I t’s not easy to sum up Dr. Bill Hanlon’s remarkable ski expedition to the South Pole in a single news story, so here are the Coles Notes:
The highs: the austere beauty of the Antarctic landscape; the camaraderie of three men pushing beyond their limits; the singular pleasure of sharing a can of Pringles on Christmas Day in a tent on a polar ice cap.
The lows: frostbite; constant headwinds adding to -40 C temperatures; repetitive strain injuries from pulling sleds laden with 54 kilograms of supplies across 1,200 kilometres of ice and snow for 47 long days.
After successfully reaching the South Pole on Jan. 2, Hanlon recently flew back from Chile to re-enter daily life as a family doctor in Cochrane. He’s also the founder and medical director of Basic Health International Foundation, a non-profit that brings health care to poor people living in remote, high-altitude places.
He’s still recovering from his physical ordeal, which involved skiing steadily upward from sea level at Hercules Inlet to the top of the South Pole at 2,835 metres. He did the trek with two companions, American explorer Eric Larsen and Dongsheng Liu, a Shanghai engineer.
The trio ate about 6,500 calories a day to fuel their eight-and 10-hour days: freeze-dried foods laced with butter and oil and as many chocolate bars as they could eat.
“I actually didn’t lose a lot of weight, only four pounds,” said Hanlon. “After some Chilean beer and steaks, I was back to normal.”
His frostbitten thumb has yet to fully heal. In their first week on the Antarctic ice — devoid of plant or animal life — the temperature plunged to -50 C and Hanlon wasn’t protected well enough against the extreme cold. It could have derailed the trip, but as trip physician he was able to treat himself, learn to use his left hand more and suck it up for daily tasks, such as lacing his boots, requiring both hands.
“It was definitely a wake-up call. That environment is very unforgiving.”
Although this was his first polar expedition, Hanlon knows about unforgiving places.
Two weeks before embarking on his Antarctic expedition, the seasoned adventurer was at the other end of the temperature spectrum when he summited Carstensz Pyramid in the hot jungle of Papua New Guinea.
There, he completed his 20-year quest to climb the tallest peaks on all the continents, including Mount Everest, which he tackled in May 2007. Only an estimated 200 climbers have achieved this mountaineering feat, known as the Seven Summits.
It was among the peaks that Hanlon found his passion: combining remote area medicine with physical challenges. It started about two decades ago, when he worked with Tibetans in the Darjeeling Himalayas. He was deeply touched by the people, the climbing and the geography.
Since then, he’s spent three or four months of every year volunteering to bring primary health care to those living in geographically isolated communities in countries such as India, Peru, Honduras, Thailand, Nepal, Tibet, Ethiopia and South Africa.
“These adventure trips are basically a way to promote some of our international medical work in remote areas,” he said, explaining that after each trip — paid for out of his own pocket — he gives talks to raise awareness and funds for Basic Health International Foundation.
His next talk, Medicine in High Places, is slated for Feb. 9 at the Banff Centre.
Hanlon’s experiences at the South Pole taught him a lot, said Hanlon, who is planning an expedition to the North Pole. Unlike the short, intense experience of climbing, this was more of a slow ultra-marathon: “a long plod.”
“It’s one of the few areas where middle age is an advantage,” the 55-year-old singleton said with a laugh.
If Hanlon went to Antarctica to promote awareness of medicine for the developing world, Larsen went to raise awareness of global warming with his Save the Poles expedition. Liu was there to fulfil a childhood dream of being the first person from China to reach the South Pole.
Despite the physical and mental challenges, the three men worked together well.
“I love the journey rather than the destination,” said Hanlon. “When we got to the South Pole, it was almost a letdown because it was over.
“It’s remote, you have to be completely self-reliant and rely a lot on teamwork. I love an expedition in the sense of being out there in the elements, working efficiently as a team, in that kind of harsh environment.
“It reminded me of how adaptable we are as a species.”