What is it, historically, about the Brits that makes us so eager to explore foreign climes? Perhaps it’s because so few of us are genuinely British. We are descended from marauding Angles, Saxons, Romans and Normans – not to mention every other race on God’s earth – so perhaps we’re just trying to get home?
Or maybe, feeling confined by our modest shores, we pine for the exotic, the far away and the remote. Small Island Syndrome, if you like. Even after nations were discovered, colonies made, empires built and lost, we Brits have continued traversing land and sea and ice in search of remaining wildernesses.
Sensing an entire sociology thesis in my question, Polar explorer Rupert Nigel Penfield – or ‘Pen’ – Hadow has a more succinct theory: “I think the British are peculiarly independent of mind, curious and confident enough to fulfil those curiosities.”
More and more people will – rightly – start focusing on fitness at our age. I’d rather bust than rust!
Hadow knows a thing or two about fulfilling curiosities. In 2003, he became the first person to trek solo, without resupply, from Canada to the Geographic North Pole. Not long afterwards, he became the first Briton to have trekked to both the North and South Poles, again without resupply.
Exploration and achievement runs deep through Pen’s story. His nanny, Enid Wigley, was previously employed by Robert Falcon Scott to look after his son Peter (who later founded the World Wildlife Fund and picked up a knighthood for his services to conservation).
She regaled young Pen with tales of Scott of the Antarctic and other intrepid explorers and entered him into a programme of polar conditioning. His father recounted their famous ancestors, like the ones who hid a fleeing Charles II in an oak tree, those who had been part of the first ascent of the Matterhorn and, in Frank Hadow, a Wimbledon champion who allegedly invented the lob.
Fast forward through a Harrow education, an executive position at sports giants IMG, fatherhood, a best-selling book and, of course, numerous Polar adventures. Pen has recently arrived at his half-century.
Follow Pen’s fitness quest
So what now? Well, a new expedition awaits in 2013, ten years on from his solo trek to the pole, but before that comes the fitness regime to get him into shape.
“I’m in good health and I’ve never had any injuries. It’s just that now I find that I have to approach the training a little differently. I have to be a little gentler.
“I’m coming up to a project of monumental proportions and I only have ten months to prepare. It would be much easier if I could just turn up and get fit on the job, but it’s not going to happen.”
Pen was finding that even with the most well-meaning young training instructors, “things that were going ‘twang’ for me weren’t going ‘twang’ for them”. So he has resolved to train himself. And he wants us to join in.
“I realised that there are many people of our age who have neither the time or inclination to engage in crazy fad diets or extreme boot camps. Life and commitments simply get in the way. Yet changes need to be made if we’re aiming to stay active. It’s about the accumulative effect of small things over a period of time”
Once, we turned 30 or 40 and panicked about our condition, says Pen. Now we’re living longer, that watershed is more likely to be 50.
During Hadow’s appropriately named Year of Health and Fitness, he will try all manner of activities and consult a range of experts, posting his progress on Twitter along the way.
“I hope to get up to about 10,000 followers by the end of the year but hopefully it’s not just those 10,000 people who will know what I am doing. The people joining in are champions, if you like, because they might talk to people at pubs or parties and the message spreads.
“I am not going to change the world with this, but increasingly more and more people will – rightly – start focusing on fitness at our age. I’d rather bust than rust!”
The next challenge
While Hadow’s first adventure was very much a personal one, his subsequent trips have had a serious scientific bent. Many of the details are still being ironed out but Pen revealed that his 2013 expedition will focus on some vital groundwork.
“In our lifetime, the area of polar ice has been shrinking every year to the point that, in the not too distant future, we could see a blue top to our planet during summertime.”
To forecast how long this will take, the volume of ice must be calculated and, as much of it is compacted into ridges (the hedgerows to the ice’s fields, as Pen puts it), satellites can’t help. Enter Mr Hadow.
“This has serious implications for the northern hemisphere,” he says. “Times are changing. This will be increasingly high on peoples’ agendas.”
Many will use their fifties to embark on such adventurous trips, perhaps finally having the time and the money to satiate a long-held wanderlust. But for those who don’t have scientific nous or an impressive lineage of explorers predating us, has it become easier to visit the poles?
“There are a number of tour operators that now go to the Arctic and Antarctic and, if you read between the lines, you can see if they are your sort of people. Trips aren’t cheap – up to £10,000 sometimes – so ask a couple of clients about their experiences.
“Don’t expect to do anything extraordinary unless you have done preparation beforehand. Some will want to enjoy the scenery, others will want to push their boundaries.”
Finally, says Pen, the fitter and healthier you are, the more enjoyable a trip to such an extreme landscape will be: “It can be embarrassing and humiliating if you are the one that everyone has to wait for.”
A feeling I’m not sure Pen Hadow is likely to experience any time soon.
Further reading Adventure travel: best 50-plus websites