Published: February 2009
Pen Hadow: Hard Science
Expedition leader Pen Hadow’s next Arctic trip may prove his toughest—just the way he likes it.
Text by Laurel Berger

Polar explorer Pen Hadow started prepping at a young age for his unusual career. For the first six years of his life, he was subjected to an "Arctic conditioning" program at the hands of his elderly nanny, who had refined her methods while looking after Sir Peter Scott, son of legendary British explorer Robert Falcon Scott. To toughen him up, she made Hadow play outside with no shoes, in little more than shorts and a shirt, during the Scottish Highlands’ rough winters. The early training paid off: In 2003 he became the first person to walk alone (swimming when he had to) from Canada to the geographic North Pole without air resupply—a feat no one has ever repeated, though several have died trying. He’s still doing things the hard way. This month he sets off on a 1,245-mile, $8 million polar odyssey on foot, towing an innovative radar unit designed to penetrate ice and gauge its exact thickness. The new application will capture the first true measure of the ice cap—and help scientists determine how soon it will melt. ADVENTURE caught up with Hadow shortly before his departure.

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.

A: You’ve had frostbite before, right?

PH: Ulcerated lips, actually, on another trip to the Pole. They stuck together at night and oozed blood whenever I laughed.

A: We hear you have unusually short fingers and toes that confer an advantage in extreme cold. How does that work?

PH: They are at the shorter end of the spectrum, but not freakish. Since my distal regions are closer to my heart than most people’s, I’m less prone to hypothermia.

A: It seems like your personality is naturally suited to these types of challenges too. When you were seven, you hung upside down from a tree for four hours; at 15 you ran your first marathon. What drives you?

PH: Growing up, I’d deliberately lose my way in the Scottish Highlands. I’d leave food and drink in the bushes and wander off, just for the challenge. I loved running and pushed myself very hard, but I couldn’t cope with the stress of racing; I got ill and really depressed. Eventually I found a discipline I was suited for—with my short hands and small feet!

A: Did your rigorous upbringing—getting tossed outside in thin clothing in freezing weather—have anything to do with it?

PH: For the record, my nanny was really the sweetest woman. My father, I imagine, drew inspiration from our ancestors and told her to do that. My great-great-uncle, Douglas Hadow, was a member of the doomed party that made the first ascent of the Matterhorn. And his brother, Frank, won the singles title at Wimbledon.

A: So, what next?

PH: Who knows? I’ve made the depressing discovery that I will never be able to live a quiet life pruning roses in the garden. It’s just not how I am. Not yet at least.