“Polar exploration,” said Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the companion of Capt Robert Falcon Scott, who later found the Antarctic explorer’s body, “is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has yet been devised.”
But while previous generations of polar travellers devised their own rules for their gruelling journeys, a new certification scheme has been launched after growing controversy over allegedly inflated claims of exploits at the Earth’s two poles.
그만큼 polar expedition classification scheme [PECS], set up in March, aims to ensure those who claim to have made so-called unsupported crossings have not benefited from any human help and to verify that claims of new firsts are historically valid.
The voluntary code intended to cover unmotorised travel in Antarctica, the Arctic Ocean and the Greenland ice cap, has been devised by a committee of experienced polar travellers including Eric Philips of Australia, Christoph Höbenreich of Austria, Michael Charavin of France, the UK’s Steve Jones and Hannah McKeand.
The publication of the code follows several recent controversies involving the style of claimed journeys, including that of the US polar traveller Colin O’Brady in the 2018-19 Antarctic season, all of which led to widespread calls for a clear new system of classification.
O’Brady received considerable media coverage for what he claimed was the first solo and unsupported crossing of the Antarctic, but that depiction was disputed by other polar travellers who pointed out that he had made use of a manmade supply road. And that the Norwegian Børge Ousland was widely recognised by polar historians and travellers to have made the first solo unsupported crossing two decades earlier.
At the centre of the row was O’Brady’s use of the South Pole Overland Traverse Road – known by its abbreviation as the SPoT – which ferries supplies and personnel to the US research base at the south pole. It is marked with flags and groomed flat by tractors to eliminate the rock-hard wind-blown ridges, known as sastrugi, that make ski travel with a sledge problematic elsewhere. O’Brady used it for 366-miles of his journey.
Damien Gildea, a polar traveller, says not only is it easier to travel on, but the intermittent traffic also reduces the sense of isolation and provides the knowledge that help, if necessary, may be close at hand.
A year after O’Brady’s journey amd subsequent book The Impossible First, National Geographic added further fuel to the row, with an article under the headline “His tale of crossing Antarctica was riveting. But how much was fiction?”
Philips, one of the those behind the new scheme, told the magazine: “This wasn’t some last great polar journey. Rather, it was a truncated route that was a first in only a very limited way.”
He said Ousland, who made his crossing in the 1990s, travelled from Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the south pole, while O’Brady’s journey was considerably shorter, starting at the Ronne ice shelf and finishing at the Ross ice shelf.
In support of his claim, O’Brady said unlike Ousland, he had not used a kite to help with the pulling of his sledge for some sections, which he said made his crossing “fully unassisted”, and said he had followed: “All the rules I said I did … following well established standards.” But when he asked for the National Geographic piece to be retracted, the editor refused and, according to a post on O’Brady’s Instagram account, instead “made several corrections to their article about me.”
He said he acknowledged “the amazing accomplishments of Børge Ousland” and concluded: “It’s not my intention to expend any more energy on this so I’ll let the Editor in Chief of National Geographic have the last word: ‘…your journey of nearly two months though [sic] 932 marrow-freezing miles was undeniably a feat worthy of respect.’ Onward!”
The scheme’s code of integrity acknowledges difficulties of all unmechanised polar travel but in its rule 12 tells adventurers that there is No place for fiction.
“Any unmechanised polar journey is difficult and needs no embellishment. Exaggerating the scope and difficulty of your journey or altering distances, durations, speed and temperatures during or after completion are not acceptable,” it says. “Portraying your journey accurately online, to media and to sponsors – before, during and after – is a sign of integrity.”
The code also insists on only single-person journeys being described as solo (“solo is solo,” it says). Perhaps most telling is rule eight: “If an unsupported team follows the SPoT Ice Road for a few kilometres to get some relief from sastrugi, or a disoriented team uses the route as a handrail, Unsupported status will be lost.”
Philips said the new classification scheme would ensure an agreed voluntary approach and language for describing polar travel that engages with the public. “Some in the polar world object to adopting a classification system, because they prefer to think of polar travel as non-competitive,” he stated in an article in 2019 for Explorersweb after the O’ Brady controversy.
“Almost every year, a burgeoning pool of record-seekers taunts that pleasant fiction. Most of them have no sustained interest in polar adventuring or how expeditions are understood historically.”