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The Quest To The Last Place on Earth

After more than three decades of exploration, Jim McNeill has one last expedition on his mind – the trek to the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility, the last unreachable spot on the globe – but he’s training regular people for the trip...

‘Plan for the worst’ is fine advice, easily given – and easily ignored. For most people, who go through life without a serious ‘worst’ in sight, that might barely matter – but if you’re walking hundreds of kilometres north of what most people consider the north pole, where shifting pack ice makes every step dangerous, it’s critical. Jim McNeill, though, is an expert – with almost 35 years’ experience in the world’s most inhospitable environments, he now makes a living from teaching and equipping other people to survive in extreme environments.

The push to make it to the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility is the one that’s occupied most of his thoughts since 2001. Defined as the furthest point from land on the Arctic Ocean, it’s almost impossible to reach by plane: reaching it on foot, covering more than 350km of treacherous ground once you’ve hit the ‘normal’ north pole, seems barely possible.

And yet, that’s McNeill’s aim. He’s also planning to take a team of near-amateurs to do it: emulating Ernest Shackleton's Golden Age of exploration when volunteers came from all walks of life, not knowing when they’d return. He’s had no shortage of interest – but even with hundreds of volunteers to choose from, how to do you prepare for a trip that’s never been done?

Macho people are the ones who tend to get caught out – it’s about how humble and aware you are

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Q: What is it that draws you to the world’s most inhospitable areas?
A: ‘Well, it’s not just the polar regions – I’ve done a lot of work in deserts. I get euphoric, for whatever reason, the more extreme the situation is. On one level it’s about pitting your wits against mother nature, but it’s also a very humbling experience, it’s not elitist in any way. It’s not macho. Macho people are the ones who tend to get caught out. It’s about how humble and aware you are.’

Q: And you’ve been doing this for a while?
A:‘I always say the reason I’ve done this for 35 years and still have all my fingers and toes is that I push my boundaries; I don’t leap over them. I’ve been building up a skillset over a number of years, and that experience means I have a good chance of staying alive in even the worst situations.’

Q: Is there an example that springs to mind?
A: ‘I’ve nearly perished twice in my time of doing this: they’re both long stories, but the last time I attempted the Pole I fell in through the sea ice 170 miles north of the most northern point of Canada, and found myself milling around with a load of heavy chunks of ice. To extricate myself from that situation required some thinking.’

‘The first reaction, actually, is to go “Oh, that’s nice,” because you’ve been dragging your own bodyweight on a sled around some very difficult terrain for most of the day, but very quickly you’re aware that you need to get out before you’re incapacitated by the cold. It’s situations like that where you have to calm down, take a breath and think level-headedly. Training familiarises people with the sort of situations they might come across.’

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Q: Was that a scenario you’d rehearsed?
A: ‘Oh yes, absolutely. I’m one of those people who gets on an aircraft and knows how to get off it whatever happens to that aircraft. It’s having an appreciation of the risks you’re taking and managing those risks to best effects, mitigating them with your skills and experience.’

Q: Now you’re bringing that sort of training to other people – what benefits do you think it gives them?
A: ‘For me it’s a number of things. From my very early days I’ve enjoyed passing on skills and meeting people, but having a skill-set that you can utilise for the betterment of others, whether they’re in a rescue situation, or working as a firefighter, or just happening to be on the scene of a traffic accident, is a huge thing. From an Ice Warrior point of view, it’s about giving them the skills to live and work in some of the most extreme environments in the world. And that’s very fulfilling: seeing complete novices coming into the process and then changing a huge amount as they build up these skills and use them as they experience dear old mother nature.’

Q: Why do you recruit beginners to exploration?
A: ‘It’s partly so that they can bring an engagement in global change back to whatever their own life situation is. A lot of what I do is data gathering for scientists to get a better finger on the pulse of the planet. It’s not for us to judge, but it is for us to bring the attention of ordinary everyday people to the changes that are occurring in the world right now and the reasons that there might be a harsh summer or a cold winter, and why they might occur to a much more catastrophic extent in future.’

Q: And part of the trouble, of course, is that those weather conditions only make your job harder?
A: ‘The sea ice is breaking up. Nobody’s done the journey from land to the north pole for some years now – the last people to do it were incredibly lucky because of the weather. It’s a testament to how things are changing: when I first started doing this in 1984, the sea ice would freeze once and for all, and you’d get a fairly predictable weather pattern, but that’s completely destroyed these days and all sorts of weather prevails. If we’re lucky we’ll get a sharp year and get there next year.’

Read more about Jim and the 2019 Ice Warrior expedition at Ice-warrior.com

Words: Isaac Williams

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