Pen Hadow: Because it’s there... but for how long?

The explorer is risking his life in the Arctic again, this time for all of us. There is no other way to discover how fast the polar ice, vital to the planet, is melting. Cole Moretonin conversation with Pen Hadow
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Frustrated at being kept indoors, Pen Hadow went for a run the other day. No big deal, except that he is currently in the Arctic. The temperature was minus 40C as he left his camp and jogged six miles through a merciless snowscape. “It was chilly,” he says down a crackling phone line from Resolute Bay, the last, tiny settlement that explorers see before striking out for the North Pole. “This place has been having a bit of a cold snap.”

There’s understatement for you. So was the 46-year-old English runner dressed for survival in layers of Arctic gear? No. It hadn’t arrived, because of a problem with the supply plane, so Hadow ran in the only clothes he could: jeans, a thin thermal top, a jacket and a hat. “People who saw me,” he says, “were begging me to come in.”

He laughs in a way that makes one fearful for him, but Hadow was sure he could do it. Five years ago, he became the first person to trek to the North Pole alone and without resupply. That meant swimming some of the way through unimaginably cold waters, fighting frostbite and polar bears. Just eight months later, he made it to the South Pole as well. Now he is back in the Arctic again, preparing for an expedition he says is even more ambitious and which will begin this week, making ferocious demands on his body. Warming up (so to speak) with a barely clad run in the sub-zero cold made sense (at least to him). And anyway, one of his new team had issued a challenge. “Charlie, who is a Royal Marine, had already done it in the dark. So there was a game on.”

So far, so self-absorbed, you might think. Explorers are confident, driven individuals. They have to be. This time, however, there is far more at stake than achieving some invented personal goal. This week, Hadow and two colleagues will set out on a three-month, 700-mile trek to the North Pole, all the way taking detailed measurements of the thickness and density of the ice.

Nobody has ever done this before, and the results will be of vital significance to the scientific community, and potentially to the world as a whole. This will be the truest picture yet of what global warming is doing to the ice that covers the polar region, and how long that cover can last.

The findings of the Catlin Arctic Survey (named after its sponsor) will be analysed by the US Navy and made available to delegates at the United Nations conference on climate change to be held in Copenhagen this year. “This is the last season in which the data can be collected before that meeting,” says Hadow, who hopes it will prompt action on the crisis he has seen for himself: the ice melting at an increasing rate. “My anecdotal evidence is not enough,” he says. “The science says the sea ice – it’s not a polar ice cap, that’s the wrong term – has shrunk by 11 per cent per decade since 1979 and thinned by up to 40 per cent over the same period. The process is accelerating, and our findings will reveal how fast.”

Collecting the data means trudging and swimming through one of the harshest environments on earth, stopping to drill down or scan the ice with specially developed radar equipment hauled on sledges that each weigh over 200lbs. “The only way to get actual measurements is to be on the surface,” he says, “and the only people in a position to do that are in the polar adventurer-explorer community.”

This is a job he was trained for. Extraordinarily, Hadow was raised by a woman – his father’s old nanny – who had once worked for Scott of the Antarctic and who was hired to toughen the young man up with treatment that sounds as if it bordered on abuse: sending him out from his home in the Highlands into blizzards and gales with as few clothes on as possible. This only stopped when he was discovered to have frostnip. His father passed on a love of frozen adventure, and the boy was discovered to have unusual physical endurance. At Harrow School, for example, he single-handedly resurrected the dormant tradition of Long Ducker, which has pupils running a marathon-length course all the way to Marble Arch. He later worked as a sports agent, but found his calling after his father died. Spontaneously, at the deathbed, he vowed to get to the North Pole unaided. On his third attempt, he found himself in tears on his knees at the pole, saying: “I’ve done it, Dad. For you.”

By then he was married to Mary, an equestrian who he says has “a spine of steel” and who shares his love of the outdoors. She helps to run his polar guide business and claims to be more worried about him when he’s at home: “He’s in more danger along the A303 because I know that in his head he’s somewhere in the Arctic.” For fun, she once took him on in the cross country Man Versus Horse race in Wales. Mary and her mount finished an hour ahead of Pen (which, by the way, is short for Pendrill – a name passed down on his mother’s side since the family helped to hide Charles II).

Pen and Mary live in a stone fishing lodge on Dartmoor with their two children, Wilf and Freya, aged 10 and seven. “It is much harder to be away from them this time,” he admits, sounding more vulnerable than you might expect. “They were one and five when I last went, and I made a mistake in how I took my leave. I thought it would be a good idea to say to my son, ‘You’re the man of the house now, look after your mum and your sister.’ He absolutely took it to heart, asking his mum how she was all the time, but the strain eventually became too much. He had a bit of a wobble. I have now learned that while it was well intentioned, it was an unfair thing to do.” For similar reasons, he is having very little contact with his children while in the Arctic. “If you call them up you just remind them how far away you are. The dangers can run rampant in their minds.”

Instead, he is spending these last days before departure preparing his kit, obsessively. “Out on the ice, one is virtually incapable of mending things or doing anything that isn’t absolutely straightforward,” he says. “The face is covered in ice, you cannot see much, you’re doing everything by feel and your fingers are pretty cold.” With him will be Ann Daniels, one of the world’s leading polar explorers, and the expedition photographer, Martin Hartley. They will be supported by a crew of six, flying in supplies en route. Being part of a team is actually more stressful to someone with his mentality, he says, and something else is worrying him too. “I am going to be 47 on Thursday. I have done far less training than I am comfortable with.” Why? “Organisational things always seem more urgent. I am almost fearful of what I am going to have to ask of myself.”

He doesn’t just mean the pain. “I will have to over-ride what my normal mind would want to do. When you wake up in the mornings, you are normally encrusted in ice, you are incredibly cold. When everything is screaming at me to stay in my sleeping bag and in the tent, I am then going to be out for the next two hours drilling into the ice. It’s a very hard thing. But I’ve got to do it.”

One comfort will be the intricate beauty of what first-timers see as a blank white landscape. “Actually, there is no white,” he says. “The sun creeps up above the horizon, crawls along, then edges down again. The entire day is sunrise or sunset, which washes colours across the snow: yellows, reds, purples, then indigo blues. Lovely.”

Until you spot a polar bear. “The heart rate soars when you see one. It is about managing your extreme anxiety.” But then what? “We have marine flare pistols that fire bright lights, which may make the bear move on. Failing that, you make yourself look as big and as scary as possible. Anything you can do to persuade the bear that you are not a seal is going to be to your advantage.”

He has encountered more than 40 on his travels. “I am prepared to let them come in very close to try and avoid having to use our shotgun. I have hit a bear on the head with a saucepan. The ‘boing’ on its skull freaked it out and made it run.”

It’s just a shame those huge, deadly creatures don’t realise he’s on their side. “The polar bears, the ringed seal and the walrus all depend on sea ice cover,” he says, “but an entire eco system is in jeopardy if it disappears.” Some scientists estimate we have a century before that happens. “The US Navy says it could be some time in the next four years.” Sea levels will rise across the globe, with potentially catastrophic results. “Weather will also change,” he says. “The worrying thing is that people haven’t got a clue how.”

Only by walking, crawling and swimming across the sea ice can anyone be sure of what is going on now. Hadow believes his mission reconnects exploration with the quest for knowledge that drove previous generations into the unknown.

“Making it to the North Pole was ultimately a personal ambition,” he admits, “with limited benefit to anyone beyond the polar adventuring community. This time, science will benefit from the data, and we are creating a platform from which to engage as many people as possible in what is happening in the Arctic Ocean.

“This is important work, and nobody can do it but us,” he says, before returning to the meticulous tagging and testing of the gear that will keep him alive over the next few months, in conditions few others could survive. “Our skills, which are otherwise bizarre, esoteric and socially redundant, have become hyper-relevant. Suddenly, explorers are socially useful again.”

Biography: A life on ice

1962 Rupert Nigel Pendrill Hadow born in Perth. Raised in the Highlands by nanny Enid Wigley, who once worked for Scott of the Antarctic and who sends him out in all weathers wearing as few clothes as possible.

1977 As pupil at Harrow, revives tradition of running marathon-length route to Marble Arch.

1994 First solo attempt at North Pole thwarted by uncrossable water.

1995 Sets up Polar Travel Company, first of its kind.

1997 Inspires and organises first all-female relay to the North Pole.

1998 Second solo attempt ends with damaged knee.

2003 Becomes first person to trek solo and without resupply to North Pole.

2004 Goes to South Pole.

2007 Loses Man Versus Horse race in Wales to his (mounted) wife, Mary.

2009 Leads Catlin Arctic Survey to measure sea ice cover at the pole.

To see live video, read blogs and ask questions of Pen Hadow while he is on the expedition, go to