Travel: King of the polar frontier

Interview: Pen Hadow
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The Independent Travel
Polar explorer Pen Hadow enjoys two things in life. One of these involves pushing back the boundaries of human experience. The other is running a tour firm. "Don't get me wrong," he explains, "but I have absolutely no interest - whatsoever - in doing things that have already been done before." Just what you would expect from a man in a space suit with hoary whiskers and frost-bitten cheeks. But Pen Hadow is wearing a jacket. He is a softly-spoken man in his 30s, dapper and fresh-faced. He has the smile of a New Labour Prime Minister.

Could it be that some people are born for polar travel? Pen Hadow seems to be. His father's nanny was also nanny to the son of Scott of the Antarctic. The link sounds tenuous, but it is oddly significant. As a child, Hadow was nourished on ghostly memories, handed down via the nanny and Scott's wife, Kathleen.

Operating so close to the cutting edge, I don't blame him for sounding arrogant. "Look," he says, "a person of my experience, my ambition and my capacities - I should be peeling back the frontiers of what is possible. Nibbling away at the limits. This is not about getting into record books. It is about furthering human possibilities."

I think I understand the point. He is talking about finding ways to travel across ice faster and lighter and with less assistance than his predecessors. "Why were people taking 65 days to walk 400 miles?" he asks, almost incredulously. "How long would it take you to walk to Edinburgh? Well, if someone held a gun to your head you could probably do it in five days."

This is a man who has twice attempted, and very nearly succeeded, in walking solo to the North Pole without the assistance of additional supplies. But before I have time to point out that a walk through the English countryside to Edinburgh is hardly the same thing as a trek to the North Pole, he is off:

"People get fixated on kit," he explains. "If you take the world and his wife, it's not surprising you get slowed down. I cut the weight right down to 100lbs. Take less food. If you're there for only 30 days you can afford to trash your body more. Most people take two-skin tents to keep warm." He laughs. "Well, I am not interested in keeping warm. I am interested in getting to the Pole."

The combination of massive powers of physical endurance with acute intelligence is the kind of thing I expect to find in a Nasa pilot trainee, not in someone who runs a travel company. But when Hadow is not pushing back the boundaries of human endurance, this is precisely what he does. His Polar Travel Company offers wealthy tourists - with a reasonable level of fitness - guided walks to the North and South Poles. Options include not only 60-day epic treks to either Pole, but also leisurely cruises and in-and-out flights.

"If I can create a niche market for camping holidays at pounds 30,000 a throw, I can probably sell anything," says Hadow drily. "What I provide is not just penguins and a load of old white stuff. The Arctic experience is the ultimate dislocation opportunity from the modern, chaotic, head-popping society that we live in. It sells."

But isn't polar exploration an absurdly dangerous activity? "Probably no more dangerous than a holiday in Spain." He has been waiting for this question. "The trouble is people's perceptions. Everyone knows the disastrous stories about Scott. And you hear about the cutting-edge stuff, about Ranulph Fiennes on his miserable army rations. But if you are not trying to break speed records, you can afford to enjoy yourself. Polar travel isn't like mountaineering. A fair proportion of all people who attempt Everest die. In the Arctic regions, fewer than a handful of people have died in the past 50 years. With expertise you can reduce the risks to almost zero."

The experience is - I suppose - miserably cold though, isn't it? "Not at all," he says. "For most of the time you are yomping along, having hot drinks, and everything is extremely jolly. Occasionally you'll feel threatened or uncomfortable. But the guides will be operating well within their limits. Nothing is going to happen that they are not prepared for. At night we erect a tent which is kept extremely warm with stoves."

It is obvious he enjoys it immensely. Those he has helped (or is trying to help) to reach the Poles range from the first all-women expedition, to a blind man, to the chief executives of various top British companies. "When people join my trips they often start out hooked on an objective, such as reaching the Pole. But by the time they finish, it's always the experience they talk about, even if they failed to achieve their goal."

Meanwhile, when not guiding tourists, Hadow ceaselessly plans new solo expeditions. His greatest sadness, it seems, is that he will never truly share the experiences of the early explorers such as Scott or Shackleton for a simple reason: namely that he is obliged to carry a beacon on his expeditions which can be used to alert search-and-rescue teams to his position in the event of emergency.

For a moment he looks gloomy. "Yes, that beacon is tiresome. At some level it takes the edge off things" - he brightens - "but, of course, there is no guarantee it'll save you." Odd that he seems to find this thought so comforting. But I suppose that is why he is a polar explorer.

Call for further details about the Polar Travel Company (tel: 01364 631470).