For Barbara Smith, 89, saying “I’ve gotten to 90” means something entirely different than a lady lying about her age.
It didn’t happen in the most adventurous or strenuous of ways since she was aboard a helicopter, but this week the 89-year-and-270-day-old woman from the English village of Chrishall became the oldest person to reach the North Pole, according to the Guinness Book of Records.
And that’s only half the story – along the way she flew past (but didn’t see) her granddaughter, Mimi Edwards, 14, who’s trying to become the youngest person from the UK to ski the “Last Degree” from 89 degrees latitude north to the North Pole. For Smith, getting to walk around on two very different and difficult ice/snow surfaces within a few hundred meters of each other at the North Pole along with her daughter, Rosalind, made her fully appreciate the difficulty of her granddaughter’s expedition that’s hoping to reach the same spot this weekend.
“Ros said to me ‘imagine walking through this and pulling the sledge,’ and that’s when it came to me what Mimi was doing,” Smith said.
Guinness lists the previous oldest record holder as Dorothy Davenhill Hirsch, who reached the top of the world aboard a Russian nuclear icebreaker on Aug. 28, 2004, at an age of 89 years and 109 days (a Los Angeles newspaper reported plans by area resident Fred Fox, 92, to fly to the North Pole in April of 2007, but subsequent news reports about the notorious french horn player and educator make no mention of the trip).
Smith’s journey – and her granddaughter’s – weren’t the result of careful planning that’s typically involved in North Pole trips. Instead, Rosalind was planning to participate in the group ski expedition, but was forced to abandon her plans when the opening of the Barneo ice camp that’s the starting point for expeditions was delayed for about 10 days due to logistics problems.
At that point her youngest daughter, who a few weeks earlier had completed a six-day ski trip in Baffin, Canada, decided to attempt the “Last Degree.”
Meanwhile, Smith – who had been hoping to fly to the North Pole to greet her daughter as she arrived – remained interested in flying there with her daughter instead, even though they’d miss seeing her granddaughter there.
While it’s a far cry from what can be a week or more of exhausting days pulling a sled through some of the most extreme ice surfaces and snow on Earth, the one-day flight trip still proved an strenuous adventure.
Rising at 2 a.m. after only a few hours sleep, Smith and her daughter took off from Svalbard Airport an hour or two later with a group of fellow travelers. They made a brief stopover at the Barneo ice camp before departing in a helicopter for the North Pole,
“I had no idea what it was like to go mile after mile after mile over ice, a frozen world,” Smith said.
She was keeping an eye out for expeditions on the ground, but ended up disappointed – and not just because she didn’t spot anyone that might have been her granddaughter.
“I hoped to see a polar bear,” Smith said.
As they approached the North Pole, it looked like they might make it 99.9 percent of the way without being able to travel the rest.
“To begin with we landed 400 meters away because of poor visibility and we got out and had a celebration,” Rosalind said. “Then because my mom was on the flight and they were so into her being there after we took off they took another look to see if the visibility had improved and this time they were able to land right at the North Pole.”
While the surface at their first landing site was jagged and icy, at the North Pole itself there was deep crusty snow that was easy to sink into. But the feeling for Smith, other than slightly cold hands, was of exhilaration as her travel companion took seemingly endless photos with her.
“It’s been the experience of a lifetime,” said Smith, who’s obviously had more than a few of them. “I’ve gotten to 90 and done this.”
The group made a somewhat longer stay at Barneo on the way back, visiting the mess tent and – for Smith – one of the sleeping tents where she took a short nap. It was also when she endured possibly the most miserable part of the trip – using the infamous isolated outhouses at Barneo that are every expeditioner’s nightmare.
“Everyone knows they can’t expose flesh at those temperatures,” she said. “It’s very hard to do.”
They made the trip under the guidance of David Hempleman-Adams, a notorious British adventurer who, according to his bio, is the first person to complete the Adventurers Grand Slam, which includes reaching the Geographic and Magnetic North and South Poles, as well as climbing the highest peaks in all seven continents. But while he’s made at least 15 expedition-style trips to the North Pole since his first 20 years ago, he said Smith’s achievement is an impressive feat of its own.
“I’m in awe of Barbara going to the North Pole,” he said. “Everyone’s got their own Everest. As I get older the people who frustrate me are the people who say ‘I wish.'”
Compared to her polar-exploring family – Rosalind and another daughter, Bea Edwards, did a “Last Degree” ski trip to the South Pole two years ago, for example – Smith said she’s led a “very boring” life in comparison. Her first travel outside her homeland was to Cairo where she married her husband in the 1940s. They lived in Egypt during their first years and then she traveled a lot with husband due to his military duties when they returned to the U.K.. But it was only after he died five years ago that she began traveling with other family members to various spots aboard.
And while Rosalind is extending her post-Pole stay in Longyearbyen for a few days so she can greet her daughter after a hopefully successful trip, Smith is departing Friday because of activities she’s busy with back home such as a lenders’ library she started two years ago.
But Hempleman-Adams is already prodding Smith about making a similar trip to the South Pole and it doesn’t sound like she needs much convincing.
“It’s been put on my bucket list,” she said. “It wasn’t there before.”