North Pole adventurer on the importance of giving yourself permission to do something mad and ambitious

Reaction Christina Franco

Wednesday, February 14, 2018 – 12:34pm

It is something you never forget – the moment when you are given permission for the first time. For me it was a cold and wet spring afternoon in Shropshire. I’d gone to spend the weekend with a friend whose passion and accomplishments had seen him climb over a dozen previously unclimbed peaks over 8,000 ft. The pegs in his boot room proudly hung twists of colourful ropes. Crampons and mountain boots lay alongside muddy wellies and contour maps of unknown mountains were pinned to the wall. I felt as if I had walked through the looking glass and into a land of unimaginable adventures.

We sat by the fire warming up after a drenched morning walk. My friend casually picked a book from the shelf as he walked by and let it fall open. He started reading. It was an account of an Arctic expedition.

“Has a woman ever gone to the North Pole?” I asked, an unexpressed secret desire just tumbling out. “I want to be that woman.”

“Then do it”

And so, in that moment I was given permission.

It took me many years of expeditions up mountains, across deserts, up hills and down rivers to finally make it to the Arctic. My long-time dream would only be realised in 2004 when Justin Packshaw and I won a race to the magnetic North Pole. There was no stopping me then and the Arctic became my comfort zone.

I learnt that what I was fascinated by was also what I was good at.

In 2010, my last attempt at being the first woman to reach the North Pole on a solo expedition ended after four weeks when I was stranded on an ice flow which broke off and drifted into open waters. That was the last season polar expeditions where allowed to set off from Canada due to the pack ice melting earlier each year. Volatile ice and the added surprise of finding I was four-and-a-half months pregnant on my return also meant that I needed to redefine my life and make my experiences relevant in a different way.

Joining the South Kensington Club to develop their Voyager Programme has provided the perfect way to tap into that breadth of experiences and to pass that permission on and help others find what they are passionate about, what they are good at and provide them with all the tools necessary to enable those adventures to happen.

Through the Voyage Programme I am able to bring in a varied programme of speakers, documentaries and events to help inspire members to their own adventure. I look for experiences that are not available through even the most bespoke tour operator. Members have gone whale-sharking in Djabouti, walking the back roads of Italian countryside or joined me on one of the shorter challenges for Strive or IGO in Sicily or Scotland. We have, in a short time, grown into a community of like-minded individuals looking to interact with the world in a more rewarding way.

I love the Arctic, but I also know that it is not everyone’s dream. For me it is the mental and physical challenge of figuring out how to survive in impossible conditions that is the ultimate thrill. Skiing for 12 hours at a time pulling a sled that weighs more than I do across a frozen landscape of ice sometimes no more than two inches thick, Standing on a pin-point thousands of miles away from the closest person, the dim yet endless sun refracting to give you the sensation of being inside a jewel. It all comes together to make one feel how small but how very powerful we all are.

So what is next? In August I will be swimming one kilometre at the North Pole in nothing but a swimsuit.

Regardless of the challenges you set for yourself, big or small, the important thing is to listen for that permission and when it comes, get out there and do it.

It is only then, when we push that little bit farther, that we learn how fear gives way to pleasure and pain to achievement.

Christina Franco is one of England’s most respected explorers. She works as a guide and dedicates time to personal challenges such as climbing and racing in a variety of testing environments. 

South Kensington Club is a private members’ club, based in London and inspired by adventuring. Through lectures, documentaries, expeditions and training programmes, the club’s Voyager Programme encourages its members to explore new places and push their boundaries.

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