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Hunting Antarctica’s Inaccessible Pole

Polar explorer Henry Cookson set a new Guinness World Record when he and his team completed a brutal expedition to Antarctica’s little-known Pole of Inaccessibility, and learnt that humour and camaraderie motivate much better than blind ambition

Adventurers aren’t supposed to smile. They should be too busy suffering from the pain and hardship of their epic adventures. But polar explorer Henry Cookson knows that positive thinking, mood-lifting humour and team spirit can be extraordinarily powerful weapons. Tough challenges can easily crush your spirit, but if you can maintain a positive outlook, hard times galvanise your mental steel.

Former banker Cookson discovered this strange truth in 2007 when he and his team completed the first human-powered journey to the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility – a remote location in the exact centre of the Antarctic Continent, about 850 kilometres deeper inland than the South Pole.

In this icy wasteland, amid snowstorms and plummeting temperatures, Cookson found that a sense of humour and camaraderie were, in many ways, as invaluable as his skis and freeze-dried food. Maintaining a positive outlook was, indeed, the secret to his stamina and resolve.

A lot of adventurers are masochists but if you could bring a Winnebago to the Poles, I would

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Q: How did you make the move from banker to polar adventurer?
A:
‘I have always had a hankering for the great outdoors and my banking career was very short-lived as a result. I consider it to be a three year 'thinking period' until I found out what I really wanted to do. Then I had a chance conversation with a friend, just talking about silly ideas. We were not fitness junkies but we had heard about a race called the Polar Challenge – a 360-mile ski race to the Magnetic North Pole. There was some alcohol involved and the next day we thought: why not?

Polar exploration is hard to get into – there are financial, logistical and knowledge barriers, but this race was simpler, with training and kit provided. Before we knew it we were racing through the Canadian Arctic, against 16 other teams of three, some of whom were Arctic-trained Marines. My teammates Rory and Rupert were into computers and ran a pub respectively, and I worked in the City, so we were written off as not having a clue. But somehow we won.’

Q: What was the key to your surprising success in the Polar Challenge?
A:
‘A challenge like that tests you physically and mentally. You need a good level of fitness but the mental side is key when dragging yourself through the long days. We were doing 18-19 hour days. And polar travel will challenge your full range of emotions; it can be hugely exciting but at other times boring, mundane and miserable. We managed to get through, in part, by maintaining a sense of humour about things.’

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Q: What did that actually look like, day to day?
A:
‘So, the more miserable the sores, the more our blisters bled, and the worse it was, the funnier it got. Laughing and trying to make the most of it kept us strong. We also learned to appreciate the simple things – our little tent with freeze-dried food felt like the Ritz to us. Maybe the Marines had their heads down but we took an unorthodox approach and we beat the race record by two days.’

Q: How did you end up breaking the World Record for the first human-powered trip to the Pole of Inaccessibility?
A:
‘The Polar Challenge was going to be a one-off trip but it sowed the seeds for our next expedition. Antarctica was the natural choice. We discovered the Pole of Inaccessibility through some digging around in old archives and saw an opportunity; a Soviet expedition got there in 1958 with snow trains and track vehicles but nobody had made it there on foot. The POI is much colder than the South Pole because it is at a higher altitude and further from the warming ocean. In fact, the coldest temperature in the world ever recorded was in Vostok, just 600 miles away, and that was minus 89.1°C.’

Q: Did you do anything differently for this world-record challenge?
A:
‘We recruited Paul Landry, who is like a ‘Polar Jedi’, and learned to use a new system of kite-skiing to get there. At the same time, we trained hard with tyre-dragging and PowerPlate exercises. It presented a challenge on a different level but the secret was the same; we kept laughing and maintained our positive mood. The worse it got, the more we joked.’

‘There is a little hut with a bust of Lenin there and, after seeing nothing but white for over 50 days, it was amazing to see this speck appear. It took us 53 days to get there and we set a Guinness World Record in the process. Ultimately it was a case of pushing ourselves through mentally, whilst enjoying the experience. A lot of adventurers are masochists who want to be miserable. But if you could bring a Winnebago to the Poles, I would.’

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Q: How did these early polar experiences influence your work as a guide for the Walking With The Wounded expedition to the North Pole in 2011?
A:
‘A friend introduced me to the organisers, who asked me to help develop and run the project. It was an honour to support and to be involved, and also to do something different and unique – getting injured veterans onto the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean. Although the expedition was intended to raise money for serious causes, the individuals involved had to enjoy themselves. So, yes, my previous experience was helpful in trying to steer an overriding atmosphere of positivity.’

Q: You now organise luxury adventures, but do you still draw on this philosophy of positive mood and camaraderie to help clients overcome new challenges?
A:
‘It’s slightly different for our clients as my team works closely with them to learn their passions and tap into these when crafting the ‘super adventures’ that we offer. So whether they are an avid fan of conservation or really into exploring a rare corner of the world, we can cater to their demands, whilst keeping luxury at the core of what we deliver. We are not challenging clients to reach the South Pole, but we may push their own personal boundaries by taking them somewhere they’ve never been before, daring them to do something different, reinventing what it is to truly explore the unknown and creating unforgettable memories in the process.’

For more information on Henry Cookson or to enquire about expeditions visit cooksonadventures.com

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