Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
At the age of fourteen, Jade Hameister hatched a simple plan: to ski to the north and south poles and across Greenland. In these days of bucket lists and helicopters, it all sounds simple. But Australian schoolgirl Jade set the bar pretty high. Each trip was to be unsupported and unassisted – meaning no food drops, no motorised back up, no porters to set up tents and cook food. Just Jade, her father and Eric the guide. Plus a camera person or two, sent by National Geographic.
The book itself is also simple. Written more or less chronologically, each of the three journeys is described from preparation to completion. The trips became progressively longer and harder as she built up to the southernmost continent. Jade maintained a daily diary which allowed her to draw on her experiences and feelings at every stage. Fortunately, she avoids tedious daily descriptions, instead offering an entertaining selection of highlights, lowlights and insights along the way.
Each of the three journeys is accompanied by a sublime set of photos that illustrate daily life on the ice, some of the hardships and the expeditioners. The pristine beauty of the landscape is undeniable, and the sense of space is palpable. Some simple maps would have helped but the vastness is apparent from Jade’s text.
In Antarctica, by far the toughest of the journeys, the team pioneered a new route from via the Kansas glacier from the coast, through the Transantarctic mountains and onto the high plateau that dominates the continent. It was incredibly demanding and as a young teenager, Jade encountered obstacles and challenges that would test the strongest adult. The freshly named Anzac Steps on the glacier are formidable:
“..getting up this enormous rise was a heck of a lot harder than I’d imagined it would be…..It was so steep that any time we stopped, even for a few seconds, the sleds would start dragging us backwards down the hill.”
Her guide Eric Philips described the five weeks of Antarctic conditions as the “most brutal” he has encountered in 25 years. For Jade, the practicalities of life at -30oC are unexpected:
“My chest was bitterly cold the entire time from the moisture in my breath, which froze, then melted again from my body heat and eventually soaked the upper chest of my thermals. When we finally got into out tent at the end of the day the ends of my hair braids were frozen solid to my buff and face mask.”
On the last day’s haul to the south pole, Jade registers a quantum shift: “I knew I’d miss this cold, windy place that had caused me so much pain and suffering but had really opened my eyes to its exquisite beauty. Antarctica was now a part of me.”
Jade, of course, is a school pupil like many others, though she was given a good start. Her family provided outdoor adventures: at six she summited Kosciusko and at twelve she trekked to Everest base camp. Her Dad’s expedition experience and her Mum’s constant support and encouragement, undoubtedly helped, but ultimately it was her drive and determination that saw her through.
Her attainments have been internationally recognised. She became the youngest person to complete the polar hat trick and the youngest to ski to the south pole unsupported and unassisted. In 2018, Vogue magazine pronounced her as a game changer; she has spoken in major public forums on topics including climate change and young women’s achievements.
On the front cover, Jessica Watson praises “the incredibly tough stuff girls are made of”. Not only does Jade beat the poles, but also she beats the on-line trolls who berate her dreams in offensive, sexist terms. Her triumphs are a timely reminder to trolls and the rest of us of just what young woman can do.
The editors have allowed Jade plenty of licence with her writing style: “I 100% wanted him to come with us…..” probably isn’t a phrase that Wilfrid Thesiger would have written, but it envelopes us in Jade’s world. She writes simply and clearly, with the refreshing honesty of a teenager.
Jade shares her emotions, human frailties and mental struggles which contrast to the great 20th century explorer stories by hardened Englishmen (for example, Ranulph Fiennes –Cold, Wilfrid Thesiger – Arabian Sands and Francis Younghusband – Among the Celestials) – that focus on the physical challenges and maintaining a stiff upper lip.
With Jade we enter the hauntingly familiar teenage world of Instagram, Spotify, dodging cooking duties, overusing toilet paper and morning lethargy. While admitting some failings, she remains defiant. “The time it took me to properly wake up and get ready for each day on the ice may have driven Dad a bit crazy. But you think that after 22 days, plus expeditions to the North Pole and Greenland, he may have come to terms with it.”
To many adults, a short bushwalk is rewarding but to some teenagers it can be interminable. Jade’s challenges are in a different league. Spending 80 days travelling across icy barrens with “old blokes” and sharing a cramped tent with her father requires a whole new level of mental discipline. With guidance from some of the old blokes, she manages her emotions and physical pain in a way that provides lessons for anyone. It is a testament to her not only that she succeeded but that she has the presence of mind to remember how.
Jade experiences intense mood swings and sometimes struggles to eat sufficient food, despite the intensive exercise every day. Homesickness is ever present and Jade’s family and social connections are crucial to her wellbeing. Regular talks with mum via sat phone and letters and messages are extraordinarily powerful for a teenager missing home.
As if that is not enough, there is constant pressure on Jade and the team – worrying about food supply, making water, making minimum distance each day, finishing in time to meet connections and delays due to bad weather. For the men apparently, toileting and undies hardly rate on the scale of pressures, but for a teenage girl, rightly concerned about hygiene and privacy, they are a regular source of anxiety:
“….I’d packed 20 pairs of underpants. It really didn’t sound excessive to me for a trip of 40 days, but the gear list specified three and Eric was only taking two! Two pairs of undies for almost six weeks is plain gross!”
When she describes how Eric intends to ration his underwear use, it is apparent that she has a point.
Jade admits to being sceptical about global warming but her experiences in some of the coldest places on earth change that: “Until I’d been on the ground in the North Pole and Greenland, I was slightly reluctant to believe that global warming was really happening and that it was having the kind of rapid effect on our world that scientists were claiming.”
Her experience of unexpected rain in Greenland at 2000m elevation on the ice sheet caught them unprepared. The weather was so warm that they sweated constantly in clothing designed for snow and cold but not for rain.
Jade now sees herself moving to fresh challenges: “empowering young women…….inspire young people ….raise awareness of climate change.” To do just one of these meaningfully is a real task. To do all three is a huge challenge. Reading about her remarkable achievements pole to pole, it is easy to see that we will hear a lot more of Jade Hameister in the future.
By Jade Hameister