Life in a cold climate: How Sara Wheeler is shaking up Arctic exploration

The polar explorer Sara Wheeler is unimpressed by the 'frozen-beard' brigade. Instead, her interest lies in the harsh reality of those who make their home in the Arctic

Adjusting a daringly short black velvet dress and looking down at the girlie pink socks she has folded over her black boots, Sara Wheeler pronounces, "I don't do any sledge-pulling and I'm not interested in sledge-pulling." For the glamorous polar travel writer, whose grey pixie hair, kohled eyes and shocking-pink lipstick make her look a million miles from her Gore-Tex-clad contemporaries, sledge-pulling is a distraction from the real business of describing the world's extremities. "I think that to a certain extent we've got used to using the Arctic and the Antarctic as testing grounds," she explains. "Once upon a time, they had to be, because we didn't know what was there, but now those times have gone and we've got to look for something else. I find most of today's frozen-beard endeavours quite stunt-ish."

The "frozen beards", as she has dubbed those male contemporaries who pit themselves against the elements before publishing a book whose cover shows them staring out with ice flecks in their facial fuzz, have been unsurprisingly huffy in their reception of this female interloper in their predominantly male club. But Wheeler is unperturbed. "In the exploration community, there's a great sense that places such as the Antarctic are private territory, and they don't want me going in and making it seem as if anyone can do it. There is a certain group of people who are never going to like what I do, but that's OK, it's a free country. They don't own it and nor do I."

Lighting a gas fire in her already hot north London home on a warm autumn morning, Wheeler has no desire to prove how tough she is. Researching her sixth and latest book, The Magnetic North, a tale of the people and landscapes contained within the Arctic Circle, she frequently camped in sub-zero temperatures and "shared her bathroom with a seal", but she says that for that to be the purpose to her trips would miss the point. "I want to say other things about those regions, because I think there are plenty of other things to be said. It's a pity if it's only about losing half your body weight and seeing how dead you can get. I want to write about the places, or people, or the universal experience, not about myself."

Every Christmas, the shelves of bookshops heave with accounts of authors' extreme polar journeys, but Wheeler has chosen to do something different. Part reportage, part investigative journalism and part biography of a land, her book takes in every aspect of life within the Arctic Circle, presenting it as a home, not a playground. From investigating pollution crimes in Chukotka – a post-Communist outpost of Russia the size of Turkey – and travelling with reindeer herders in Lapp country, to uncovering the tragic history of a monastery in the middle of the White Sea, Wheeler's interest lies in the communities which make their lives there.

It was Chukotka – whose inhabitants were ill-treated first by Communism and then by capitalism, and are living in a place that often resembles a nuclear wasteland – that most captured her imagination. "Chukotka is this region of a quarter-of-a-million square miles where there's no road and nothing grows. The indigenous people have been abandoned there and I saw some pretty grim sights. Nuclear waste is just dotted around all over the place. There were nuclear submarine carcasses lolling around like whales."

Wheeler's first experience of writing in the ice caps was at the opposite end of the globe. In 1995, she wrote her first and most successful book to date, Terra Incognita, about her seven-month stay in Antarctica as a writer-in-residence with the US National Science Foundation. She returned several times to the far south, but the more polluted and developed Arctic had not appealed until now. "I was attracted to the Antarctic because it was an un-owned continent, undefined and pure. It was a symbol of the world as it might be, so it fitted a youthful vision of purity and idealism.

"In contrast, I was very unnattracted to the Arctic because it was everything the Antarctic wasn't. It was owned, it was polluted, there was lots of oil and all sorts of miserable people, it was just not something that interested me. Years went by and I went to other places; I went to Africa and did this and that, and then I became middle aged – I'm almost 50 – and I started thinking about the Arctic. Of course, it is all those things, and that more suits the elegiac melancholy of middle age, where everything is fragmented. I'm not interested in idealism any more, I'm interested in reality."

Reality is what you get in The Magnetic North. Whether it is scenes of alcoholic fathers pushing buggies with holsters, where beer cans have replaced milk bottles, or seeing the sharp end of climate change while camping with scientists on the Greenland ice sheet, Wheeler never shirks from the ugly truth of the region. Many of these truths were discovered with her children in tow. Reggie, now aged six, and Wilf, 12, both accompanied her on various legs of the trip. Reggie, at the time an un-weaned baby, was enthroned in pelts and taken reindeer herding with the Lapps, while Wilf, at the age of 10, was introduced to some colourful Slavic vocabulary after being taken under the wing of the Russian crew of an ice-breaker.

Now, after years of combining travelling with bringing up her two sons, Wheeler is ready for some time at home with them and her partner. "I haven't had any time off for 25 years and I feel writers need a fallow time," she says. Just don't expect her to embrace domestic life. "People always say to me it must be a challenge when I take my children with me to strange places, but I always think it's more of a challenge being here. I'm not domestic; I feel more of an imposter at the school gate."

The extract

The Magnetic North, By Sara Wheeler (Cape £20)

'... Every nation devastates native cultures ... Russians did it with bureaucracy, Americans with money, Canadians (in the end) with kindness. And everyone did it with booze and syphilis.

Acculturation is a theme of "The Magnetic North". It's a grim story, but I was not looking for a pretty picture. I was looking to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom and the horror ...'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn