Interview: Tom Avery, polar explorer

When snow covered the British Isles earlier this year, polar explorer Tom Avery went ski touring in Wimbledon, south London. He is one of only 41 people in history to have reached both the North and South Poles on foot and is listed in Guinness World Records for ‘leading the fastest surface journey to the North Pole’. But, given a foot of snow, Wimbledon Common, he says, is a force to be reckoned with: ‘You wouldn’t believe how steep the hill past St Mary’s Church is.’

He grew up in East Sussex, and, at 33, looks like any other young professional in Chelsea’s Royal Court bar until snow is mentioned and his eyes light up. ‘It still fills me with the same excitement it did when I was a child. Snow makes everything so beautiful.’ Forging a career out of it can’t have been easy. ‘At Harrow, I joined Marmots, the school climbing club. I wasn’t very good, however. I had to be pulled out of a cave once.’ By the time he graduated in geography and geology from Bristol University, he had climbed mountains and volcanoes in New Zealand, Europe, Australia and South America.

A career in accountancy was put ‘on hold’, but it wasn’t until Tom led an expedition to the South Pole in 2002 and had written his first book, Pole Dance that he considered himself a polar explorer. ‘The trip received a huge amount of press coverage and led to more opportunities. I’m not the most talented rock climber, but my legs don’t know when to stop. Walking to the South Pole was just walking 1.5 million strides.’

On his most recent trip (2005), Tom and his team re-created the journey of Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the North Pole in 37 days, 100 years ago. Navigating pressure ridges, open water and travelling, like Peary, with dog teams and wooden sleds bound by cord, the team covered the 413 nautical miles to the North Pole in 36 days and 22 hours four hours faster than Peary. The most hairy moment? ‘Getting lost in a blizzard for half an hour. It was my turn to be out in front and I suddenly realised I couldn’t see the rest of the team. I walked back, but the snow had covered over any tracks. I had no sled, no shelter, and was just yelling out into the storm.’

Eventually, he was found by one of the dogs. ‘It wasn’t a time for big hugs, but I’ve never been so pleased to see a dog. We were five people and 16 dogs, but, very quickly, we were a team of 21. They’ve still got one foot in the wild and they’re so loyal and brave.’ When Tom married Mary in 2006, they left their wedding on a sled pulled by huskies.

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Is polar exploration in his blood? ‘No, although my parents have been nothing but supportive. It’s always hardest on the ones you leave behind, although I can send messages via a satellite phone. I once told Mary to record The Apprentice.’ There have been low points: ‘Forgetting my skis when off to the South Pole and leaving the Olympic torch Seb Coe had lent me at the North Pole. After we’d been photographed with it, it was the one thing we left behind on the ice. Thankfully, it turns out there’s more than one.

‘The trips are tough. Your body takes a beating. We each lost more than two stone in 37 days on the way to the North Pole. In the morning, your lips are stuck together, and when you open them, they bleed. Our eyes were dry and we were covered in bruises from falling over. The human body is amazing. It can carry on much longer than your mind.

‘There’s always a risk, but that’s part of the appeal. In Britain, we’re in danger of wrapping our children up in cotton wool, but we need to create an understanding of our planet and what we’re capable of. There’s only another three or four years when people will be able to visit the North Pole, it’s melting so fast.’

So where next? ‘All I can say is that I will be heading off to snow and ice in 2010. Not Mount Everest it no longer appeals. You’re sharing the mountain with hundreds of people.’ His mentor is Sir Ranulph Fiennes. ‘He definitely has a screw loose. But how amazing to be climbing the north face of the Eiger in your sixties. The Queen told me I was mad when she heard I intended to go to the North Pole, but I think I’m quite down to earth.’ However, Prince Charles, who spoke to Tom via satellite phone at the North Pole, said: ‘This country’s tradition of producing refreshingly eccentric adventurers is very much alive.’

‘To the End of the Earth’ is published by Atlantic Books at £18.99