, can excruciatingly recall dozens of occasions where it so easily could have been us. That moment when thin ice cracks beneath your skis, a fragile snow bridge breaks, or you wonder if the footsteps outside the tent are a bear or a dog.
Why is this shift happening? Numbers are far too low for statistical certainty, but something has changed in the polar expedition world, something in its culture.
To answer this, we need to rewind back to those very approximate eras of polar journeys – this is again, those by Europeans, Americans, Southern Asians and so on – temporary visitors and not natives.
Through the early centuries of polar exploration and through to the end of the Cold War, there has in most cases been government influence to expeditions. If not explicit official expeditions by militaries or national administrations, at the very least they had some central funding or royal endorsement. Posturing and sticking flags in things began to lose its gloss through to the 1990s, and so the private or ‘sports’ era of polar journeys began. Guided, packaged expeditions for novices were still rare, but aspiring modern explorers found their new patrons amongst the ranks of the burgeoning financial or business services industries – many of whom had sponsorship money to burn on even fairly spurious challenges or vicarious ‘alpha’ activities.
The 1990s saw the Fiennes/Stroud attempt at an Antarctic crossing (which failed on the Ross Ice Shelf), the Weber/Malakhov North Pole return triumph, and the rise of Norwegian Borge Ousland’s stellar career. Astute businesspeople, for example from Adventure Network International, POLUS and Kenn Borek Air, cottoned on early and provided logistics via aircraft for these sponsor logo-adorned, well-heeled polar travellers, albeit still small in number.
The commercial era of polar travel matured around the millennium, a few years behind the entrepreneur-climbers making large sums of money facilitating high altitude novice mountaineering – the sort that led to the 1996 disaster, immortalised in Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and the recent movie Everest.
By the mid-2000s, dozens of journeys were being made each season by teams from a multitude of countries. Guides became indispensible but oft-forgotten appendages to make up for the fast-reducing experience levels offered by wealthy faux-explorers. Creativity and novelty in terms of routes and ambitions began to suffer too. ‘Standard routes’ were established along known safe paths and short, bite-size alternatives were marketed to those with more money and drive to clinch a trophy than they had free time. The journey itself or accumulation of hard-won skills no longer mattered – only the prize and tag of ‘intrepid explorer’ did. Accidents and fatalities were, in proportion to the massive increase of people on the ice – sometimes over a dozen teams a year – remarkably sparse due to the sanitisation of routes and hardworking guides. This was the era of the playboy explorer. And it was short-lived.
With the 2008 crash, the money dried up. Investment banks stopped writing blank cheques for the sheer hell of it or because the expedition contained their work friend’s son. Heavy-drinking, overweight trust fund ‘businessmen’ were no longer launching dubious expeditions with their logo sporting one penguin ‘violating’ another. Yes, that really happened.
The transient industry that built around the commercial polar ‘boom’ has now begun to switch over to easier prey even as economies were recovering. The sponsorship free-for-all is most certainly over and the bulk of aircraft operators have backed out of the market.
What we have now ended up with, due to the cash drought, are fewer polar visitors from across all the categories – be they world-famous polar explorer or novice tourist on a Champagne flight. So why are fatalities happening more when the numbers at risk are reducing? I believe there are two causes, and neither have simple cure.
The first and perhaps minor one of the two is the bonkers insurance climate for remote location travel we now deal with.
Put simply, in 2008 I was insured for comprehensive search and rescue, medical, and equipment coverage for less than £100 per month. I shopped around for the best quote. Today, it is necessary to almost beg an insurer, usually based abroad as most UK firms have new ‘no polar’ policies, to cover a highly exclusive list of occurrences with strict pay-out caps. It can now, if you get it at all, cost £40 per day. This is a direct response by the market to a decade of frivolous evacuation claims and novice ‘explorers’ using rescue helicopters like taxis.
The fall out from this clamp down is that people either travel with underwriting that won’t cover a lot of likely accidents, or simply travel uninsured – hoping for the best or that a foreign nation will foot the bill. The unsurprising result is of course that people might delay calling for help, or simply don’t at all, for fear of being bankrupted by a medical evacuation and rescue bill. The dangerousness of this stalemate doesn’t need spelling out and has no clear remedy. Insurers are in the business of maximising profits and minimising risk – and polar expeditions in 2016, because of the recent behaviour of some, satisfy neither of those criteria. Sensible polar travellers now either reluctantly work uninsured, place bonds on their house, or pay vast premiums.
The second possible explanation is more a simple observation of reality – perhaps just why the trend appears to be the case now relative to the past.
I believe that the awful events of the last year or so and likelihood for it to continue – as I write this already six people had died on Everest this season and it’s just a few more months until the next November-May polar activity peak – are merely symptoms of a new era. The post-playboy era of modern polar travel.
If the vast majority of polar ventures in the 2000s were on known routes, with professional guides and in short, more benign windows of weather when temperatures and ice are amiable, then safety will reflect that. Those taking on the uncertainty of major firsts or new routes over unprecedented distances were a tiny percentage. Often, they were made impotent by being outcompeted for funding by publicity stunts, which got more column inches.
Today, with the commercial and ‘trust fund’ side of the industry dipping abruptly, those playboys and playgirls have moved onto easier games. Left are the hard core of professionals and those perennials passionate about and committed to the Polar Regions. Unsurprisingly, these people naturally seek the harder routes in the more hazardous seasons. The chance of your time being up is, simply, more likely if you choose to operate at that level. The price of admission.
So, we will see more of the horrendous news we’ve had to absorb. Those of us in the polar community must rally to counter the insurance absurdity by building trust with quality underwriters, or even develop an underwriting framework of our own with enhanced due diligence by experts.
The new era and what that means about who is doing what and how dangerous it is, is more complex. It would be, to me, wrong to do anything but encourage the exit of the timewasters and return of the professionals – modern explorers – whether they are there for science or endeavour. Some of our tiny group may succumb, but they do so living their lives with a verve and focus that makes them the truly privileged. What we can and must do is continue to innovate equipment, routines, communications, medical training and rescue procedures that keep people alive in a place that is entirely indifferent to human survival.