The Omani set to be the first Arab to hit the North Pole spoke to us direct from the snow fields, amid one of the most gruelling journeys known to man – especially one who’s used to desert climes.
So what inspired you to take on this challenge?
I wouldn’t call it inspiration so much as an affliction [laughs]. Actually, there’s a parable that goes something like ‘Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.’ And I’ve been very lucky with all the blessings that I’ve had; I guess this is one way of trying to use my god-given talents to contribute to Oman and to inspire people.
How did you prepare yourself physically?
Every month I flew to England for technical training, and at home, I worked out everyday on a cross-country ski machine. I’ve also done a lot of skiing in the past, so that part’s not a problem. But walking is another story altogether – there’s nothing more maddening than having your foot sink into the snow and pulling it out, then again and again; after 20 days you begin to go through the most extreme emotion and people start smashing the snow with their ski poles out of frustration – you just can’t prepare for that kind of stuff. Or for the cold.
Has the cold been the hardest part?
Maybe that’s just too obvious but yes, the cold is indescribably bitter. Consider that a freezer is -8 C compared to -81 C here sometimes. People don’t really understand the concept of cold, so the best way to describe it is in terms of heat: imagine that you’re standing in a fire - the pain of that fire burning your skin is the pain that I’m experiencing in reverse. All my fingers are frost-burnt and I’ve lost all sensation in my toes.
Describe an average day
We wake up at six and one team member boils snow to make our breakfast of freeze-dried cereal and hot chocolate. Then we break the tent down and put everything into waterproof bags on our sledges, strap our tent and skis on top of that, harness up and just walk. We’re crossing a rubble field right now, which isn’t ideal for skiing or walking so we’re doing about 2kms an hour and we need to be doing 4kms an hour so tomorrow, we’ll probably walk for 12 hours because we have a long, long way to go.
What has been your lowest point?
Yesterday there were a few points when I really thought I was a goner. We had about 11 nautical miles to cover and apart from the difficult terrain, the wind was blowing at 40 miles an hour into our faces, so we couldn’t see a thing. There were a couple of times when I lost sight of my team members and I couldn’t even follow their tracks because wind was blowing snow over them so quickly. Then I fell through the ice, and it was so pleasurable laying in the soft snow and I thought, I just want to let my muscles rest for a while, but I knew that if I didn’t move I’d die.
So how are you feeling right now?
Bored, actually I’m basically walking for 10 hours a day wearing a hood, a hat, a mask and goggles so I can’t hear or see anything beyond a very limited range, and I feel like I’m in my own little world. At the beginning it was a tiny white world full of pain but it’s gradually become more mundane. That said, a couple of days ago, a teammate and I were complaining about being bored, and then we thought about how we’d been attacked by polar bears, fallen through the ice three times, been caught in blizzards and almost died several times, and suddenly we were thinking, you know what boring is not so bad.
Polar bears? Have you come across many?
To be honest, I haven’t seen any but a couple of nights ago, a polar bear attacked the tent next to us. I heard the other team screaming and a shot was fired. When I realized what was going on, I went for my ammunition, but then I heard a banger being fired and realised that they were just scaring the bear off – a banger is a shotgun shell that has a 5-second delay and then bangs really loudly with a white flash and that’s not a thing you’ll use when you’re actually being attacked; you’d just shoot the bear.
What does it mean to you to be the first Arabic citizen to the pole?
It actually doesn’t mean that much to me and I don’t think that five years from now, people will come up to me and say, ‘Ah you were the first Arab to go to the North Pole’. But I hope that people will remember that an Arab did something completely out of the ordinary, something that required immense fortitude and endurance, and they’ll be encouraged to do something extraordinary too.
I had a whole list of things that I wanted to do after this: Everest, the geographic North Pole… but I have crossed off every single one that involves anything cold. I’m now thinking of doing something like following in the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger through the Arabian sands.
Oman North Pole Expedition: the facts
• The trek started on 6th April from Resolute Bay, on the south side of Cornwallis Island in the northern province of Nunavut, Canada.
• Nabs and his team is expected to reach the magnetic North Pole on 30th April.
• There are 5 teams on the expedition.
• There are 3 checkpoints underway to the magnetic North Pole. They left checkpoint 2 a few days back and they are now on their third leg of the expedition.
• The terrain varies from flat sea ice, to rubble fields to thin new ice.
• The only way of communicating is using Iridium Satellite Phones.
• The animals the explorers can encounter includes muskox, seals, wolves and polar bears.