Your Personal Best – Polar Explorer Tom Avery

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 30, 2009

“We have been trying to hack our way through ice rubble for two days now. There are towers of solid blue ice everywhere, and it’s sometimes hard to imagine we’re ever going to find a route through.” So writes polar explorer Tom Avery in his new book To the End of the Earth, which details his 37-day expedition to the North Pole in 2005.

Avery and his four-man team were on a 413-nautical-mile journey across one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth—the frozen Arctic Ocean. Perilously thin ice, blizzards, temperatures of -40 F, hunger and exhaustion were among the challenges faced by the men and their teams of dogs pulling 650-pound sleds loaded with provisions.

Throughout the final leg of the journey, the team had to negotiate areas of open water called leads, caused by temperature rises that break up the ice. To make things even more complicated, the ice pack was drifting seven miles a day away from the pole.

But Avery, a former accountant, was up to those challenges: “My expeditions are about finding something that people think is impossible and then going and doing it. It’s about pushing the boundaries and doing something nobody has done before.”

In the 2005 expedition, Avery and his team were on a quest to settle a decades-long dispute over American explorer Robert Peary’s claim of being the first to stand at the North Pole. Peary’s expedition concluded 100 years ago in April. Avery wanted to recreate Peary’s journey and to match his astonishing 37-day record, thus proving skeptics wrong. The Avery team actually surpassed Peary’s record—by fi ve hours—and Avery became one of only 41 people to have traveled on foot to both the North and South poles.

The 33-year-old Englishman has led more than 12 expeditions, including one to the South Pole in 2002. He and his team were confronted with treacherous crevasse fields, blizzards, altitude sickness, broken skis, falls and frostbite.

While Avery admits all of his expeditions are fraught with danger, meticulous preparation helps to minimize risk. “As expedition leader, my biggest role is the preparation,” he says. “The planning begins about two years before an expedition. With the North Pole, for example, 85 percent of expeditions end in failure. So we did huge amounts of training, we tested all sorts of equipment, we trained with dogs, did lots of physical work and tested different foods that we were going to use so that we had the very best chance of success when we set off.

“It’s all about balancing the risk. You will never completely eliminate the risk, but you can judge what levels of risk you are comfortable with taking. Actually, having a bit of a risk helps keep you on your toes, and if you can see it through to the other end, it does make you feel incredibly alive,” he says.

It’s this passion that helps Avery pursue and achieve his goals. “If I had listened to every dissenting voice I have ever heard, I wouldn’t have done anything.”“I believe we all need something in our lives that gets us out of bed in the mornings. Call me strange, a little bit weird, but snowy expeditions are my absolute passion. Despite the hardship, I genuinely enjoy these extreme adventures. It’s a combination of the challenge, of pushing myself to the limit, of being part of a team, and of experiencing things that only a handful of people have done,” Avery says. “I think adventure is what life’s all about.”

Although an adventurous young boy (scaling bookcases at 5), it was the tale of the Antarctic explorer Capt. Robert Scott that really sparked his interest. At 16, Avery was making rock and ice climbs in Wales and Scotland. In college, he organized and led mountaineering expeditions to the Andes, New Zealand, the Alps, Tanzania, Patagonia and Morocco.

After graduating from Bristol University in 1998 with bachelor’s degrees in geography and geology, he began a career as an accountant with Arthur Andersen. His life appeared to be settling into a fairly regular routine as a young 20-something in London.

Despite extra time off reluctantly granted by his employers for skiing and climbing, Avery realized the corporate world was too constraining. He now earns a living speaking to corporations and business schools, and writing. He raises money for charities such as The Prince’s Trust, for whom he is an ambassador, and is also an official ambassador for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Avery admits he’s fortunate to have an understanding wife, Mary, who has accompanied him dog-sledding in Lapland, skiing in the Alps and on several horseback expeditions.

“Adventure has been in my blood ever since my childhood, and it’s what I absolutely love doing more than anything else,” Avery says. “Going up to the North Pole, and not only returning in one piece, but having achieved something totally unique has shown me that nothing is impossible.

“What did I learn about myself? The Arctic Ocean is the ultimate testing ground, the perfect place to find out what you’re made of. It doesn’t get more extreme. Life can be pretty miserable: You’re eating disgusting freeze-dried food every night, your tent’s being pounded by blizzards, you have ice building up inside your thermal underwear… it’s that cold. We had no rest days; we were doing 12-, 14-, 16-hour days sometimes; we were more exhausted than was good for us.… There was open water, we were falling through the ice; it was just seriously high-stress. We were running out of food supplies, and we had storms as well. There were times when I thought we were just not going to make it,” Avery says.

“Morale was really low, but it was important to try to keep everyone positive. Working together as a unit was what saw us through.”

Avery says it’s crucial to pick the right team members. “I look for people with lots of passion, lots of energy, lots of drive, and I put that almost above their technical abilities because I find that expedition skills can be learned over a long period of training, but someone’s character— they’ve either got it or they haven’t,” he says. “I’m incredibly fortunate that I have a very strong team around me on these expeditions. Without them, there’s no way we would have been able to achieve our goals.”

Keeping his team motivated starts with empowering them with responsibilities. “I get people involved right from the beginning: I put someone in charge of our medical equipment, someone in charge of deciding what food we will take, and someone in charge of our training,” Avery says. “If they feel as though they are a big cog in the expedition, they then take a lot of pride and ownership in their role. When we are out on the ice, they know they have already invested a huge amount in the expedition. Everyone is focused on the same goal.”

Avery says he feels lucky to be able to pursue what he loves most. “I firmly believe that we all have a talent; it’s just about finding it. If I, Tom Avery, an ordinary guy from London, can go and break world records, then it just goes to show that we’re all capable of achieving the extraordinary.”

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