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Hat-trick for polar adventurer

Jean-Louis Etienne was the first man to ski solo to the North Pole

1 April 2011

Jean-Louis Etienne was the first man to ski solo to the North Pole, the first to drift with the pack ice from the Pole to Greenland and the first to cross the Arctic by hot-air balloon. He is an explorer and an adventurer, but, above all, a scientist.

A committed environmentalist, the Tarn native trained as a doctor and then specialised in sports biology and nutrition before working with round-the-world yachtsman Eric
Tabarly on the Pen Duick VI in 1978.

The trip sparked a new life, which culminated in spectacular and exhausting style in 1986, as he pulled a sled from Ward Hunt Island in Canada to the geographic North Pole. It took 63 days of non-stop skiing, eight hours a day, to cover the 1,000 kilometres.

He wrote that he did not stop for lunch because he wanted to push on and finish the journey. Instead, he snacked on biscuits and dried fruit – all the time watching out for polar bears, to make sure he would not end up as their lunch.

Stopping each day at 4pm for hot “afternoon tea” as he called it, he would pitch his tent and then radio in his position and get ready for dinner and a much-needed sleep.

Fewer than 30 days into his journey, he saw his first living creatures; the American Will Steger and his team of eight, who were also heading for the Pole with a dog-sled team to become the first unsupported dogsled team to the Pole.

Their meeting led to Etienne’s next achievement: co-leading Steger’s team on the 1990 Transantarctica expedition, which was the first to cross Antarctica on foot.

The six men and 36 dogs took 220 days to cover the 6,300km journey. On the way, they crossed the South Pole and passed Russia’s Vostok base, the coldest place on Earth. They also faced mountains up to 3,500m, 160kph winds and freezing conditions where the wind-chill factor gave temperatures of -150C.

In April 2002, he followed that by, as he writes on his website, “setting up house” on the sea ice at the North Pole. He was in his Polar Observer capsule, which was designed to travel on the ice floe.

As the sea ice moved with the wind and the tides, he drifted at between five and 20km per day from the North Pole to Greenland, where he was picked up in the July.

All the way, Etienne had been carrying out scientific experiments that covered the weather, the thickness of the ice, and the animal and plant life around and under him.
He gathered much of the data that is now being used in the debate on climate change.

That led to an attempt to find out if the ice cap was, indeed, melting, by measuring its thickness across the whole of the Arctic by flying across it using a dirigible airship. That plan failed when the airship was destroyed in a storm during training in the south of France.

However, undaunted, the 63-year-old got together a new expedition funded by insurance giants Generali as he tried to focus attention on the shrinking of the sea ice and its
impact on the indigenous people of the north, as well as its impact on Arctic bio-diversity.

His hot air and helium balloon was similar to the Breitling Orbiter used by Swiss Bertrand Piccard and Briton Brian Jones for their round-the-world flight. The 28m tall diamond-shaped balloon was lifted by 2,200m3 of helium and 500m3 of hot air canopy heated by 360kg of propane.

He took off from Svalbard in Norway aiming to pass the North Pole and carry out scientific measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere and the Earth’s magnetic field.

Five days later, he landed in the eastern Siberian tundra after travelling 3,130km over the Arctic Circle. Before starting, Etienne and his team felt the most dangerous part would be the “scooter trip across Paris”. Afterwards, he said it was the most difficult and dangerous voyage of his life with 36 “very intense hours” as he flew low over Spitzbergen.

He said: “I lost the timer that regulates the burner and had to pilot manually. As I drew near the North Pole, a snowstorm forced me into 15 hours of hyper-concentrated
navigation 300-150m from the ground at 80-90kph.”

Now he is planning oceanographic research aboard a schooner being designed by noted naval architect Olivier Petit. The 50m boat will have space for 100 people and will be dedicated to research across the oceans. As always, he is looking for sponsors.

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