Transcript: Pen Hadow – “you can achieve any goal you set your mind to” (Max#11)

Here’s the transcript of the second installment with famous Explorer, Pen Hadow. In this motivating interview he discusses how you can achieve any goal if you put your mind to it inspiring people to be successful in life.


Kevin: Welcome to Maximise Potential the podcast to educate and motivate through a range of original interviews designed to help you maximise your potential.

Hello and welcome back to episode 11 of Maximise Potential podcast and today we are moving on to our much anticipated range of interviews with Pen Hadow record breaking polar explorer. In the interview today Pen is going to talk very openly about his life as a young child and how that very much acted as a catalyst for propelling him in the direction that his career and life ultimately took. Before moving on to talk in depth about the attempts that he made to reach the North Pole funnily enough the unsuccessful attempts he made to reach the North Pole and what he really learnt from that about himself about exploration and also applying that very much to his life now within a business and commercial environment.

So I hope you really enjoy this interview. Remember it is the first of three that we are actually posting with Pen and I will tell you more about the other two at the end of this interview. So I hope you enjoy it. It is one of our longer ones so grab a cup of tea and relax and yeah I hope you get a lot out of it.


So Pen thank you very much for joining us here today. Why don’t we go right back to the early Pan Hadow years because I pretty much imagine that that’s where the whole explorer element of you all started.

Pen: My life as an explorer started at the youngest of ages um in fact only when I was about two years old because I was looked after by a very elderly lady who was taken on notionally as my nanny and that nanny had previously looked after my father when he was a small boy. And her job before looking after my father when he was young was to look after Scott of the Antarctic’s son Peter. The significance of this is that when Captain Scott died his wife Kathleen was very anxious that Peter might try to in some way move the reputation of the Scott family on by doing things in the Polar Regions and took it upon herself to harden young Peter and inure him to the cold. And had him put through a sort of sparsen regime and to do this she took on a young teenage nanny called Enid Wiggly and Enid had to put Peter out in the British Autumns, Winters and Springs with less and less clothing for longer and longer periods of time. The relevance of this is that Enid then looked after my dad and told him as a young boy about what she had had to do for Peter. And dad thought wouldn’t it be great if ever he had a son to toughen him up in the way that Peter had been toughened up. And this is what was done to me from the age of two till five. The trouble is I wouldn’t say misfortune but it was in the circumstances a misfortune to be born in the uphills of Scotland so quite near Perth where it is quite parky verging on frosty I would say in the winters. And I was put out for longer and longer periods with less and less clothing until I actually got frostbite on one of my cheeks and the extraordinary thing is that my father had taken on the responsibility of looking after Enid in her 80s and she lived and died with us and she notionally was involved in this programme if you like of toughening up.

So she looked after young Peter from the age of three till eight, Captain Scott’s son and then looked after me from the ages of two till five. And Peter was sort of fully baked as an explorer as Enid would have described it and I was half baked because the programme was abandoned. And the other thing about Enid is that she brought me up on the stories of Scott and Shakleton and Mawson and de Gerlache all famous explorers who I came to know as the Antarctic boys. That’s what I used to refer to them as. I had an easy familiarity with all of their trials and tribulations in the Antarctic.

Kevin: And so I mean how did you go about challenging yourself as a child. I mean if you have been indoctrinated with all these amazing stories of explorers and people who are you know risking their life day in day out I mean you are there as a four year old, a five year old, a six year old I mean how did that translate to you?

Pen: Well from a very early age I can remember being fascinated by what it would feel like in the full sense psychologically as well as physically, more psychologically actually to be at the boundaries of possibility. That may sound rather sort of unlikely. I can remember this at the age of seven I was definitely in that sort of mind set. And I can honestly say that apart from this sort of inculcation to the cold really I cant remember any coaching by my parents in any shape or form to sort of harden me up or push myself at all. I suppose partly nurture I accept there must have been some in there and partly nature in my DNA. But I can remember one day thinking I wonder what it would be like, see how long I can hang upside down from a branch of a tree in our orchard. And you know as small boys will, so I climbed this tree enough times, I suppose I got bored with that and thought well I cant go any higher so lets try something else. So there was a branch about six foot off the ground of this apple tree and I hooked my legs over it and hung upside down like a bat. And sometime later my mother was, came out looking for me, realised that she had hadn’t seen or heard from me for a little while and she saw me hanging upside down in this tree and shrieking because, she ran towards me because she assumed reasonably enough that I had climbed the tree fallen down and was caught in the lower branches. Actually I had been doing this experiment. Now I had been there for about three and three quarter hours and my head was swollen with all the blood. And I can remember the sort of buzzing sort of sensation in my head as I was thinking, well basically I was going to feint and thinking how long, how much longer can I last. And then mum trashed the experiment which was unfortunate.

So that is the sort of chap I was. I can also remember some when I was 13 so five years later we, shot-put was introduced as a school sport on sports day and I can remember asking the coach could I take the shot-put home with me for the Easter Holidays to practice. Of course no small boys did that sort of thing and I practiced almost every day and I, and that was a very powerful lesson to me because I could really see almost on every three day basis improvement. I was throwing it further and further and further. And the further I threw it the more I wanted to train because I thought this is just fantastic. And I got, when sports day came I sort of threw it this sort of ludicrous distance compared to everybody else and it was wonderful. Power of training.

Kevin: And so what other apart from you know suddenly throwing yourself into this shot-put and surprising the entire school and I imagine it surprised your Games Master more than anybody else what other crazy stuff did you get up to then?

Pen: Well when I went to Harrow School I became quite aware of a very particular feat which was called ‘the Long Ducker’. Now a ‘Short Ducker’ was a three mile run from the door of your house, there were 11 houses, and each of about 60 boys or so at Harrow. Down the hill, around the base of Harrow on the Hill and back up. It was about three miles and actually was used as a punishment run for boys. But there was also something called the ‘Long Ducker’ and ‘Long Ducker’ was from Harrow on the Hill down to the Grand Union Canal and nine miles into town get off at Little Venice run on to, down Mayfair Road to Marble Arch turn round and back again. And it is the order of 26 miles and boys who I used to look up to aged 13 you know 14 sort of wide eyed at these sort of school heroes they were often saying before they left they would do the Long Ducker, they could do Long Ducker but by the age of 15 they had never. They could all talk the talk but no one was walking or in this case running the run and I thought that was really bad form because they were sort of getting all the credit and kudos implying that they could and they would and but actually they didn’t. And it was a red rag to me I thought that was really bad form. So without telling anybody initially I did a lot of training. In a rugby top, 1977 this was and it was the Queens Silver Jubilee and I then thought I would raise some money. So I raised £110 which was by far the biggest amount, the school Chaplain was in shock, I mean he could raise normally about fifty pence from the entire school on a normal Sunday. So anyway I set off, I did it alone. In my ignorance and this is pretty, it is actually pretty incredible and I only realised much recently how sort of incredible it is I actually in training for the previous two Sundays I had done the whole thing but just doing Short Duckers round and round. Round and up, round and up, round and up. And built it up over the term. So the last two Sundays before I did the actual feat on the main route I had done a marathon. So age 15 for three Sundays in a row I ran a marathon. Not many people know that. And I might add this is before the days when marathons were sort of public participation sports.

Kevin: Yeah because London Marathon only started in early 80s I believe didn’t it so.

Pen: Order of I guess. So this was the only marathon runner I knew, I was quite keen on athletics, so Tony Simmons was my hero but Abu Bikila was the main man, Olympic Gold Medal winner in the marathon. And so I did this thing and the amusing thing is really that the following day on the Monday the whole school has to assemble and the Headmaster gives, reads through the notices for the week and he said boys I would like to draw your attention a feat that Pen Hadow did yesterday. Unbeknownst to him the school archivist has revealed to me that this has not been done since 1927. He is the first boy to have run the Long Ducker for 50 years.

Kevin: Wow and were you aware of that?

Pen: No I had no idea.

Kevin: You were thinking all these seniors were.

Pen: No I thought the last four or five years I assumed some people had probably been doing it just not the boys in my house who were obviously a bunch of. So um anyway apparently there had been a long tradition of bullshit going on. So I put an end to that and now in a way the sort of thing that is nicest about the whole story is that every boy by the age of 16 at Harrow will have attempted sort of half Long Ducker. In other words and I have been part of the, they are all bussed out, almost the entire school is bussed to Marble Arch on a particular Sunday. And they run back to the house. And if you are over 16 and I was only 15 when I did this, but you have to be 16 or more you can then attempt both. So that’s nice it has become a school tradition now.

Kevin: Definitely that’s lovely and the thing that I think you are underestimating is the London Marathon course I am familiar with which is relatively flat I am also very familiar with Harrow on the Hill and I know for a fact that that is far from flat. I mean those hills that you are talking about are quite extremes. So to add those into a 26 mile course I think is phenomenal.

Pen: Well yeah it is a bit I suppose because you know it was the training runs were the killer. Those two marathons before I was running around and up and back down and around and up and it is 400 foot, it feels like an Everest by the last one. So. Job done.

Kevin: Wow so pretty much you have always just wanted to challenge yourself. It seems as though every single corner it has always been just trying to find one challenge after another and just expand yourself.

Pen: Yeah I am not someone who goes around; I certainly wasn’t then, looking for big challenges. I just seem to have my radar switched on and something would present itself and I would find myself drawn like a moth to a lamp really.

Kevin: So you mentioned earlier as well Pen that it was actually 27 when you first contemplated becoming an explorer. Now I am conscious that we are dealing with almost a decade between your time at Harrow when you were drawing to an end there before this period of your life that you embarked on. What did actually did you want to do?

Pen: I think from the age of eight probably and I can think of a specific conversation with my mother and from the age of 13 definitely and explicitly I was aware of the notion of potential. My potential and was um intrigued and motivated, interested in how I was going to fulfil my potential. I went through what I would call my wilderness years. And although it is not evidenced that my wilderness years started when I was 13 because I did all sorts of you know interesting good stuff before I was 27 years old both at Harrow and at University College London where I was and a few bits and bobs after that. Actually I went through a pretty tortured process. I would go as far as to say in the sort of common parlance of the phrase that I was a tortured soul. I felt that I had a social responsibility way beyond my own responsibility to myself if I can put it like that to push myself and make something of myself to the broader common good. And I really struggled psychologically with that view of myself. And having done that Long Ducker business that we talked about earlier I actually sort of blew a fuse aged 17 and became quite ill well collapsed with exhaustion actually is really what it was. And that was a symptom of the immense pressures that I was putting on myself. I mean I was the Head of School at Harrow, I was Captain of two of the three sports, I was, I did the Oxbridge term I didn’t actually end up taking the exams for various reasons. So I was flying quite near the upper ends of things certainly within the school environment maybe not in the national environment and that was just nowhere near enough. Because it wasn’t really what I, it wasn’t going to take me anywhere particularly that I thought was going to be of interest or value to the wider world.

So once I went to University this thing has got worse because I just couldn’t find my way. I couldn’t find what it was that “I was meant to be doing”. And I was like a dog with a bone I knew there was something and I wasn’t going to let go and so I found it very hard to be motivated in whatever it was that I was doing because I sort of knew quite quickly that wasn’t the right thing. So I ended up aged, well after University I went to Mark McCormack’s Sports Organisation International Management Group which is, was then and almost certainly is still now, the world’s largest and most powerful sports marketing agency looking after most of the worlds top sports stars and sports events and then into the artistic world, artists and musicals and all sorts of things. And over the four or five years that I was there what I realised was that I should not really be, I was not, I should be on the other end of the telescope, I should be doing. I should be the golfer, the racing car driver, the tennis star whatever. I was a doer I shouldn’t be behind the scenes raising the money, sponsorships, endorsements, ambassadorships and all that sort of thing.

And I used to go to a, once in a while I used to go to the Royal Geographical Society Headquarters in Kensington Gore just by Serpentine Hyde Park. Into the library and read a book. And I can remember going, this was a sort of one of my, I seem to have a number of Damaskan moments in my life, or waterships moments is probably a better way of putting it. And this was one of them and I said to the librarian who I knew quite well I want to go up to the Lowther Room. Well no one ever went in those days, this was 1987. I want you to unlock one of the grills; all the books which hadn’t been read for decades were behind brass grilles. He unlocked one of the grills swung it back and I just reached in pulled a book out randomly and it was by a chap who no one has ever heard of, and I certainly hadn’t at the time, Bernard Adolph Hantzsch who was a German ornithologist. And to cut a long story short I read the book or parts of the book right there and then and was so overwhelmed by the extremity of his experience and the passion with which he devoted himself to recording the fauna and flora on Baffin Island in North West sorry North East Canada that I thought my God no one knows about this man this is the most phenomenal journey against all odds I would like to go back and re-trace his route with a group of scientists and record the changes in fauna and flora 100 years on which was roughly 100 years on.

So powerful was that experience in that library all on my own reading this book which had, the pages had to be cut open with a razor by the, I had to get the librarian up to cut the top of the pages because they were continuous over the top of each page. So no one had ever read this book before. That I decided as I walked back to Fitzharding Street which was off Manchester Square near Baker Street that I would resign. And by the time I got to the office I knew I was going to resign. I was going to make this journey. I had found the next step and I resigned my colleagues thought I was mad because I had a boy zone job representing you know top sports stars travelling around the world. And it just wasn’t for me I had to do this. I had to do it.

Kevin: As you say there just wasn’t that self fulfilment side to it but all of a sudden you discovered for the first time ever it sounds like you discovered that true calling that you desperately were searching for.

Pen: I think, well I think I did. And in a way manifestly I did because I am still at it all this time later. But as I walked back I can remember thinking I don’t have a great collection of books but 90% of the books that I owned were I realised all about adventures. They were, and I started when I was about 10 or 12 reading books called by Willard Price who some small boys may remember if they are my sort of age, I now try to read them to my son and just couldn’t bring myself the language is so appallingly rubbish. It is just dire. Gorilla adventure, lion adventure, Hal and Roger the two brothers going about doing their great stuff in Africa. And then Wilbur Smith who was the other, I read all his books. But it was books particularly by the generation explorers and adventurers above me. So it was Ran Fiennes, Chay Blyth, John Ridgeway, Frances Chichester who is sort of two generations beyond, Robin Hanbury Tenison, Robin Knox Johnson, Tim Severin. They are the British explorer adventurer community Chris Bonnington. And I had a lot of their books. And I think, sometimes I think well maybe I could try and live that life and they have all found a way, a variety of ways in which they managed to sustain that lifestyle by writing books, by giving talks, by being television presenters,

And I did my first project and coming out of that I decided I was going to set up a guide service. That is what kept me in the game. I guided, I set up the first guide service to the Arctic and Antarctic and specifically the North and South Poles.

Kevin: And so that was your way of if you like blending a monetary career with the ability to carry on pursuing your passion.

Pen: Yes. That is exactly right.

Kevin: I mean lets talk about that, lets just back track slightly because you went from the high flying world of Mark McCormack’s corporation where you had the glamour life, you were working with all these massive celebrities all around the world to suddenly going off on your first expedition. Where did it, how do you start all of that?

Pen: Well I placed an advertisement in a long since deceased magazine for a HF High Frequency radio operator. This is the days before satellite phones and so on. The person who answered that said look Pen you have had no experience in the arctic you really cant sensibly lead a project of the scale that you envisage without more experience why don’t you come and join me in Spitzbergen and we are going, and lets make a journey from the west coast of Spitzbergen across the Island of Spitzbergen which is on the edge of the Arctic Ocean in northern most Norway and then out across the outlying islands further to the east across the sea ice and basically photographing and filming polar bears in the wild.

Kevin: Oh wow.

Pen: Not in tander buggies, not up scaffolding you know scaffolded huts and this sort of thing with sledges in amongst them in the main breeding sort of concentrated area for what you might call the European sector of polar bears. And that is where I learnt my trade. I was out there for 70 days and it was a 70 day very intensive tutorial or workshop in how to survive in a remote environment by which I mean seriously cut off from any prospect of help. In an extreme environment in terms of all sorts of things including temperature and the environment of operating on the sea ice. Sort of mobile dynamic unpredictable environment. And travel, you don’t just survive you have got to travel. You know as far as you can on a daily basis and fulfil a job which is to film and photograph polar bears. And I was taught some very important strategic and tactical lessons and I picked up a bunch of skills as well.

To give you an example if you think that is all a big waffly what does he really mean. Well I can remember walking, we walked for several days across the line, your progress is so slow five to ten miles a day pulling very heavy sledges just the two of us, no dogs involved just strapped to the sledge and pulling it. And you have got 70 days of supplies they are pretty heavy trust me. And you can hardly move them so you are inching across the sea ice and it is all a bit dull and the sea ice on the island that we were in was quite flat but there was a genuine iceberg, fresh water broken off a glacier floating around the sea and then locked in the sea ice in the winter just stuck there and I said to my partner Vaughan hey why don’t we go and climb that we get some brilliant photographs from the top da, da, da, da. And he said well why do you want to do that? I said because it would be fun and I didn’t like to say it had been a bit boring but I think, you know, I didn’t have the heart to say that so I just said it would be really interesting and I would love to do it and its a challenge and da, da, da, da. He said why are we here? So I thought oh hang on lesson coming on here. Well because we are photographic polar bears in a way that no one else has done it before. He said that’s right any relevance to climbing an iceberg. No but we are here to sort of, we are here for a life experience no one is telling us we can’t we can do what we want Vaughan.

He said right so you Pen want to go and climb that iceberg with no kit, no appropriate, you have got no ice climbing kit, no crampons, no ropes, no skills you have got no experience and if which is quite likely you have an accident and lets say you break an arm or worse still a leg tell me what is going to happen then. And we I might add had no possibility because of ionospheric conditions sun spot flare we were out of all contact of any description for six weeks. He said what’s going to happen when you fall? And I thought about it and if you break a leg and you cant walk you are in a serious jam and probably would have died. I couldn’t walk; he couldn’t tow me so you are stuck there. Out on the sea ice, 20 – 30 miles offshore, it is just a sort of nightmare scenario. And he said always think and keep focussed on why you are there. Don’t do anything that is superfluous because it is all you can do just to do that and you are trained for that, we have scoped the whole mission for that, we have looked at all the risks, don’t start going off and doing other things. New risks get introduced which you are not able necessarily to manage. So if it is not forced upon you don’t do it. That was a big lesson.

Kevin: And that was probably one of the strongest things that you carried with you ever since I guess with all your preparation and exploration ever since then.

Pen: I think, that’s right and actually even in business life keep focussed. I am one who is always, my mind is sort of looking on the peripheral and looking at all sorts of interesting projects and to what extent they inform where we are trying to go. It is very; very tempting to get side tracked so it is one of the things I am constantly trying to bring in, if it is not on the critical path drop it. You don’t have time. Like every instinct is be very careful if you really think through the consequences of going off on sort of tangents.

Kevin: It is funny actually there is an author that we actually spoke of before we even started the interview which we were just chatting about and he is a gentleman called Jim Collins and he wrote an incredible book called Built to Last, and Good to Grate, or two books I should say. And one of his core statements that he makes is to have a ruthless focus. And it sounds a very similar analogy to what you have just described to me here. Would you agree?

Pen: I would, I would. I think that following a critical path, establishing what it is and then going down it in a rigorous and ruthless way is key to fulfilling ones potential or ambition. But I don’t think enough emphasis is put on the downside of that strategy which is that you are likely to be letting go, de-prioritising and letting go inevitably really aspects of ones life which may kick you in the pants quite severely at some point down the line. So be aware and make informed decisions about how rigorous you are prepared to be or how quickly you want to get down that path. Maybe be rigorous but accept that it is going to take longer if you want to keep a good relationship with your wife, a good relationship with your children, a good relationship with your wider family actually have some friends who remember who you are and you see them you know more than once every five years because friendships don’t, struggle with lack of contact. It is the work life balance and I think that it is not actually that hard to achieve be successful and get to break through what you might crudely call the broad middle band of achievement. Because most people with justification are not prepared to let certain things go. And um but for those who do you can lance your way through, you know through the glass ceiling and up into the blue sky above the clouds lets say but there are generally prices to be paid and you need to think, I would urge people to be aware that it may be, it may not prove worth it in the end. It is an empty success and therefore it is more about the journey about how process of, it is more about the process than it is about.

Kevin: The outcome.

Pen: The outcome.

Kevin: Yeah I see what you mean. Look lets just back track slightly because you just touched on something very relevant there which was you said, I think you were saying that anybody could possibly achieve what you believe you have achieved and we are obviously, you know we haven’t touched yet upon what you have achieved and particularly what you are known for. You know in the history books and commercially. But just you as a person do you think you possess any special skills?

Pen: I try to understand myself so I can then be more aware of what I have got that worked and then reapply it. And if I had to reduce it to three words I would say it is about relentless intelligent application. You have got to keep going at it. Ah if you keep going at it and do not give up and it maybe right to give up, you may be going up a dead end it may not be for you for whatever reason. So don’t have a problem in stopping, redirecting, going off on a different avenue. If you have an intelligent approach by which I mean not being very clever, you know having to be super intelligent but just think learning from the lessons all the time. Endlessly tightening the focus, getting that beam of light tighter and tighter, brighter and brighter and more and more aimed at exactly what you are trying to do. That is an important sort of explicit process that I think again maximises the likelihood. That is all you can ever do you can’t guarantee anything in life but you can maximise the likelihood of getting to where you want to get to. And I think it is about application.

I sat down for diner with Nigel Mansel about two years ago and he is someone who’s you know he is Formula One world champion, he is a scratched golf player could have been a professional if he wanted to be and he also flies with the Red Arrows unbeknownst to most people, he is a pilot with the Red Arrows. Just on the side he trains with them. And you know takes part in displays. So he is a bit of a high achiever I would say and I said to him I have got to ask you, I am sure lots of people do but I am sitting next to you I have got to ask you what is it do you think that enables you to have got to where you are. And he said and I hope you will forgive me for repeating this, I am sure he has told others. He said I have got the attention of a gnat if I am bored and most things bore me but when I am focussed on something, something gets my interest I can apply you know pretty much maximum you know with 100% focus on it. And he said the word he said if I only have to have one word it is application it is doing it. Do it and do it and do it and do it. That was his thing. He said lots of his friends say oh well wish I had a bit more talent. He said I have got, he said I am the least talented person I know. Well that is like me I feel I am the most ordinary person I know. There is absolutely nothing extraordinary about me at all. I feel entirely normal as I wander around. Those are the three words for me relentless intelligent application. It is not rocket science it is what it is.

Kevin: And that then took you on and I guess those three words took you on to then deciding that you wanted to do the challenge of all challenges up in the North Pole. And why don’t you introduce us to that and help us understand where that whole thought process came from.

Pen: I found myself working on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean, north geographic pole lies roughly in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. And one of the things that I took from my upbringing was a need to demonstrate to myself and to my family and to my peers, by which I mean the Polar community and to a lesser extent the broad public if you like a broad mastery of my trade. Which was however strange it may seem you know travelling on sea ice. It is an extremely focussed area of expertise that is required to be able to travel long distances over long periods of time and reach ambitious goals. And in the early 90s the next challenge in polar terms was to make an unsupported journey. That means to set off from the coast of the arctic ocean wherever you choose and then travel with everything you need in your sledge for the journey food, fuel, tent, radios, spare clothing, spare equipment and so on and without being resupplied by aircraft or any other means you make it to the Pole and then you get picked up. That was what the leading lights had been trying to do actually for a number of years and they had all failed. Special Forces people had failed, famous explorers had failed, national guides in the trade had failed, everyone was failing. And I thought well if I can do that that will satisfy me at the very least that I had mastered my trade.

And so in 1993 I was thinking about it. And my father died in 1993 and he died in my arms and I vowed to him that if there was one thing that I did with my life it would be to make a solo journey without resupply to the north geographic pole. And at a deep level I knew he would know why I was doing this. And I made a vow which I fully intended to keep. I didn’t know how long it was going to take; I hoped I would do it the first time round. I had no idea it was actually going to be 15 years before I managed to succeed in that. And the big lesson there is I made my first attempt in 1994 and my second attempt in 1998 but I was able to see then however hard it was and it was very hard psychologically coming out of those failures as people would see them classically. I know they were reported in the press but for me they were temporary setbacks and there is a major difference. I didn’t quit the mission, it was a setback. It was a battle lost not the war lost. I thought very hard about what I could learn from that experience before I went back into the fray. And over the four years between 94 and 98 I actually led a number of expeditions and my confidence level was so high that rather than, actually what happened was I was too ambitious in a different way. This time I thought well in my head I had made the journey so many times I knew I could do this. I thought I will show people what I am really capable off and what we should all be looking at, I am going to move the bar way higher than people are currently even contemplating. I am doing it in half the time. I am not going to take 60 days I am going to do it in 30 – 40 days and I jolly nearly pulled it off.

Kevin: What sort of distance are we talking Pen? I mean

Pen: Okay I was setting off from the north coast of Canada. Off a big Island called Elsmere Island there was a little tiny eyelet called Ward Hunt Island and this was generally regarded as the hardest route to the north geographic pole. Never been done before. So I was doing the hardest of the hard. And the feat was compared by some to being like trying to make the first assent solo and without oxygen of Everest. It was the polar equivalent and the journey is 770 kilometres 480 miles something like that. You are setting off from the shoreline and you are walking out to sea to the North Pole far ahead of you. And the only reason you can do that is of course it is covered in sea ice which is like lots of plates of ice, ice flows as people know them which can be anything from let’s say 10m x 10m to 10km x 10km. And they tend to come towards you if you are on the Canadian coast and crumple up against the coastline. So for the first 150 miles there is a lot of crunched ice. It just gets put under compression as it is blown up against the coastline by the winds and that is what makes it hard. It is a shorter distance than going from Russia to the North Pole but when the temperature is at its coldest at the start of the expedition -30 – -50o centigrade the sledge. Life can be extremely difficult anyway operating in those conditions and the sledge which is at its heaviest it has got all the food and fuel, you haven’t really started yet, you loose about a kilo and a half of food and fuel per day, so the sledge is at its heaviest and therefore the frictional effect in the cold is worse as well. So a sledge of lets say 140 kilos sort of 20 stone ish pulled on -20 snow is much easier to do than on -40 snow. So there is a huge frictional effect in the very cold temperatures.

So you have got a very heavy sledge, very cold conditions and that is where all the ridges are on this ice that average about 2 meters high. And I crossed approximately 4,500 of them on my way to the Pole which at an average height of 2 meters, well 2 meters doesn’t sound very impressive 6 foot, what’s the problem Pen it is hardly Everest is it. Well actually it is. 4,500 correct me if I am wrong multiplied by 2 is 9,000 meters. Everest is not 9,000 meters it is 8,000 something or other. So you are actually pulling a 20 stone sledge up and down and you have to lower it down you don’t just sort of push launch it downwards. That is the sort of sembledge of issues.

Kevin: And you said you were loosing about a kilogram or so of weight every day.

Pen: Half a pound of weight a day.

Kevin: Half a pound of weight.

Pen: So I was actually alone. I had I think it was three days at the start waiting for the, the ice actually pulled apart it was blown offshore so there was three very large areas of open water which I wasn’t prepared, well it would be far too dangerous it was seriously choppy sea, I couldn’t possibly have swum it, towing my sledge in those conditions. So I waited for the sea to calm down and then freeze over which took three days. And then I set off and the feat itself took 63 days and then I waited for nine days at the Pole for a pick up. So I was actually alone for 75 in those sorts of conditions.

Kevin: So as you said they weren’t failings they weren’t failures they were great learning opportunities for you a chance for you to go back re-evaluate, reassess and go back stronger. What actually were those specific things that caused those two if you like those two failed attempts?

Pen: One of the big lessons was that it is not enough to have an attitude or an approach that you might loosely call positive thinking and what I used to call an attitude of whatever it takes. I thought as young man aged 20 whatever I was, I can’t do my maths in my early 30s, I thought I could deliver on this attitude of whatever it takes. I would do literally whatever it took to get to the Pole once I started. And that I am naturally positive in my outlook and that would see me through all the hard times just keep going. It is not enough. It has to be in my view underpinned by the ability to make good judgements consistently. Not every time, to realise that sometimes you are going to get it wrong. But that is fine because we all make mistakes. But that most of the time I was getting it right and that I knew I was getting it right. And if external factors then throw up new situations fine. Then you just have to modify it again and make another sort of revised judgement. You can’t do that without experience. The only way you can make good judgements in an extreme environment like this is to operate in it many times.

So what happened on that project, one version of what happened is that I was, I didn’t know what I was doing not really I thought I did but at a deeper level I didn’t. I hadn’t appreciated the difference in the way the sea ice behaved on the Arctic Ocean proper as opposed to the margins in amongst the islands of the Svalbarden this sort of Norwegian territory in the Arctic Ocean. I thought sea ice was sea ice. What else is there to know and I was deeply wrong about that. I was making decisions and increasingly loosing confidence that because these things seemed to go against me um is it just bad luck or is it just because I don’t know what I am doing, have I miscalculated the whole situation. I am a positive bloke, I kept going and I did some very [query 42:14] things to keep going including crossing what I knew to be impossibly thin ice to walk across it would collapse and it did, I nearly killed myself twice but I thought well at least I am being positive I am not being beaten by this. You know it was just no, no Pen you are getting it all wrong this is not how to do it this is how you die. And then I was stuck at this big area of open water and I basically didn’t know what to do and suddenly this positive thinking just came up against a brick wall you cant cross, you literally cant cross it so what do you do, what would a professional explorer, guide or whatever do in this situation. Well the answer is they may not know either but I didn’t know that. I just thought I don’t know I am out of my depth here and my confidence was shattered. It was like a pack of cards, you know house of cards. This positive thinking has to be if it is not anchored in anything substantial it will collapse when you give a really big bang. It can deal with little knocks but endless little knocks and or one big you know poor pff don’t know what went on there can collapse the house of cards and that’s what happened. So that was one thing I learnt.

And at a sort of more technical level I felt that I had an approach of I must get to the Pole therefore I must take everything I could possibly need to make sure I can get to the Pole in terms of equipment and so on. And all the equipment must be made really strong and robust which means bigger, heavier in case it breaks because if it breaks that is a disaster. I had this incredibly heavy sledge and I thought that is a sensible intelligent approach isn’t it you just take everything you need and you will get there. But what I learnt from that experience is no that is not the way to do it you can not pull that weight over some of that terrain it is not viable. You will go so slowly you will run out of food long before you reach the Pole. So what to do. And I thought about it and of course the answer is I need to get a great deal more confident in which equipment I really need to take, which suppliers can make the equipment in such a way that it doesn’t break, if it does break what tools or training, physical tools or training do I need so that I can repair it and through competence comes confidence two are totally intertwined as concepts. So it is all about progression, incrementally building your game, building it up, building it up and you are pushing out your boundaries or competency and all the time being not loosing confidence. Progression is a key concept as is this notion tied into it of competency and confidence.

And I realised that if I could get, if I already knew what I was doing I wouldn’t need most of this stuff. And if the stove broke well I had recommended it well what would I do I haven’t got a stove does life go on? Actually could I keep going on this mission well yes there is many ways which I could, I can still make water and so on. So the reason I got there in the end and lots of people have tried since and failed my good fortune was hard won. So there is merit in just keep going. If you are relentless it is not luck it is circumstances. Eventually all the circumstances will get into a sufficiently good alignment that you will make it the whole way. So those are all things that I learnt from, I learnt lots of things.

Kevin: And that really from my understanding and looking at the timeline you required a lot of that knowledge between the 98 and then 2003 so a nice five year period where you stepped back kept re-evaluating, kept fine tuning. And then 2003 was the year of that third attempt.

Pen: Yes and I would say that if I was summarising now my first attempt was based on, was more about my ambition than it was about my experience. In the second attempt it was being even more ambitious, good judgement in many respects but being just too ambitious why try and do it in half the time anyone has done it when no one had actually done it in 60 days. By the third attempt I feel that everything, I had a more mature appreciation of really what I should be trying to do which was just to do it.

Kevin: By you taking that approach everything came together for you then in 2003 which when you went back to the arctic for the third time it then worked.

Pen: It did.


Kevin: So that was the first of three interviews with Pen. I hope you thoroughly enjoyed it and I hope you are looking forward to the next two that we will be posting on iTunes and on the website very soon. As always I am going to leave you with a nice mellow track from Xerxes music and this one is called ‘Old Mrs Nelly’ from his Volume One album and enjoy.


About the Author

Hi, I'm Tom Burkinshaw, I co-produce the Maximise Your Potential Podcast and Website and my goal is to help as many people as possible be successful in life, careers and business, by offering free coaching and mentoring through a series of unique interviews from inspiring people who all display exceptional self-belief, mental toughness and desire to achieve. Thank you for taking the time to visit Maximise Your Potential!