53-year-old surgeon and mountaineer, Ghazala Ahmad-Mear, is no stranger to adventure, climbing and expeditions – in fact, she met her husband (renowned Polar explorer, Roger Mear) at the summit of the Matterhorn in Switzerland! In January, Ghazala will be the only woman undertaking the South Pole Energy Challenge – the first polar expedition using only renewable energy.
Here, Ghazala explains more about the expedition, her love of climbing, and training for the 30kg sled pull.
You have an incredible polar challenge coming up – can you tell us about it?
I’ve been invited to walk the last degree of the South Pole Energy Challenge with Robert Swan OBE – the first polar expedition in history to use just renewable energy. The message is that if these technologies can be used in the most inhospitable place on earth, then they can be used anywhere in the world.
Using solar, wind and biofuel clean energy technologies, the 2-month, 600-mile sled-haul will be undertaken by Robert, his son, Barney, and two others. I will be joining them for the last 60 nautical miles to the South Pole.
I am the only woman on the whole expedition.
Why is the message of using renewable energy so important?
Using renewable energy technologies makes living on the earth for humans more sustainable. It reduces carbon emissions and helps reduce climate change and global warming.
What kind of technologies will you be using on your journey?
During the expedition, the technologies we will be using include:
Solar electric (Goal Zero) for charging devices such as mobiles, cameras, tent heaters and Iridium Go! (a device that provides satellite connectivity and Wi-Fi for phones)
Solar thermal – a solar sled with NASA technology and super solar panels.
Wind turbine by Seimens which, again, can be used for charging devices.
We’ll be using biofuels developed with Shell for the twin Otter aircraft flying us from Union Glacier to 89S – the last degree – 60 nautical miles from the Pole. We were unsuccessful in getting biofuels appropriate for the Illusion Jet flying us from Punta Arenas, Chile into Union Glacier Base camp in Antarctica, so we’re carbon-capturing our carbon emissions using a company in Iceland (Climeworks) which captures CO2 from the air and converts it into Calcium Carbonate (limestone).
Robert was in Antarctica in Dec 2016, testing out the technologies and equipment developed in association with NASA, Siemens and Shell. All performed better than expected which is very promising.
Rewind and let’s talk about your background in adventure. You’re married to polar explorer Roger Mear, so I guess you have a pretty strong background in climbing?
I met my husband on the summit of the Matterhorn in Switzerland (yes, that mountain peak on the Toblerone packet). Meeting Roger changed my focus and perspective on life. Yes, I climbed before I met Roger 27 years ago, but since then my ability, strength, judgement and risk assessment has been strong. Not only with climbing, but other aspects of life. I became proactive in achieving goals. With Roger, my love of the outdoors became a realisation and dream climbing/adventure experiences came true.
You must be pretty familiar with treks, mountain climbing, hiking and expeditions then?
I’m very familiar with trekking, climbing and mountaineering in the European Alps, Himalaya and Karakorum. In fact, our honeymoon was a 3-month expedition to Nanga Parbat, Karakorum – the ninth highest mountain in the world! Roger holds the first British ascent of the mountain, which was in 1991 with Dave Walsh.
Being married to an International Mountain Guide and polar adventurer for many years, I’ve climbed and trained hard for rock climbing and mountaineering expeditions. I’ve been on many rock climbing and mountaineering expeditions with Roger, all over the world. I’ve never really wished to climb with anyone else – we shared the love of climbing together. However, being an International Mountain Guide did take him away from home for many months at a time and so, of course, I’ve climbed with friends whilst he was working.
The challenging aspect of getting away for me has been affording time off work. I have been known to resign a job to go on expedition!
What will be the biggest physical and mental challenges of your upcoming expedition?
The main unknown, and hence challenge, for me will be dealing with the extreme cold. Average temperatures in midsummer Antarctica are around -30 degrees Celsius. I’ve been at -24*C but I’m told there’s a big difference in the last 5*C! Taking care of myself through appropriate clothing, materials, activity and nutrition will help. Recognising vulnerabilities in myself and my team is essential. This is both a mental and physical challenge.
Recently finding out that I’m the only woman on the whole expedition is an amusing and welcome challenge. I’m used to leading an all-male team, so I understand the gender-related mental, emotional and physical soft-skill dynamics my crazy personality will bring to enhance the team. I know I will enjoy it!
How much walking will you be doing each day?
We anticipate walking about 10 miles a day. Less, early on the first 10 days when we’re dealing with the altitude, settling in and getting into a routine, and more later in the expedition.
What kind of food will you be eating?
I’ll have some favourite snacks chosen from a selection at Union Glacier to have at every hourly 5-minute stop, to sustain me. For meals, it’s dehydrated food reconstituted with snow/ice heated by renewable energy to hot water.
How many calories do you estimate burning each day?
We’ll be using about 6000 calories [a day], but as I’m only there for 14 days maximum it won’t be too much of an issue. My weight gain [for it] is not high, but a layer of fat will certainly help with insulation and keeping me warm. I will just be eating more freely over the festive season!
Robert and Barney Swan on the 600-mile trip have put on muscle and fat to allow for calorie deficit.
What kit will you be wearing for the polar expedition?
I have a lot of clothing already from expeditions in the past, including specialised custom-made items from my husband. For example, down sallopettes he wore on the unrepeated winter ascent of the Cassin Ridge of Mount McKinley in 1980. Such a privilege!
You’re a cancer survivor and your lung capacity is 2/3 of what it used to be – does this affect you during exercise?
I noticed this more so when coming out of my chemo and radiotherapy treatment from my Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and have never really had the fitness of before the illness. But, I’ve learnt to overcome it and manage it well. I do have to work harder, and I’ll start to breath faster earlier than my training partners, but it doesn’t stop me.
Having been a big runner all my life, I also had to have a total hip replacement 3 years ago at the age of 50.
Packed with all your equipment what kind of weight will you be hauling on your sled?
About 30kg, unlike Robert Swan and his team. Robert, Barney, Martin and Kyle (the SPEC team) will have sleds that weigh about 200kg – we’ll know exactly how much in the next few days when they’re packed and they leave!
What kind of physical fitness does the expedition demand and how have you been preparing?
1) Strong thighs – so tyre-hauling, mountain and hill road biking. 2) Strong core – tyre-hauling, bootcamp-style exercises mixed with yoga/pilates-based exercises and front crawl swimming. 3) Strong and fluid arms for ski poling via swimming and tyre-hauling. 4) Good aerobic fitness – swimming, biking, tyre-hauling.
What does your tyre-hauling involve?
Mimicking the activity one is training for is the best way of training for it – tyre-hauling is that for sled-hauling. Sled-hauling has technique and is all about ‘core strength’. Having been told by my midwife I would never have ‘abs’ after my second caesarean, I am proud to say I have proven her wrong! I’m not one to take ‘no’ for an answer.
Pulling a tyre on the flat is the mainstay; I go on the Monsal Trail (a hard-packed trail in Derbyshire) for this. I’ve been building up to doing hours at a time, and then doing hours consecutively day-after-day is the key nearer to departure. Pulling up a hill will enhance all aspects [of my fitness].
Do you do any strength training?
‘Raphael’s Bootcamp’ – my 13-year-old son has been running bootcamp-style training for me and he is hard! Press-ups, pull-ups, stairs, squats, etc. How long the session takes depends on how hard he works me, but 2×30 press-ups only take a few minutes!
What does a typical week of training look like now?
Currently I’m swimming 3-4 miles a week. Training also includes one bike ride and one or two tyre-hauling sessions of 1-2 hours. All of which needs to be ramped up before I leave, particularly the hours of tyre-hauling day after day.
Will you have to adapt your diet at all in the run up to your expedition?
Currently I’m just eating regular, healthy, vegetarian food and paying particular attention to protein for the muscles I’m developing. In the month before the expedition, it would be good to gain some fat to keep warm on the ice. So I guess more cake!
What are your favourite pieces of kit for training and exploring?
Interestingly, I have become in love with my tyre! My tyre-hauling time has become personal quiet time for me to delve deep inside myself, identify that which is disabling me and learn to it let go. In the space left behind, I find much strength. That space is beyond the physical and emotional person; I call that space ‘beyond the fear’.
I love my tri wetsuit for open water swimming. It was bought off the rail but it fits perfectly. No water coming in, no chafing and it has perfect buoyancy. It’s so important to have a well-fitting wetsuit for open water, so swimming is relaxed and efficient.
I also love the mountain bike my husband bought for me off eBay recently! It’s lighter than my previous bike and so more responsive and a joy to ride.
Do you have any sponsors at the moment?
After 6 months of firing out sponsorship bids every day and waking up in the morning at 5am trying to work out how I’m going to raise the funds, I don’t have a corporate sponsor yet, but I have found a fairy godfather who has helped most generously to enable me to enlist on the expedition.
I am the only woman on the whole expedition and so feel I am representing womankind – mother, daughter, sister, wife, auntie, etc. In each aspect of our lives we can all make a difference.
How can readers support your expedition?
Through my campaign, ‘Step by Step’, I’m trying to raise awareness of what we, individually, can do to reduce carbon emissions, combat global warming and save Antarctica from melting. Every little bit counts and collectively will make a big impact. Please see my website www.stepbystep.scot
I have raised £70k to enlist on the expedition; I am all paid-up and booked on, which is very exciting and committing! I’m still raising funds to get my flights, accommodation outside Antarctica, kit and insurance together. Readers can support me at www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/stepbystep
I am willing to take corporate flags to be photographed at the South Pole for sponsorship.
Find out more about Ghazala’s Step by Step campaign by visiting her website: http://www.stepbystep.scot/ You can also follow Ghazala via social media on www.facebook.com/GhazalaSBS, www.instagram.com/ghazala_stepbystep and www.twitter.com/ghazala_mear