Kevin Biggar - manhauling to the South Pole
It’s a rare privilege for me to sit down with somebody who has actually man-hauled to the south pole in the grand tradition of Captain Scott. Covering 2,400 kilometres on foot in sub-zero temperatures is quite a feat but add a 160 kilo sled and you are heading into another realm of endurance. Kevin Biggar, author, adventurer, gifted public speaker and star of the television series ‘First Crossings’ is a man who has done just that.
I first met Kevin more than 10 years ago when he and his mate Jamie had just set the world record for rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. How had they done it? Why attempt it in the first place? To me the journey was as unfathomable as it was awe-inspiring. Kevin has a fascinating way of being in the world and an even more curious way of approaching seemingly intractable problems. The way he described it, rowing the Atlantic, crossing a staggering distance, was only possible if tackled in small chunks. He made it sound entirely do-able. At the time Kevin was in preparation mode for his Antarctic journey. He’d already achieved one feat of strength, resilience and mental toughness. Was this one going to require more of the same? Big empty space. One goal in mind. A staggering amount of hard pulling to achieve it.
Once Kevin starts talking about his experience on the ice, it becomes clear that the Antarctic journey was disproportionately more horrible in every way. Physically more exhausting, logistically more challenging and psychologically beyond extreme. Even after writing a book about the ordeal and admitting how cathartic the process had been, he appears traumatised. Several times during lunch, he adopts a thousand-yard stare more often seen on the faces of war veterans. When he comes back to his senses, he says, ‘Sorry, I was just trying to get out of my sleeping bag.’
The most sophisticated cold-climate survival gear, equipment of the highest specifications, communications links to the outside world were critical to Kevin and Jamie’s successful completion of their journey. They were in top physical condition, had applied almost scientific rigor to their planning and provisioning and had read everything they could lay their hands about the realities of travelling in polar regions. It seems that nothing could prepare them for the sharp shock of being there. Neither Jamie nor Kevin could prepare psychologically for the vastness, the brutal cold and the intense hunger they would experience once they set off from Hercules Inlet.
Despite being about what he describes as ‘a bitter struggle’, Kevin’s book, ‘Escape to the Pole’ is extremely entertaining. Interspersed with references to Scott’s diary entries, it is also very informative. Some key quotes:
‘The sled has the drag co-efficient of an apartment block, complete with satellite dishes and clotheslines. It feels like I am pulling a bathtub, the old-fashioned claw footed kind. With a walrus in it.’
‘It’s just a bitter struggle. There’s not even the comfort of repetition; every step is planned and conscious. Take a step. Heave. Take another step. Heave.’
‘The rising and setting of the sun is the most basic of rhythms. When it doesn’t happen, it’s profoundly disturbing.’
‘Nothing can be left unheld for a minute or the wind will whip it away.’
‘Antarctica is trying to kill me. Correction: I’m trying to kill me. Antarctica is only too happy to help.’
‘This is going to be a long, lousy summer, unless we fall into a crevasse - then it will be a short, lousy summer.’
‘Don’t think about the straining fabric [in the tent at night]. Don’t think about the lack of progress. Don’t think about the unavoidable failure. Don’t think about the pain that you are going to have to go through tomorrow. Don’t think about the people you’re going to disappoint. Don’t think about the snow piling up outside. Don’t think.’
My favourite quote is the one Kevin writes when signing his book: “Don’t give up.” Inspiring words.
Find out a bit more about Kevin and the work he’s doing now or pick up a copy of his excellent book, ‘Escape to the Pole’ at: www.kevinbiggar.co.nz