In May 2003, Pen Hadow was catapulted to international fame when he became the first person to complete one of the last great polar challenges – solo, without re-supply, from Canadato the North Geographic Pole. This feat is thought by some to be harder than climbing Everest solo, without oxygen, and demands such a level of skill and endurance that all before had tried and failed. Even polar experts were beginning to think the challenge was perhaps impossible.
It had taken Pen 15 years, three attempts and an exceptional degree of commitment to achieve his dream. Indeed the undertaking had almost cost him his life on more than one occasion, when he broke through the ice and found himself swimming in the sub-zero waters of theArctic Ocean, many hundreds of miles from the nearest help.
Pen has more experience than most of the Arctic sea ice, and he has watched with dismay the changes taking place there over the past two decades – open water where there was none, seals and bears in places where they never used to be, changes in the thickness and colour of the ice itself.
The result is that Pen has now become a leading exponent on the need for change, with a genuine first hand view of what has been going on at the ends of the earth, and an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the implications for our and for our children’s futures.
The Early Years
The tale began 43 years ago with a bizarre ‘polar conditioning programme’ overseen by Enid Wigley, who had been the nanny of Scott of the Antarctic’s son, Peter. Nanny Wigley, was an indomitable woman in her seventies, who had subsequently been nanny to Pen’s father, and then finally to Pen himself.
Scott’s widow, fearing that Peter was bound to follow in his father’s footsteps as a polar explorer, had been determined that he would not meet the same fate, and Nanny Wigley was ordered to make the boy tough and hardy enough to survive even the Antarctic cold.
As a result, Peter Scott rarely wore shoes throughout his childhood, and was encouraged to play outside in all weathers, including winter snows, often wearing little more than a pair of shorts and a shirt.
Years later, with his father’s encouragement, the same conditioning programme was applied to Pen at his home in the Scottish Highlands. The experiment was only terminated when one of his mother’s horrified friends pointed out that the boy was suffering from frost-nip. However Nanny Wigley remained a family retainer, and continued to fill Pen’s head with tales of Scott and the other great explorers – ‘the Antarctic Boys’ as Pen came to know them.
His father also told many stories of the sporting prowess and great deeds of Pen’s illustrious ancestors, as far back as Tudor times. Among them was Douglas Hadow, a member of the seven-strong party led by Edward Whymper that made the first ascent of theMatterhornin 1865 – and one of the four who fell to their deaths on the descent.
Evidence of Pen’s unusual mindset and innate interest in exploring his limits abounds, but an example was when, aged 7, he decided to find out how long he could hang upside-down by his legs in an apple tree. Four hours later, his head swollen, he was discovered and forcibly removed by his shocked mother.
He discovered early the benefits that come with a high degree of compliance to sports training programmes, and applied these to his own extra-curricular endeavours.
Aged 15 he devised a punishing training schedule to enable him to attempt a traditional school marathon, which in 1977 was long before marathons had become a public participation sport.
He completed the route in three hours and later learned it had not been done since 1927, fifty years earlier. It’s now become a major feature inHarrowSchool’s sporting calendar.
Leader of Men and Women
In the 1980’s Pen became the youngest-ever executive at Mark McCormack’s sports organisation, the internationally renowned IMG, where he concentrated on promoting the talents of international sports stars and sports events.
A decade later, in 1995, he set up the world’s first specialist polar guide service, almost single-handedly opening up theArcticand Antarctic to ‘allegedly ordinary’ people with his pioneering travel business, The Polar Travel Company. His vision was of empowering people from all walks of life to fulfil their polar ambitions.
In 1997 he organised, inspired and secured most of the funding for the first all-women’s relay to the North Geographic Pole, thereby enabling 20 women, with no previous polar experience, from all backgrounds and age groups, to find fame and walk into The Guinness Book of Records.
Recent World Firsts
How proud Douglas Hadow would have been to see his descendant catapulted to fame when he became the first man in history to reach the Pole, having walked – and swum – alone and without resupply the 480 miles across the Arctic Ocean from Canada to the North Geographic Pole. The endeavour, comprising a 64-day feat of extreme endurance, is thought by some to be harder than climbing Everest solo without oxygen.
Twice he had faced failure in his all-consuming mission. On his third attempt, when the Pole finally seemed to be within his grasp, Pen fell through the thin ice – without his immersion suit on – and very nearly drowned. When he then found he had lost a ski in the water, he immediately donned his specially-designed dry suit, and the renowned ‘Human Icebreaker’ lowered himself back into the icy ocean to retrieve it. After a 20-minute search, enduring severe hypothermia, he realised he would have to complete the last 150 miles of this journey on foot.
During three months he saw nothing and nobody, save a small snow bunting. He ended up talking to his snowbrush, ‘Mavis’, his ski poles, and his sledge ‘Baskers’. They became his friends and kept him company, as he averaged 7.5 miles a day battling his way up and down ice rubble, while pulling a 19-stone sledge, and swimming across stretches of open water, on his 480-mile odyssey, where the temperature was -28C to -46C 24-hours a day for the first 35 days.
Remarkably, just eight months later, in February 2004, Pen became the first Briton to trek, without resupply, to both Poles. He achieved this as he led ex-French Foreign Legionnaire Simon Murray (63) on a new 1,200km route to the South Geographic Pole, enabling Murray to become the oldest person by a decade to achieve the feat. The expedition raised £280,000 towards the restoration and digital cataloguing of the priority items within the Royal Geographical Society’s internationally important polar heritage collection.
Pen is currently working with NASA, ESA, the UK Met Office, the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, and other research and campaigning organisations dedicated to global climate change issues, to see how he can use his unique first-hand experiences on the Arctic Ocean to promote understanding amongst policy-makers and the public of these life-threatening issues.