Dicing with death in a frozen wilderness

Antarctic adventurer Tim Jarvis has gained wisdom, and wounds, challenging some of the world’s wildest terrain.
Nanjing Night Net

IN ANTARCTICA, there is a hair’s breadth separation between life and death. ”If you travel too slowly,” says explorer Tim Jarvis, ”you don’t generate enough body heat to keep your extremities alive. If you go too fast, you sweat and that sweat freezes and you start losing fingers and toes.”

Jarvis was aged 34 when he and fellow adventurer Peter Treseder set a 47-day record for a journey to the South Pole in 1999.

About 300 kilometres short of the destination, having lost sight of Treseder, Jarvis stopped to fix the broken harness on his sled. That meant removing three of the four layers of gloves.

”You have no dexterity otherwise,” says Jarvis, who took too long on the repair. ”I lost sensation right up to the elbows and the feeling has never returned in the tip of the right thumb.”

Similarly, the nerves died in his right toe in a later expedition after one of the hobnails on the sole of his left boot scuffed the side of the right boot, cutting a five-centimetre gash.

By the time he was able to erect a tent and suture the cut shut, the toe was doomed.

Jarvis carries an array of polar war wounds. He has three molars missing from his mouth – metal fillings froze, shrank and dropped out, destroying the teeth – but these are minor considerations in the icy south.

This is the unforgiving land where, in 1912-13, Australian explorer Douglas Mawson’s two companions – and Britain’s Robert Scott and four companions – all lost their lives.

Such perils seem only to have encouraged Jarvis, a giant of a man at 196 centimetres tall and 104 kilograms who has challenged the world’s wildest terrains, starting with a 500-kilometre dash across the ice sheet of Norway’s Spitsbergen Island in 1996.

He and a school friend hauled sleds stacked with provisions and weighing about 104 kilograms each. ”And we had a .303 rifle for protection against polar bears,” he says.

After a month of temperatures down to minus 40 degrees, the pair arrived at their destination, Longyearbyen, on the island’s west coast.

In 2002, Jarvis trekked over 400 kilometres of ice to the North Pole and in 2007, he re-created the Mawson expedition, producing a TV documentary and book.

He took along a fellow expeditioner, Russian-born John Soukalo, to fill the medical role of Xavier Mertz, a Swiss doctor who died on Mawson’s return journey.

A third member of Mawson’s team, Belgrave Ninnis, had fallen down a crevasse with a sled containing most of the provisions.

Last week, on a suitably bleak day, Adelaide-based Jarvis was in Melbourne lining up sponsorship for his next venture into the frozen south – re-creating the 1914-16 journey of Ernest Shackleton, whose ship, the Endurance, was crushed in the pack ice.

This time the Jarvis mission – beginning in January – includes a perilous voyage in a small lifeboat from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island.

That is the voyage made by Shackleton and five others to seek help, successfully saving all 28 on the expedition. The vessel is a purpose-built replica of the original, the James Caird, which is on permanent display at Dulwich College, London. Why this persistent urge to dice with death? Jarvis, a British-born environmental scientist and father of two, sees expeditions as a ”microcosm of life” where you choose the problems you face rather than have life thrust them at you.

”On an expedition, you know the risk,” he says. ”Wind, crevasses, frostbite, that sort of thing. You put yourself in a difficult situation and see how you handle it, how resourceful you can be. That’s what it’s all about for me.”

And it is not only the icy wastes that attract him. Jarvis trekked across the Great Victoria Desert in 2001 in the longest unsupported Australian desert crossing on record, covering 1100 kilometres in 29 days.

In 2004, he and mate Ben Kozel paddled 200 kilometres down the Warburton River before hauling their provisions another 100 kilometres across the salt crust of the dry Lake Eyre.

How long can this 46-year-old keep pushing himself?

A fair while yet. After the Shackleton trip, Jarvis has his eye on Papua New Guinea – an expedition covering a mere 2200 kilometres.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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