Yukoner guides first Middle East expedition to South Pole

OXFORD, UK Like many Yukoners, Whitehorse resident and Icycle Sport manager Devon McDiarmid likes to travel ‘south’ in winter.


Like many Yukoners, Whitehorse resident and Icycle Sport manager Devon McDiarmid likes to travel ‘south’ in winter.

However, McDiarmid’s version is a little different than most.

This year he was in Antarctica leading an international team skiing to the South Pole.

An Adventure Network International guide for the past seven years, McDiarmid was the company’s man for the job when Maxime Chaya and three teammates hired the adventure network to help them get to the Pole.

Chaya, a Lebanese-Canadian who attended school in Ottawa and Sherbrooke, hopes to be the first person from the Middle East to reach Earth’s three harshest environments: both Poles and the summit of Everest.

This is sometimes called the “three poles” challenge by explorers.

Chaya summitted Everest in 2006.

On December 28, he and the team led by McDiarmid successfully completed the second leg of the journey by arriving on skis to the South Pole.

Their chosen ‘all-the-way route’ — so called because it begins on the coast at Hercules Inlet — was approximately 1,100 kilometres long.

The team took 47 days, although up to 60 days is sometimes necessary, depending on weather and terrain.

What made this expedition different from previous trips he guided is its length and that it is ‘unassisted’ and ‘unsupported,’ McDiarmid said during a recent interview with the Yukon News from Antarctica via satellite phone (he has since returned to North America).

‘Unassisted’ because the team of five are travelling without kites, dogs, snowmachines or anything other than shank’s pony.

‘Unsupported’ means without re-supply of food or equipment, so that each member must tow a sled weighing about 115 kilograms.

‘Don’t ever lose hope’

The team’s daily struggle against nature and the elements was not merely a chance to push physical limits. It was also politics by other means.

Chaya was drawn to extreme sports later in life in an effort to recapture a boyhood dream — becoming a professional athlete — stolen by war in Lebanon.

Now he hopes to set an example for the youth of his troubled region, to encourage them to strive against odds and ‘grow beyond their potential’ — the motto of Bank Audi, his corporate sponsor.

“I would like to tell the youths of our Country, the future of our country, that anything is possible with hard work and perseverance … there’s a hero in every one of us; don’t ever lose hope,” Chaya said to the Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora by satellite phone from Antarctica just hours before reaching the Pole.

The goal of inspiring youth was aided by an innovative photo-blog (www.the3poles.com), updated via satellite from Antarctica.

The website allowed admirers of all ages to ‘experience’ the expedition visually on a daily basis, in effect travelling along with the team.

‘Vast openness’

As the expedition’s objective shows, politics are inescapable even in Antarctica.

Nearly 50 days in intense proximity gave McDiarmid ample opportunity for discussions with Chaya about the Middle East’s troubles.

“I’m pretty happy and feel pretty lucky living in the North,” said McDiarmid.

But although he agrees the Yukon and the Middle East are “worlds apart,” the differences are not in personality, McDiarmid hastened to add.

The team members functioned well together, despite their differing national backgrounds.

Oddly, geography may actually be a common point.

“Being that I’m used to spending a lot of time in great open spaces in the Yukon, I feel very comfortable here,” said McDiarmid, a remark that could as easily have referred to Arabia as Antarctica.

The Antarctic’s vast openness burdens the mind of many first-timers as they descend into the foreboding landscape, said McDiarmid, which recalls Shelley’s line: “boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

It may not be a coincidence, then, that another Yukon guide — Bruce Kirkby, of Nahanni River Adventures — was among a team that recently re-created Wilfred Thesiger’s famous journey across the Empty Quarter of Arabia.

‘Worked his way up’

So how does one get a job like McDiarmid’s?

“Everyone’s got their own story. I started with the company at the bottom level, in the base camp as the gopher,” McDiarmid explained, matter-of-factly.

“I was the run-around guy, just doing dishes, cleaning (a word for toilet that rhymes with ‘hitters’), helping everyone do their job — whatever they didn’t want to do, I would do it.’

So it goes also for getting paid to ski to the South Pole: Somebody’s got to do it.

Find out more about the expedition by visiting http://icyclesport.com/, Maxime Chaya’s photoblog www.the3poles.com, or by dropping by Icycle Sport where McDiarmid will be back at work in February.