James borrell is a conservation scientist and science communicator, with a particular interest in how species adapt to changing climate.

Polar Helen

Helen Turton has inspired dozens of young people (myself included) to embrace the great outdoors. She has a self-confessed love of the polar regions, and I’ve lost count of the number of fantastic expeditions she’s been on. I caught up with her recently to get her take on expeditions and the impending Scott Centenary.

How did you end up as a polar explorer?

I’m not sure I’ve quite ended up as a polar explorer (I knew she’d say that!), I think I’m still developing into one gradually, life is a journey. This has happened by default of the chances that seem to be coming my way, these last few years have been a lesson in not letting opportunities pass you by!

What do people think of when they find out what you do?

The first trip to the North Pole in 2005, everyone thought I was crazy, paying so much money to be cold etc…but now they simply ask ‘what am I doing next?!’

What have been the highlights of your adventures so far?

There have been so many, like the spectacular scenery of the polar regions, which really is like nothing else on earth, especially at the North Pole, where the ice is ever-changing. The ‘adapt-and-make-do’ attitude when you only have what’s in your pulk (sledge) to survive and be comfortable. The laughs and the hardships (These are good to look back on at home when the sore feet have recovered and the heating is on…and you can take a shower!) and the people you share the experience with. But I think the biggest highlight for me always, on return, is giving talks especially in schools, hoping to inspire others to believe in their dreams and make them happen!

What are your thoughts on the changes affecting the polar regions and how should we protect it for the future?

Scientific evidence has proved that the best places in the world to observe the effects of climate change have been in the polar regions, but it’s inappropriate I always feel, to make judgements about whether there is a pattern I can say I’ve seen myself. The one thing I can say is that on all three of my trips to the North Pole, each one has been vastly different in terms of the ice features evident – pressure ridges, open leads, it almost appears as a different landscape every time.

Protecting any environment for the future is essential – we should enjoy what is there now (not put it in a glass case and never visit or enjoy it), but we should always strive to leave places in a better condition than that in which we find them.  This is what the indigenous people of the Arctic have done for many generations, yet all too often Governments and pressure groups feel that that they should ‘tell’ these people how to live off the ‘land’ that they have maintained in balance with nature for so long.

Having taken many people for their first taste of an expedition experience (including myself) what effects do these remote environments have on them?

Taking anyone into a location or experience ‘outside of their comfort zone’ is a great privilege as a teacher or instructor, yet still giving them a feeling that what they are doing is achievable, and giving them the skills to go on to explore and go on independent expeditions themselves is the key. When you have been on an expedition to a remote location you are never the same person again when you return – this kind of experience gives us a different and enriching perspective on life, but it can also change your priorities and result in being ‘bitten by the bug’. I think there’s a moral duty to make people aware of this potential ‘life-change’ when they sign up for an expedition!


What are your plans for the future, I’ve heard that it might involve the South Pole and Scott’s Centenary?

2011/2012 is a big year in the history of polar exploration in Antarctica…marking the centenary anniversary of Scott and Amundsen’s arrival at the bottom of our planet. With my Norwegian polar guiding  friend Svante Strand, I am organising an expedition for an International group of participants (including those representing Norway and Britain) to ski the last degree to the South Pole. An expedition of this nature is not an easy achievement – the challenges are often perceived to be the extreme cold and physical nature of the journey, but the real difficulties start months in advance with the immense effort required to fund-raise the sums necessary to ‘make it happen’!

If you fancy joining Helen, find out more here.