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Polar Adventures Explained


Polar journeys are not cheap. You certainly cannot do one for £1000. They are logistically daunting, too. You will need to overcome these two huge hurdles if you have a yearning for the big white world at the poles of our planet. But it’s good that there are barriers to entry, for polar Polar journeys – proper ones – are difficult and not suited for someone unwilling to rise to a challenge and to persevere.

I mention ‘proper’ polar Polar journeys for, unlike many other kinds of adventure, it’s possible to slightly con other people (and, perhaps, yourself) with what you’ve actually achieved with your polar Polar exploits. Here then, is a basic explanation to polar journeys, extracted from my new book, Grand Adventures.

North Pole

The Geographic North Pole is the axis the world spins around, the top of the world, and, in adventuring terms, the purest spot to head for. There is no pole at the North Pole. Only your GPS knows that you have arrived. The North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, so to travel there you are travelling on frozen sea ice. This makes travel extremely difficult. Gaps in the ice (‘leads’) need to be detoured around or crossed by jumping, swimming, or paddling on your sledge. Sea ice jumbles up into huge fields of ice rubble which have to be crossed. Ocean drift can carry you maddeningly off course. Polar bears are a hazard. The air is moist so kit gets wet and then freezes. The Arctic Ocean is a tough, tough environment to operate in.

The Magnetic North Pole is the spot that your compass points to. It’s a long way from the Geographic North Pole and is mostly of interest to adventurers because it’s easier to get to but you can still, if you don’t mind a bit of story-fudging, impress people that you’ve “been to the North Pole”. The location of this Pole pole moves from year to year. People still often enjoy going to the 1996 location of the North Magnetic North Pole because that’s really easy to get to (even I’ve been most of the way there). Disingenuous adventurers (and Jeremy Clarkson) sometimes claim to have got to the North Pole when they’ve visited this spot.

South Pole

Down at the bottom of the world, Antarctica is where the penguins live. Penguins and polar bears only ever meet on Christmas cards. Antarctica is a continent, so the South Pole lies on land, albeit land crushed beneath a couple of miles of ancient ice.

The Geographic South Pole is at an altitude of 2700 metres, and Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest continent on Earth. Travel in Antarctica is generally easier than on the Arctic Ocean. There are some areas of crevasses, but much of a South Pole journey is up on the flat, featureless polar plateau. The Geographic South Pole, scene of the heroic and tragic tales of Amundsen and Scott, today houses the Amundsen-Scott Polar Research Base. This American monstrosity has turned the South Pole into a series of big warehouses. There is a pole at the Pole, with a gaudy brass shiny ball on top for you to pose for your picture with. There’s also ice cream, a cinema, and a gift shop.

Despoiled wilderness aside, a journey to the South Pole is made special by the great footsteps that you are walking in. There is also a Magnetic South Pole that you can head for, a Geomagnetic Pole (in the Southern Ocean) and a Pole of Inaccessibility (the spot right in the middle of Antarctica, for the Geographic South Pole is actually fortuitously close to the edge of the continent.)


Greenland is not a Pole at all, but it’s cold and quite similar so it’s a regular training ground for polar expeditions. It’s also a wonderful place in its own right, perfect for brilliant expeditions.

The way you travel to the Poles also has a significant bearing on its ranking of achievement:

Flying straight to the Pole

Congratulations! You are very rich. Your flight has helped contribute to the melting of the polar Polar ice caps. Proceed to the gift shop inside the South Pole Station.

A ‘last- degree’ expedition

Many people undertake paid journeys to walk the final degree of latitude to one of the Poles. The journey is about 60 miles and involves several days out on the ice, hauling your gear, and camping. For many people this is either their first polar Polar journey or the most they are able to commit to, limited perhaps by time, expertise or fitness. It’s a great trip to do and a really good achievement. Just resist the urge when you return home to omit details of flying most of the way to the Pole and to lead people to believe that you are the next Ranulph Fiennes! You’ve done something cool – no need to bullshit about it.

‘Full- length’ journeys to the Poles

Generally, and simplistically, this means, in the Arctic, travelling from land (Russia or Canada) to the North Pole. Global warming is making this impossible to achieve in some seasons. In Antarctica it means travelling from the sea to the Pole (as Scott / Amundsen had to do). But many people interpret it as walking from the Continental edge (where Antarctica would meet the sea if all of the ice somehow melted) to the Pole.

As you can see, this all begins to get rather convoluted and the potential for petty arguments about who achieved what is large.

So now let’s throw this into the mix: how you will choose to travel to the Pole?

Will you go solo or in a team? Will you have a paid guide? Does that differ from just having a really experienced team mate? Will you use kites to assist you when the wind is favourable? Or dogs (though they are not allowed in Antarctica)? Or skidoos? Or even a bloody tractor – for someone has driven one to the South Pole. (Is nothing sacred any more…?)

Will you haul all your gear and food for the whole trip, or will you arrange for a resupply flight of food along the way? Supported versus unsupported is fertile fodder for a polar pub argument.

Getting a resupply makes the journey easier, but it makes the fundraising harder, for a resupply flight will cost well upwards of £10,000 a time, even if the weather is too bad for the plane to actually land on the ice and make its delivery.

And if you walk the whole way to a Pole, hauling all your own food and gear, but then get a plane to pick you up and fly you home, should that count as unsupported? When Captain Scott got to the Pole he was but halfway home, and the hard times all lay ahead…

Let all this complication not put you off a polar Polar journey. If you can summon the money, if you can learn the skills to stay alive and to move through these hostile lands, then you are in rich adventure territory.

The books of journeys past are inspiring. The landscapes are awe-inspiring and spectacular. The low midnight sun, the lambent light, the warming glow of slurping a hot meal in your sleeping bag after a hard day’s work: these are memories and lessons that will live with you all your days.

I’ve spent time on the frozen Arctic Ocean and in Greenland and they are quite simply some of the best memories of my life. I spent five years planning, preparing and dreaming for a South Pole expedition that, in the end, I was unable to go on. It gnaws hard as an unfulfilled ambition.

My new book, Grand Adventures, answers many questions such as this. It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore. There are also interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.

I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!

I would also be really thankful if you could share this link on social media with all your friends – It honestly would help me far more than you realise.

Thank you so much!

Grand Adventures Cover


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  1. I’d like to go to Antarctica one day, so this is a very interesting subject to me.

    Spitbergen is an Arctic island that’s further north than the most accessible places in Greenland, and you could have some fun for a lot less than £1,000.

    I went there last summer from the UK, and it was the most expensive trip I’ve ever done per day. About £2,000 ($3,000) for 8 days, including some gear I had to buy (I had most things from previous adventures).

    What made this trip expensive is the fact you cannot (legally) leave the settlements unarmed, because of the polar bears, which means that most of us just have to hire a guide. The good thing is that there’s plenty to choose from, ranging from ~£60 for a half a day activity to ~£1,200 for a 9-day kayak trip.

    I met a Greek girl that rented a riffle because she had a suitable license from her country, so she managed to do day trips alone without hiring a guide; this saved her a lot of money.

    I also met a guy from Latvia who was kind of crazy and rented a rusty hybrid bike to cycle through the few miles of paved roads in the whole island, and even off road. He did this alone, and unarmed. He said to me that he spent less than €300 in the whole trip, partially because he found an amazing discount for the flight tickets.

    However, you should NOT try to do this without an armed guide. Even though polar bears should be far away from Longyearbyen in the summer, if you do encounter one, it’d be a very hungry one (no seals to hunt when the ice/snow melts). A trained guide will know how to avoid bear in the first place, and how to use harmless deterrents before the very last resort (the riffle).

    Here’s the photos from this trip, in case anyone is interested:



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