ADVENTURE: After your 2003 expedition, you said you’d fulfilled your life’s purpose. So why go back now?
PEN HADOW: I couldn’t believe that in this day and age we still don’t have an accurate reading of the ice cap. Available technology couldn’t distinguish the thickness of the ice from the layer of snow covering it. I studied every conceivable measuring system for two years with no luck. So I was pretty desperate by 2005, when I approached Michael Gorman, the British glaciologist. He designed our new radar system, and now we can take millions of thickness and density readings.
A: On your solo journeys you’ve been so overtaxed—lugging a 350-pound sledge by yourself—that this expedition seems almost cushy by comparison.
PH: Quite the opposite. For the first weeks our team of three will be traveling at night and swimming across open water leads in polar bear country. Whatever we collect in the way of ice and snow samples we have to carry until we reach the Pole, which makes a huge difference when you’re already hauling a 220-pound sledge. And at night, I’ll be drilling and taking ice cores while my two teammates set up the base camp and edit film. Doing that for 120 days straight will be grueling.
A: How do you prepare mentally?
PH: You don’t. Remember at school how you’d put something in a crucible and put it over the flame of a Bunsen burner just to see what happened? Going into that whiteness is like putting yourself in a crucible and cranking up the heat until you find out what you’re made of. You’re under tremendous pressure every moment.
A: Do you miss regular human contact?
PH: My wife and I have found over the years that regular phone calls don’t work for us. One bad conversation is enough to bring us down. It’s better if we keep to our own worlds until the job is done. I’m in such a different mindset, utterly absorbed in putting one foot in front of the other, that most basic desires melt away. What I do miss is good food. By the 40-day mark, I’m having gastronomic orgies in my head.
A: Your website (penhadow.com) mentions "incidents of highest drama" that could occur on this expedition, which the public can witness via webcam. What are some of the challenges you’ll be facing?
PH: I don’t want to overdramatize, but if a bear comes along and you can’t deter it, that’s the end of you. If a sledge runs into you and slashes your femur, a satellite phone might be useful, but a plane is of no help if it can’t land. You could wait around for weeks if the weather turns bad. And if you fall through the ice without your immersion suit on—as each of us inevitably will—and you don’t get out of the water in a few minutes, you’re never coming out.