A different horizon – and a straight path between the stars

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A lot of blogs offer advice on how to achieve success or find happiness. I would not attempt to advise on either – both depend so much on subjective definitions – but I suppose this could count as guidance on finding clarity, which I constantly strive for in my writing, and generally. It is also sharing something that has helped me survive the last 18 months. When things get tough, I have taught myself to find a different horizon.

People who go on long trips as a way of dealing with significant moments in their lives often refer to the hope that they will ‘find themselves’ in unfamiliar surroundings.

A recent conversation with an inspirational filmmaker and educator included his story of a group of tourists travelling across Africa. The truck driver said: “When people say they are here to find themselves, I reply, ‘Why are you looking for yourself here? You didn’t leave yourself here’.”

Putting physical distance between yourself and your problems is one way of leaving yourself behind and making a fresh start. But if you don’t want to run away, but rather to find a way through the confusion, and you have imagination, you don’t need to travel far to explore different horizons. A conversation about space travel and following astronaut Chris Hadfield on twitter inspired me to look for the International Space Station passing overhead. It is an Arthur C. Clarke moment sitting on a London rooftop watching a spaceship’s straight, steady path across a star strewn sky – knowing that the spaceship is ‘one of ours’.

Clarity in writing – and in life – can be likened to finding that straight path between the stars. I worked all night to meet a deadline and submitted my copy early in the morning. Then I got on a train to visit an old friend who lives by the sea. A few hours later a walk along the coast in the sunshine revealed a different horizon and provided the impetus to write this and more.

Book review: Cold Feat – an inspirational Arctic adventure

In May 2013, Philip Goodeve-Docker died during a charity expedition to the Arctic when his tent was swept away by a violent snowstorm. Although his companions called for help, the best of modern technology was no match for the forces of nature. It took rescuers 30 hours to reach them, and by that time Philip had frozen to death.

This news story resonated with me because, just a few weeks earlier, I met polar explorer Duncan Eadie who has been on several expeditions to the Arctic. ‘Cold Feat’ is Duncan’s account of his first expedition – to the North Magnetic Pole. Duncan and a team of lawyers led by famous British explorer Pen Hadow braved the Arctic wilderness to trek to the top of the world. This book offers the reader a vivid glimpse of the place Philip described with unnerving prescience as one of the world’s most dazzling, beautiful yet deadly landscapes. It is an exhilarating and inspirational read.

The first few chapters cover Duncan’s determined efforts to join a polar expedition and the months of preparation: a demanding fitness regime where three daily gym sessions were supplemented by dragging tyres around the heath at night and gruelling training weekends; freezing different chocolate bars to find out which ones were still edible in Arctic conditions; and getting the right kit together, including shopping for ‘wind-proof’ underwear. Then the scene shifts to the pure, icy Arctic landscape and the characters that inhabit and explore it – and the real adventure begins.

‘Cold Feat’ transports the reader to another world – you can almost smell the clean, bitterly cold Arctic air that freezes the hairs in your nose, and feel the deep pile carpet in the world’s northernmost hotel. You get to know the explorers’ routine – long days of riding skidoos or skiing pulling heavy sledges or ‘pulks’ across a harsh frozen terrain followed by hours of melting ice for cooking and making drinking water – the toilet issues and the physical hardships including eyes frozen shut, frostbite and broken teeth. You get to know their personalities – their individual strengths, skills and vulnerabilities and their fantastic team spirit; the ‘ice dance’ that kept them moving and the shared laughter that kept up their morale.

You also get to know Duncan – his warmth, humour and strength of character. Although there are some hilarious stories, there are also dilemmas, disappointments and intensely private moments: when his frozen fingers fumbled for his camera as he lingered outside the tent mesmerised by the dazzling beauty of the Arctic landscape, but he was too emotionally overcome to get the shot, his genuine, cold-sweat fear of a polar bear encounter. And the poignant moment when he placed a single stone from his father’s garden onto the Arctic stones that mark the North Magnetic Pole. These are not spoilers. There is a lot more to this story.

‘Cold Feat’ is a raw, personal account of the adventure of a lifetime interlaced with some history of polar exploration and quotations from famous explorers. There is also philosophy, including lessons that apply to life in general: to embrace the unknown without fear; to be as prepared as you can be, while recognising that you can’t be prepared for everything; to remember that getting there is the intention, but getting back is the imperative.

The blurb describes ‘Cold Feat’ as the story of an ordinary man going on an extraordinary journey. But nothing about Duncan or his book is ordinary. ‘Cold Feat’ is a beautifully written account of an extraordinary adventure of the kind that brings out the best in people – and risks the lives of the best people.

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