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Interview with Explorer Tom Avery, To the End of the Earth

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Dogs-500 Text by Keith Rutowski; Photograph courtesy of Tom Avery

On April 6, 1909, a team of polar explorers led by Americans Robert Peary and Matthew Henson claimed to have reached the North Pole in just 37 days. Critics found the speed unthinkable. They cited inconsistencies in Peary’s notes and the supposedly insurmountable challenges of navigating the Arctic Ocean as evidence against him. The debate continued until 2005, when renowned explorer Tom Avery and four others, set out to debunk the rumors by directly replicating the journey. Last week, on the anniversary of the Peary and Henson expedition, Avery organized a ceremony at the two explorers’ gravesites in Arlington National Cemetery. And in his new book, To the End of the Earth, Avery details how he and his team may have finally put the century-old controversy to rest with them.

Avery’s team made base camp on Ellesmere Island in March 2005. They proceeded to follow the same path, use the same breed and number of dogs, and ride sleds built from the same design Peary had used 100 years ago. Despite the windchill bottoming out at negative 63 degrees Celsius and a host of other obstacles, the team made it. And not only did they reach the North Pole in 37 days, they made it there roughly five hours faster than Peary and Henson’s time, thus marking the fastest surface journey to the North Pole, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Although it may never be proven for certain whether or not Peary had reached the pole, Avery and his team’s near-identical sojourn had successfully attested to its possibility.

This is exactly what Avery and his team had set out to do. It’s no coincidence that the book—like the expedition four years ago—was released in the same month as Peary and Henson’s journey. For Avery, the expedition had been about more than books and world records all along. “If we’ve helped to get people talking about Peary and Henson again, and if the world now sees their achievements in a more positive light than they did before our expedition, then I’d be content,” Avery says. “That’s all I really want.”

Avery says that adventure is in his blood. And for a 33-year-old that has participated in more than a dozen major mountaineering and Arctic expeditions and countless smaller ones, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine adventure—whatever that may look like—coursing through his bloodstream, right alongside his red and white blood cells.

ADVENTURE had the chance to probe the mind of the young adventurer on how he got started, what inspires him, and how it feels to “solve” a 100-year-old mystery.

ADVENTURE: How did you learn of Peary’s expedition? And out of all of history’s debated journeys, why choose to reenact this one?

Tom Avery: We had just taken this incredible adventure down to the South Pole, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but the most rewarding as well. I started turning my attention pretty quickly to the North Pole. Compared to the South Pole, I didn’t know much about it. In British history, we’ve had lots of famous explorers like Scott and Shackleton who have been to Antarctica, but our Arctic explorers aren’t household names, which seems a bit odd since it’s on our doorstep whereas the South Pole is at the bottom of the world. But I was doing a bit of research and found out about this Peary guy, and it struck me that there was still controversy surrounding the North Pole. The more I researched this guy, the more he sounded like an incredible man. He was probably the toughest explorer who ever lived, but people still didn’t know if he got to the pole or not. The real controversy seemed to stem from the length of time it took for him to get there. It struck me that those questions would continue to be asked until someone decided to recreate Peary’s journey.

What exactly did you do to mimic Peary’s mode of transportation? 
We used the same breed of dog, the Canadian Eskimo dog. We had eight dogs on each sled, and we always had one female and seven males per sled, again, just like Peary had. The sleds were built on the same design he used. They were made from timber and the timber was lashed together with cord. No screws or nails were used in the construction and that enabled them to flex and undulate in the terrain of the Arctic Ocean.

It says on your website that you had originally gotten interested in adventure because of Captain Scott. What was it about him in particular that struck your seven-year-old imagination?
Scott was a very famous British polar explorer around about the same time as Peary. I read a book about his expedition and was captivated by his story. It was incredible. These guys trek for months on end to reach this place at the bottom of the world. They opened up an entire continent and in the process they discovered new mountain ranges and glaciers and showed incredible bravery. The whole story was pure unadulterated adventure. I just wanted to find out more. Although I didn’t really understand why, I knew that my life wouldn’t be complete until I followed in his footsteps to the South Pole one day.

How did adventure become a part of your own life?

I got into it at school. We had these weekend camps organized by the teachers where we’d fish and make campfires. That was my first real taste of adventure. Then I joined the school climbing club and went climbing for the first time and it just sort of progressed like that, really. I began using ice axes, crampons and ropes for the first time in the British mountains like Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands. All the while I just wanted to get above the snowline because in my mind that’s where adventure really was. But those early adventures, if you like, were fantastic.

After your brief and unsuccessful post-graduation stint in the financial world, you took to the outdoors once again. At that point did you have specific goals in mind or were you just trying to do what made you happy at the time?

I was trying to do what made me happiest, and the expeditions were what made me happiest. To be honest, I probably failed my accountancy exams because rather than studying, I was burying my head in maps, looking for new expeditions and challenges. It was about that time that I put together the biggest climbing expedition I had done to date, which was to climb some unclimbed mountains in Kyrgyzstan, which is where the Himalayan chain sweeps up north through Afghanistan and into Kyrgyzstan. I’d always had this ambition to climb mountains that no one had ever been up before and this was an opportunity to do that. We climbed nine unclimbed mountains up to 20,000 feet in altitude. And we got to name these things as well because none of them had names.

Then you made a trip to the South Pole in 2002. Tell me about that.

I was drifting around a bit after that expedition and the South Pole started to fill my daydreams again. I thought that this was my one shot to achieve my childhood ambition, so I set my mind on trying to get down to the South Pole. It took two years to organize this thing, get my team together, raise the funds and fill out logistics. It felt fantastic just to be standing there on the ice. It really felt like we were halfway there already just because all of the hard work that had gone in beforehand in preparation and training.

What is it about Antarctica and the Polar Regions in general that draws you in?

I guess because it’s geography on a monumental scale. Antarctica is twice the size of Australia. It doesn’t have any permanent population and has the most incredible wildlife. The country is just wild and dramatic. The snow is over two miles deep there. It’s just utterly spectacular. I love the snow and the snow inspires me. Also, on the historical side of things, I find it really inspiring to get a little taste of what these great explorers put themselves through more than a hundred years ago in opening up these places.

What were the greatest challenges of the North Pole trip? 

The cold is a real one, because you have to travel in the arctic winter, in March. The sun has only just returned above the horizon and you’ve only got a few hours of daylight. Plus, the average temperature at the beginning of the journey was minus 40 degrees Celsius. Humans aren’t designed to survive those temperatures; your body just shuts down. And then you’ve got these pressure ridges—these great big walls of ice that guard the route to the pole. You’ve got areas of open water, cracks in the ice, and then polar bears, which are being pushed farther north because of climate change. The Arctic Ocean is a pretty dangerous place. It’s not an exaggeration to say that as soon as you set foot on the ice the place is trying to kill you.

Did you ever consider turning back? For that matter, did you ever think of calling it quits on any of your previous adventures?

There were times when you think there’s no way we are going to do this. But I’ve never thought, ‘I want out’ or ‘I don’t want to be here; I want to go home.’ I always want to get the job done. Years of planning and preparation go into these expeditions. You never contemplate throwing it away because you’re having a hard time.

When the going gets tough, why do you keep going? Is it the idea of being the best and fastest, proving something to yourself, or is it just about being tested in the elements?
For me, this is not about my reputation or trying to be the best. I do it for me. It’s quite selfish, really. I pick an adventure that I think will be fun and challenging. And if that makes some kind of contribution along the way—be it opening up a new mountain range in Kyrgyzstan or helping to rewrite the history books about Peary—then that’s a real bonus. But for me it’s about getting out there. These expeditions make me feel more alive than anything else. It’s my passion and that will never change. And to me, an adventure doesn’t need to be 500-mile epic. It can be shorter. It can be a week. It can be dogsledding in Lapland. It can be ski mountaineering in the Alps. You can have just as a rewarding experience with a small challenge as well.

Your idea of the perfect day?
I’d be out in Verbier, Switzerland, a place I call my second home. It would be a beautiful, sunny day. I’d be putting the skins on my skis and heading up the mountain with a couple of close friends—just way from it all. I’d have the most incredible run down through the fresh snow, and I’d have a nice big dinner and bottle of wine when we got down.

At the time of the interview, Avery was preparing for a trek to the Alps. He is currently on the London 2012 Olympic Committee. He plans to continue his work with the Prince’s Trust charity fund.

Editor’s Note: Avery isn’t the only explorer captivated by Peary’s journey. On March 2, 2009, a PolarExplorer expedition led by Lonnie Dupre launched from Ward Hunt Island and end at the North Pole. In addition to acknowledging Peary’s importance, the Peary Centennial North Pole Expedition seeks to push for the foundation of an International Arctic Treaty to protect wildlife and indigenous peoples, and to bring attention to global warming and poor energy policies by beginning a “Cool-Not Cool” campaign.