Blind man treks to South Pole
Irishman Mark Pollock has become the first blind person in the world to make it to the South Pole, writes LORNA SIGGINS.
MARK POLLOCK considers himself to be one of the luckiest men on this island. Not just because is one of a handful of Irish people to trek to the southernmost point of the planet, but because he was unable to see anything for the entire 22 days.
“And I have found that I just love the snow and the Antarctic environment – which is something I would never have imagined,” he said, speaking from South Africa en route home at the weekend.
“I am smitten – it has opened up a whole new world for me.”
Pollock, from Hollywood, Co Down, lost his sight 10 years ago at the age of 22, and is one of 10 per cent of blind people with no vision at all.
Last week, he and fellow competitors, Dubliner Simon O’Donnell and Norwegian Inge Solheim, came fifth overall of six teams in the first Amundsen Omega 3 South Pole race.
Pollock is the first blind person in the world to record the achievement. He did so in what is acknowledged to be the world’s harshest environment, with temperatures dropping to minus 50 degrees Celsius.
His South Pole Flag teammate, Simon O’Donnell, sustained frostbite on his hands, face and ear, and Pollock believes that it was due to his self-sacrificing nature.
“Simon, a rugby strength and conditioning coach, was the man who got me to the gym every day to train for this. He was there every minute of the day to support me on this trek. Without him, I couldn’t have even got to the starting line,” Pollock says.
Yet Pollock is no mean achiever. He has won medals rowing for Northern Ireland at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, has completed six marathons in one week in China’s Gobi Desert, and ran against British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes in the North Pole marathon.
He has also kayaked across the Irish Sea, completed the Ironman Switzerland challenge, and was the first blind person to complete the lowest and highest marathons in the world – the Dead Sea Ultra in Jordan, followed by the Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon from Everest base camp in Nepal.
He undertook the series of extreme physical challenges after his traumatic experience a decade ago. “I was 22, had been studying in Trinity College, Dublin, I was cycling around the city and I had just got my driving licence,” he recalls.
“I had been short-sighted when I was born and lost the sight of my right eye when I was five years old,” he continues. “I had two detachments of the retina when I was growing up. Then, I had a third and within weeks my sight was gone.”
He believes he was “fortunate” in that it was not gradual, and there was “no uncertainty” about it.
He has come to terms with it to a large degree, but admits to “minor frustrations” associated with lack of freedom.
“I’m talking to you now from Capetown, a beautiful place, and I am not worried about not being able to view it. But if I did want to split from the group and head off by myself, I can’t.”
Skiing had not been on his list, when he began embarking on his various sporting challenges and developed a career as a motivational speaker. “When friends were going off on to the Alps, I just wrote it off as something that I couldn’t do,” he says.
“In fact, skis are ideal once you are accustomed to them. In running events, you have the rocky terrain to deal with. In snow, on cross-country skis, blindness is a minor factor and I really did feel I was actually in the race this time.”
He was apprehensive about navigating the surface irregularities caused by wind erosion, know as “sastrugi”. His concern was justified as he fell about 50 times over a four-day period and twisted his ankle badly.
“I couldn’t tell my team mates, as any serious medical intervention could have taken us out of the race.”
The trio had to pull 90kg pulks or sledges behind them. Pollock lost two stone, O’Donnell lost three stone and Norwegian Inge Solheim lost one.
“I did feel that my blindness was putting a lot more pressure on my teammates, as I couldn’t put up the tent. Well, I could, but I was very slow. I would crawl in and get the sleeping mats out, blow up the thermo-rests and organise the sleeping bags, but after that I was very reliant on them.
The race had been staged to mark almost a century since Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the southernmost point on the globe, in 1914. Five years before that, and a century ago last month, Irish adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton turned back from his attempt on the South Pole.
Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition had run out of rations and experienced a series of blizzards when the Irishman decided it was “better to be a living donkey than a dead lion” and retreated – just 97 miles from target.
The first Irishman to complete the journey was Kerry mountaineer Mike Barry five years ago on January 21st, 2004, and he has congratulated Mr Pollock on his achievement. So has Pat Falvey, leader of the first Irish expedition there in January 2008.
Pollock felt very at one with an environment which has a “great sense of history” about it, he says. “I will go back somewhere snowy, perhaps learning to kite-ski with my teammate up in Norway.”
For more details on the race, see www.southpoleflag.com