Irish quest to reach the North Pole

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Posted on: 5th February, 2014

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Taking the energy equivalent to 120 marathons, the North Pole expedition, which is expected to take somewhere between 50 and 55 days, is certainly not one for the weak. Mike will be burning up to 9000 calories a day and Clare, 5000.

On February 14, Bandon’s Dr Clare O’Leary will set off on her most challenging and important expedition to date — skiing to the North Pole. This will complete the three Poles for Clare, who says that reaching the North Pole has been a big deal for her over for the last few years; her first attempt at it was in 2012. “I’m looking forward to having a proper go at it,” she says. Clare’s companion on this expedition is fellow adventurer Mike O’Shea, who began his climbing career at the age of 13. The LifeProof Ice Project is an ambitious project by Clare and Mike to walk across all the major ice caps in the world. Clare takes time out of her busy training schedule to speak to Mary O’Brien about the upcoming expedition.

Only 132 people have ever completed the North Pole journey on foot; it is widely regarded as the hardest expedition in the world. Over the last century the sudden melting of the ice has now virtually eliminated the possibilities of ever walking there again. Current conditions in 2014, with the change in the jet stream, have facilitated a good freeze and this may be the last chance for anyone to reach the North Pole on foot. If this expedition is a success, Clare and Mike will be the first people to reach the North Pole in over four years, and the first Irish people in history.

Taking the energy equivalent to 120 marathons, the North Pole expedition, which is expected to take somewhere between 50 and 55 days, is certainly not one for the weak. Mike will be burning up to 9000 calories a day and Clare, 5000 calories. The adventurers have been training for five to six days a week for several months in preparation — pulling sleds and tyres and running and cycling.

Facing temperatures as low as minus 55 degrees Celsius, Clare and Mike will first spend two weeks in Northern Canada to acclimatise. “Everything takes so much longer in that cold,” says Clare. “All the food freezes, so you have to break everything, even chocolate bars, into small pieces to eat.” Clare and Mike will be consuming cereal and protein bars, peanut butter and even butter for energy. “You dread stopping to eat because it’s such an ordeal and you get so cold,” explains Clare.

With only three hours of daylight and one to two hours of twilight at the beginning of the expedition, the team will spend a lot of time in the tent to keep warm. “It gets extremely cold when the sun goes down so you can’t stay out in it,” says Clare “but we have plenty to keep us busy in the tent. It can take three to four hours just to melt enough snow to drink and cook with, things break all the time and need to be fixed, you might use the satellite phone and of course you’re usually too wrecked to stay awake.”

Clare and Tom will set a schedule at the start of each day. As the days go on and daylight increases, the length of time spent skiing daily will vary between four and 12 hours. “We usually stop for a break and to eat every two hours,” says Clare.

Possible dangers faced on the trip are shifting ice, polar bears and frostbite. “The ice is moving all the time so it is a concern at night. I’ve had to move the tent during the night before. You hear loud cracks all the time,” says Clare.

clare1Clare explains that it’s when you stop to eat or put up the tent that you have to be careful of frostbite. “When you’re moving, you’re warm and comfortable. But you have to be constantly aware and watching for frostbite in each other, especially if there’s a wind or your clothes are any way damp. You’re a team and rely on each other.”

The team will carry guns to scare off any polar bears that become threatening.

An accomplished adventurer, Clare initially won the nation’s admiration in 2004 when she became the first-ever Irish woman to reach the 29,035 foot summit of Mount Everest. Since then, her indomitable spirit has led her to stand on the highest point on each of the seven continents in the world and be the first Irish woman to do so.  She has climbed Ama Dablam’ in the Himalayas, skied across the Greenland Iceland cap and skied to the South Pole. As part of the Ice Project, she has crossed the North Patagonia Ice Cap and Lake Baikal in Siberia. She will have completed the three poles if the North Pole Expedition is a success.

This inspiring West Cork woman also manages to fit her busy training schedule and expeditions alongside a career as a consultant Gastroenterologist. She is a patron of Cork University Hospital Charity, and in December was honoured in her native Bandon, County Cork by having a walkway named after her. In 2012 Clare was named as one of Ireland’s Top 25 Most Powerful Women and awarded the Trailblazer Award by the Women’s Executive Network.

Hopefully after a successful North Pole expedition, next up in the Ice Project for the resolute Clare and Mike is the Iceland Ice Cap (Europe’s largest icecap), followed by the South Patagonian Ice Cap (only completed a handful of times).

The couple aim to traverse Antarctica on foot in 2015 (only completed by three persons), complete the Greenland Crossing (biggest melt happened in 2012 with 97 per cent of surface covered with meltwater) and finally the project will culminate with the Crossing of South Georgia on the Centenary year, 2016, accompanied by family members of the original men who did the crossing, three of whom were Irish — Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean, Tim McCarthy.

For more information on the Ice Project go to www.theiceproject.org.

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