Hannah Shields previously told us about her success in reaching the summit of Everest in 2007 having narrowly failed at her first attempt in 2003. Following that failed attempt, she was given no time to lick her wounds and reflect on her near miss, as in January 2004 she was offered the chance to race to the North Pole by Richard Dunwoody, the ex-jump jockey and Grand National winner, who she describes as “a good mate”. The race was due to start in mid-April 2004 but before that Richard Dunwoody had to withdraw due to other commitments and in his place a young doctor from London, Chris Van Toulkin, became Hannah’s partner.
The pair first met on the flight from Heathrow to Resolute in Canada, the meeting point for those taking part in the race, where they soon realised that their competitors had been hand-picked by various organisations and companies and had been in training for a few years. Foremost amongst these was a team of ex-Royal Marines who had been Arctic warfare experts for 7 years. In contrast, Hannah had never cross-country skied or pulled a pulk (the sleigh that carries all the equipment and food etc) before and knew little about Arctic conditions.
The first few days were spent preparing their food and equipment and for Hannah, learning to ski the conditions, pull a pulk and handle a double barrel shot gun, which was their only defence against Polar bears (an 8ft tall stuffed example of which was displayed in the luggage hanger).
After five days of preparation they began their “warm-up” to the start line. This trek of 110 miles was expected to last 5-6 days and was to prepare the competitors for what conditions they could expect. The frozen sea is not flat, as it freezes it expands, throwing up stugies or pressure ridges of ice which can range from a few inches to over 10 feet in height. Furthermore, icebergs can get trapped in the ice forming mogul fields that can extend from 2-60 miles making it difficult for skidoos, let alone planes, to effect a rescue if things go wrong.
After 9 hours they reached the coordinates of their pre-arranged stop for the night, which she found took a bit of getting used to as, from Spring onwards, there are 24 hours of sunshine in the Arctic. After 6 hours sleep they set off again to ski to the start line. Over the next few days the temperature dropped to -45ºC and, with the wind chill of the blizzards, they found themselves skiing in temperatures of -89ºC.
No surprise then that by the 6th day, at the start line, a third of the competitors had withdrawn due to injury or frost bite. On the first day of the race itself they felt scarily alone, as up to that point they were being filmed by the BBC but now there was no-one else around and 230 miles to go. They did however have to rendezvous at two points where support teams would refuel and restock their supplies.
Their regime over the next 21 days consisted of 15-16 hours skiing, 1 hour melting snow and eating, 5-6 hours sleeping then another hour melting snow before starting to ski again.
Every day, at the same time they had to make a call back to Resolute to inform the base team of where and how they were. Hannah says, “We were in an amazing wilderness which I never thought I would enjoy so much. There was a magnificence in the isolation and the basic nature of what we were doing. Simply surviving and travelling in the old traditional ways of the Inuits”.
And so it continued, uneventfully, until the day that Chris noticed a polar bear in the distance. They had been warned about the possibility of such an encounter and had a set rehearsed procedure but as Hannah says, “it’s a lot more panicky when you’re doing it for real”. They quickly took off their skis, un-clipped themselves from the pulk and while Chris loaded the gun, Hannah removed the batteries from her next to skin clothing to activate the GPS, camera and satellite phone. This took almost 10 mins in the -40 ºC degree cold, while the bear ambled towards them. Hannah said she could not resist taking photos of the advancing bearbut just after she had given their coordinates to base camp the bear dropped its head and charged them. They followed procedure and both faced the bear waving their arms and screaming; Hannah also brandished her skis while Chris got off some shots intending to startle it and if that hadn’t work, it was shoot to kill. Fortunately, the tactic worked but the bear continued to stalk them for several anxious hours.
Although there were to be no further polar bear encounters the arduous journey continued, at less than one mile per hour, until they reached the finish to find that only 5 competitors had completed the race and the 3 marines had only managed to beat them by 90 minutes over the 21 days. During this prodigious effort Hannah had lost one and a half stone in weight.
At a presentation back in London they received their runner up prize and Hannah was thrilled to receive the Polar Endeavour Trophy, which is awarded by the polar expedition leaders and adventures to an individual who shows courage, leadership and humour. For the next few years, Hannah spent her time between doing dentistry locums and teaching survival skills to such TV celebrities as Jeremy Clarkson et al and Ben Fogle, on their respective Arctic and Antarctic programmes, but now works in a specialist orthodontic practice in Northern Ireland.
Her main focus is competing in ultra endurance mountain running races of between 50-120 miles, all over the world.