A state of play in 2014
It’s a great deal easier to write about something in detail. You can focus on a limited number of things; often ignoring the bigger, sometimes messy and inconvenient, picture. I was asked a couple of days ago, ‘how do you see the world you live in? Your work world.’ I didn’t have a succinct answer and so we headed down a road of specifics. It was easier.
So, let’s try and summarise how the ‘serious outdoor endeavours and associated commercial world’ currently sits from my point of view. As you may have become accustomed to, it will have a bias for meritocracy (which is pretty much Darwinism-tinted capitalism – a dirty word in much of my community) and risking failure over taking shortcuts. These for me encapsulate the best of the modern exploratory and expedition world.
In 2014 the North Pole was reached for the first time on foot for years, a secret Google mission comfortably beat the super-hyped Red Bull Stratos supersonic jump of 2012 (it was two years ago already??), Branson’s SpaceShipTwo exploded on a fatal test flight, a repetitive set of South Pole expeditions were announced, and the final surviving UK polar insurer applied ‘special terms’.
Since the massive upsurge in modern expeditions, driven heavily by the easy cash environment post-millennium and pre-crash, the landscape has evolved increasingly each year. The pace of change seems to snowball, presumably accelerated by a western ‘escape the rat-race’ culture and the speed of communication and broadcast that never existed when Gjeldnes and Larsen made their Arctic crossing in 2000.
After the bottom fell out of the sponsorship market from 2007 onwards, the nature of what adventurous people got up to, both hobbyists and those who committed their living to it, has been ever changing too. This happened to be the year I graduated from university and so my strategy for a pre-recession polar career fast became impotent.
So, where are we now?
The decade-long project by Ben Saunders to recreate Scott’s South Pole return on foot came to partial fruition after a late 2013 start. What presumably was a result of not quite hitting distance targets and then a bare minimum supply of food, led to an emergency resupply near the Pole. Pushing on back down the Beardmore, Saunders and partner reached their start point and swapped their record claim from the ‘longest unsupported polar journey’ (which I held from 2008-2012 and is now in the hands of the excellent Aleksander Gamme) to the ‘longest manpowered journey’. Either way, they crossed the finish line and were the first big-sponsor expedition in years to come away with smiles on faces. After the Coldest Journey that floundered in 2013, leaving many worrying if large banks and other typical corporate partners would ever take the risk again, it was good news.
2014’s next major event came in the spring as Eric Larsen and teammate broke the run of back luck plaguing North Pole teams as they made the Pole from land. It was a glimpse of success at a time when I was living with my team in the High Arctic, following our forced change of plan from winter North Pole attempt to cultural expeditions with the Polar Eskimos (the isolated Inughuit people north of Melville Bay, Greenland) and our twenty dogs.
What did this mean? Firstly, it meant that the route, from Canada, was still viable. The main influence on North Pole expeditions is Russian, but their own main route, from the Russian Cape, closed many years back in 2008 and that year only worked out because Shparo and Smolin travelled in winter. From late winter, there is no ice off the Cape to walk on and even prior to that, the final late-Feb quote I believe was ever offered for a start drop-off was 250,000EUROS, to me. The exceptions have been large polar vehicle traverses from mainland Russia. The Russians however still almost entirely control private travel as they operate the Barneo Ice Station at 89N. This though is very much a ticking time bomb too since poor sea ice reduces its working life by a few days every year. A lack of rich bankers looking for Champagne bragging flights also makes their motivation to operate less and less sure each year. This would be a great shame as it was the one option for polar travellers needing evacuation from the Pole that could avoid the high prices and tough terms dictated by Kenn Borek Air, the Canadian operation who runs a monopoly.
Larsen’s success was a glimmer of hope but the future depends on competition. Only with competition can prices be kept under reasonable control and can unfair, ‘take it or leave it’ terms not be levied. There appears to be little chance for this looking to the future, since the Twin Otter aircraft are now consolidated under the ownership of just Kenn Borek and Iceland’s Norland Air. Once, Air Greenland, First Air and many other charter departments had them available. Helicopters are only any use for short-range flights and so rely on places like Barneo as a hub.
We all know that insurance is vitally important for remote travel. Without it, those who voluntarily put themselves in the middle of nowhere and at risk of injury or being stranded shift the risk and responsibility onto government agencies and would never foot the bill of five, six or seven-figure rescues. Anyone who steps outside of closely regulated or low-risk adventures MUST insure himself or herself FULLY. Whilst these business arrangements to spread the risk of an expensive rescue operation are ethical, the insurers themselves must see them as profitable. All you need is one or two high-cost evacuations and suddenly they become unjustifiable. The glut of highly irresponsible evacuations since the adventure boom caused countries to rapidly restrict wilderness access and insurers to just say ‘no’ to high altitude and polar search and rescue (SAR) cover. I side entirely with the insurers.
In 2013 one last insurer with a UK office (although the underwriter was abroad) would cover SAR for polar journeys. After an evacuation from Greenland this year (the team did not appear to do anything wrong apart from incur a back injury in the middle of the icecap), they too have thrown in the towel, whilst hinting that they might be flexible for some situations.
So, that’s it more or less. A lesser-known Russian underwriter has also stopped offering cover and the people who do the guided tourist trips across the ‘last degree’ only remain covered because their situation is highly cosseted with a helicopter on standby nearby during a benign part of the late spring. Global Rescue, not an insurer but a SAR membership scheme, has cancelled any on-going cover for travel north of 80deg or south of 60deg. The options are now to try your luck with the insurance markets like Lloyds of London, but most reports show a ‘no’ or a 10% premium (up to £1,000,000 payable up front), or, to ‘insure yourself’ by placing a bond on your property. There’s no wonder that remote location travel, especially polar, has been decimated over the past five years and there’s been a stratospheric rise in low risk ‘microadventures’ or cycling trips through populated areas. People are getting their fix in new, lower risk ways, but it doesn’t help those full-timers, who must rely on their negotiating skills to secure responsible underwriting for cutting edge work.
In a sign of the power of marketing and PR, the lifeblood of commercial outdoor endeavour, a secret Google plan succeeded in sending one of it’s executives, not a egomaniac professional daredevil, to break the supersonic free-fall record. It just happened. A rather confused but respectful round of applause gradually built across social media and traditional news. I do wonder how the Stratos team at Red Bull feel – obviously congratulations are sent, but it does raise a massive question about the need for the drama that surrounded their 2012 project. This ‘how hard can it really be if you have the cash?’ sentiment is now bound to flow across into commentary and the chattering forums of mountaineering, polar, ocean travel etc. Unhelpful and often misguided, but inevitable.
Disaster befell Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo, part of one of the very few aiming to take on exploration in one of the two avenues that can ‘outspend’ polar travel - space (the other is deep sea travel).
Although as everyone says, from Branson himself to the ‘experts’ (some of whom have been simply appallingly behaved) to the more reasoned members of the public, we need to see why the vehicle broke up, killing the test pilot. Only the NTSB will be able to do that, and everyone should keep mouths restrained, if not shut, until then. There will always be those delighted to be able to have a go at a man with ambition, courage, talent and money, but these opinions are worthless as they attack the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. Once the results are out, if it turns out that it was avoidable and due to unsafe fast-tracking, then heads should indeed roll. If not, it might simply be a tragedy that cost the life of a volunteer test pilot trying to make history. You can choose to shut down anything with risk and with value only to some, but you can occupy a world separate to mine, please.
A sad end to 2014 and those Antarctic journeys announced to launch for the South Pole are achingly unoriginal this upcoming season. I’m just hoping for someone to do a ‘Google’ and appear out of the woodwork with a blinder. Let’s hope :).
(yep, we'll be on the ice in the winter/spring, but we'll just let the walking do the talking.)
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