This Team is Trekking Over the Earth’s 8 Ice Caps

Mike O’Shea gives us details on The Ice Project, a plan to walk across all of the Earth’s ice caps.
Explorer Mike O'Shea crossing the Kilimanjaro ice cap in Africa during his quest to trek across all eight of Earth's ice caps
Crossing the Kilimanjaro ice cap © The Ice Project
By Will Gray

If ice and snow make you shiver, spare a thought for Mike O'Shea and his adventure sidekick Claire O'Leary because they're working their way across every ice cap on Earth. The Ice Project aims to cross all eight: the South and North Poles, South and North Patagonian ice caps, Kilimanjaro, Greenland, Iceland and Lake Baikal. But, as O'Shea explains, it's not that easy ...

Adventurer Mike O'Shea battling the freezing cold in the Arctic during his  quest to trek across all eight of the Earth's ice caps
Adventurer Mike O'Shea © The Ice Project Why choose ice caps?

Mike O'Shea: They are so remote, it's the self-sufficiency required that is the real buzz.

What are the biggest challenges?

The weather is the world's most extreme. We hit -55 centigrade (-67°F) in the North Pole attempt. To put it into context, inside a home freezer it's -18°C. Just surviving was difficult. Then there's the Katabatic winds, which hit over 100mph. They knock you over and break tent poles in seconds.

Only 152 people have walked to the Pole, whereas more than 500 have been to space.

We have to carry or drag everything with us, too. We do all we can to reduce weight — cutting toothbrushes in half and taking bits off boots — but the sleds weigh over 200 lbs. and it's physically and mentally tough.

Finally, they are such unique trips that paying for it all is always tricky. An attempt to walk to the North Pole, for example, costs approximately €250,000 for two people!

Explorer Mike O'Shea towing his pulk in Iqualuit, Canada during his The Ice Project quest to trek across all eight of the Earth's ice caps
Mike O’Shea towing his pulk in Iqualuit, Canada © The Ice Project

Have you ever got into trouble you didn't think you'd get out of?

Yes! On our North Pole attempt in 2014 we got stuck on a moving block of ice between two ice sheets, and the block broke in half. Our sleds dropped in the water and we had two-meter-high ice walls on each side, and no way to escape. Luckily the ice moved to one side and we made a dive for a gap in the walls, but our sleds almost dragged us back. That was close.

Explorer Mike O'Shea conducting specialist arctic training before attempting to walk to the North Pole for his The Ice Project
Feeling the chill during North Pole training © The Ice Project

What was the weirdest experience?

Walking and sleeping on open ice on Lake Baikal in Russia. It's on a seismic fault line so we had several tremors, and it's scary sleeping in a tent on open ice with cracking noises around you all night! In reality though, Baikal was quite safe ice — locals drove giant trucks over it. The North Pole ice was much thinner and we had to abandon camp several times when large cracks opened up around our tents in the night!

Explorer Mike O'Shea walking on the frozen ice of Lake Baikal in Russia during his Ice Project quest to trek across all eight of Earth's ice caps
Mike crossing the frozen Lake Baikal © The Ice Project

How do you plan for this kind of adventure?

It takes up to two years from concept to getting on the plane — getting permits, flights, dog sleds, boat journeys, studying maps, planning food, testing equipment. But I almost enjoy that as much as the adventure!

How many people go on the expeditions?

Generally we try to organize the trips ourselves and bring in people with expertise we don't have, like dog teams. In South Georgia we were six, plus two boat crew.

The Ice Project team trekking over the Greenland ice cap during their quest to cross all eight of the planet's ice caps around the world
The team of trekkers at the Greenland Icecap © The Ice Project

Your attempt for the North Pole fell short – why, and how did you feel?

We were climbing down a large block of ice and it moved. Our 200 lb. sled landed on us and we were on such a tight schedule that we didn't have time to rest and recover, so we had to stop. It's a tough challenge. Only 152 people have walked to the Pole, whereas more than 500 have been to space.

All our equipment is still in Resolute waiting for another attempt but the company that flies teams to the start have stopped supporting expeditions.

The Ice Project team of trekkers approaching the Greenland ice cap during their attempt to cross all eight of the earth's ice caps on foot
The approach to the Greenland ice cap © The Ice Project

Describe the storms on the Iceland ice cap. How terrifying were they?

We were hammered by storm after storm for eight days, dumping so much snow that we had to dig out our tent every two hours to stop it collapsing. It was relentless!

You completed Greenland in 2015; what was the biggest challenge?

Working with dogs! I wouldn't rush back to ski through dog excrement for 25-plus days again.

Explorer Clare O'Leary trekking on a frozen Lake Baikal in Russia as part of The Ice Project's quest to cross all eight of the Earth's ice caps on foot
Clare O’Leary on Lake Baikal © The Ice Project

Who or what inspires you to keep going on a trek like this?

Tom Crean and Ernest Shackleton for their sheer resilience and bravery, but also modern day adventurers like Borge Ousland and Joe Simpson.

What would you say would be the most accessible ice cap for the average hiker?

The Iceland icecap, as there are a number of companies that will take hikers with minimal experience on it.

In your day job you've worked on Star Wars, so what did you do?

I provide specialist heights rescue and access consultancy. I've worked on two Red Bull Cliff Diving events in Ireland, Red Bull Crashed Ice in Belfast, and on Star Wars when they filmed on the Skellig Islands. It was amazing to meet some of the iconic actors and even to have a pint with them!

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