Leading polar adventurer Inge Solheim on building ice airports and enjoying life in the frozen Arctic
The UK’s recent cold snap is nothing compared to the conditions adventurer Inge Solheim is used to. His new TV series, North Pole Ice Airport, reveals the fascinating stories from a season spent in one of the world’s most remote locations – Ice Station Barneo. Here he tells us about the wide range of people that travel there – and the challenges it creates...
What is the Ice Airport and how did your show come about?
Ice Station Barneo is basically a temporary airport drifting on ice above the polar ocean. I first went there in 1999, on my first North Pole trip, and as you can imagine, there’s some pretty interesting people out there! The first time we flew via Siberia on some crazy old planes,and it was a true adventure. I’ve been every year since, guiding trips to the Pole, so I pitched the idea for a TV show and eventually Darlow Smithson got it commissioned for Channel 5.
So who runs the place?
Legendary Russian explorer Michael Malakhov. He’s the base manager and he vets every expedition before it is sent out on the polar ocean. This year he was a bit sceptical of some of the people that came to the base – and that created a bit of friction! You can’t really argue against his 30 years of experience though!
Tell us a few stories about the people who we’ll meet on the show...
There are Arctic tourists, scientists and hard-core explorers; all sorts of people. This year some of the world’s leading scientists are conducting experiments at the base. But my favourite character is young Russian crew member, Ivan Plotnikov. He is a DJ back home and works as a handyman out on the base. It’s tough work up there – and already, in the first few days, he has an accident!
What's the craziest thing you've seen in all the time going there?
Back in the 1990s it was much more "Wild West" out there. We had very drunk Russian pilots flying planes and helicopters and there were some crazy parties out on the ice! Things have become much more professional out there now though, and these days alcohol is banned for the crew and everything is regulated in accordance with international safety standards.
You've been to both poles – how do they compare?
The North Pole will always be my favourite, because it is much more challenging. That does not mean that the South Pole is a walk in the park. I guess the South is more of a mental challenge and the North is unpredictable and hard work.
What do you think about the increasing numbers of tourists heading to the poles?
As long as they are led by competent guides and there are strict rules for waste management and safety, I think it is positive that people get to experience it. I am not very happy about politicians and scientists who want to limit peoples’ movements. People and nature can work together – and people who appreciate the nature and experience the beauty are more likely to try to protect it.
How has it changed since you were first there?
Not as much as Al Gore wants you to believe, but enough to make me follow the development closely. We have a responsibility to live more sustainably and environmentally responsible for our fellow human beings today and future generations.
How intense are the conditions up in Ice Station Barneo and how do you cope with them?
Temperatures can get as low as -40C, so it gets pretty cold! You need good kit to cope. I have developed a lot of kit with Helly Hansen and I have a ‘no compromise’ attitude to what I use – so that gives them the perfect chance to test stuff out in the most extreme conditions! But having grown up in Norway, climbing and trekking in the mountains, rafting down rivers and skiing all winter, these conditions are sort of second nature to me. It makes me smile when adventurers put ‘High Arctic training in Norway’ on their CV. Norwegian kids go to school in -30C without making any fuss about it. The term ‘survival expert’ does not exist in Norway. It is just life!
You worked up in the North Pole with Prince Harry on Walking With The Wounded a couple of years ago – how was that?
It was a fantastic experience. I would go anywhere with Harry and trust him with my life. He is a great guy. He is a huge asset for Walking With The Wounded and he’s a very credible supporter. The North Pole expedition took the group all the way there and it was incredible to be with such a remarkable group of young men and women and see the challenges they can overcome. Walking With The Wounded is going to the South Pole next year – and I have a feeling that’s going to be amazing too!
What do you love about guiding in the Polar regions?
I really love to learn about people and myself. I feel very privileged to be helping people explore their potential and fulfill their dreams.
But you're not just about the poles. Where else have you been in your time as an adventurer?
Deserts, mountains,oceans, caves and more. Sometimes I even enjoy city adventures!
You're going to be appearing on TV more next year – tell us more about your upcoming projects...
Every year generally involves doing expeditions with telling people about them! In 2013, there’s some stuff planned in deserts and the Arctic for TV and I’m also guiding the Walking With The Wounded to the South Pole next winter, then there’s some private guiding. When I’m home, I do a lot of public speaking, sponsor photo shoots and so on.
Next year will be my most active year ever – so keep an eye out. There’s going to be lots of adventures...
You can keep up-to-date with Inge's adventures by following @ingesolheim on Twitter or visiting his website at www.ingesolheim.com. North Pole Ice Airport airs on Channel 5, Fridays, 8pm.