Today's polar explorers 'get a cushy ride'

Acclaimed adventurer casts a chill over celebratory year by laying into 'champagne sportsmen'
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'Men wanted for hazardous journey", read what was to become one of the world's most famous advertisements. "Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success." Placed to recruit men for Scott and Shackleton's Discovery expedition to the South Pole in 1901, it heralded the beginning of a golden era for polar exploration, with Great Britain at the very forefront.

Now, a few weeks before the start of International Polar Year in March, Britain's greatest living Arctic adventurer has declared the age of polar exploration to be dead. Sir Wally Herbert, described by Prince Charles as the greatest explorer of his generation, has broken his usual public silence to launch a scathing attack on the current generation of polar "explorers", whom he describes as merely "sportsmen with good PR".

In a rare, exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday, Sir Wally, who led the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean, said he had become disillusioned with polar exploration in the 21st century. "I feel we have seen the end of true polar exploration," said Sir Wally, 72.

"When I went there in 1955, 80 per cent of the Antarctic was unknown; we had to map it ourselves. Now there is nowhere left to explore on the face of the Earth," he said. "You can't call it exploration any more because it's not; it's a sporting adventure. These modern guys just don't have any idea how much easier it is now than it was for the pioneers. They just go there, put their modern parkas on and plough through it, then fly straight out again and within hours, they're back in civilisation, touching down with champagne in their hand. They don't engage properly with their environment; that lessens their achievement."

Record numbers of people are heading to both ends of the Earth. Fears that global warming will take away the opportunity for everare contributing to the rush. The Antarctic thatclaimed Scott is swiftly becoming a tourist destination: between 1994 and 2004, visitor numbers there trebled.

The current dash for the poles has reached such a degree that Friends of the Earth has now called for an international cap on numbers visiting both the Arctic and Antarctic, which are warming at at least twice the rate of the rest of the world, their ecosystems disappearing fast. Experts estimate that the North Pole ice cap will be gone in between 25 and 75 years' time.

But David de Rothschild, scion of the banking dynasty and one of the new generation of polar explorers, said global warming meant there was more need than ever for polar exploration.

"We can use adventure as a vehicle to explain these places and their fragile ecosystems to others," he said. "It's a bit like tennis: just because people can hit the ball harder or faster, that doesn't necessarily mean they're better or worse tennis players."

The modern kitbag

Knee-high waterproof, rubber boots, non-slip soles, Polypropylene thermal underwear, Water-repellent, cotton-lined sleeping bag, GPS navigation system, Satellite phone, Vitamin tablets and ration packs; meals include pasta bolognese, choc'n'orange bar

Scott's kitbag

Reindeer-skin boots stuffed with grass, Lace-up leggings, Reindeer-fur blankets, Compass, pen and paper, Seal or dog meat,

Number of expeditions in International Polar Year: 7

Operation of Port Lockroy by UK Arctic Heritage Trust

Private trek to the Pole of Inaccessibility by Team N2i

Two private voyages to western Antarctic Peninsula

Mountaineering in Mount Bain/Slessor Peak region through Stefansson Strait

Reconnaisance for future educational visits

Vision South Pole, in aid of visual impairment charities

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