How do you prepare to drag a 180 kilo sled battling -53 degree temperatures and 200 mph winds across the most inhospitable terrain on the planet? Dragging tires in a rock river bed reaching over 100 degrees in the summer…where else?
Just north of Pordenone, below the Italian Alps, Michele Pontrandolfo can be found dragging a 50 lb car wheel through rocks and rubble left by a dried up 1/2 mile wide glacier runoff. The wheel sticks on every rock as the tire softens in the 100 degree plus temperatures of Europe’s hottest summer on record. Shade is non-existent as the glaring sun reflects off the grey stones that range in size from a few inches to several feet in diameter.
Dressed in shorts, a sweat drenched t-shirt, and sunglasses, Michele is obviously in training, but for what? An african marathon? A desert expedition near the Equator? The answer seems absurd: in October of 2015, Michele will challenge freezing temperatures reaching -58 degrees fahrenheit and winds up to 200 miles an hour in an attempt to cross Antartica, alone.
“The drag of the wheel as it manoeuvres up, down and around the boulders is the closest feeling to pulling a sled weighing 180 kilos across one of the most inhospitable landscapes on the planet,” Michele explains as the rivers of sweat run down his face.
Michele spends 45 minutes in the sub-freezing temperatures of an ice cream freezer to acclimatise himself and test his sponsor Moncler’s equipment.
An hour later, Michele looks the part of an arctic legend who has to his credit numerous firsts. Standing in the open doorway of his friend’s walk-in freezer, wearing his expedition parka, he explains why he spends 45 minutes in the sub-freezing temperatures: to acclimatise himself and test his sponsor Moncler’s equipment.
“My past expeditions to Greenland and the Arctic North Pole have all begun at the end of winter. My body was partially accustomed to snow and freezing weather. This time, I will arrive at Capetown just after summer and will only reach cold temperatures on the first day of the expedition.”
At 44 years of age and standing just 5’6”,Michele hardly seems the world class explorer with 14 record expeditions to his credit.
Over his 15 year career, he has crossed, often solo; Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic Ocean, Magnetic North Pole, Patagonia, Hielo Continental, Ellesmere Island, Svalbard, and the Geomagnetic North Pole.
“When I make speeches or presentations, people are often initially disappointed. They expect someone bigger, someone more heroic. Despite the great physical challenges these expeditions present, it is the mind and emotions that determine success or failure. Let fear take hold and you are dead.”
Maintaining this mental balance for more than 80 days traversing alone over 2,400 miles, requires emotional strength and a sense of humility. Michele is not ashamed to admit that some days he cries all day and others he actually prays, something he rarely does in the real world. At times, it is his iPod loaded with early punk rock, especially the Ramones, or the chocolate cookies his friend the pastry chef makes that keep him distracted from the thousands of thoughts that rack his brain.
Michele’s physical training like his emotional preparation revolves around equilibrium and balance not muscle building. In a facility for professional athletes, smelling of a boxing gym and without any of the glamour of modern fitness centers; he and his trainer focus on resistance and balance as much as strength and weight. To Michele, training, like planning and working with sponsors, is a part of his job; a job like any other.
Michele does not consider himself a hero nor does he believe he is different from the artisans and factory workers of the town he calls home. He has the skills and character to be an explorer. Something that many would consider impossible, or not consider at all, he sees as natural. So most days, he trains for several hours in the gym, drags tires through the ravine, practises (surf) kite handling and works with his Moncler’s technicians to perfect his gear.
“I have been very lucky with this trip. Typically, explorers must adapt standard clothing and equipment to our own unique needs. With Moncler, we are working together to define the technical and practical needs of such an extreme expedition, creating holistic solutions rather than make-shift ones.”
While technological advancements aid explorers in lightening the weight and easing the cold, this still remains man versus nature at the most extreme. Every day, he has to get up, break camp and drag his sled for 8 to 12 hours with little more than snack breaks of 45 minutes when needed.
Before settling down for the night, he builds snow walls around the tent to protect against katabatic winds that carry high density air from a higher elevation down a slope under the force of gravity quickly reaching over 200 mph. His water to drink and rehydrate his dinner has to be boiled from the snow outside, leaving little time for anything else but sleeping.
This schedule assumes no delays from bad weather or accidents. Otherwise, as he had to do on past expeditions, he can find himself 2 or 3 days without sleep constantly moving to gain ground or risk running out of food and fuel.
“Antartica is different from anything I have done before. It is much longer and the winds are a huge risk. This may be my last expedition.”
Despite his seeming conviction as he talks of retirement, Michele mentions in passing that he still has a ‘white whale’ that has escaped him 3 times and every other human being that has attempted it: a solo traverse of the geographic north pole.