Spare a Dime For the World’s Greatest Living Explorer?

Pen Hadow
'Everything I did combined the spirits of adventure and science to get the important message out.' Courtesy of Martin Hartley

The world’s greatest living explorer crumpled between the washing machine and the refrigerator, sweat dripping from his nose onto the kitchen floor. At that moment, Pen Hadow didn’t look like a polar hero. And as he recently announced his retirement, one wondered why he was still putting himself through such a punishing training regimen. “Old habits die hard,” he gasped between pants. I think it was more complicated. After all, when the body stops traveling, the spirit takes over the trek.

Fifty-year-old Hadow has more sea-ice time than anyone on the planet. Ten years ago he became the first person to trek solo, and without resupply, from the Canadian coast to the North Pole, an achievement likened to the first ascent of Everest without oxygen. The amiable Hadow has also led a score of expeditions to both polar regions, guiding parties of clients under the aegis of his own adventure travel company, and in addition, he has undertaken three multimillion-dollar scientific surveys of the Arctic Ocean sponsored by insurance giant Catlin.

Having spent seven months in the Antarctic myself, and almost as long in the Arctic, I know the conditions explorers face: pressure ridges 10 feet high, temperatures in the minus 60s Fahrenheit, disintegrating sea ice, and winds that don’t just knock you down, they send you flying. No amount of satellite phones, high-frequency radios, tracking beacons, or emergency transmitters will enable a support plane to reach you in an hour if you get peritonitis or carbon-monoxide poisoning, and a polar bear or thin ice could finish off a hero in a second. Imagine one of Hadow’s open-water swims between floes, when he towed his sledge like a boat—a tasty snack for a thousand-pound bear.

Unusual in the testosterone-fueled exploration community, Hadow is not just a stuntman out to prove he can beat all that. He believes passionately that the explorer’s role is to enable and communicate science. “Everything I did,” he says now, reflecting on a long career, “combined the spirits of adventure and science to get the important message out that the Arctic Ocean environment is changing at a speed and scale likely to have dramatic effects throughout the Northern Hemisphere.”

Hadow was born in the Scottish highlands, where his father was a pig farmer. He was raised, by Robert Falcon Scott’s son’s former nanny, in the British tradition of toughening children up in the open air and dispatching them to boarding school at the age of 7. “The one constant in my life,” Hadow has said, “was the distant echoing in my head of Nanny Wigley’s tales of the great explorers.” The hair is graying around the temples these days, but Hadow has kept his boyish good looks. Perhaps regrettably, he looks an awful lot like Tony Blair. He lives in one half of a former school in the twee market town of Tavistock in Devon in southern England. A globe five feet in circumference occupies a corner of the high-ceilinged sitting room, and a Times Atlas lies open on a special stand in another. In an office off the sitting room, piles of graphs and charts overflow onto a rowing machine, a battered mini boxed set of Winnie the Pooh books, and framed photographs of Hadow’s ex-wife. They have two children: a son, 14, and a daughter, 10. Imagine telling the other kids at school that Daddy’s an explorer.

In a break in the kitchen training session, I cruelly mention that Hadow would be an old man now in the exploration game. “I don’t accept that,” he says between glugs of water. “Endurance-event athletes tend to be older. Even more so in the polar environment, where skills can only be acquired by experience. The only issue with age is recovery time.” So why has he retired? “The economic climate forced it on me.” It turns out that he had been planning, as a swan song, the first unsupported solo crossing of the north polar ice cap: a thousand-mile, three-month ski hike from Russia to Canada via the North Pole. Core costs exceeded $1.3 million. Like every explorer since Columbus, Hadow has spent an awful lot of time wooing sponsors. But last year, for the first time, his sponsorship collapsed three months before the offing.

Pen Hadow Hadow became the first solo explorer to reach the North Pole unsupported in 2003. Courtesy of Martin Hartley

Is he the last of his species? Is there a future for old-style exploration? Hadow launched into a set of squats. When he finished, he leaned against the sink before contemplating his reply. “At the macro level,” he says thoughtfully, “by which I mean finding out where things are—exploration has no future. But at a micro level there is masses to achieve. Establishing the range of the fritillary butterfly, for example, can yield vital data on a changing climate. I think there is a significant role for future explorers to support science in the more hazardous technical challenges. They can help chart markers of change. A chapter has closed in a spatial sense, but another has opened.

“In pursuit of sponsorship I’ve lately made a comprehensive sweep through corporate boardrooms, and I strongly believe that although the economic climate is not right, the social climate really is, and in five to 10 years we’ll see a burgeoning of environmental sponsorship through which the business community will demonstrate a commitment to the natural world. Companies big and small will take up the baton from the green charities. It needs to be a properly organized societal effort, and only business has the reach to roll this out on a massive scale. Not-for-profits don’t have the reach or the cash to tackle big stuff, and increasingly, I believe, they will act in an advisory capacity.”

Other polar explorers have gathered science data in the course of dragging sledges, making records, and losing half their body weight. As you read this, Sir Ranulph Fiennes is leading a winter trek 2,500 miles across Antarctica: the team will be calibrating ice measurements on the ground, taking core samples to establish rates of water flow from the ice sheet, and searching for extreme- environment cryo-bacteria. But all too often these kind of expeditions end up looking like stunts. Hadow exudes authenticity.

He went through three sets of elevated press-ups with his feet on a chair. Why quite so much exercise if the next trip is off? “I’m a great believer in mind-body balance, and I want to carry my skills into the next phase,” he says, referring to the coaching company he has just established, aimed at both corporations and individuals. Much talk ensued on the importance of developing whole-body strength rather than sticking on slabs of muscle; on four-week cycles of progressively higher intensity, followed by a deload week; and on lactic thresholds and stored glycogen. I sat at the kitchen table with my notebook open, feeling fat.

Most explorers regard the polar regions as territory to be beaten into submission. Either that, or a battleground on which to prove how near dead they can get while acquiring a frozen beard. Not Hadow. There is something of the feminine about his take on the natural world—something that’s not about conquering. The Arctic Ocean and the Antarctic must be the most male places in the world—don’t I know it—yet Hadow reckons women thrive on the ice. He has guided many female groups, including the first all-women trek to the South Pole.

arctic-pen-hadow-FE03-third His Arctic Survey in 2009 took thousands of measurements assessing climate change. Martin Hartley/Catlin Arctic Survey via ZUMA

“In my experience,” he told me between burpees, “in the polar regions women do better. Men live on their own private islands in a sea of uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety and play a very conservative psychological game. As a result, they tend to underperform, whereas women intuitively work collaboratively.” He has a woman’s poetic memory, too. Fourteen years ago, he briefly met one of my children. When we spoke of the boy, he said, “Oh yes, the one with eyes the color of a blackbird’s egg.”

Who owns the Arctic Ocean? Nobody. But given our increasingly ravenous global appetite for hydrocarbons, and the decreasing sea ice that makes it easier to extract the stuff, ownership has risen to the top of the geopolitical agenda. The five Arctic littoral nations (Denmark, the United States, Canada, Russia, and Norway) are racing to “prove” that their continental shelves extend north for hundreds of miles, thereby allowing them to claim swathes of the Arctic as sovereign territory. Russia even sent a politician down in a submarine under the pole to plant a red banner in the seabed. Non-Arctic countries too are jostling for a place at the table. WikiLeaks revealed U.S. concern over Chinese interest in the Arctic. Cui Hongjian of the China Institute of International Studies recently made a startling comparison. “Countries closer to the Arctic,” he said, “may tend to wish the Arctic is private or that they have priority to develop it. But China insists that it is a public area, just like the moon.”

Hadow has seen for himself how a warming climate is changing the polar regions, and so have I. Once I traveled on a Russian icebreaker across the Arctic Ocean from Murmansk to east Greenland. Standing next to the captain on the bridge, day after day I watched him crossing out huge patches of ice from last year’s chart. In addition to the widely reported record melt in 2012, Arctic monitoring stations measured heat-trapping carbon dioxide exceeding 400 parts per million for the first time ever. By general consensus, 350 ppm is the highest safe level we need to maintain in order to avoid profound climate change.

The volume of summer ice on the Arctic Ocean is poorly understood. “We can see the area of the ice from satellites,” Hadow explains, “but we can’t see its thickness. Thirty to 40 percent of the total volume of Arctic Ocean ice is held in pressure ridges. On my aborted expedition I was going to take five different measurements of every ridge I crossed.”

“How many ridges would there have been on your route?” I ask.

“About 7,500.”

“So you were going to take 37,500 measurements with a cutting-edge kit?”

“No, with a clipboard, a pencil, and a pile of forms.”

This is vintage Hadow. Unlike most explorers, he doesn’t talk about gear much. His passion is ice craft: understanding how the polar environment works and how he can work with it. And anyway, not many kits work at minus 60 degrees. At the South Pole, I saw grown men cry at the failure of some multimillion-dollar piece of equipment that had worked in the lab.

How serious, I ask, is the Big Melt? Having finished his training session, Hadow was about to take a shower, but at this question he became tremendously animated, standing at the sink in his socks and waving his arms around like a windmill. “There couldn’t possibly be anything more serious!” This man cares about the Arctic Ocean very much, and his personal relationship with the landscape he knows so well is deeply touching. His major concern is the damage that would be caused by hydrocarbon extraction. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil lie underneath the Arctic Ocean, not to mention a periodic table of minerals. “It means that the role of the explorer has never been more important. The natural world is showing signs of stress in response to human activity, yet urbanization, increasingly, has cut us off from the natural world. The better we understand how it works, the better we can manage it.”

According to John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace U.K., surface ice measurements “will be critical to our understanding of what’s really going on in the high Arctic. What ice information can reveal is that this is not just about the Arctic—these changes will affect us all.” Hadow has a messianic vision of the global importance of the explorer’s work. “The Discovery Channel/National Geographic view of the natural world has taken us down a dead end and wasted time, making us feel a sense of awe and wonder but not moving us forward usefully,” he says. “I don’t think the Arctic is beautiful, though it has its moments. I don’t buy into wilderness worship. It delays the relationship we need to have. When we understand well, we start to care, and then maybe we’ll act.”

Bravery is not just about besting ice floes. It’s also about accepting that something has ended and facing the next challenge with quiet dignity. It was hard not to feel sorry for Hadow when I saw what he was putting himself through on the training front with no expedition at the end of it. But he is so immensely likable, it was impossible to see him as a tragic figure. There was instead something quietly hieratic about this man who knows so much about something so very important. We should listen to his message. His recently founded life-coaching company has already netted several high-profile corporate clients, and he plans to develop his profile in that field, as well as engaging in a range of polar-spokesman activities.

Despite his derision for the fluffy polar bear wondrous nature view of the polar regions, Hadow talks of “a lifelong love of the Arctic” in romantic terms. In the shower he’s obviously tried to find the words to sum up his attitude. Shiny and polished, he emerges to recite what he’s come up with. It’s corny as hell, but totally convincing. “The Arctic Ocean is like a defenseless princess who needs chaperones—a new generation of explorers—to represent her interests abroad as she arrives on the global scene. Everyone is looking to see what they can get out of her—nobody else there is coming from her perspective. That’s the job of those coming up behind me. Before it’s too late.”

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