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7 Summits Vs. The Poles: Insights into the Explorer's Grand Slam

In the world of extreme adventuring, there is always another expedition to be had. Always another mountain to climb, route to accomplish, or journey to experience. However, there is one achievement that many world class adventurers strive for, The Explorers Grand Slam. The Explorers Grand Slam combines climbing the tallest mountain on every continent (The 7 Summits) and skiing at least the Last Degree to the North and South Poles. Each of these expeditions is a challenge in its own right, but most often adventurers complete the 7 summits before continuing on to the Poles. Spending that much time on mountains will turn any climber into an expert, but the North and South Pole offer some distinctly different challenges that can pose a serious threat to those unprepared for the experience.

We asked Ian Clarke and John Dahlem, both expert expeditioners and Grand Slam completionists, to weigh in on the differences between their Polar Expeditions and 7 Summits. Hopefully their advice will help you in your journey to The Explorers Grand Slam.

Ian Clarke has had a life long love of the outdoors. He’s climbed many peaks around the world, including the highest mountain on each continent, completed a few ice cap journeys, such as the last degree to both the North and South poles and two crossings of the Greenland ice cap. Professionally, Ian works with companies across the globe to improve their performance. He lives in the Peak District, in the UK, with his wife Rachel, their 2 dogs, and has two fantastic 20 something kids, Jack and Meg.

Dr. John Dahlem (74 years old) is the retired Principal of Loara, Kennedy and Western High Schools. John is an Eagle Scout and a decorated company commander during the Vietnam War. Dr. Dahlem is a National, California and Orange County member of the Wrestling Hall of Fame. John resides in Huntington Beach with his beautiful wife Sioux, the retired Principal of the Braille Institute. They have two sons, both of whom graduated from Stanford with graduate degrees from Harvard and UCLA. John is an avid mountain climber who has climbed The Seven Summits including reaching the summit of Mt. Everest in May of 2010, as the second oldest American and the oldest Father-Son combination to ever stand atop the world. John is the oldest individual to accomplish the Explorers Grand Slam.

- Let's get into what Ian and John have to say when comparing the Poles to the Summits. -

What was one unexpected difference between mountaineering and polar travel?

IAN - The strange thing is that I find polar travel, relative to mountaineering, bizarrely relaxing. On big mountains, or when climbing in remote areas, there is a lot more going on. Weather can be lethal, if it strikes on a challenging part of the climb. Crevasses, bergschrunds, avalanches are all a constant factor. Polar travel is different, with each polar environment having its own challenges and distinct beauty. Travelling to the North Pole is a like being on a living entity, the ice moves constantly, but in doing so it throws up ice into many and varied beautiful forms that are almost like works of art. Antarctica, and the journey to the South Pole, makes you realise what remoteness truly is, as the ice cap stretches off into the distance. And finally, places like Greenland throw up a little bit of everything - the coastal sections require constant care to avoid crevasses, and the main central ice cap as it rises and then falls away, as you journey from coast to coast, looks really different as the hours pass, dependent upon weather conditions. But what these three environments have is consistency in ground day to day, so for me, I find travelling over it much more relaxing, with more time to get your head up and look around at the outstanding wilderness.

JOHN - The biggest difference is that in mountaineering you tend to have acclimatization days and rest days. When doing polar travel you are always moving up and down camps and no going to a lower level to recuperate before a summit attempt.

Did your mountaineering prepare you well for the polar expeditions?

IAN - My mountaineering experiences exposed me to mixed ground - and how best to negotiate it, effective kit preparation, and finally how to get along with the same small group of people - often for weeks on end. I’ve found that all of these disciplines, practices and experiences gained from mountaineering are equally as relevant to polar travel.

JOHN - The totality of mountaineering prepares you for all types of expeditions including polar travel....planning, organization, fitness, technique, "brotherhood of the rope," etc., just in a different environment.

How about kit, were you able to use most of your mountaineering kit or did you need some additional gear?

IAN - I think that the 80:20 rule applies here. 80% of your gear will work for both environments (base layers, gloves, headwear, down coats etc.) but 20% is distinctly different. I put that 20% into four areas. The first being footwear, Baffin or Alfa ski boots are a must for a happy, warm set of feet. Secondly, your outer top layer. In polar travel I find that I generate much more heat than I do mountaineering, so finding the right windproof, lightly insulated layer for your upper body, with a great hood, is really important. The third area which I find quite different is your face mask. Keeping your face completely covered, as well as wearing ski goggles, is quite a challenge. And finally, a hip flask, I’m a complete whiskey lover, and the joy of polar travel is that I have not yet failed to find space for a large hip flask (or on occasion Nalgene) full of the good stuff.

JOHN - The kit is different from mountain climbing....less hardware but you need a sled in polar are pulling weight instead of carrying it. Each regime requires specific gear and dietary needs. Crampons vs. skiing, etc. South Pole was much easier to ski without all the pressure ridges to cross. All of the specialized gear I needed for my polar expeditions was supplied by Polar Explorers.

Mountaineers often wear down suits, but those don't work for the polar regions. Did you find it easier or harder to stay warm on your polar expeditions compared to your mountaineering expeditions?

IAN - Staying warm out of the tent in polar regions I find much easier than when mountaineering. At high altitude, although the work rate is tough as you try to breath, the pace is slow, so generating body heat is difficult. On polar expeditions, as you travel along pulling your pulk, the work rate is much higher, so much more heat is produced. The key thing is to have your down coat ready to swiftly put on during breaks, so that you retain as much heat as possible whilst you take on calories. Whilst in the tent, I found myself much warmer on polar expeditions than whilst mountaineering. This mainly comes down to the relative weights of cooking fuel that you can carry in both environments, with mountaineering trips being much more weight and bulk sensitive.

JOHN - Much harder to stay warm on Polar expeditions because it is usually colder and you have less gear on when you are skiing to the poles....when you stop to take a break it has to be quick and even throwing on a warm down jackets does not cut down on the chill factor. Dealing with frozen goggles is always a problem on polar expeditions and you are always concerned about not sweating and proper ventilation.

Did you train differently, if so how?

IAN - The main training difference is that to prepare for pulling a pulk, you need to prepare to pull a pulk! So for me, that comes down to pulling tyres around the hills at home. Be prepared for the jokes from “witty” passers by e.g. “Do you know you’ve got 2 flat tyres ?”, “I thought they’d stopped making Lada’s ?”, “Do you know you’ve lost the rest of your car ?” Etc etc etc. Otherwise good general cardio and strength training is pretty much the same for both disciplines.

JOHN - I trained exactly the same way for every expedition...if you are climbing you climb and if you doing a polar expedition you hit the snow. I pull a tire for all my expeditions during training....up and down hills....nothing is better for both styles.

Did you approach your polar expeditions with a different mindset than your mountaineering expeditions?

IAN - No, not at all. For me both types of expeditions are about being effectively prepared, enjoying the journey, meeting great people, establishing a rhythm for each day and not getting over fixated on a defined success criteria. I just set out to enjoy being outdoors, and having the privilege of being on some of the most beautiful, wild and remote areas of the planet.

JOHN - My mindset was always the same for both types of expeditions. Train hard, listen to the experts and leaders and remember that it is a journey....enjoy every step at a day at a time.

FINALLY, What advice would you give to an experienced mountaineer looking to do the North or South Poles?

IAN - Quite simply - DO IT! You won’t regret it for one moment, and you’ll develop a different perspective on your mountaineering which will open up a new range of options for the future.

JOHN - My advice to any experienced mountaineer is to GO FOR IT!..I never was a winter person, never really did any polar training, poor skier, but I listened, got better and thoroughly enjoyed both poles.


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