• South Lee School

Arctic Adventures

On Tuesday 2nd February, South Lee School hosted our first Virtual Parent Talk of 2021. George Wells, a South Lee parent, shared with us all about his Arctic adventures.

Over 44 people attended his engaging online presentation, with the opportunity for pupils, parents and staff to ask any questions at the end of the session.

George first gave a background of how he started on a path of expeditions and adventures.

After finding enjoyment in indoor rock climbing, George then realised he wanted to try more exciting and exhilarating activities such as skiing. This led to attending rock climbing and skiing tours in many different countries, such as the stunning Verdon Gorge in France.

Partaking in such activities meant that George was surrounded by likeminded individuals, encouraging him to try new things and push himself further. Whilst at the University of Bristol, George was invited on a six-week mountaineering trip to the Alps – this is when his love of exploration truly developed.

In 2000, George and several others were given the all clear to trek to the once forbidden Eastern Zaalaay Mountains, in the Pamirs. This trip bonded the crew and gave George a lot of experience for his trips to come.

In 2004, George received an exciting phone call from Tom Avery, a close friend who had experience in leading a number of expeditions and had the same thirst for adventure. Tom explained that he was putting together a group to go to the North Pole. For George, this was a no brainer. He was going.

Trips such as this are very expensive and complicated to arrange, so the group had to gain sponsorship to raise enough money. To do this, they examined past records and claims surrounding the North Pole. Famous explorer Robert Peary claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole on his expedition in 1909, however there were many doubts about his claims

due to the average travel speed and lack of evidence he provided.

George and his team had their mission - they were going to attempt to reach the North Pole in less than 38 days.

For a year the team planned and prepared for their task, heading to Baffin Island for training. The media coverage for their trip increased throughout the year, with the team even being invited to Clarence House to meet Princess Camilla and Prince Charles.

In March 2005, George and his team of three other explorers flew to Resolute Bay, Canada. They were then able to charter a plane further north, bring with them their fluffy team of dogs as well as all of their equipment.

As the plane flew them over miles of ocean water and ice, the team realised the challenge ahead of them. To travel over the Arctic Ocean was going to be tricky, with huge pans of thick sea ice moving with the wind and tides. The terrain was rough, but the team was looking ahead with a mixture of excitement and anxiety, hoping this expedition would be successful.

All of the groups’ equipment was spread across the two sleds, which weighed roughly 500 pounds each. Each sled was pulled by a team of eight dogs, through 60 miles of treacherous terrain. The sleds were held together and bound by rope which gave them the flexibility that solid fixings such as nails and bolds, wouldn’t manage.

As it was spring time, the weather was clear and cold – the perfect combination for the sleds. If they had gone during the summer, their path would have been destroyed due to the ice warming and breaking up, leaving open water too wide to cross.

As they crossed the ice, George and his team were fortunate enough to witness the breath-taking scenery that surrounded them. After the first three weeks, the group had passed through the worst of the ice jungle and met larger open waters. These old leads had frozen, enabling the group to travel a further distance.

Relying on a compass was not possible due to the magnetic north facing the other way, therefore the sun was relied upon for directions. However, when the sunlight had gone, it was harder for the group to travel and morale was low. At points the wind across the see built up leading to stormy days where their only option was to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.

The dogs however remained tied up outside, unaffected by the extremely cold temperatures. The snow drifted over them and in the morning, they would shake off the cold and emerge ready to go. The dogs also were useful as alarms for if a polar bear was to come across the camp.

As the temperature became warmer, the explorers struggled with the leads, with big gaps of water blocking their path. At points George had to travel two days in the wrong direction just to be able to cross the broken water. The smaller leads were easier to cross, with the group using the sleds as bridges to move across to the other side.

The group had taken bets on which teammate would be the first to fall in the ocean and it was George that unfortunately took a dunk in the icy water. Surprisingly, the water felt quite warm even at -1°C, as they had acclimatised to the cold temperatures of -30°C.

They were on schedule to beat Robert Peary’s time, but decided to roll the clock – a method to try and travel further by creating 30 hour days, sleeping for 4 hours and running for 11 hours.

The last 100 miles then opened up over the large stretch of solid ice so the group was able to head north and cover a large distance.

George and his team finally finished the expedition and beat Robert Peary’s record by 5 hours! They managed to reach the North Pole in 36 days and 22 hours!

Fast forward to 10 years later, Tom contacted George about another trip – this time to Greenland! Their challenge this time was to travel from the east to west coast to beat the record of 70 days. A decade later, George was not quite in the same physical fitness as he had been on his last expedition. He contacted friend and South Lee parent Samantha Hardingham to whip him into shape, ready for the next adventure. This time however, they would make the journey by kite skiing, instead of using sled dogs.

The first few days in Greenland were hard work, as George and his team had to carry the gear they needed for the whole expedition. The lack of wind meant they were limited to travelling 20km a day out of the 500km overall distance, leading to the group feeling down on their luck.

On their fifth day, the wind picked up and rolled down the ice cap. This enabled George and his team to finally travel a greater distance by kite skiing!

Word came through over the ready that a big storm was heading their way. With winds blowing up to 100 knots the team had no choice but to bury themselves in their tents for a couple of days. By this point they were half way to their final destination but were losing time!

The icy storm turned out to be their saviour – the wind continued and would carry the team in the right direction. George and the group were able to cover 290km by kite skiing, travelling for 17 hours non-stop! George’s feet had become very cold and numb, but the team decided to push on.

As they got to the edge of the ice cap, the team cruised down the 50km hike down the track, finally reaching the coast. To mark their victory, they dipped their hiking poles in the water – they had succeeded in their mission and had reached the coast in nine and a half days.

It was an incredible experience, one that will forever be cherished by George and his fellow explorers.

On his return back to the UK, George’s frozen feet were a big concern as the tips had turned black. Unfortunately, the frostbite resulted in George losing the tips of his toes, but George looks back now as it being one way to remember his expedition to Greenland!

After the fantastic presentation, attendees were fortunate enough to be able to ask George questions about both of his trips.

How much did you eat on both trips?

George: As the North Pole required more energy as it was colder, we ate approximately 6,000 calories a day yet were still losing weight. We ate a range of dry food including granola, nuts, cheese, chocolate, dried fruit etc. In the expedition to Greenland, we took a smaller amount of food as we weren’t using as much energy.

Which was your favourite dog?

George: Ootah was my favourite sled dog. He was a beast of a dog, yet also soft and friendly. After spending many hours together, both dogs and the explorers had bonded a tremendous amount.

How did you mentally prepare?

George: By crying a little. I hadn’t realised what to expect. On the expeditions themselves, the group had to adopt the mindset of moving forwards instead of looking back.

How did you feel after completing the trips and did you feel proud?

George: As in both trips we had succeeded our aim and beaten our target, we didn’t have the disappointment of planning the huge trips and not achieving what they set out to. For me, the speed attempts were not the most important, it was the journey that counted.

Would you do either trip again?

George: Not the North Pole trip as that was so physically demanding, I don’t think I could go through that again. Plus the fact that global warming has now halted trips, as the leads are becoming prevalent. The ice is getting thinner so is harder to travel over now. This means those wanting to go would have to go in the winter, which as you can imagine has the harshest weather conditions and lowest temperatures. However, I would go back to Greenland as there is lots to play with and areas to explore.

How far was the total distance travelled in the North Pole?

George: The total distance that the group travelled in the Arctic was 600 miles.

What did you learn about yourself?

George: I realised that you really do have to listen to other people. I also learnt that I am not always right and at times other people aren’t always too.

Why did your boots cause issues with your feet?

George: The boots were too tight and it was very cold for the 17 hours we travelled in Greenland. It was about -25°C and there was not a lot of circulation to my feet. It was the amount of time that caused the issue, as frost bite is considered a severe injury and it is effectively a burn that effects the nerves.

Did you ever think you were in danger?

George: Greenland felt less risky as the distance and weather meant that if you had any issues, you could be picked up quickly. However, if someone experienced difficulties in the North Pole, it could have been two weeks before getting picked up. So because of this, we were very cautious!

How did you get back from the North Pole?

George: We got collected from the North Pole and didn’t do the return trip. We made a runway and called in a plan to collect us.

What was the coldest temperature you experienced?

George: The coldest temperature was on the North Pole trip, where it got to -52°C. It was so cold that if you removed your goggles, your eyeballs would start to harden!

Would you encourage someone to do either expedition?

George: Yes. Definitely!!

A huge thank you goes to George Wells for sharing his amazing experiences! The audience were truly captivated by his talk, with everyone feeling as if they had learnt something new afterwards.

George's North Pole Expedition - Photo Gallery

George's Greenland Expedition - Photo Gallery

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