(By Correne Coetzer) With three decades of polar experience behind him, Australian Eric Philips is applying his expertise to polar cycling and gear designing. But he is still learning, from wounded soldiers. They are tough, real tough, Eric said to ExplorersWeb, while talking about his polar activities in 2013 and the two girls he is training for their respective 2014 polar expeditions.
ExplorersWeb: You and your team have lowered a capsule at the North Pole. Could you give us a short summary of what the purpose was? Is there a tracking system attached to the capsule so that you know where it is at the moment?
Eric: In the last decade there has been increasing pressure on the Arctic Ocean, commercial fishing and oil drilling being amongst the largest plunderers. Shell, BP, Exxon, Gazprom and other mining companies want to take advantage of dwindling ice to open new oil frontiers, for only three years of reserves. Many of us feel that the risk of a catastrophic oil spill is too great and that they should stay out. And in 2008 a Russian submarine expedition dropped a flag on the seabed below the Geographic North Pole, claiming sovereignty over the region.
Greenpeace approached me to organize logistics and to guide a North Pole campaign, which would both negate the Russian claim and highlight the destructive activities of mining and industrial fishing companies. In short the 16-strong Team Aurora of SavetheArctic.org skied for 5 days towards the North Pole and on arrival lowered a flag and a glass and titanium time capsule containing 2.7 million signatures and a message to the future, to the sea bed, claiming the North Pole and surrounding region as a sanctuary.
A steel base is anchoring the capsule to the seabed but in a few decades it will corrode and the capsule will float to the surface of an Arctic Ocean that we hope still to be covered in ice. Eventually it will be flushed out of the ocean and hopefully found and returned to Greenpeace or a university or place of learning. I probably won't be around when Greenpeace's message will be received, but my kids will, and my hope is that they will know an Arctic in better shape than it is now?
ExplorersWeb: With Global Warming many people are worried about the thickness of the ice at the NP. How thick was the ice at the 90°N? How easy was it to drill the hole?
Eric: In the last 30 years the Arctic has lost more than half of its sea ice, most of it around its perimeter, and there seems to be no indication that this thawing will stop any time soon. How is that for North Pole guides on the Arctic Ocean? It changes from year to year. Some years we have seen only first-year ice around the North Pole, an indication that these vast areas were open water the previous summer.
First-year ice, although thin compared with multi-year ice, is around 1.7 meters in thickness and more than thick enough for a ski team (large planes land on it at Barneo Ice Camp, the Russian station that services the brief North Pole airborne tourism industry). We found first-year ice at the North Pole and rather than hoping for a lead of open water we carried a powered auger, which could drill to around 1.8 meters. We used this to make a hole big enough to deploy the capsule.
For now, last degree ski expeditions can proceed on relatively firm ice but the last three years has shown a marked difficulty for expeditions trying to begin from land, where the ice is at its most friable.
ExplorersWeb:You are part of the Walking With The Wounded race to the South Pole. There are 3 WWTW teams, right? Are they the only people in this race? What disabilities do they have and what have you learned from them?
Eric: There are three 7-person teams racing three degrees (180nm/330km) to the South Pole, from USA, UK and Commonwealth (Australian and Canadian, I'm the guide of this team). Each team has 4 wounded soldiers, a mentor, a celebrity and a guide.
Initially I began training the Aussies in my home state, Tasmania, then met all of the teams in Iceland in March where we did some intensive training and selected the final teams. In August I’ll be in Telluride with them and final training in Norway in September.
The soldiers, men and women, who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffered a range of injuries - arm and leg amputations, burn and blast injuries, PTSD, gunshot and shrapnel wounds, blindness, back compression.
But what they have in common is an undeniable lust for life that is incredibly infectious. It's hard to take being able-bodied for granted after spending time with these people and yet not one of them will be looking for an easy way out. They're tough, real tough. It will be a joy and a privilege to be in Antarctica with them (and to beat the sorry asses of the US and UK teams across the line!!).
ExplorersWeb:You are also involved in Kate Leeming's cycle expedition to the Geographic South Pole. As no one has succeeded in cycling a full route (starting from the coast) to the Pole, everybody seems to be testing and trying what will work and what not. How is cycling different than skiing - apart from being on a bicycle?
Eric: The first to cycle to the South Pole will be a coveted achievement. A lot of time, technology and hard graft have gone into this relatively embryonic form of polar travel, with a number of valiant but unsuccessful attempts in the past few years.
Kate did some training with me in Svalbard in March and although her fat bike is one-of-a-kind with advancements in technology never seen before on the ice, we made some very valuable discoveries in terms of what will and won't work cycling across Antarctica's vast snow plains, and most of those are connected to design and mechanics. This completely sets cycling apart from sledding or even kiting. Sure they can also benefit from technology but success in their reaching an objective is not inherently dependent on it.
Polar cycling however is entirely different. If the bike is even marginally lacking in three fundamental areas - flotation, traction and power transfer - the cyclist, no matter how strong or experienced, is likely to fail. I was really impressed with Kate and believe she's coming up with a formula for success. She's extremely meticulous in her preparation, has an amazing team of specialists working with her and is super tough. We plan to continue training and testing in Greenland next year and Kate will make her South Pole attempt from November 2014.
ExplorersWeb: What are your favorite gear and clothes? How did it change over the years?
Eric: Given that I am into my third decade of polar adventuring, change in my personal gear over the years has been driven primarily by comfort. Together with Australian outdoor company, Mont Equipment, I've designed a polar shell suit that has markedly increased my comfort on the ice. A loose cut, highly breathable, no tape sealing, big zippers and pockets, no pesky velcro in wrong places, it's the finest polar suit available.
I rarely wear goggles on the Arctic Ocean but in Antarctica my Smith Optics Turbo goggles with their built-in extraction fan are a godsend. No gogged foggles!
And of course I love the reliability and functionality of my Flexi Ski Bindings. With the new shims below the binding and heel plate, skiers can now simply and quickly offset the binding to counter ankle roll, the nemesis of any long distance skier.
I’m also in the final stages of sled production. This new high-volume, super-tough all-plastic model is designed for full-length North Pole expeditions, has incredible glide and is amphibious for lead crossings. It will be available next year.
And lastly, as I have poor circulation in my fingers, one of my favorite devices is purely analog - a long serving spoon that I use as a utility tool, useful for a whole bunch of things when it's miserably cold and I lose dexterity in my fingers; fishing items out of my lunch bag, operating the tiny buttons on my GPS, keeping clients in check!
ExplorersWeb: Anything else?
Eric: Yes. I’m also working with Dutch adventurer and journalist, Bernice Notenboom (living in Fernie, Canada) on a North Pole to Canada ski expedition next year. We skied together in a team of 5 to the South Pole from the Ronne Ice Shelf in 07/08 and we had a great time on a very successful trip.
Bernice is a climate activist and hopes to use the expedition and resulting film and media to broaden the public’s awareness of the Arctic’s demise.
I’m also working as a consultant with an Australian adventurer, Geoff Wilson, on his solo ski-kite, Pink Polar Expedition, across Antarctica. Geoff is raising funds and awareness for breast cancer research.
In November-December this year I have my usual Chinese team flying to the South Pole and visiting Emperor penguins and am also planning on running a last degree South Pole trip in January next year.
And lastly, the International Polar Guides Foundation (IPGA) is now in its second year of operation and we have over a dozen guides registered and sixty subscribers. We recently made a slight restructure and now offer two guide endorsements - Polar Guide, for short-trip specialists, and Master Polar Guide, offered to those with full-length North Pole and South Pole expedition experience. IPGA was established to develop and preserve world-class professional guiding and give the public a tool by which to measure the capabilities of their polar guide.
Eric Philips' website
ExWeb South Pole 2013 interview with Geoff Wilson, "my mind I feel will be the greatest maze of all"
The Cycle Race for the South Pole: Girl power, Kate Leeming
Greenpeace time capsule and flag lowered at the North Pole