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Digression: obsession with the poles

I'm digging Pop!Tech so far. Excellent speakers; a fascinating community; a spiffy location (an old Opera House in Camden, Maine.). This is a great conference for generalists, or for specialists who have an interest in each others' specialties.

My two biggest specialties -- Judaism and poetry -- have not been foci here. That's not surprising; neither has much to do with the theme of how we and our technology are shaping our future. Poetry and religion are old, probably as old as human endeavors get; and while I'd argue they have a real and important place in our future, they don't fit the agenda here. But to my pleasure, there's been some talk about one of my minor specialties: the polar regions.

My interest began in 1998 when I read Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita. By the end of the book, I'd caught her fascination with Antarctica. I went on to read every classic explorer's narrative from which she quoted; since then I've read everything I can get my hands on, both about the golden age of Arctic and Antarctic exploration and about contemporary travels and journeys in both polar regions. This past spring I was a regular visitor to the Serco Trans-Arctic page, tracking the progress of Ben Saunders, the guy attempting to ski solo and unsupported across the Arctic from Russia to Canada across the North Pole. Niftily enough, he was one of yesterday's speakers!

In person, Ben is as charming and nutty as his blog had led me to expect. He told great stories, showed gorgeous slides, and managed to be simultaneously witty, inspirational, and informative, all the while laughing at himself and his mad endeavor. I took notes during Ben's talk, but since this kind of thing doesn't fit the usual usual focus of this blog, I wasn't going to post them. Then Scheherazade convinced me that maybe my readers would dig seeing another side of me and what I'm into. So I'm going to break my usual pattern and post a writeup of Ben's talk here in case anyone else out there shares this peculiar interest of mine.

Two of my favorite quotes were "I'm not a scientist; I just drag heavy things around cold places. I'm going to show you my holiday snaps." And "I don't like the word explorer; perhaps 'extreme blogger' is the way to go!"

Ben dreamt of being a polar explorer from childhood, after reading a children's book on Robert Falcon Scott. But, he admitted, he grew up to realize there isn't much call for explorers these days; there's a webcam at North Pole, and a base w/ a tourist shop at South Pole! Also it's very difficult to organize one's own expedition. "But these dreams have a way of not leaving one alone."

After his first expedition ("Penn and Ben, the Polar Men") ended in failure, he hatched a plan to ski across from Russia to Canada: the first unsupported, solo ski crossing of Arctic ocean, a total journey of 1240 miles. Two Norwegians did it in 2000; the doctor who picked them up at the end of their trip described them as "48 hours away from death," and for some reason, he said, "this appealed to me!"

He talked about how important it was to reduce the weight of everything, and we laughed at a slide of his "sub-two-gram sawed-off toothbrush." He worked with a tea of nutritionists to develop a diet based on what Tour de France cyclists eat and what chemo patients eat.

Once he finally got onto the ice (after a ten-day delay, trapped in Russia waiting for his plane to the sea-edge, watching his precious window of time shrinking) he says he skiied the first hour in tears. Four solo expeditions started out that day; within the first 24 hours one guy, "a hugely experienced skiier," was dead, anda second of the four had fallen through ice into the water and been rescued with frostbite over his hands, feet, and chest. Talk about sobering news.

He began the trip pulling 180 kilos (400 lbs) of gear, which was twice as much as he weighed when he started. (I assume he lost a lot of weight on the ice; most folks do.) "Pulling it was as hard as it sounds." When the ice was bad, he skiied three miles for every one mile north, going back and forth to fetch each sledge. NASA says the ice this year was "the worst ever since they started keeping records." Apparently (this ties in with Richard Alley's earlier presentation on climate change, also fascinating) warming trends mean the ice is getting thinner; the thinner it is, the more pressure ridges, and the more open water. So tides and winds become more of an issue. "For nine of the ten weeks I was there, I was drifting backwards. One day I skiied 7 hrs flat out, and at the end of the day I was 2.5 miles further south than when I'd started: I couldn't keep up with the drift."

The biggest problem, Ben says, was open water. An area of supposedly permanent sea ice five times the size of Great Britain has vanished over last few years. So he used a special dry suit, and ended up swimming nine times. He says he never quite got used to it, that it went against survival instincts to get into that water!

One of the members of Shackleton's Endurance crew predicted, "The explorers of 2012, if there is anything left to explore, will carry pocket wireless telephones equipped with pocket wireless telescopes." He was almost correct! [Showed slide of tech setup: PDA, satellite phone, digital camera.] "PDAs are not currently supported for this environment." There were some tech challenges: metal behaves differently in extreme cold, LCD screens go black, etc. Ben used homemade software and cables, and a homemade battery pack charger. On his first trip to the Arctic, he sent back live video footage from - 4 seconds of video took 28 minutes to send. This time, he made daily blog posts, and said regular connection with the world really helped his morale. "Some days were rough and part of me just wanted to come home, but it's hard to feel lonely when eight million people are following your progress." (I was one of those eight million, and last night at the dinner gathering I managed to tell him so, which seemed to tickle him.)

Ben reached the North Pole on 11 May. There is nothing there. The sea ice is always drifting; even if he stuck a flag there it would drift off. Obviously he knew that going in, but said he somehow expected something nonetheless! He had mixed feelings as he stood there: "elation at doing it under my own steam w/ no support, but also knowing the conditions were getting worse and that I was unlikely to make it to Canada." It was -48 centigrade when he started, and -1 when he reached the pole: it should have been 10-15 degrees centigrade colder. When he reached the Pole, he sat down on the sledge, took out his satellite phone, and got three answering machines before he found someone to tell! "My mom was in the queue at the market and burst out crying." At the Pole, Ben stood alone in a space one and a half times the size of the United States. Only four people have stood there alone. The trip was the equivalent of 31 marathons back to back, dragging enough food and supplies for ten weeks, through one of the toughest climates on the planet.

After another week, conditions got out of control. His project team back in the UK, looking at satellite photos, saw leads up to 10 miles wide; "I was swimming pretty well but didn't fancy my luck swimming that far!" So they decided to send a plane for him while they still could. Ben told us that NASA predicts there will be no more permanent sea ice by the end of the century. By the end of this century the trip he made won't be possible anymore.

He closed by answering three questions as best he could: What did he achieve? He's the y oungest person to ski solo to pole, and only the 4th ever to ski solo to pole. What next? Heading to Antarctica next winter to retrace Scott's journey to the pole. Why? "That's hard to answer." He said it wasn't about breaking records; it wasn't about exploring in the traditional sense. "It was about exploring the limits of technology and, ultimately, the limits of human potential. It amazes me how many people go through life just barely scratching the surface of their potential. I have a framed grade school report, from when I was 13, which hangs over my bed: 'Ben lacks the potential to achieve anything.' [much laughter] No one else is the authority on your potential. That's what I really learned."