My addiction to the Arctic: the man who can't resist the magnetism of the North Pole

26-05-2005

Miroslav Jakes is most likely the most experienced Czech polar explorer. He crossed Greenland in 1984 for the first time, and then went back twelve years later, this time without any help. He climbed the highest mountain in South America - Aconcagua where he nearly died. He was the first Czech to reach the North Pole in 1993. Now in his mid fifties he says he can't stay put and can't help going back again and again - before he gets too old.

Some people think he's mad, even his own wife and family. His only passion is travelling to the Arctic. Greenland is the country he would love to call his home and if he did not have a family he would most certainly have moved there years ago.

On the day we met he had been back at home in Prague just for a few days. After two weeks in the deep north at Spitsbergen and then as a guide on a "tourist" expedition to the North Pole he returned to recover. But to me he didn't look fragile and exhausted as you might expect after such a trip. He looked like a man who takes such things in his stride, and he radiated a sense of fulfilment.

Miroslav Jakes is showing me a map from the first Czechoslovak expedition to Greenland in 1984; he shows me pictures of tundra, icebergs and books by international explorers. They meet from time to time on their journeys through ice fields. As he is looking at all the things he has collected all through the years he is smiling warmly. If only he could live there ...

"This is one of my skis I wore when I crossed Greenland. It was not so short at first, but we had to break a piece of it on the way back and use it as firewood. In comparison with equipment these days it was not of very high quality. The shoes were also bad, so my feet were constantly frostbitten."

Crossing Greenland is considered extremely dangerous. All travellers must apply for permission from the Danish authorities but few are granted a permit. Miroslav Jakes was turned down as well, but he decided to set off anyway. He went across Greenland alone without any help or communications, and in secret. No one - not even his wife - knew where to look for him in case he failed to contact her. All she knew was that he was somewhere up north!

"My life was in danger in Greenland. No one knew I was there and I didn't have a walkie-talkie. I had no money to buy it. I could not tell anyone that I was going there because it was forbidden. When I got back to the only airport in Greenland it was hard to believe that I'd crossed the whole country. One of the people asked me where I had been and he did not believe me because I didn't look exhausted enough, I hadn't lost 20 kilos, I wasn't frostbitten. I felt great."

Miroslav Jakes is now a professional guide. He takes tourists to Spitsbergen, Greenland, Aconcagua or the North Pole. The last can be reached by helicopter in just 40 minutes. After tourists step on the Pole and celebrate they fly back to a warm hotel and caviar.

The more challenging route is on skies. The journey can be very dangerous. Icebergs can crack and leave you standing on the edge of ice-cold water. Very often it piles into ice drifts which it takes a long time to get round. The elements are unpredictable and Miroslav Jakes is responsible for every move taken by the people in his trust.

"It is a big responsibility. You have to go in front of the tourists to show them how and where to cross the ice. It is not ice like on a pond. The ice is moving, drifting because of currents beneath the surface and the strong wind. One day you are floating to the south then to the north. There is no point planning anything. The ice can break and make some kind of a canal which is impossible to cross. You have to follow it and find a place you can cross. I am scared in those situations. Just because I get across, it doesn't mean that the tourists with me will manage it too. You can drown there. "

Luckily no one has died yet although a few tourists have already fallen into the water through cracked ice. Compared with the air, which is somewhere around -20 Celsius, the water is relatively warm.

"This is a souvenir, a twisted nail which is given to everyone who reaches the North Pole on skis. The base is from Italian marble and it symbolizes an ice floe. The circle around symbolizes the meridian and the nail is the North Pole itself. The Inuit say that the North Pole is a nail that everything rotates around.

As I sat on an animal skin, in a room crammed with flags, books, and a sledge hanging on the wall, I felt that I was looking at some kind of human wolf. A man with bright blue eyes and a shy smile who knows how to get across an iceberg but is helpless face to face with tax officers and their forms. He gives an impression of calm and equilibrium.

"You realize what is important, what are the priorities in life. The priorities there are completely different. You appreciate every crumb of food. I am used to eating up everything so I do it at home as well. I eat up food after my children. Money has no value at the Pole."

The worst moments during an expedition come with dawn. To get out of your sleeping bag is a battle Miroslav Jakes admits, but there is no other option. He could stay put for a day or two but supplies of food and fuel are too precious. He has to move on and pull his sledge even in a blizzard. A usual load is about 120 to 150 kilograms. The main part is highly concentrated dried food. Miroslav prepares his own bars - a mixture of nuts, oil and a little bit of flavouring to make them edible. Each has about 700 calories.

Travelling to Arctic areas is very expensive. It takes long a time to save up for it or persuade sponsors. Every penny counts, even from a funeral parlour, which once kindly spared some money. Miroslav is currently saving for the trip of his life.

"I have a personal dream - 'Seven peaks and three poles'. It means to climb the highest mountains of all continents. I have so far climbed the ones of America and Africa. That means I've got four to go - including Antarctica. I would not be the first person to achieve that in the world, but I would be the first person to do it at over 50. Just to give it a special edge."

The tiny hall of my polar host's flat is decorated with photographs from all continents. The scenery was the same on every single picture - blue sky, freezing sunshine and the smiling, happy man who puts his life at risk just to give it an "edge". I have to admit that I might even have envied him a bit.

"What is beautiful about Greenland, in comparison with the normal world, is that you can't spend your time talking nonsense. You just go and it is up to you whether you do it or not. Nature is fair to everyone. You can be the president, a Member of Parliament or a homeless person, but nature will treat you in the same way."

26-05-2005