on 20 February 2012
David Hempleman-Adams describes himself as an adventurer, rather than a genuine 'explorer'. But what an adventurer: the first person, in 1998, to achieve the 'Explorers Grand Slam', reaching the seven highest continental summits, and the two poles - both geographic and magnetic. At a public talk last month, I heard of his Grand Slam first hand. And it was excellent: a remarkable tale, objectively, modestly, and wittily told. I picked up a signed copy of his "At the Mercy of the Winds" afterwards, and got stuck in.
This book is the account of his solo flight in a helium balloon (and wicker basket) from Spitzbergen to the north pole. He followed in the 'footsteps' of the 1897 Swedish expedition led by Salomon Andrée, which failed to reach the pole, and sadly resulted in a desperate and ultimately tragically unsuccessful three-month survival battle on the polar ice for the three Swedes. Their bodies, along with the expedition's diaries and photographs on which part of the tale is based, were only recovered from the ice 33 years later.
"At the Mercy of the Winds" interweaves the accounts of these two polar flights: on the one hand, the unsuccessful 1897 expedition, truly flying at the mercy of the winds, which is told with insight, respect, and compassion. Although Hempleman-Adams solo flight in 2000 was founded on only a rather limited experience of ballooning, it was compensated by his considerable experience of the desperate conditions and shocking loneliness of the Arctic waste, huge self-reliance, and an intense determination to succeed. In so doing, he became the first person to fly to the north pole by balloon. He gives substantive recognition to his team, and especially to his dedicated meteorologist, Luc Trullemans who, working at a computer screen in Belgium, determined the precise altitudes at which the balloon had to fly, and thereby "effectively flew Britannic Challenger to the pole".
The story is splendidly told, with co-writer Robert Uhlig. The interweaving of the two expeditions works extremely well, along the lines of Roland Huntford's comparative study of the Scott and Amundsen expeditions. Uhlig paints the earlier expedition of a century ago remarkably vividly. And we share the setbacks, challenges, and dramas of Hempleman-Adams' journey, and ultimately his success. And he describes this most hostile of environments for those of us that will never experience either its beauties or its horrors. It's a riveting tale, beautifully told.
"Although I have been successful", Hempleman-Adams concludes, "I doubt my achievements will be remembered for nearly as long as Andrée's misadventure. There's a good reason for that, and it seems right to me. Andrée was a genuine explorer, venturing into unknown territory, whereas I can claim only to be an adventurer or sportsman. And as far as polar exploration is concerned, the public prefers tragic failures to triumphant heroes; that's why Scott is better remembered than Amundsen or Shackleton, the two greatest polar explorers of all. If you are successful, then people assume it must have been easy".
This expedition was far from easy, and required courage, detailed planning, a reliable team, and a sprinkling of good luck too. If you want a terrific read of true adventure you will greatly enjoy this book.