Braving the cold to save the Arctic

Bernice Notenboom is a polar explorer on a mission to document the effects of climate change on this inhospitable land.

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Polar explorer Bernice Notenboom describes the North Pole as addictive. 'It tells you constantly that you don't belong there,' she says [Mona van den Berg/Al Jazeera]

“There’s nothing like it. To be part of that landscape is such a test. It’s very addictive,” explains Bernice Notenboom when asked how she could possibly fall in love with the North Pole.

Then the 53-year-old Dutch explorer reflects: “It’s certainly not a very friendly place. It tells you constantly that you don’t belong there.

“But the ultimate challenge is to be there regardless of all that,” she says, almost casually, before adding: “And maybe I belong to the last generation that can see the Arctic as it is now.”

Notenboom is a professional adventurer and polar traveller. She is also a woman with a mission. Since 2007, she has been travelling around the world, writing and filming, to report on the consequences of climate change.

She has hiked her way through deserts and rainforests, climbed Mount Everest and descended the Niger River in a kayak, but her favourite landscape is undoubtedly the ice.

She has undertaken several expeditions to the North Pole and the Greenland ice sheet, and was the first Dutch woman to reach the South Pole, after travelling 1,000km on skis. She has also made her way across Siberia – in temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius below zero.

“Once you pass 30 below zero, it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same s***,” she says laughing.

“That journey through Siberia was one of my first expeditions into extremely cold territory and I was very naive. So I learned the hard way,” she says, over a typically Dutch breakfast of rusks with butter and cheese and coffee.

She talks of her travels matter-of-factly, as somebody else might of a family vacation – and, certainly, as though anybody could do what she does.

“Extreme cold totally wears you out. The first days I was lying in my tent, completely exhausted, thinking: what have I gotten myself into?” she remembers. “But it became such a challenge to survive. It’s fascinating. I see everything with fascination.”

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But the wind, that’s the worst thing about the Arctic, she says.

“It’s always super cold and it’s always in your face.”

She remembers the one time she took off her facemask without thinking. “I immediately got frostbite on my cheek,” she says.

But that ice-cold wind is just one among many hardships.

“You’re also pulling a sled with all your gear and food. That sled can weigh 100 kilos. And the North Pole is so dangerous; you have to constantly be alert to what’s happening in front of you. The ice moves around, big floes bang against each other, glide under each other. Suddenly things can start moving underneath your skis,” she says.

Then, there’s the occasional polar bear.

“You don’t want to see them,” says Notenboom. “It is worst of all when they have just caught a seal. They will want to protect their food.”

When Notenboom spots their footprints, she makes sure to give them plenty of space. “And I make a lot of noise, to let them know that I am there,” she explains.

Unplugging the world’s freezer

We have met in the Dutch city of The Hague, where she has recently spoken about climate change before an audience of politicians and scientists during the International Planetary Security Conference.

The day before the interview, she gave a lecture on the topic of her new film Sea Blind. It is premiering at COP21 in Paris and focuses on the pollution caused by the shipping industry and its impact on climate change. It is, she believes, the least regulated and most mysterious and polluting industry in the world.

After our meeting, she will hurry to give a series of talks to schoolchildren about her latest expedition to the North Pole.

“My main message is that of all the places that are affected by climate change, the Arctic is the most problematic,” she explains.

“From being a victim of climate change, the Arctic has now developed into a driving force behind it,” she says. “The melting of the Arctic ice has devastating consequences for our climate system.”

“To put it simply, the world is losing its air conditioning,” she continues. “The Arctic regulates temperatures all over the world. It has essentially been the world’s freezer, but now somebody has unplugged it.”

And Notenboom is determined to do everything she can to plug it back in.

Even as a young girl, Notenboom says she was drawn to adventure [Mona van den Berg/Al Jazeera] 
Even as a young girl, Notenboom says she was drawn to adventure [Mona van den Berg/Al Jazeera] 

Dancing to her own drumbeat

She recalls how, even as a very young girl, she was drawn to adventure.

Growing up in the Netherlands, a country without mountains or wilderness, she always felt she had been “born in the wrong place”.

So, when she was 14, she travelled to Switzerland alone to learn how to ski and to climb mountains.

“Of course my parents protested,” she remembers. “In those days, it was a big thing to do for a young girl, but I have always been into adventure. Already as a baby I used to climb out of the playpen. I was an escape artist.

“In the mountains I felt this enormous freedom. It’s just you interacting with nature. It made me so happy.”

She quickly became a passionate mountaineer and, while studying communication at the University of Amsterdam, she also worked as a ski instructor in Switzerland.

But then, when she left university, her sense of adventure suddenly took a back seat to her successful, if unfulfilling, marketing career. Working for Microsoft and based in the US, she put in 80-hour weeks and travelled all over the world. But something felt wrong.

“Coming back from Japan one day; leaving for Hong Kong two days later. It was horrible,” she says, adding: “And the worst thing was that I was working for somebody else.”

From the window of her Seattle office she could see Mount Rainier, which at 4,392m is the highest mountain in the state of Washington. Climbing it had been on her wish list for years.

“At one point, I found myself thinking: I have been looking at that mountain for all this time now, how come I haven’t been to the top of it?” she says.

“Then, one day, I came back from some faraway trip to Asia and was immediately told: Get ready to go to Singapore.

“I just felt that I couldn’t do it,” she remembers. “I’d had enough.”

So, she left Microsoft. It was 1994, and she was 32.

“That was a very stupid thing to do,” she reflects, smiling.

“A year later Microsoft launched Windows 95. It was such a success that all those who had been involved in developing the product were instant millionaires.”

“If I’d stayed, I would have been a millionaire at 33.

“That would have set me up for life. I could have financed my own expeditions,” she says, but then adds: “On the other hand, the fact that I quit underlines who I am. I dance to my own drum[beat].

“And who knows, if I’d stayed, I might have been moulded into the Microsoft family and that would have been my life.”

Instead, she started her own rafting company in Utah, taking groups of tourists on rafting tours.

The company was a success. But, after 10 years, she once again realised that her life wasn’t heading in the direction she wanted it to.

“I had two offices, I had staff, I was a manager,” she says. “But I had become enslaved to the business. I missed a sense of freedom.”

An internal journey

Notenboom started writing for National Geographic Traveler about the various trips she had undertaken. For one story, she travelled in the footsteps of the Queen of Sheba.

“I wanted to find out the truth about the stories of One Thousand and One Nights,” she explains. “So I travelled to Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia to see if I could figure that out.

“But while I was there I became interested in the Queen of Sheba. She’s a historic figure, she was real. But who was she? I travelled to her palace, a ruin in the Saudi Arabian desert. I came across this bathing area, beautifully carved out of stone, very smooth, and I could just envision the women hanging out there in these big pools. I felt a very feminine energy there.

“The story eventually became a great success.”

Then, in 2007, National Geographic sent her on a trip to the North Pole. It changed her life.

“It was my suggestion,” she says now, recalling that transformative moment in her life. “I had skied a lot in Greenland and Alaska, had been kayaking with Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic, so it wasn’t such an enormous step for me to go just a little further north.”

But her first visit to the North Pole just happened to coincide with a dramatic and unparalleled decrease in sea ice in the Arctic. Notenboom’s trip was a disaster.

“The ice was so thin that we couldn’t reach the North Pole. We got stuck. The expedition was organised by some Russians and there was plenty of vodka, but there wasn’t enough food,” she says.

“I looked at the cracks in the ice and I realised then that global warming was progressing at a much faster pace than we had thought.”

She remembers how, upon returning, she was lying in bed in her house in Fernie, a ski-resort in Canada, when the ceiling started to spin. It was a side-effect of her time on the moving ice of the Arctic.

“I wasn’t yet grounded,” she says. “It felt as though my bed was on top of an ice floe that was spinning around and around. And all of a sudden I knew that this was my mission,” she explains. “I was going to travel across the world, to all those places that were being affected by climate change in order to report on what was happening.

“I was going to show people just what climate change is,” she continues. “I was going to put a face to it.

“And that’s what I did,” she says, smiling. “I haven’t stopped.”

Within 15 months she went on four expeditions: to the Pole of Cold in Siberia, to the North Pole, to the South Pole and to the Greenland ice sheet.

She wrote a book about the experience, called Poles Apart, in which she describes the hardships of travelling through a landscape made entirely of ice.

“In the Arctic, it’s the constant danger of moving ice you have to deal with,” she says. “Sometimes you have no choice but to jump from one moving ice plate to another that is going in the opposite direction. It’s like jumping from one moving train on to another. You have to climb ice blocks the size of high-rise buildings. You can encounter cracks in the ice where the water hasn’t frozen due to the currents under the ice, and then you have to swim.”

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But the South Pole is very different, Notenboom explains. There it’s the monotony of the landscape that can drive you crazy, she says.

“There’s nothing to inspire you. It’s all the same. You have to find ways in your mind to entertain yourself, you have to think of things that excite you, to be able to keep going. It’s really an internal journey, it’s meditative.”

When asked what it takes to survive such extreme journeys, her answer is immediate and precise. “Discipline,” she says.

“A tiny mistake can have enormous consequences. If you don’t secure your tent properly, the wind can blow it away and you’ll never retrieve it. End of expedition.”

“If you don’t dry your gloves immediately when you get into your tent at the end of the day, you might start the next morning with wet gloves at 40 degrees below zero. Then you get frostbite.

“So what you need is discipline and routine. Military-style.”

'I'm never going to wish I had spent another day at the office,' says Bernice Notenboom [Mona van den Berg/Al Jazeera]
‘I’m never going to wish I had spent another day at the office,’ says Bernice Notenboom [Mona van den Berg/Al Jazeera]

‘No room for fear’ 

But, despite the hardships, she is never afraid, she says.

“I have no room for fear because it is a useless emotion,” Notenboom reflects. “Nobody has ever been saved by being scared.

“Of course, I can feel a healthy degree of apprehension about a specific circumstance, but I try to leave that behind me as soon as possible.”

She thinks of an example. “While climbing Mount Everest my partner and I got hit by an avalanche. We ended up hanging upside down in a crevasse.

“It was interesting how quickly I went from fearing death to immediately springing into action. My only thought was how to get out of there. I didn’t have time to think about the possibility of my own death.”

In the spring of 2014, Notenboom embarked on her most ambitious expedition yet. The plan was to ski from the North Pole to Canada, a trip of 800km that would take about 50 days to complete in temperatures of 35 degrees below zero.

She set out with the Australian polar explorer Eric Philips and the English adventure photographer Martin Hartley. Together they would capture the effects of climate change on film.

“We wanted to show the world how beautiful and yet how fragile the Arctic is,” she says. “It really is the most beautiful place in the world. You have ice in all sorts of colours and shapes. And when it is very cold you get these amazing crystals.”

But, after 40 days and 660km of arduous trekking, the three explorers got caught up in violent storms. They were just 188km from the coast and from completing their mission.

“When you are caught in a storm in the Arctic, it’s like treading through a glass of milk,” she says. “Everything is white. You can’t see anything. It makes you very nauseous.”

Notenboom and her fellow travellers had to be evacuated. It was a devastating experience, she says.

“We were almost there. I had never previously failed on an expedition, but suddenly I had to come to terms with failure.

“It was my intention to be the first woman ever to ski from the North Pole back to Canada. But it wasn’t worth risking my life for it,” she says.

Today, she is dreaming of a new expedition, from Russia to the North Pole, with a team consisting only of women. But she’s not sure if she’ll ever find funds to bring the dream to fruition.

“In my home I have a photo of an 80-year-old English lady sitting on a camel in Egypt,” she says. “It’s a picture from the 1920s. To me, that picture says everything. It says always do what you feel compelled to do. Never try to find reasons not to do it. Let your passion be your guide.

“It won’t get you rich, but if you do things with devotion and passion, people will eventually pick up on it and the money will follow,” she says, adding: “When I’m 80, I will be able to look back on the many amazing trips I had. Some may have been more successful than others, but I will never say to myself: I wish I had spent another day at the office.”

Source: Al Jazeera