Arctic explorers armed to ward off bears on attempt to walk to North Pole

Two Irish explorers who hope to conquer what is regarded as the hardest expedition in the world — the North Pole — will be armed with guns to protect them against polar bears during their journey, which begins next month.

The Ice Project team of Clare O’Leary from Cork and Mike O’Shea from Dingle will return to northern Canada on Feb 14 to attempt to walk to the North Pole, having been unsuccessful in 2012 due to failed shared logistics while taking part in the expedition with other adventurers.

The main threats posed to Clare and Mike’s safety , says Clare, will be the extreme cold, thin ice, and polar bears.

“We carry a gun with us,” says Clare, a Clonmel-based doctor. “Obviously, using a gun would be a last resort but we may need to use it to frighten a bear. Most expeditions haven’t encountered polar bears, not on North Pole trips, but when there is open water there are seals, and where there are seals there are going to be bears, so it’s certainly something we always think about.”

On Feb 14, Clare will set out in a bid to become the first Irishwoman to reach the North Pole. The start date, she explains, has nothing to do with St Valentine’s Day, and more to do with “the flights being a little bit cheaper”.

Limerick-based strength and conditioning coach Gerard Sheehan is working against the clock to ensure that Clare is “bombproof” as she sets out on the adventure, which is exp-ected to take between 50 and 55 days to complete.

Gerard is preparing the accomplished adventurer to cope with extreme conditions including temperatures as low as -55C.

Clare, a native of Bandon, trains once a week with Gerard, who has been her coach for three-and-a-half years.

To prepare for the journey, Clare and Mike will stay in a freezer in Dublin for 24 hours next week before they head out to Northern Canada.

“The freezer is about -20C,” says Clare. “It will probably be below -50C at the start of the trip, so compared to the temperatures on the real trip, -20C isn’t that cold.”

Clare also ran 12km over the weekend, pulling big tyres to try and simulate sled-pulling. She and Mike will have to haul a sled up to 12 hours a day with all their equipment on it, including a tent, sleeping bags, food, and a stove.

The bitter cold is bearable once they keep moving, says Clare.

However, if they stop for anything length of time, the conditions begin to take their toll. “You cool down so rapidly and your hands get so cold that trying to eat is very difficult,” she says. “Stopping to put up the tent and take down the tent in the morning — they are really the times that you sort of dread.”

Their diet consists of freeze-dried food for breakfast and evening meals. “During the day it’s mainly trail mix, cereal bars, and protein bars,” says Clare.

“Every night, it takes us maybe three to four hours to melt enough snow to give us water to drink and to add to our dinners.”

According to Gerard, Clare is in peak condition to take on the challenge.

“Clare weighs about 53 kilos,” says the trainer. “She can squat over 100 kilos. She can dead lift over 200 kilos. She can do press-ups all day for you.

“She is the ideal athlete for a conditioning coach. She is so professional, so focused, motivated, and organised, it just makes my life really easy.”

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