Two guys, one friendship and one great mission. Arnaud de Wilde from the Netherlands and Wim De Backer from Belgium joined forces three years ago through their mutual love of climbing and exploring. Their current mission- ProARCTICA- is to be the first team of two to complete their chosen route of the Sea to Summit of Antarctica. This is a gruelling journey that will lead them from the Antarctic sea through mountains, glaciers and endless ice fields, to the summit of the highest mountain on the continent, Mount Vinson at 4892m. We talked to Arnaud about how this all came about.
Tell us about the expedition and how you came up with it?
The Polar Regions have always interested me- not just because of adventurers going there and coming back with stories- but because they’re so different to anywhere else on the planet! So over the years the idea of wanting to go to one of these regions became like a project for me. I decided to do something different, so I came up with the idea of a sea to summit on Antarctica. I didn’t know where Mt Vincent was located, so I had to look it up! But it turns out it was actually pretty doable.
I started looking into the project a bit more and noticed that if I wanted to do it in a different way, there’s not any commercial expedition that you can join. You have to figure it out and do it yourself. Doing it on my own is a bit of a risk, so I didn’t do anything at that point.
I came up with the idea five years ago. Then four years ago I met Wim climbing up Mount Elbrus (Russia) with a group organised by Johnny Peeters.
Wim didn’t have a partner in the expedition, and neither did I, so he and I shared a tent. We climbed Elbrus and the night before summit night, I thought we would be great climbing partners, so I asked him. He was so enthusiastic he couldn’t sleep before the summit attempt. (Not cool of me to ask him then!) We made it to the summit, then we decided to take a serious look and we’ve been trying to make it happen ever since.
So you’ve been planning it for five years and had Wim on board for four. What steps have you taken to prepare yourself for it?
Well I started reading about the regions. I read expedition journals, did a lot of research about weather, navigation, skills, clothing, food, transportation, communication; I made a huge list… then decided probably best just to call someone! So we called Nick Lewis, the owner of ALE (Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions). Nick really gave us an insight of the skill we’d need if we wanted to do this on our own – but he wouldn’t accept us as a customer!
We went to Iceland with Nick’s guidance and we worked with Icelandic mountain guides, who taught us different ways of robust rescue, glacial crossings and things like that. We could do it all but it was a huge update of knowledge and skills.
Then we decided to put it to the test and went on the ice for ourselves for several days without a guide. We reached the highest summit of Iceland and stayed there for a couple days.
We then went to Switzerland for winter climbing in areas Nick knew, climbed in Austria and tested gear in the Belgian Ardennes. In the end Nick decided to help us by creating our plan, plotting the route using aerial photos and setting up guides to be there at certain stages.
It’s a forty two day trip and the sledges will be between 60-80kg per sled. We’ve practiced with the sledges in Iceland at 45kg, which wasn’t too hard.
Has anyone done a sea to summit yet?
Some Australians did it, but in a different way. There were three, and they travelled across the Weddell Sea, around the mountains and then entered Mt Vincent from the backside seen from the base camps. The main difference is that we are two, and we definitely want to go through the mountains as well – no one has ever been there before! And, you pass an active volcano there, which we can safely pass. So it’s not a world first at all, but how we’re doing it has never been done before.
What concerns do you have about the expedition?
Well, the first is navigation – we have to navigate through a very tricky set of mountains. It’s a lot more difficult to go through them, and we’ve got great maps, but most of the valleys where we’ll walk have never been visited by climbers. The other concern we have is crevasses. On Iceland, we were roped up, but you can’t always do that in Antarctica. Finally, some of the mental pressures are a concern – no-one has ever been there, we won’t see anyone and while we’re in the mountains, the search and rescue planes can’t always land if we need help.
The Netherlands and Belgium aren’t known for their snow – how did you and Wim get into climbing and snow?
Wim is a pretty good cross-country skier because of his dad. I moved to Sweden when I was twenty and lived there a little over two years and my friends there were into skiing. Once I was back in the Netherlands and I started my own company – running a business can be demanding and there’s a lot of things you want to do but can’t. One day you wake up and think, now’s the time to do it.
So I decided to make a change and joined a group called Mountain Network and they gathered a group of people to climb in the Alps, with the intent to climb Mt Blanc. To get up to Mt Blanc, we had to climb some other peaks and hike some glaciers, so I joined them and that’s how I started mountaineering, about ten years ago now.
Wim has an uncle in Africa. He just wanted to break free from everything in Belgium, so he visited his uncle in Africa a couple of times, near Kilimanjaro and one thing led to another and he started climbing mountains and never stopped.
You’ve climbed Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and last year even the Carstenz’s Pyramid as assistant expedition leader , 3 of the 7 summits. Is the seven summits a goal?
It wasn’t at first, for me. For Wim, it turned out, it was! When I went to Elbrus, it was less a plan, more of an opportunity that I took. Then when I climbed Kilimanjaro, I hadn’t actually set out to climb it either. My friend Floyd turned 50 and one of the things on his bucket list was to climb one of the seven summits, with Kili being the most reachable. I said ‘Good luck, go do that!’ ‘No no, you’re mistaken,’ he replied, ‘I want to do it with you!’ I said ‘Okay, I’ll arrange it and we’ll do it together.’ Unfortunately, for personal reasons, he couldn’t join, so I asked a few friends and we climbed it!
Wim had already tried Aconcagua and asked me last year to try it as a good exercise for the expedition, we went last year. We didn’t make it to the summit as we got blown off it twice! But then June in the same year, Johnny Peeters called me to tell me he was doing Carstenz’s Pyramid, and that the Lead Climber had to duck out about three weeks before, so they needed someone to lead the climb! Johnny called me and I responded positively in about three seconds! I was very fortunate, as then I’d been on four of the seven summits – with three climbed so far, so now the goal of all seven seems more achievable.
Provided the expedition goes well, what’s next for ProARCTICA?
I know in my mind, I’ve thought about the North Pole as an option – with climate change happening so quickly I imagine it’s better to do it sooner rather than later. Denali is another challenge along with the rest of the seven summits, but if there’s one thing I’m dreaming about, it’s the North Pole.
The expedition is aiming to leave late this year or early 2017. Best of luck to Arnaud and Wim: Follow their journey here!