Poles Apart? The facts, fiction and spin of Polar Expeditions

06 Sep 2011

Adventurer Ben Thackway has bravely blogged what many in the adventure World have been increasingly heaving heavy sighs in recent years - exaggerated or false claims over polar expedition achievements.

The Top Gear 'North Pole' episode a few years ago was as engaging as it was hilarious. Loved it. Yet few people watching Jeremy Clarkson continually proclaim they were "on the way to the North Pole" know that the team never got anywhere near the geographic North Pole, the top of our World. Instead they drove to the Magnetic North Pole, the area of magnetic field in the Northern Hemisphere to which all compasses point. Well, actually, not even the real magnetic north pole, but the 1996 location of it. The Mag NP is a moving point, in fact moving faster than ever, averaging 55 kms a year and is now located well into the Arctic Ocean - an infinitely harder proposition to reach than when it was in the Canadian mainland back in 96. Which is why all 'Magnetic North Pole' expeditions, including Jock Wishart's recent heavily publicized row by boat to the Pole - the subject of Thackway's blog - go to this 96 location. 

The Geographic North Pole, the very top of our World, never moves, though the 1-2 mtrs of ice of the Arctic Ocean that covers it does - far faster than many people know or imagine. Reaching this non-descript landmark on Earth, however, is possible by a number of ways. The Russian Barneo ice base - a temporary tented camp and ice runway set up 100 kms from the pole for a month every year - provides a convenient base for a few hundred adventurers, adventure tourists, scientists and suchlike to visit the high Arctic every April, the majority of whom undertake 7-8 day 'last degree' journeys to the pole. Many others with enough cash to spare simply flying there. 

Suffice to say that walking all the way to the Pole from the Canadian or Russian mainlands is a very different proposittion.

Apart from the distances covered, travelling unsupported or supported (ie using re-supplies by drops from Aircraft), using dogs, snowmobiles or kites all greatly change the nature of polar expeditions, Arctic or Antarctic, as well as whether they are guided or unguided. In short they aren't the same beast. 

So what's the problem? And does it matter whether someone goes to the 1996 mag pole or actual north pole? Flies in, treks 7 days or 60 days? Does it matter that 99% of the public don't know the difference?

To me, not at all. It's about the journey, not the destination first of all. And everyone has to start somewhere with many people never having the funding - or the physical capabilities - to do an all the way exped. To demean any of these adventures is somewhat self-righteous. 

When it comes to perceived inflated claims, however, this does seem to be an increasing trend. It's nothing new of course, dating from the days of Cook and Peary's false (in most experts' opinion) pronouncements of reaching the North Pole in 1908/09. Today it's a fact of the business of adventure that sponsors require return on investment which means media exposure. And as such there is, unfortunately, a tendency - be it from sponsors, PR agents, the media or sometimes individuals themselves - for being 'economical with the truth' at rhe very least.

The issue Ben Thackway states is this undermines real huge achievements and achievers and, in an increasingly difficult World of obtaining sponsorships, making serious expeditions all the more difficult to fund. I agree, though as many have learned to their cost, in today's interconnected World it's hard to keep the truth from eventually coming out.

What's the lesson in all this? A simple word called integrity. 

And, no matter what people claim, we all know who the real greats in the Polar World are. And I, for one, both constantly refer to them nor have any pretentions at being amongst their ranks. 

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