I met Pat Falvey for the first time at the Tom Crean memorial dinner in the Brandon Hotel in Tralee, County Kerry, on December 12th, 2002. I hadn’t bothered to book; just got on the train from Dublin with the free pass and arrived in the door. When I asked where I should sit, I was directed to a table with a vacant seat and sat down beside Pat, whom I’d never met before and didn’t know anything about. But I soon found out, and was mightily impressed. He was just back from Everest, a long-term ambition of mine not yet realised.
When I asked him what his next big challenge was, he said crossing Antarctic doing what Ernest Shackleton had failed to do. ‘I’m just your man!’ I said. ‘I’ve just come back from revisiting Antarctica.’ I’d wintered there in 1959 and spent three years studying fur seals and all the other five species as well as penguins, flying albatross and petrels. My very first job had been as a research biologist in the Antarctic. I was 21 when I boarded the royal research ship Shackleton at Southampton in October 1957, returning in May 1960 with many adventures under my belt.
Pat and I got on like a house on fire, and by the end of the evening, we were planning the next steps for Pat’s Antarctic expedition following in the footsteps of our Antarctic hero Ernest Shackleton. The following morning, on the way back on the train, I rang Pat and said, ‘I have the ideal name for the expedition—“Beyond Endurance’’.’ Pat’s response was, ‘Jesus, boy, that’s just right’. And so it became. It took us a bit longer to get organised and get a ship full of like-minded adventurers together. The objective was to follow in the footsteps of Shackleton, Crean and Worsley and to cross South Georgia. We would then head for Elephant Island where the remaining 22-man crew of the Endurance had wintered before being rescued.
That was my third trip to Antarctica this century and I have been three times since, most recently in 2015. In 2014, I went for the first time to the other side of the Antarctic continent, travelling from New Zealand to McMurdo Sound, the main US base. It houses more than 600 people and is a higgledy-piggledy jumble of buildings—not a pretty sight in such a pristine environment.
In 2015, I joined the British Antarctic memorial journey to the Falklands and the Antarctic Peninsula to visit and commemorate the 28 members of the British Antarctic Survey who died in the Antarctic between 1948 and 2003. I knew several of them quite well and had shared a tent on Livingston Island in the South Shetlands for over two months with one member, Alan Sharman, just before he died in a crevasse accident. We tried—successfully mostly—to visit the places where these men had lost their lives in the pursuit of science to benefit us all.
As you can imagine, it was a very nostalgic and emotional trip for me. It also fulfilled my long-term plan of tying the knot with my partner Denise in Antarctica, as far south as we could get. I had failed in 2014 to get her to come to New Zealand and join me in McMurdo South. ‘Antarctica is too bloody cold and miserable a place to holiday,’ was her response. She knew nothing of my plans or the ring in my pocket! However, in 2015, I alerted her sister Paula that it was important that we went together on an Antarctic journey, and that approach worked. We went via Rio, my second favourite city in the world after Rome.
We also visited Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Ushuaia where we joined the MV Ushuaia whose captain was Jorge Aldegheri. I had sailed with him twice before and he was a gentleman. I let him—and only him—into my secret. He promised to keep it and to get us ashore at our most southerly point, south of the Antarctic Circle at 68 degrees 11 minutes south on Horseshoe Island, which we did on Monday, March 9th.
Denise didn’t know about her fate until I popped the question the previous night and the answer I got was, ‘You must be joking!’. It was only when we broke out the champagne that she realised it was for real. As we were going ashore in a zodiac, Captain Jorge told me that once he stepped ashore all his legal powers were null and void. ‘Perfect!’ was my response. We had a ceremony of commitment on the beach with all the penguins and fur seals in attendance. It was captured live on camera and the full-length film of the expedition will be launched at the Royal Geographical Society HQ in London in June.
What of the future? Isn’t it about time that I hung up my climbing boots? But why? I’m still hale and hearty, more or less. For how much longer? Who knows? So I’d better make the most of whatever active time I’ve left. Every day I can stand up, I’m ahead of the posse! So the question is, where to next? Everest Base Camp is high on my bucket list, but is it beyond me? Maybe. What else is left? Crossing the Greenland Icecap? The Galapagos? Sorry, been there, done that. And even met David Attenborough there on his 80th birthday! What about Machu Picchu or trekking the Amazon Rainforest? They’ve been knocked off too. As a long-time consultant to UNESCO, I set up the first master’s programme in World Heritage Management in UCD. All the students had to do a project at a World Heritage Site. Needless to say, I had to visit them. My total so far is 78. Can I make that 100 before I collect the President’s cheque? Only time will tell.