Conquering the Impossible (9 page)

BOOK: Conquering the Impossible
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All of this activity made me completely forget about the still raw wounds on my fingers. Mentally I was already out there, and I sensed—I knew—that this totally positive attitude could only have a beneficial effect on my body's capacity to heal.

As always, my team gave me invaluable help and support. Jean-Philippe Patthey was in charge of logistics, together with Cathy. Sebastian Devenish would be the expedition photographer, just as he had been for the trip around the equator. Raphaël Blanc was in charge of directing the video footage of my adventure. Since I would be alone most of the time, though, I would do most of the actual filming. Sebastian developed a camera especially for me, equipped with a dual battery to make up for the loss of voltage due to the extreme cold and an oversized shutter release so that I could get my finger onto it even with mittens on. Because film tends to break at twenty-two degrees below zero, the camera rolled the film into the canister as each shot was taken, rather than the other way around. With this system any photographs I took would be saved automatically.

We had to manage without digital photography because of the cold, which damages the digital medium and produces shots that look like they were taken through a kaleidoscope. That said, I planned to keep a small digital camera under my parka, where it would be warm, ready to be pulled out in case of an emergency. By the time it froze, I would have already taken a few quick snaps.

Cathy, who apparently didn't think that she had enough work to do updating my Web site and managing relations with the media and my sponsors, also made meals for me for the entire expedition and vacuum-packed them in portions that corresponded to my future daily rations. With Annika and Jessica's help, the family kitchen was turned into a small-scale factory producing enormous quantities of hypercaloric food.

During my expedition, Cathy would be my only contact with the rest of the world. I would be calling her to give her all the latest news and report my current position. If I let three days go by without calling, she would know that I had a problem. After seventy-two hours she would call the rescue teams. To prevent that from happening, I brought two satellite telephones with me. They would work perfectly well anywhere on the face of the earth thanks to the use of three of the thirty satellites in permanent geosynchronous orbit. My satellite phones used lithium batteries, which lose less charge in extremly cold conditions in addition to being light and easy to use. If I used it sparingly, it would operate for a month and a half. I carried three with me. Like an ordinary cell phone, my satellite phone had a normal phone number so that anyone could call me when it was turned on. That was how journalists would contact me if Cathy had granted them a phone appointment.

Jean-Philippe Patthey would have to be ready to join me at any time in the most inaccessible places imaginable, to bring me supplies of food or equipment or to bring visitors for whatever reason.

Jean-Philippe, about fifty years old, was a former industrial baker from Brittany, France, who decided one day to change his life. He sold his baking business and came to offer me his services, asking nothing more than to have his expenses reimbursed. He had no experience, but his motivation—“I want to begin to live”—made me decide to make him part of the team. Enthusiastic, efficient, hard-working, and ready to plunge into things, he quickly became a member of the family.

Philippe Varrin would be in charge of translating my Web site into French. He also needed to be ready to leave on the shortest imaginable notice to go wherever he might be needed.

My brother Martin would oversee the transport of the boats.

*   *   *

I would need a boat to sail from the North Cape of Norway to the Greenland coast and later to go from Greenland to Canada, but it couldn't be just any boat. It would need to be a sort of miniature icebreaker with a retractable keel—a feature that's very unusual in monohull boats—so that I could “glide” over the ice. In fact, the way you break ice is by pressing down on it, not by smashing into it headlong. I wanted the hull to be made of aluminum, not steel. Steel rips on impact with an obstacle while aluminum just dents. Moreover, a boat made of steel would weigh forty tons and would slow me down considerably. The lower section of the hull needed to be at least half an inch thick; otherwise it would crack like a nutshell under the pressure of the ice. The hull would have to be sufficiently rounded that it would rise up out of the water when ice formed around it, instead of being crushed or trapped. With all these demands I might as well have been looking for a pig with wings.

To help me find such a boat I called on Steve Ravussin, my friend and mentor in the art of sailing. It was Steve who taught me on Lake Geneva how to sail the little trimaran in which I later crossed three oceans during my trip around the equator.

Together, Steve and I scoured all the marinas of the French Riviera in search of the ideal vessel. We hunted in vain. None of the fifty or sixty boats we were offered fit our needs, or else they were out of my budget. Nor did I have the money to have one custom-built. Even if I did, that would take four to six months, and I was leaving in thirty days. I was really starting to worry when somebody told us about a boat that was just what we were looking for, or so they said. It was for sale in Bénodet. I had not seen plans or photographs of this boat. I had no idea what it looked like. All the same, we hopped in the car and began driving to Brittany. When we finally got there, after an exhausting drive, we called the boat's owner to arrange to see it. Impossible, he said. He was in Paris where he practiced as a dentist. Fortunately, his wife was in town. We arranged to meet her at the marina.

While we waited for her, we looked around at the boats. One boat in particular caught our attention. It was a forty-six-foot vessel whose hull was the burnished gray typical of aluminum. “That is exactly what you need!” Steve shouted. If only that were the boat. A few moments later, the owner appeared on the deck. Then came the second miracle. According to the plans that she showed us, the boat suited my needs in every detail. Inside it was luxurious—berths, shower, hot water. It even had a ninety-horsepower engine, a crucial factor to my crew when they needed to ferry the boat around Greenland while I skied across the country. I, of course, would have no right to use the engine except for recharging my battery and for maneuvering in ports, where it is required.

I was walking on air out of happiness, until I heard the price, fifty thousand Euros above my budget.

At first the owners refused to lower their price. Perhaps the agency would agree to drop its commission, the woman said. At the broker I happened to meet a gentleman who had heard about me. He agreed to drop his commission in exchange for a little publicity. Later I became better acquainted with Jean-Yves Moysin, the dentist who owned the boat. He told me he had built it himself, and he would be proud to see his “baby” accompanying me on my journey around the Arctic Circle.

After two weeks of negotiations, we agreed on a more reasonable price. The deal was done. I had my boat!

There were a few modifications to be made to get it ready to go to sea and to face an Arctic winter. I sanded the hull, I laid down nonskid material on the deck because of the ice that would form there, and I installed a retractable propeller that would reduce drag and be less exposed to damage. The Katadyn company gave me a water purifier that would transform seawater into drinking water.

The boat was the last piece of the puzzle. Now that it was in place, there was nothing to keep me from leaving.

Another willing volunteer, Pierre-Yves Martin, stepped forward to help ferry the boat to North Cape and then around Greenland. He came on board at Bénodet in late July 2002, along with Jean-Philippe and another Swiss friend of mine, Denis, for a beautiful cruise along the coast of Norway, one of the loveliest places on earth.

I would catch up with them toward the end of their cruise. I still had to nail down my budget, obtain a few extensions, find a few extra sponsors, and do a few last lectures before leaving. These speaking engagements are my only source of revenue. I try to do as many as I can before leaving on an adventure so that Cathy will have enough money to run the house while I'm gone. (There is also a small salary for her in the expedition budget, a minor compensation for the enormous task of supporting and keeping up with me.)

I also gave interviews to journalists. Some of them criticized me for the risks I had run in the past and the risks I was about to face. It is true that if I had just stayed home, my fingers would not have been frostbitten. As I always say, “If you never use your shovel, you'll never break the handle.” And my shovel could break at any time. I have had more accidents than I can count, and I expect to have plenty more of them. The next accident could even be fatal. But running risks is part of the work I do, just as risk is inherent in other professions.

In a completely demented aside, one representative of the media wondered, “How can a South African survive in the Arctic? He necessarily lacks the experience and the knowledge required.” I wanted to answer him that all I need is a fire in the belly and an absolute determination to stay alive. It really all adds up to that when battling the Arctic.

Aboard our Mercedes Sprinter truck, Cathy, my daughters, and I left Switzerland on the long journey that would take us across Europe from south to north. Finally, at Tromsö, a small coastal town in northern Norway, we met up with my boat and its temporary crew. Pierre-Yves had taken care of all the equipment—halyards, generator, batteries, spare sails, tools, and so forth—and a few finishing touches. As a result, the boat was practically brand-new.

Then we traded vehicles. We gave them the truck in exchange for the sailboat. And so it was as a family that we made our three-day sail up to North Cape, spending a last brief moment together before I set off on my adventure.

Sponsors, friends from Château d'Oex, Les Moulins, and elsewhere, and a great many others had traveled to that remote spot from which I was about to set off on my new challenge. One of my cousins held the record for the longest journey; she came all the way from South Africa with her husband and her son. Everyone seemed to share the same sense of enthusiasm. As for me, I had experienced this before—the glorious part of an expedition is not so much reaching the destination but the departure, which represents the culmination of so much effort. This was the most rewarding moment because I finally had the wings with which I was going to be able to fly. I had devoted immense amounts of energy and effort for the past year and a half toward the single goal of being here, now, ready to do what I had to do. I reached this point much sooner than I ever would have believed possible. The waiting period was over. Even though they were not entirely healed, my frozen fingers—and the whole North Pole saga—belonged to the past. I was back in my element once again. For the moment, I needed only to focus all my energies on my first objective: to claw my way clear of the cliffs of the North Cape and set sail for Greenland, maintaining my course within a corridor between sixty-six degrees north—the Arctic Circle—and seventy-six degrees north.

On August 4, 2002, a number of my supporters and I set sail from Hammerfest, the little Norwegian town where their hotel was located, and headed for the tiny fishing village, Skarwag, close to where my starting line was located. Others arrived in minivans. Under a gray drizzle that was illuminated from time to time by slanting shafts of sunlight, we raised our champagne glasses in a toast to the success of my adventure, beside the wharf where my boat was moored.

The time had come to say good-bye. Cathy and my daughters were the last people I wrapped in my arms before hoisting the anchor. As the boat began to pull away from the wharf, Annika and Jessica leaned out for one last kiss, to tell me that they both loved me and to say that they were sure that I was going to make it. My heart was in my throat. Now, more than ever, I knew that I had to make it back alive. The euphoria of departure did not prevent me from seeing that this separation would be painful for my wife and my daughters.

On the stormy sea my friends accompanied me a little way aboard a trawler, taking photographs and making sweeping gestures of farewell. Standing in the bow, I answered them. With the mainsail set, but on autopilot, my boat pitched into the trough and rose again, bow pointing at the sky. I disappeared and reappeared among the tossing waves, my face lashed by the gusts of wind. The gray water burst beneath my haul, spraying geysers all around me. I was happy. Here—and now—was where I wanted to be; I had fought to be here, and this was the first victory in that battle.

I turned around for one last glimpse of the boat that was carrying my friends and my family. It vanished in the distance, and I didn't turn around again.

For me, this was the beginning of the adventure. For them, the beginning of the wait.

The giant cliffs of North Cape formed a wall of rock that rose a few hundred feet into the sky. The gray waves crashed repeatedly against it. Atop the cliffs stood a bronze globe that marks the exact location of the northernmost point in Europe.

Just at that moment, my GPS indicated that I was crossing the imaginary starting line. I gathered all my strength to fix in my memory all the details of my surroundings, every rocky crag of the cliffs, every jutting relief, every bit of greenery … right down to the fierce whirlwinds in the sky and the somber swells of the sea. I wanted all this to stay with me. I wanted to be able to compare this image to the one I would see when I would reappear here, moving in the same direction after having traveled the length of the Arctic Circle. Of all the seas, rivers, and lakes that I was going to cross, of all the ice fields, barren tundra, and vast icy expanses that I would have crossed by then, all the cliffs, crevasses, mountains, and so on, this view would be the only one that would not be appearing to me for the first—and the last—time.

BOOK: Conquering the Impossible
5.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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