Explorers vow to make second attempt on pole after risky retreat

Sat, Mar 24, 2012, 00:00

EVEREST SUMMITEER Dr Clare O’Leary and adventurer Mike O’Shea say they are determined to make another attempt to become the first Irish team to reach the North Pole by foot, in spite of a harrowing escape from rapidly disintegrating ice.

Speaking by phone from Ottawa, Canada yesterday, the pair described how they got caught on a cracking ice floe during their retreat, after they had been forced to abandon their 788km (490-mile) trek north on March 8th for logistical reasons.

“Serious stuff,” was how Dr O’Leary described the situation they found themselves in when a stationary ice field started to move, spin and break up underneath them – with only slush at some points between themselves and the Arctic Ocean.

They almost lost their 60kg (9.4 stone) sledges and nearly became separated during the ordeal, which may have lasted no more than 15 minutes, Mr O’Shea calculated.

The pair had completed the toughest part of the trek – the initial 20km (12.4 miles) from their start point in Cape Discovery in temperatures of - 50 degrees over rough terrain – when arrangements to share a supply plane with Indian and Norwegian teams fell through.

They could not afford to continue and decided to turn back. By this time, they had already experienced four blizzards in one week – far more than the norm – but said they were in good form.

“It was very hard to walk away from something that we had put so much into, and I suppose I kept hoping things would work out,” Dr O’Leary said. “However, you have to act on your decisions once you have made them.”

On their retreat, they found they were being pulled in an easterly direction.

“We were crossing an ice field,when at one point I jumped off the ice bank into slush with Clare behind me,” Mr O’Shea said.

“I then had to jump back on again when I realised what was happening. We found we were moving really fast, the ice was spinning, and we were afraid we would get caught between ice blocks.”

“Had we not kept our cool and stayed up on the ice blocks, we could have been in trouble.

“We had to scramble across moving ice and water with the sledges and our boots in water, and when we got to a metre-high gap we jumped straight through on to stationary ice.”

Dr O’Leary, who was on her third attempt to make the North Pole, said that she had not encountered such conditions so early in the trek before.

“The weather seems to have been exceptional this year. The drift and blizzards were a lot worse early on in the trek – conditions you’d normally expect closer to the magnetic pole,” she said.

“I had heard the clanking of ice periodically, but I didn’t realise it was breaking up so close to us until we were actually in the middle of it.”

Dr O’Leary, a specialist in gastroenterology at South Tipperary General Hospital in Clonmel, Co Waterford, was the first Irish woman to climb Mount Everest, and has completed the world’s seven highest summits. She trekked to the South Pole with Pat Falvey in 2008, four years after Kerryman Mike Barry became the first Irishman to reach the pole.

O’Leary tried for the North Pole in 2010 and 2011, but the expeditions were scuppered by frostbite and bad weather respectively.