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Q&A: Christina Franco

WideWorld hears about Christina Franco's attempt to become the first woman to trek solo to the North Pole

by Eeva Kaun


© Luca Bracali

The first thing Christina Franco, a global explorer and conservationist, gets asked is “why” she wanted to go to the North Pole. “Ever since hearing the first stories of men who slipped into frozen sleeping bags at night, exhausted after a long day of hauling, I wanted to go there. I wanted the privilege of travelling in one of the last greatest wildernesses imaginable,” she says, “challenging my body and mind to do so against the odds. I faced a far greater comfort than they ever did and a certainty, at least, that my journey would not end with a plunge into the molten core of the Earth.” In March, Franco grabbed a pair of skis to try to become the first woman to trek solo to the North Pole. For the next 30 days she inched towards the goal – until last week, when the wide open water blocked her way and she was airlifted to safety. Today Christina is back in London and can look back at the crazy adventure from the comfort of her warm home.

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“A week ago I had a sleepless night as I watched the clouds come lower, the fog from the opening lead get darker and listened to the ice cracking around me. I was not sure that the plane would be able to land the following day and if it did not manage to I would have to keep enough in reserve to continue walking even if that walking would take me on an aimless wonder away from the Pole as I followed the lead in front of me eastward … I was relieved when the plane landed. That relief was multiplied many times when from the air I saw the size of the lead I was searching for an end to … We always say that the journey is more valuable than the destination, but few times are you slapped with the reality of this as I have been over the past month … I feel humbled and privileged to have been allowed to travel through such a place, to return intact, and to return to tell about it.”


What were the conditions like during your expedition?

In the end I was on the ice for 30 days. This year the drive was from east to west pushing all the ice out into the open waters above Alaska and not anchoring them on the higher coastline of eastern Canada. The temperatures were also much higher than they are usually so the ice was not freezing fast enough to slow the movement or give me safe crossings over the newly opened water.

In previous years the temperatures ranged in the -50s, this year the coldest I recorded was -40 on one occasion, but generally found that the temperatures hovered between -27 and -35.... quite pleasant in Arctic terms, but dangerous in that the water does not freeze as quickly or as solidly.

The daylight hours grew by half an hour every day. In the early days of the expedition the sun never rose above the mountains to the south but hovered just below them. Quickly its arc grew higher and eventually it made a full circle around me creating hours of sunsets before becoming permanent daylight. I found this such a boost, as no matter what time I woke up I always had the sense that it is a great day and time to get going... even when that was 2am (which was normally when I woke hungry and thirsty and got up to have a snack and drink.

Describe your daily routine?

Once the days got longer my routine was to wake at 6am. I would slide out of my sleeping bag and before lighting the stove, shake it out and throw it outside to avoid getting it icy. Then I would light the stove and melt water for the day and have my breakfast. For the next two hours I would melt four litres of water, dry off goggles or extra bits of clothing, make my morning call back to London and finish any repairs. I then got dressed, packed everything up, loaded the sleds and took the tent down. I would then ski for eight or nine hours with breaks every hour or so. At around 6pm I would start looking for a place to pitch my tent for the night.

After you pitch your tent you have to dig it in with snow and make sure everything is safely stowed in your sled before heading inside. I would light the stove and dry off and change before starting the process of melting snow for dinner. Then I'd write in my diaries and aim to be in bed by 9:30pm. I averaged between 10 and 16 kilometres a day. Unfortunately, for a week I was drifting backwards sometimes as much at 17km. And this, coupled with the zero progress I made north for three days, was what in the end defeated me as it became mathematically impossible to make the Pole in time.

What were your goals with this expedition?

The Arctic is a constantly changing and moving place. There is nowhere you feel both the power of nature as well as the power of the human rational mind to overcome the obstacles this poses. It is intensely beautiful and very addictive. My goal was obviously to try to reach the North Pole, and when I set out there was no other intention other than to give it my best shot. The truth is that as the hours pass you become much more philosophical and just surviving in that environment on your own day by day becomes an achievement; you are humbled by the force of what is around you and a greater peace takes over.

What were the biggest challenges during this expedition?

The biggest challenge was the south-westerly drift this year. Last year it was the extreme temperatures... I wonder what it will be next time?

What were the biggest dangers?

Falling in the water: making a mistake that gets you wet or not managing your temperature and getting too cold

Arctic exploration is a male-dominated world. How did it feel to be the first woman attempting to solo to the North Pole?

Men have lead all aspects of exploration for many reasons but women are entering these environments slowly. There is a wonderful community of "Polar" women who are hugely supportive of each other. The men have been doing this for so long and it is from their experiences that we learn so much. Luckily they like talking to women and showing off a bit so they are wonderfully protective and helpful. They are all such gentleman and I never have to lift a sled while in their presence and that is wonderful, just because I am a strong woman does not threaten them and does not stop them from extending these courtesies. It is such a contrast to the reaction I get in my regular life when men are usually paralysed by the fear that they will offend me or that they can not be strong enough for me.

What does your family think of your adventurous lifestyle? How do you keep in touch with them?

My family has got used to my life of adventure and they are all hugely supportive. Most of the time modern technology allows us to be in regular contact. Normally I will speak to one member and they will then spread news around to everyone. We are a very close extended family. I am very fortunate

It must get awfully lonely. How do you deal with loneliness, especially during the whiteouts?

Oddly enough, on the Arctic you are always alert, navigating, choosing the best route through rubble and judging the terrain ahead. For this reason you never feel lonely because you are so mentally active. The only time where I felt lonely was the morning I waited for the plane. You cannot move, you have nothing to do, and all of the dangers become alive in your mind and the possibility of not being airlifted is very real as the weather comes in.

What are the biggest advantages of travelling solo? What are the biggest disadvantages?

The biggest disadvantage is that you have to carry ALL of your gear and can not share it out. This added weight for the duration of the expedition makes a huge difference. The other difficulty is not having anyone to share out the tasks... navigating, digging in your tent, choosing a path and of course having the safety of another person there to allow you to take greater chances. Alone, you are limited in what you can safely do – how big a lead you can cross, how high a mountain of rubble you can hoist your sleds over. Alone, you can go at your own pace although you lose that ultimate sense of sharing the experience.

What do you miss the most? What don't you miss at all?

I miss showers, sleeping in comfort and a comfortable temperature. I do not miss traffic or the noise of urban life.

Even though your expedition ended prematurely, what did you expect to see in the North Pole?

There is nothing at the North Pole that differs from what you have seen the rest of the trip. The place you arrive at is also floating above the North Pole for just a second and you quickly float away. There is something poetic in that. It is ephemeral and beautiful because no one can possess it.

How do you finance your trip? How important is the charity aspect of your expedition?

Polar travel is very expensive and I am lucky that I have had some very generous sponsors. There is still always a large shortfall that I have to find in other ways... working and saving over the years. The charities I am associated with are very dear to my heart and it is very important to me that my effort helps them out with the valuable work that they do.

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