The explorer on how frosty conditions have taken him to the furthest reaches of the world and inspired his luxury travel company
I suppose it all started when I got a job in Verbier in 1999 as a ski guide. I’d learnt to ski in French resorts, mainly Meribel, while at school, and had organised mountaineering trips while at university to places like Morocco, the Andes, Patagonia, Tanzania and New Zealand. Then a short and unsuccessful stint trying to be a trainee accountant at Arthur Anderson led me to escape to Verbier for a season, and I totally fell in love with the place. One season became many and I’m still attached to the resort.
To be fair, ever since I was a kid I’d been fascinated by snow, ice and adventure. My mum gave me a book on Captain Scott when I was seven, and I dreamed of journeying to the South Pole. At university I’d studied Geography and Geology, learning about ice caps, glaciers and permafrost. Skiing in Verbier seemed strangely adventurous. I’ve always felt the place has a frontier spirit and, actually, it’s true that if you journey off-piste you can find all sorts of interesting conditions. And of course, the setting for the resort is geographically stunning – you have this south-facing plateau that drops away, and the big mountains are your vista.
Since that time, I have achieved two things I set out to. First, I became a – mainly polar – explorer, fulfilling my childhood dream. And second, I have grown to know Verbier intimately and now have 17 chalets there in which I put up people who want to get to know the resort in a way that is a little more luxurious than freezing in a tent on a glacier in minus 40!
Exploration began in earnest for me in 2000, with a trip to the Eastern Zalaay Mountains in Kyrgyzstan. I led a British expedition and we climbed nine unconquered summits, none of which even had a name. Then in 2002, I made the journey to the South Pole in the footsteps of Scott, becoming, at 27, the youngest Brit to make the 700-mile crossing from Hercules Inlet to the Pole. I followed this in 2005 with an expedition to the North Pole. And then, in 2015, I decided to make it a treble and tackle Greenland. In the exploring business, Greenland is known as the third Pole, and only a handful of people have done all three – North, South and Greenland.
The significance of Greenland is that the dawn of the heroic age of exploration started with the crossing of the island by Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen in 1888. Back then, people thought these ice caps were inhabited by mythical beasts like dragons. No one had ventured further than 100 miles into the interior of an ice cap. Nansen’s successful traverse on skis, which took 49 days, sparked the imagination – Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton were all inspired by him.
I decided that I’d like to try and break the record for the route, which had been set in 2008 by a team using kites, at 17 days, 20 hours. So, although by now my old friends from previous expeditions and I were all dads and over 40, we set about preparing.
Verbier played its part in this too. Over the years I had started to build up a business hiring out luxury chalets, staffed with great chefs and concierges, and supplying all the equipment and transport that you might need for a stay. For those who wanted a bit more excitement, I could guide them myself on skis around the resort.
One evening, I was discussing my plans for Greenland with one of my guests, when he said that he’d like to sponsor the trip – on condition that he could come for the first leg! That was quite an ask, but we rose to the challenge. In the end, he and some friends completed the first stage of the Greenland crossing on dog sledges, while my team and I used kite sledges. After camping for the first night together, our sponsors went back under dog power, while we headed off into what would prove to be a really tough storm.
It worked in our favour though, as we made the call to use the wind to propel us, and forgoing much sleep, we broke the record comfortably, completing the trip in nine days, 19 hours, thus shaving off a full 8 days. We also, unfortunately, shaved off seven of one of the team’s toes through frostbite, which reminded all of us how tough these trips are.
I have to say that I have been very lucky in this respect. Apart from the time I tried to become the first Brit to ski down an 8,000-metre peak in Tibet, Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world. At about 6,500 metres I went temporarily semi-blind through a retinal haemorrhage, resulting from the altitude. It still rankles as my only failed attempt at an exploration challenge.
Back in Verbier, there’s a lot less hardship. If you’ve been to the Alps this season you’ll know how amazing the snow has been. What I’ve tried to do with my company, Ski Verbier Exclusive, is find the best chalets in the resort, with great design, architecture and facilities, and create a home from home. It’s a wonderful way to spend time in the snow, and I enjoy sharing it with the guests I hire out the chalets to. Until the wanderlust takes me again and I head off for somewhere where the conditions are a little more extreme.