An awfully big adventure

Grizzled, ice-encrusted explorers they are not. But with blind optimism and a little ingenuity, Patrick Woodhead and his accident-prone friends became the youngest, fastest team ever to reach the South Pole

Patrick Woodhead stepped off the plane on to the Antarctic continent. Over the next two months, he and two friends hoped to ski the 702 miles to the South Pole. Two steps later, he slipped and fell on his rear. It wouldn't be the last time.

Antarctica has traditionally been the land that humour forgot, known primarily for its ability to bring on icy death or, at the least, severe frostbite. Explorers returning from the ice cap have written books with titles such as Mind Over Matter and The Worst Journey in the World.

However, the tale of this journey to the earth's most southerly point, if it were to be filmed, would be more Dude, Where's my Crampon? than Scott of the Antarctic.

During their trek, Woodhead and his team mates encountered temperatures of minus 55C, food riddled with pubic hair, a severe attack of piles and a great deal of ice. They also became the youngest and fastest team to reach the South Pole - although not for very long.

In fact, on the very morning that I meet Woodhead, he has just been beaten by a woman, Fiona Thornewill, a 37-year-old recruitment consultant from Nottinghamshire, who has trekked alone and unaided to the South Pole in just 42 days.

It took Woodhead and his team mates 46 days and, what's more, they had a guide. "Yes, there were some egos shattered this morning," says Woodhead, who is attractive in a "Would you consider being the father of my children?" type of way.

These days polar records break easily. Journeying to the ends of the earth, no longer necessarily involves months of sheer hell. Explorers currently on the way to the Pole include a team of Palestinians and Israelis, a former Pans People dancer and a Briton who is hoping to become the first disabled person to reach both the North and South Poles.

Woodhead's team mates were Andrew Gerber, who became the first South African to reach the South Pole, and Tom Avery, who held the record for the youngest person to reach the Pole for less than a week before Andrew Cooney, a 23-year-old scout leader from Nottinghamshire, got there too. (More on him later.)

If you were to break the team down into crude stereotypes, Gerber would be the zany one, Woodhead the sexy one and Avery, the total loser. During the course of the expedition, he managed to injure his left testicle badly by rolling on top of his mug in the night, develop piles by using snow instead of toilet paper and hurt his shoulder by falling over too frequently.

However, Woodhead describes the two months he and his teammates spent in sub-zero temperatures as "genuinely enjoyable". In the exploration world, of course, this is sacrilege. Expeditions are usually pursued in a filthy mood with luxuries such as books and music forgone. Sir Ranulph Fiennes would never dream of packing such flagrant extravagances.

But these three young men belong to a new breed of explorer. "Oh, Ranulph Fiennes is classic 'I want to have a miserable time,'" says Woodhead, who is also a big fan of the world's greatest living explorer.

"You know there was a recent expedition to the North Pole which only brought mashed potato to eat. What kind of moron does that?" he continues. He sees no reason why trekking across the earth's underbelly should mean parting from his mini-disc, whisky and fags.

And certainly not his toilet paper. Some purists of the exploration world refuse to take this modern invention on their trips. They prefer using a "snow wedge", arguing that it is more hygienic, better for the environment and saves on weight.

"However, I just couldn't bring myself to change from soft, white toilet paper to a horrendously cold block of ice," writes Woodhead in his book, Misadventures in a White Desert. Considering Avery's piles, you can see his point. He also designed himself a wind-proof "willy warmer" for the trip.

Woodhead, Avery and Gerber's trip coincided with the centenary of Scott's first Antarctic expedition in 1901. However, polar exploration isn't what it used to be. Early expeditions would often take three or four years. The Antarctic winter is four months long and during that time, the sun never rises. Woodhead and his team were there for six weeks in the summer. How does he think he would have coped on Scott's disastrous 1911 expedition? "Oh, I'd have been sobbing within a week, probably," he says. "I'd have been left at base and sent home ashamed. I mean, they spent 140 days on the ice and then died. We spent 46."

Could it be that polar exploration, once the preserve of the super-human, is now, well, rather easy? After all, Woodhead lost only five pounds during his time in the Antarctic while the only frostbite sustained during the trek was on Tom Avery's cheeks. But only the top layer of skin was damaged and, apparently, Avery later used it, "to great effect when trying to break the ice with pretty girls."

Woodhead frowns at the suggestion that crossing Antarctica has now become child's' play. "Oh, no," he says. "It's not easy at all. Walking to the Pole, you burn 7-8,000 calories per day. If you run a marathon, you only burn 2,500."

There he has a point. And certainly, the trio trained hard before arriving in the Antarctic, although, these sessions didn't always go according to plan. On the first day of a preparatory trip in New Zealand, Woodhead got the whole team stuck on a mountainside. The next day was little better. That morning, the conditions were perfect for testing their polar kites. These are very big kites, which the team planned to strap to themselves in order to glide effortlessly to the Pole (although it didn't quite work out that way).

They weren't very easy to control and the first time he used one, Woodhead narrowly missed crashing into a hotel. He only stopped in time because Gerber and Avery jumped on him.

Avery, true to form, managed to trip on the uneven ground and was dragged flat on his face through the mud until Woodhead finally came to a halt. "He later claimed that it was sheer devotion to my well being that made him cling on," writes Woodhead. "But if I were being unkind, I'd say he got his fingers caught in my belt."

Back in London, training continued. This involved dragging tyres attached to their waists around Hyde Park. On one occasion, the Queen passed Woodhead and Gerber in a cavalcade.

"This was the first time I had seen the Queen in the flesh," remembers Woodhead. "And for the briefest of seconds, I saw her face bunch up in confusion as she wondered what on earth we were doing." The training paid off. The three men didn't plan for their expedition to become a race, but that's the way it turned out.

Antarctica seems to enjoy pitting explorers against each other on her surface. Scott famously arrived at the Pole only to find that Amundsen had become the first man to reach it just 33 days beforehand. And when Fiona Thornewill arrived on the continent late last year, she was to discover that another British woman, Rosie Stancer, was also making a bid for the Pole. However, the two women made a pact that their expeditions would not become a race.

And so it was for Woodhead and his team. While they were still raising sponsorship for their trip, Avery got a call from Andrew Cooney, then 23. He too was touting himself as the youngest Briton to make an attempt on the South Pole. And unlike the British women, he wasn't afraid of competition. Woodhead won't be entirely candid about what happened next.

An insurance company called Hastings Direct had agreed to sponsor Woodhead's trip for most of the £180,000 needed. However, a few weeks later, the company changed its mind and decided to sponsor Cooney. A week before both expeditions were due to leave, they reverted to backing Woodhead's party. Woodhead grins when I ask him why. "I cannot answer that question on the grounds that I might incriminate myself," he says, wrinkling his well-tanned forehead. As it turned out, both teams started their bid for the Pole on the same day, but Woodhead's team got there six days faster, stealing some of Cooney's glory.

However, Woodhead is keen to point out that it wasn't about that at all. So what was it about? He is rather coy about this matter in his book. When he finally reaches the Pole, he records that he had an overwhelming feeling that the expedition was worthwhile, but he couldn't work out why.

Has he come up with any answers yet? "Ah, I was hoping to gloss over that," he says. "I'm British. I'm massively emotionally repressed." However, he did do a great deal of thinking while plodding along and goes on to sound remarkably similar to someone emerging from a nil-by-mouth detox centre. "While you are out there on the ice, you have a real spiritual depth," he says. "It's like sitting in a tent for eight hours a day thinking."

So, what did he discover during these meditations? What are his religious or spiritual beliefs? "Oh, God. I don't think anyone has ever asked me that before," he says, before continuing. "I'm not really into organised religion. I'm far more into nature and balance. It's pretty simple stuff."

Perhaps he was contemplating the answer to the world's problems then? Does he have strong political beliefs? "I'm just utterly disillusioned by mendacious, evil politicians, especially in America," he says. "It's all about maintaining their own power and I find that really ugly."

It turns out that what he discovered at the ends of the earth was far gooier. "When you're out there, you think of the things that keep you going: your friends, your girlfriend and your family," he says. "It's very edifying. You want to come back and tell your parents: I'm sorry for being a shit all those years and I really love you," he continues. He didn't quite manage to get the words out at the airport. But a couple of weeks later he did tell them. "Although I think all of us get a bit freaked out if someone sits us down and tells us how much they love us."

It took Woodhead 702 miles over 46 days and £180,000 of sponsorship money to achieve a chink in the Briton's emotional armour. Some would say it was worth it.

'Misadventures in a White Desert' by Patrick Woodhead is published by Sceptre (paperback, £7.99)

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