Words by Bethan Andrews
When most people imagine polar explorers, they think of loners – people who are more comfortable with the cold desolation of the Arctic than the hustle and bustle of modern life.
But for 28-year-old Alex Hibbert, a polar specialist with several world records to his name, nothing could be further from the truth.
Hibbert, who made history at 22 when he completed the longest fully unsupported polar journey to date, will shortly be taking on a new world record attempt. If successful he will be the first person ever to ski the entire width of the Canadian North West passage.
When Mpora meets him in the somewhat unlikely setting of central London, he’s as far from the stereotypical image of the quiet, introverted type as you could imagine. In fact, he’s positively chatty.
He’s as far from the stereotypical image of the quiet, introverted type as you could imagine.
But that perhaps that’s not as surprising as it might first seem. He is after all also a motivational speaker and the author of several books. Communication is important.
And anyway, as he goes on to explain, it is actually the complete opposite of solitude that is the key to survival in the most desolate regions of our planet.
You might think that a desire to visit the ends of the earth was instinctive -something that would be brewing from an early age. But that’s the weird thing, Hibbert says. Although his father was in the Navy, exploration wasn’t really part of his childhood.
It was only really at Oxford University that Hibbert started dreaming about seeing the world and it was there he started getting into endurance sports. “Long-distance kayaking, ultra-distance running, all those kinds of things,” he says.
“But there wasn’t really one moment where I decided ‘right I’m going to go and do these adventures, or big long trips of any kind, it just started happening gradually.
“I started climbing, and hiking and then started going to cold places. It was only then that I suddenly went: ‘Ah this is my thing.’ I fell in love with the desolate nature [of those places].”
From there Hibbert started thinking of ways he could go further and take on bigger challenges. Against his parents’ will he started planning The Long Haul – a 113 day journey across Greenland, fully unsupported, that would go on to become a world record.
It might seem like madness to even think of completing such an expedition fresh out of university. And quite understandably, a lot of people didn’t think he was going to make it.
“I wanted to say: ‘I know I’m a 22-year-old but damn I don’t care. I want to go and see if I can do this. I wanted to put my head on the block and say, I’m going to try and beat this record.”
This sense of determination – and flagrant disregard of his doubters – is something that has served Hibbert well in the years since.
Listening to him speak, it would be easy to assume that Hibbert is good in his own company. After all he spends his life pursuing goals which involve miles of empty land, a severe lack of communication and long, often white-out days.
But actually, he tells Mpora, his passion is in sharing the wonders of this desolate world with those who haven’t been there. And he loves coming back to London to do that.
“I’m very anti when people say that big cities and the people in them are ruining humanity,” he says. “It’s not true.
“In Britain we have a very high pace of life. We want to get a lot done and we realise the shortness of life. I am totally and utterly behind that. I am not ashamed of that at all.”
In fact Hibbert thrives off the contrast between polar exploration and London life, and the appreciation that this gives him of both. When he’s out in the Arctic or Antarctic, human interaction and the thought of being back home serves as a lifeline.
It’s not, he explains, the polar bears or the sub-zero temperatures that he is afraid of, but a complete detachment from this other life.
You’re not being some kind of philistine by taking an iPod with some ridiculous music on. It’s just whatever gets your brain through it.
You might imagine a polar explorer would enjoy leaving the western world completely behind and surviving on a diet of pure solitude.
But Hibbert never does his journeys alone. He says that he needs someone there otherwise he would get bored stiff and struggle to complete the expedition.
He’s also not afraid of using technology to get him through. “You’re not being some kind of philistine by taking an iPod with some ridiculous music on. It’s just whatever gets your brain through it. And it doesn’t mean you’re not appreciating where you are. You have plenty of opportunities to experience the rawness of the place.”
“But with trips that are two months plus, you need something else. A lot of people don’t go beyond one month, let alone two months, and I sometimes go five. After that, you need something to remind you that the outside world does exist. Otherwise you will start to struggle.”
Last winter, Hibbert attempted to break another record and to get to the North Pole before the sun came up. He didn’t make it due to bad weather conditions. But instead of giving up and coming home he took the opportunity to join a native hunting community to gain a greater appreciation of their culture.
“We made genuine friends there and the reason is because we completely integrated. We had humility. We shut up, we listened, we watched and we learnt.”
He says the experience taught him a lot. “They do see things very differently to us. They find that we talk too much.
“They will happily sit in a room with each other in silence for a while and there will be no awkwardness at all. They have this silent companionship that we always feel this innate need to fill.”
Although this made him re-evaluate aspects of our busy western ways it also made him appreciate the interaction and company he relies on anew.
They have this silent companionship that we always feel this innate need to fill.
This ability to completely immerse himself within the experience but, at the same time, stay mentally connected with his other life is crucial he believes. “It’s a way of showing myself that you can have and need both of these things,” he says.
“I have the comparison. I have the contrast between the two.”
His balanced outlook also serves him well when it comes to the financial side of his expeditions. Arctic exploration doesn’t come cheap. But Alex sees himself as a realist when it comes to making money.
“I’m not doing this as some kind of reformed hippy. I want to do really well… But I think a lot of people in my line of work are afraid of saying that out loud.
“It’s ok to make money. And it’s ok to make an effort to make money and not apologise for it afterward.”
He explains that you have to be willing to take offers and revise sponsorship contracts as and when developments and hindrances happen.
At the same time, he is passionate about standing up for what polar exploration means to him and not just telling the stories his sponsors want.
“I don’t pull punches when I write. Credibility, reliability and the truth are important,” he says. “it’s not just about where my next sponsorship deal or pay cheque is coming from.
“I am very passionate about the natural world and a great number of causes. However I am not an environmental campaigner which some people have criticised me for because they think I should be.”
But other people’s doubts and criticisms are not something that Hibbert has ever really paid much attention to.
And it’s this steely determination that’s helped him achieve the incredible feats of endurance he’s managed so far.
“Stubborn, pig-headedness helps me I guess,” he admits. “Do I think that I am good at what I do? Yes. But do I think I can get better? Yes.
“Humans are always changing. The things that were at the very edge of human capabilities are now much more progressed. This is what really excites me.”
And with that he heads off into the London crowd, and what is undoubtedly a bright future in both of the worlds that he calls home.