Skipping school for the South Pole

A freezing wind blows, slicing through thick clothes and rattling the bones. Blizzards are forecast. Amelia Hempleman-Adams is wearing a padded jacket, her hair whipping in the gusts.

And that was just London last week when Amelia, 16, arrived back after becoming the youngest person ever to walk and ski to the South Pole. She was finding it hard to adjust.

“In two days, I’ve gone from 24-hour sunshine in Antarctica to darkness and rain in England,” she said. “It feels colder here, and very weird.”

Perhaps such dislocations are down to misplaced expectations. It is easy to understand her bewilderment, but there is really no comparison between the temperatures here and the nose-lopping, frost-biting sub-zero levels she encountered in the Antarctic.

“It was as I expected: -50C,” she recalled. Twice, her expedition was enveloped in blizzards, leaving Amelia and her companions lost in a white-out.

“It was quite scary, because usually we used the sun to navigate, and we did go off course a bit. You just carry on walking, following the person in front.”

The great fear was that they might ski over or step on a hidden crevasse.

“The really scary thing was the ice cracking under your feet and you hear something falling for quite a long time. Some people scream when that happens, which was about three times a day.”

How did a schoolgirl find herself in the world’s last great wilderness? She had skipped lessons to join her father. WHAT was her father, the adventurer David Hempleman-Adams, thinking of when he chose to take his youngest daughter into such an environment?

“I have been very fortunate,” he said. “I have been to the poles and climbed Everest. But my greatest memory was going to the Brecon Beacons, aged 13, for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. I remember that so vividly. It was life changing.

“These days we surround teens with cotton wool. I think that a lot of our social problems would be resolved if we could get youngsters out into the open.”

He sensed an opportunity when he began laying plans for a trip to coincide with the centenary of Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated race against Roald Amundsen, who reached the South Pole 100 years ago last week. Scott arrived almost five weeks later to discover the Norwegian had beaten him.

“Great God!” Scott wrote in his diary, “this is an awful place.” On the journey back, he and his four companions died from frostbite, snow blindness, hunger and exhaustion.

A hundred years later, with pictures of penguins scrolling endlessly across our television screens, the South Pole may sometimes seem like just another tourist destination. Yet Antarctica remains extremely dangerous. “There are crevasses, and you can easily die,” said Hempleman-Adams.

His hero was always Scott’s rival, Ernest Shackleton, who abandoned a trip to the South Pole with 97 miles to go. So Hempleman-Adams organised a group of people, all roughly his own age, who had been on adventures with him before, to complete those last miles from Shackleton’s furthest point south. Then he asked Amelia to come along, too.

Her experience of wilderness exploration consisted mainly of staying on Exmoor as part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme. But as one of the best young high jumpers in the UK, she is physically fit; and to prepare her for the Antarctic, her father came up with the simple solution of taking her for sojourns in a vast supermarket freezer in Swindon.

Contemplating stacks of frozen burgers might not have the romance of Shackleton’s journeys, but it proved worthwhile.

“It’s the only way to really test your equipment,” said Hempleman-Adams. “Afterwards, we changed her visor and bought some other gloves.”

Skiing to the South Pole is not only a physical test. “There’s the mental side, too,” he said. “Amelia was the youngest person on the trip by 30 years.”

Just reaching “furthest point south” was uncomfortable enough: they had to land a plane on a windswept snowfield. Amelia recalled: “There was some very hard sastrugi [snow with a rough sandblasted texture]. We did at least 12 approaches and we all felt very sick.”

At first they managed only two or three hours’ travel a day as they struggled to adjust to the altitude. Much of the ice-covered continent is many thousands of feet above sea-level. The effort of walking, skiing and hauling sledges can be exhausting.

The weight of their supplies was kept to a minimum — so much so that Amelia’s father had told her to ditch good luck letters from friends that she had wanted to bring along.

“He said it was too much additional weight, but I sneaked three letters back in,” she said.

“It was windy all the time. It was so windy on the first night that the tent moved [across the snow]. During the day my face was completely covered with a balaclava that looks like a gas mask.

“After halfway, the work got really hard. I had aching shoulders, aching back, blisters on my thumbs from my poles, and blisters on my feet from the boots. I also got tennis elbow from my poles — from the impact as you put them down. And I got a cold burn on my nose from my sun goggles. As the days went by, I got more and more tired.”

Another member of the team fell seriously ill. “She got altitude sickness really badly. She also had frostbite on her nose.”

Bad altitude sickness can be fatal and the victim had to be airlifted out. Amelia slogged on. “We would walk for an hour, then have a break, sitting on the sledge and eating and drinking for 10 minutes — but no longer, or you’d get too cold.”

After 10 hours of such routines, she said, you get very tired, and then you have to set up camp, which in such an environment is a huge effort.

Everybody wanted to collapse, but first they had to melt snow to drink and more to fill flasks for the next day (they needed to drink about five litres a day), and build a shelter for people to use as a lavatory (of which more shortly). Then they had to cook dehydrated food, which they loathed.

“You just gag on it, it’s awful,” said Amelia’s father, though after years of experience he was content to eat the stuff. “I know how to disguise it, with sugar,” he said.

But sometimes Amelia could not face it, so he had allowed her to bring along supplies of dried mango, chocolate and packets of Haribo sweets. Biscuits were her other consolation.

Then they crawled into their tents to sleep — if they could. At five to a tent, it was not always easy. Before leaving for Antarctica, Amelia had been advised to pack some earplugs.

To block out the howling wind?

“No, to block out his [her father’s] snoring,” she said. “But it didn’t work. I didn’t sleep well because I think that everyone in the tent snored.”

That, though, was not the worst hardship. Hempleman-Adams insists that his expeditions leave a place as pristine as they find it. As regards using the lavatory, that involves bags in which individuals collect their own waste.

Amelia and her companions found themselves hauling their bags across the frozen miles so they could be packed and flown off the continent at journey’s end. As she points out, the scenic glamour we see on Frozen Planet is only half the story of polar travel.

Since Amelia took time off school for the expedition, she had intended to do some homework along the way: maths, economics and a bit of geography seemed suitable.

But just before setting off, they met the granddaughter of Ernest Shackleton, who gave them a commemorative medal and a photograph of the great explorer to take with them. Alexandra Shackleton also gave some advice to Amelia: skip the homework.

Amelia dived back into her schoolwork on the plane back. But on her journey to the pole, her father reckons, she learnt something even more valuable: that she can cope with a challenge many young people might think extreme.

Too modest to say so herself, her father summed up her experience: “She found a serenity that I didn’t know she had. She never minded about anything.

“She left as a child, a young teenager. And she has definitely come back a young woman.”

Meet the youngest to…

Climb Everest:
Jordan Romero from Big Bear Lake, California, climbed Everest (29,035ft) in May 2010 when he was 13. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro when he was nine. Jordan said he had climbed Everest to inspire more young people to go outdoors, because “obese children are the future of America, the way things are going”.

Swim the Channel:
In 1988 Thomas Gregory from southeast London swam from England to France when he was 11 years and 11 months old.He completed the swim in 11 hours and 54 minutes. The youngest girl to swim the Channel is Samantha Druce, from Dorset. She was 12 years and 118 days old when she swam the 25-odd miles in 1983 in 15 hours and 28 minutes.

Row an ocean solo:
At the age of 22, Katie Spotz rowed the Atlantic on her own in 2010, covering a distance of 2,817 miles. She set off from west Africa and, after 70 days 5 hours and 22 minutes at sea, arrived in Georgetown, Guyana. Spotz, from Mentor, Ohio, took enough food for 110 days. She made the voyage in her 19ft yellow wooden rowing boat without any support boat, apart from a Coast Guard vessel that escorted her on the last stretch to Guyana’s shore.

Circumnavigate the globe:
Jessica Watson, from Buderim in Queensland, Australia, completed a seven-month journey sailing unassisted around the world in May 2010, when she was 16. When she sailed into Sydney Harbour in her 34ft pink yacht, she overtook the record that had been set the previous year by Mike Perham of Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. He was 17 when he made a solo circumnavigation.

Climb the seven summits:
George Atkinson, from Surbiton, southwest London, scaled the highest mountain in every continent by the age of 16. He began by climbing Kilimanjaro when he was 11 and completed the challenge by climbing Everest in May this year when he was 16 years and 362 days old.

1739 words. First published 18 December 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd