The Explorer: Hannah McKeand Interview

In 2006 Hannah McKeand broke the record for the quickest solo trek to the South Pole. Last month she took off from Ward Hunt Island in Canada by herself and attempted to trek across 487 miles through the harshest conditions on the planet to the North Pole. Part way through the journey she found herself stuck in an 8 foot hole with a dislocated shoulder, entirely by herself. And still the word fear never entered into her vocabulary…

Age: 34

Where did you grow up? Somerset

Were you adventurous as a kid?
I don’t think so really. I wasn’t adventurous in the sense that I did a lot of extreme sports or that sort of thing. But every time I had the opportunity I’d climb a tree or something like that.

How did you get into adventure trekking?
I had a really bad bust up with a boyfriend and just felt like I needed to get out. I wanted to run away and go do something adventurous, but also do something with a purpose. So I joined a group in the Libyan desert who were searching for rock paintings and that’s how it got started.

How long did it take to get to the South Pole?
39 days, 9 hours and 33 minutes. I beat the record of 42 days which was great. It was amazing to just get there in the first place but beating the previous record was the icing on the cake. The people there were amazing and so nice – they threw me a huge party! It was the closest I’ve ever felt to being a celebrity.

Why the North Pole?
Well at the moment I’m completely into the Arctic. I just love the peacefulness of being in that environment. I went to the South Pole for the first time in 2004 with a team and that was the first time I thought I’d love to do this by myself. The poles are so appealing to me right now. I already have such a passion for Antarctica. There have only been two people who have travelled to the North Pole solo, and only one on the route that I attempted, and no woman has ever done it. It’s really one of the last great expeditions left in the world.

What did you do to physically prepare for a solo trek to the North Pole?
I do a lot of running and dragging of tyres to train. But for the six months leading up to the North Pole expedition I was actually on a sailing expedition with a friend of mine so I was really confined to what I could do on the boat. Every time we were on land I would just jump off and run up a mountain or something.

How did the conditions in the North Pole compare to other expeditions you’ve done?
The temperature was immensely cold. It was minus 50 degrees! That has a crazy effect on the body too. You have to stay focused because your mind slows down so much and your speech is slurred. But you become comfortable in it. It’s like a huge playground – an extremely hazardous playground, but a playground nevertheless!

What is the coolest thing you’ve ever seen?
In the South Pole there are these things called sundogs. You’ll have mirrored suns in the sky so sometimes they’ll be three or even four suns. They have these lovely rings and halos around them. No polar bears as of yet, but hopefully next time.

Is it scary being alone?
No, honestly there are just so many things to think about and keep track of when you’re in such extreme conditions that you don’t really have time to be scared. I’m thinking: am I too cold, do I need to put on a hat, do I need to stop and take a drink of water? I listen to a lot of audio books on my iPodwhen I’m out there too. You just have to strike fear out of your mind and out of your vocabulary. It doesn’t help anything to be scared. Even after my accident I wasn’t scared because I’d still be in the same situation, I’d just be less able to cope with it.

What’s the best part about trekking alone?
It’s a really selfish way to travel but you don’t have to be responsible for anyone other than yourself. You really have to challenge your abilities and think ‘right, I can do this’, because you’re entirely on your own. It’s a return to our basic human instincts to just be out in nature and fend for yourself and just see what you can do.

Was this your most challenging expedition?
Definitely. The North Pole provided the most challenging conditions I’ve ever been in.

What went wrong? How did you get injured?
It was just really bad luck. I was on the 13th or 14th day and I fell into an 8-foot hole. It was completely covered up, so I couldn’t see it and I ended falling in and dislocating then relocating my shoulder. I also hurt my leg and knee in the process which were really just superficial injuries. But I was stuck in this hole for about an hour. At first I thought, this isn’t so bad, and then I stood up and realized how hurt I was. I finally used one of my skis that had come off with me to scoop some snow and rubble into the hole from the outside and positioned my ski so I could use the binding to step out of the hole. Then my training really kicked in. I just thought, I’m cold, so I made camp and got into the tent and then I called my team and told them what had happened. It wasn’t frightening because I really felt like I could get out of the situation if I had to. I had enough food and fuel for a month and I felt like I could have stayed and recovered, and hiked back to Canada.

Will you try again?
Oh yes, absolutely. After being unsuccessful…well, more unlucky than unsuccessful, you realise you can’t take things for granted. But now it’s all I can think about. I can’t wait to get back into that environment again and have another go and hopefully I’ll have better luck next time.

Was this the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?
The North Pole was definitely the most challenging but I really don’t consider anything I do to be dangerous. I’m not a reckless or extreme person at all. I plan everything so meticulously and prepare so far in advance for every aspect and eventuality. If you ask any extreme climber or skier, they’ll all tell you that they don’t think what they do is dangerous because so much preparation goes into everything.

What is the best part of exploring?
Seeing things that people would otherwise never see. You have this opportunity to be in the most remote places and see things that you normally wouldn’t be able to.

Do you have any advice for people who want to get into adventurous expeditions?
Yeah, you really need to decide first what it is that you want to do. Think of an adventure you want to go on or a place you want to see, and then get funding for your trip. Get out there and talk to people who are into the same thing as you and be enthusiastic about it. Then suddenly you’ll be on your way to your first expedition! Once you’re out there, you’ll think of the next thing you want to do and go from there. I’m always happy to give advice to the next generation of people who want to get involved in adventure expeditions.

How did you get into inspirational speaking?
It comes with the territory really. When I started going on adventures I would come back and everybody would ask me about my trip. Once I got some media exposure it just came naturally. Now I have a woman who books talks for me to do. The best talks are at schools. Kids are great. They just love it and completely get it.

What are your Blizzard Expeditions like?
Some of the time if there’s a place people want to go or a photographer who wants to take some unusual pictures, people will charter the boat from us at a day rate. More commonly, my partner Dave and I will decide what we want to do that season and people can pay a rate to birth the ship. You’ll have to be an active member of the adventure and a part of the crew. You just have to be fit and energetic and enthusiastic. We get all levels of experience with us and we try to pair less experienced people with more experienced people. You don’t have to know how to sail, we provide all sail training. But by the time you leave us, you’ll definitely know how to sail.

Will you ever stop exploring?
No, absolutely not! It’s what I do. I could never stop.

What’s next?
I’m going to write a book this summer about my experiences in the South Pole – that’s long overdue. I’ve written in the past, but in the form of online journals. I’m looking forward to resting and chilling out a bit but I’m sure after a couple of months I’ll get itchy feet and get on a plane somewhere. I might go on another trip to the Arctic in October. But for the next year or so I’m entirely focused on getting the funding for another go at the North Pole. So it’s going to be all about getting sponsors and raising the funds for the trip. You’ll never make a lot of money exploring, but it becomes what you do: it’s a vocation, it’s a way of life.

Head to Hannah’s blog to read about her adventures and learn about Blizzard Expeditions.

Words: Tiffanie Wen


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