We’ve all done it – well most of us have anyway. Watched or heard about epic achievements and immediately and enthusiastically thought ‘Wow, I could do that, in fact I am going to do that’.
Run a marathon, explore an extreme environment, make an incredible fund-raising commitment. In that moment, we’re definitely going to do it, but then the doubts start to creep in, we begin to find reasons why not (rather than why), and our point of focus is suddenly shattered into pieces by the noise of everyday life.
That is precisely what could have happened to our guest on this episode, as his finger hovered over the delete button. On the contact list of premature birth prevention charity ‘Borne’, London based businessman Joey Worlidge received an email announcing that their next fundraising activity would involve ‘walking to the North Pole’.
‘My finger was literally hovering over the delete button, thinking well this is crazy. I couldn’t do this, could I? And then I thought, maybe I could.’
Joey hit return instead of delete, and so began a series of events that would take our hero to the roof of the world.
Despite travelling 6,000 miles around Africa as an 18 year old, and living and working in both Spain and Italy, Joey didn’t necessarily think of himself as an adventurer.
‘If you’d asked me a few years ago whether I had an adventurous spirit, I’d probably have had to think about it.’
This might explain the ‘marmite reaction’ of Joey’s family and friends on hearing news of his intention to sign-up. Some telling him it was incredible and what an amazing thing it was he was about to do, others simply asking why on earth would he want to go and do that.
But Joey was captivated by the idea, part of him was already there and next came the final talk that would lead to a ‘no going back now’ commitment. It wasn’t the same story for everyone however, of the 20 people who attended the talk only Joey decided to go ahead.
‘Part of me was already there, thinking this would be incredible.’
The walk to the Pole was to be led by ex-Royal Marines Commando and experienced explorer, Alan Chambers, along with two other ex-military men, Wayne Hoyle and the man who was to be Joey’s tent-mate, Jason Fox of TV’s SAS Who Dares Wins. Others making the team were two professional rugby players, England World Cup Winner Will Greenwood and Australian Dean Mumm, as well as four people used to endurance events, so Joey knew it was time to get serious with his preparation.
Training 4 or 5 days per week for six months, Joey could also be seen walking with poles and dragging two tyres behind him around Richmond Park at 7am on a Sunday morning, in the depths of Winter. A freezing cold and rainy Dartmoor came next, with more tough physical and mental preparation, this time including leadership and teamwork exercises.
‘If there’d been any people there who didn’t operate as a team but really were like a sole operator, wanted to operate on their own, that would be a problem when you’re up on the ice at the North Pole.’
As prepared as they could be, it was time to depart and the full team met for the very first time at Heathrow Airport. From there they flew to Oslo, then on to Tromso, before arriving in the rocky wilderness of Svalbard, a group of islands somewhere between mainland Norway and the North Pole, a place where there are more polar bears than people.
After enjoying a ‘last supper’ in Svalbard, it was time for the team and their equipment to take a nervy flight to a temporary Russian scientific base known as Camp Barneo. Depending on the time of year, Camp Barneo can serve as one of the northernmost inhabited places on Earth. Here each member of the team piled themselves - and their sledge with 40 kilos of kit - into a Russian helicopter for a very noisy flight to the drop off point.
‘I didn’t have any nerves, I didn’t feel frightened or scared, I felt incredibly excited, absolutely, I was buzzing with anticipation.’
On landing, team members were to get their sledges onto the ice, and to lay face down on them. This was to avoid being hit in the face by sharp shards of ice thrown up by the departing helicopter.
They were now 500 miles from the nearest civilisation - in fact the nearest people to them were on the international space station – and suddenly there was silence. Complete silence. Not a sound. Anywhere.
‘What’s it like to experience true silence, because we never have true silence in our lives, there’s always some noise.’
Now, we hand over to Joey himself to tell the story of the walk.
‘Well, we got there! In total we trekked about 60 miles in just under 4 days, each pulling a 40kg sledge in temperatures ranging from -30C to -42C. We managed to avoid polar bears, were not too affected by open water (as it was so cold any open water soon re-froze), but most of all the biggest challenge was the unremitting cold. It is difficult to describe how cold -40C is. If you dare to take your hand out of your glove, within 5 seconds it will be aching, within 15 seconds hurting and it will then take 20 minutes to get the blood circulating again. Frostbite was our biggest danger. That and trying to avoid serious physical injury. Apart from the expeditions and those associated with them, there was not a single person for 500 miles (the nearest land). That's London to Mont Blanc. In fact, the nearest person to us was 200 miles above us in the international space station.
We trekked for 8 hours a day, stopping every 1.5 hours for 15 minutes to take on as much food as we could and a hot drink. Within a minute of stopping, you were freezing so it was almost a relief to get walking again. The ice is on average 2 metres thick. That's about 1.5 metres of solid ice and 0.5 metres of snow. Below that is 4,000 metres of cold, dark Arctic ocean. Best not think too much about that.
The terrain was extremely uneven and incredibly challenging. In places fairly flat but rarely for more than 50-100 metres. Little bumps, hollows, solid ice in places, deeper snow in others. Then, where the ice floes had separated and the water refrozen, we came across ice 'ditches' some a few metres across, others 50 metres across. We walked across these with our hearts in our mouths. No-one wanted to get wet. The water is 'only' about -8C, but if you go in, you have literally minutes to get out, get a tent up, cooker on, change into dry clothes and try to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. Luckily none of us went in.
In other places, the ice floes had come together and huge ice pressure ridges had been forced up, 1-2 tonne blocks of solid ice, skewed at 45 degrees, other smaller blocks at strange angles, all of which had to be traversed sometimes on skis, and if that was impossible, with skis off and manhandling each sledge over the ice rubble. Exhausting work. At one point we came across a huge iceberg 20 metres high and 100 metres long (this was big given that only about 10% of the iceberg was above sea level). This one had separated from a Siberian glacier and drifted north, only to get caught in the Arctic ice.
We became highly tuned to the sights and sounds around us. Initially thinking everything was white, we soon started appreciating the incredible shades of blue ice, white snow and how it all seemed to change depending on whether the sun was out or not. We were in perpetual daylight. The sun itself sat at about 20 degrees all day and all night, slowly circulating 360 degrees around us but never threatening to sink below the horizon. Quite extraordinary to witness a true midnight sun. There was no noise except for the creaking of the ice, our own breathing, the wind on our clothes and the sliding sound of skis on snow. When you stopped the silence was complete.
We were led by Alan Chambers, MBE, Royal Marine Commando and veteran polar explorer on his 15th trek to the North Pole. His first trek in the year 2000 was 500 miles over 73 days from Canada to the North Pole completely unsupported and unassisted. He really knew what he was doing, and we all felt 100% confident in his knowledge and ability to get us to the North Pole. Alan was ably supported by Wayne Hoyle, also an Arctic veteran with 25 years active service in the SAS. Our third Special Forces team member was Jason Fox, also 25 years in the SAS. My appreciation and understanding of the physical strength and mental resilience of these guys in the Special Forces has taken on a whole new meaning. We were honoured to have them leading us. For the rest of the team, we were only as strong as the least strong among us. We got there as a team or not at all. While physical strength was important, your ability on skis, your mental strength and your ability to remain focussed and positive was equally important. I came to realise that we all had our different strengths and that made for a very strong, efficient and effective team.
At around 6pm every evening we would stop trekking for the day and set up camp on a suitably solid area of ice. We immediately got to work in putting the tents up, building an ice wall around the tent to stop the tent being blown away, getting the mats into the tents and firing up the cooker. It took 3 hours to melt enough snow for dinner and to drink that evening. We would wake at 6am for a further 3 hours of snow melting in the morning for breakfast and providing enough hot water to drink during the day. That's 6 hours melting snow in every 24 hours. In our tents with the cooker on we were quite warm. Condensation would collect on the inside of the tent. When we turned the cooker off the temperature inside the tent would quickly descend to the -35C as it was outside the tent, but without the windchill. It would start gently snowing inside the tent as the condensation froze and gently drifted down on to our faces and sleeping bags. However, we had great kit and once inside our Arctic sleeping bags, we were warm as toast.
And so the final day dawned. We were ready to leave on time at 10am. We were 9 nautical miles from the Pole and agreed that we would keep trekking as long as it took to reach the Pole that day. Despite heavy snow conditions and increasingly painful knees, by 4pm we were within 1 mile of the Pole. Alan stopped us and said that when we were within 100 metres of the Pole he would let us know and, having been walking in single file for 4 days, we would all fan out and walk side by side to reach the Pole simultaneously. He asked that we should all be silent at the moment we reached the Pole too so that each of us could appreciate the moment and what it meant for us personally to have reached our goal. Brilliant advice which made for a highly emotional moment when we finally achieved our objective and stood, literally, on the top of the world. It was 5.30pm on Thursday 19th April 2018.
We then got to work putting the large 10 man tent up, cookers on to warm up, photos taken and, much to everyone's surprise, enjoyed the Johnnie Walker Black Label which I had hidden in my sledge and dragged all the way. Chilled to -35C it truly was nectar!
On arrival at the North Pole, Alan had called base camp on the satellite phone. 4 hours later the helicopter arrived to extract us. What an extraordinary sight it was to be literally on the roof of the world and this helicopter appear from the nowhere. We piled on, sledges and all, and sat in stunned silence as we flew back to base camp. Warmth, cold beer, iced Russian vodka, proper food and the slow realisation of what we had achieved collectively as a team. Truly an experience of a lifetime.’
So, after getting our breath back, we had to know just how Joey feels now when he reflects on the moment that he finally reached the North Pole, and how he drove himself to achieve his incredible goal. ‘It’s difficult to describe the emotion’ he says, becoming emotional once again even as he thinks about it.
‘You take one step, just one step, and then you take a second step, and you know that if you take enough steps, you will get there.’
And what of the fund-raising for the ‘Borne’ charity, how did this go? Well, with Will Greenwood, sadly motivated by personal experience, leading the fund-raising, the team raised the astonishing amount of over £1milion.
‘We were doing this to raise big funds, big money, to prevent premature birth and try and help save lives of other babies, and improve the quality of life of other babies in the future’
All that we can say is huge congratulations, admiration and respect to all involved, and if you would like to know more about obstetrician and specialist in preventing premature birth, Professor Mark Johnson, and the ‘Borne’ charity go online at https://www.borne.org.uk/
Finally, as with all of our guests on ONEOFTHE8, we ask Joey to tell us what he has learned and what has inspired him.
He tells us of his great admiration for polar explorer and member of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, Captain Titus Oates, whose selfless act of sacrificing himself to try to save others is legendary. But before this Joey tells us of five important life lessons he has learned.
He begins with ‘leadership’, and the truth that we can all be leaders. Next comes ‘opportunity’, and the importance of being open to opportunities. Third is ‘achievement’, and the fact that we can all go way beyond what we imagine. Fourth is ‘focus’, and the need not to become too distracted. Fifth is ‘tasks’, and no matter how big, the need to take one step at a time.
Timely inspiration for us all from a man who went further than he ever thought, and so many good reasons not to hit ‘delete’.
To hear more about this incredible journey, be sure to catch up with Joey’s episode on the ONEOFTHE8 podcast. You can also find out more about the work of the ‘Borne’ charity online at https://www.borne.org.uk/