insight - Nabs Al-Busaidi

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Occupation - Adventurer

The first Arab to reach the Magnetic North Pole, the first Omani to climb Antarctica’s highest peak, Mount Vinson, and the first Arab to run across Oman. A few days before embarking on his new Mount Everest climb, ‘Nabs’ spoke with Heba Hashem about his sensational polar encounters.
 

How did the idea of embarking on a North Pole expedition first occur to you?

It started very innocently one day, when I went for lunch. I bumped into an acquaintance who had tried to climb Everest the year before and was thinking of trying again. Knowing I was adventurous, he asked me if I wanted to go, but I just dismissed the idea as crazy.
 

However, the idea was in the back of my mind for a couple of weeks, slowly germinating, and eventually I asked a friend who had some experience of expeditions for some advice. He suggested the North Pole instead, as fewer people had done it, so it would be more significant, and I would be the first Arab to walk from Resolute Bay to the magnetic North Pole.
 

What are the preparations usually involved before setting off on a climbing expedition?

The magnetic North Pole wasn’t actually a climb. The Arctic is to all intents and purposes a big floating ice cube, so the elevation doesn’t get much higher than 10 metres above sea level.
 

Having said that, a lot of the preparations for walking to the North Pole and climbing Mount Vinson were the same, as they were both in exceptionally cold regions, the equipment was very similar, and we were living in the wild for an extended period of time. There was a lot of endurance training involved, and a lot of preparation in terms of securing funding, sponsor commitments, media coverage, school visits, PR, etc.
 

But a lot of the things I did were routine and boring: training every day, making lists, packing and repacking equipment, and getting all my personal affairs in order before being absent for several weeks.
 

How many weeks or months prior to the journey do you start preparing?

In some ways, I had been preparing for this my whole life! I have always played football and rugby, I was in the military, and I am always trying to keep fit so that was part of the preparation, not just physically, but mentally as well.
 

I was accepted on the North Pole expedition in August, eight months before the start. I gave up working full time to concentrate on the fundraising and charity work four months before the start, so that was probably the time I really began preparing for the expedition. There were also weekends of technical training to attend in the UK, covering use of the GPS, shotguns, frostbite, polar bears, etc. When it came to climbing Mount Vinson, I did a week of glacier training in the Alps in December 2009, and then in January 2010 I climbed Mount Vinson itself. Although it may seem a very short time to prepare for a major trip, I had previous experience with the North Pole, and I had maintained my fitness. It was not as though I had decided to do it as a complete novice.
 

In the North Pole you dragged your equipment along with the help of a sledge. However, in your South Pole expedition, you carried it all on your back without any support from dog sledges or ski-doo. What was inside your rucksack and how did you manage?

We didn’t use dogs in the North or South. In the Arctic all of our equipment was piled onto sledges and dragged behind. Inside we had food, fuel, tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, maps, spare clothes, etc, all weighing about 50kg. In the Antarctic we had to carry all our gear, but as we were going to pre-planned stops, the tents were already there so we didn’t need to carry all that weight. Also, we didn’t need to carry as much fuel, food, or spare equipment as the time between camps was only a day as opposed to almost a week in the North.

 

You have covered great distances walking in harsh climates and almost unbearable conditions. What keeps you going at those moments of extreme discomfort?

There are a couple of things that keep me going. First was the crazy idea I had in my mind’s eye of standing at the North Pole in traditional Omani clothes. The mental picture kept me motivated at some very low moments. But there were so many low moments that I needed other incentives, and so I had mentally lined up carrots and sticks ready for use whenever I needed them. Carrots were there to inspire me, and sticks were there to force me to continue. An example of a carrot was the money I was raising for charity. An example of a stick was the fear of all the abuse I would get from my unsympathetic cousins if I failed!

 

During your expeditions, did you come close to any polar bears or Arctic wolves?

We didn’t see any wolves, but we did come across polar bears! One night we had camped near three other tents, and I had stayed up late to do my usual radio interview. I was just drifting off to sleep when I heard saucepans bang-ing. The Arctic is a very quiet place as there is no man-made noise, so this was very distinctive, and it is something we are taught to do to scare away polar bears. I woke up and reached for the shotgun, but the sleeping bag is very constrictive, and I was also naked, which posed a problem. Exposed flesh doesn’t last very long in the Arctic, but then humans don’t last very long when being attacked by a bear. I then heard someone firing a shotgun, and from the shouting I knew that the situation was in hand so I decided that rather than run out of the tent with no clothes on to fight a polar bear, I would only fight it from my sleeping bag if it came into our tent. Otherwise, it was free to do whatever it wanted as far as I was concerned!

 

What has been the most notable tactic or habit you have observed for preserving the environment, which we can ap-ply practically?in the Middle East?

Although our trips were not carbon neutral, we tried to have minimal environmental impact. We cleaned up all our rubbish and took it with us. In the Antarctic, the snow never melts, so whatever pollution you leave will contaminate the snow forever. And that could mean another expedition melting your contaminated snow for water, and falling ill.

 

To prevent this, whenever we went to the toilet we had to bag solids and carry it with us back to base camp, and then it would be flown back to Chile for disposal! In everything we did, it took such little effort to clean up our own little mess, that it is galling to see how careless we are with litter on the streets, especially when thrown from moving cars!

 

In one of your South Pole diary entries, you mentioned something that your climbing companion, Mark, said: “Mountaineering at altitude is not about fitness, but about mental attitude.” How is that true?

Altitude sickness affects people randomly. It can affect the fat or thin, the fit or unfit, the old or young, and there is very little to predict who will suffer at altitude from one individual to another. However, the fitter you are as a person, the better you will cope. But at a certain stage, no matter how fit you are, your progress becomes a question of mind over matter. Your body is capable of a lot more than your mind thinks it can do, and as long as you can ignore the constant scream to give up, then you will make the summit.

 

What were the strangest things you witnessed throughout your polar expeditions?

Everything seems so normal now, I can’t remember what seemed strange! Although going to the toilet in conditions that can give you frostbite is still not something I am used to.

 

What are your adventure plans for the near future?

I am hoping that the Oman Olympic committee will send me to the 2011 Asian Winter Olympics to compete for Oman, so I would be the first Omani to take part in the winter games. I hope I can give a good account of myself in either cross-country skiing or the biathlon, which is a combination of cross-country skiing and shooting.

 

Next, I leave for 71 days in Nepal where I will attempt to be the first Omani to climb Mount Everest (April 2010). After that, I am hoping to go on a two-person adventure that will probably last longer than any of my previous expeditions. It will probably be the hardest thing I have done so far, and we may even want to kill each other. There will probably be a lot more laughter, sadness, hardship, and joy, but it won’t be a first for an Arab or even an Omani, as I intend to get married!

 

You can follow Nabil Al-Busaidi’s journeys – and his Everest quest – through his thrilling diary entries on www.sultanofsnow.wordpress.com

 

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