Malcolm Walker Retail Week Columns

The retail Arctic Explorers’ Club

A little volcanic ash couldn’t dampen a birthday trip to the North Pole, says Malcolm Walker

Retail entrepreneurs can be a surprisingly generous lot. Sir Philip Green famously flew all his mates to a lavish birthday party in the Maldives.

I thought Lord Kirkham showed even more imagination when he called me some weeks ago to tell me he’d organised a birthday treat for me. “I’m taking you to the North Pole.”

I’ve known Graham for 30 years and he’s always had the capacity for the unexpected but this did seem a bit extreme even for him. I suppose he thought it might be an appropriate destination for me.

“Yeah right,” I said, but then realised he wasn’t joking when he explained we were going with the famous Arctic explorer David Hempleman-Adams. He’d also invited his pal Sir Tom Farmer, the Kwik Fit founder.

Any more information was in short supply until the kit list finally arrived. Scott of the Antarctic managed with leather boots and Harris Tweed but clothing technology has moved on.

Four hours in four different specialist shops saw me with base layers, mid-layers and outer shells made from fibres I never knew existed. I always get cold feet – literally – when it gets below freezing but inner socks, vapour barriers and outer socks would do the trick. It’s not often the advice and guidance from a young sales assistant could be a matter of life and death.

The trip was to take five days and I envisaged pulling sledges across frozen wasteland and possibly losing a few fingers to frostbite. More people have climbed Mount Everest than have ever been to the North Pole and this wasn’t something to be undertaken lightly.

Only two days before departure the itinerary finally arrived. It didn’t exactly make it look cushy but I was rather reluctant to dilute the admiration of my friends and family by showing it. The trip involved a four-and-a-half-hour flight by private jet to Spitzbergen, just on the Arctic Circle, followed by a two-and-a-half hour flight in a Russian jet to within 30 miles of the pole, and finally a half hour flight by Russian helicopter to land at the pole itself.

Spitzbergen is the size of Switzerland, with a population of 2,000 humans and 5,000 polar bears. It’s -25°c and the cold was a shock as we got off the plane.

We overnighted at the polar hotel and were warned not to leave the hotel without a guide with a rifle – polar bears are everywhere.

The Arctic ice cap is only a few inches thick but the Russians clear a runway for just four weeks every year and manage to land an Antonov S.T.O.L. transport plane to service their scientific research station. We spent the night at “base camp” in an unheated tent we erected ourselves. The temperature was -35°c. Surprisingly, no one was ever cold; the specialist gear did the trick.

The old Russian helicopter probably presented more of a risk than actually walking to the pole but we finally made it to the top of the world. We had a couple of hours taking photos and drinking hot punch before we finally retreated in the face of near frostbite and back to base camp.

Our journey back via Spitzbergen involved a stay several days longer than intended due to certain volcanic activity but we filled the time with long journeys into the wilderness each day either by snow mobile or driving dog sleds. Now, as fully paid up members of the Arctic Explorers’ Club, we are debating what to do next year.

It’s Kirkham’s birthday in December. I think I’ll just send him a card.

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