When it comes to planning trips, Martyn Williams has more than the usual items on his checklist. Not only does he have to worry about routine travel arrangements, but he also has to be prepared for problems such as diffusing sexual tensions, preventing kidnappings, skirting civil wars and falling into a glacial crevasse.
"The logistics aren't easy," says Mr. Williams, a North Vancouver mountain climber and wilderness guide who is organizing a 35,000-kilometre trip from the South Pole to the North Pole that starts in November, with two international teams of 12 young people, aged 18 to 28. They will ski across Antarctica, sail to Africa and ride bikes through Europe before going on to the North Pole through Russia. The journey will take 18 months, and it will change the participants' lives, while no doubt adding a few more wrinkles to Mr. Williams's weathered brow.
"Nobody ever comes back the same from something like this," says Mr. Williams, whose selection process (he's currently looking at 800 applicants from 50 countries) involves an attempt to strip away the layers to reveal an individual's true emotional core.
"You go through the layers until you get to the gold," he says. "You have to know who you are truly dealing with."
On the epic journey, the expedition members -- who will be chosen later this summer during wilderness outings in British Columbia -- will uplink via satellite phone to post daily Internet bulletins, and will work at environmental and humanitarian programs along the way to raise interest in global issues.
Pole to Pole Journey 2 is the second such expedition for Mr. Williams, who organized the first Pole to Pole in 2000. While not heavily publicized in North America, that journey was a big story in Asia, where it became the focus of a documentary project and a bestselling book, and in South America, where crowds sometimes lined the streets to welcome the team.
Mr. Williams said Pole to Pole 2 will aim to have a higher media profile in North America and Europe, and it will be better organized, with advance teams and a larger support staff. But he expects the $6-million journey will be just as daunting in terms of the physical and emotional challenges facing expedition members.
They will have to learn not only how to survive in the frozen wilderness, by parasailing across Antarctica while pulling heavy sledges, but also how to deal with group dynamics. The simple challenge of living with a small group, often in extreme conditions, may well be the most difficult part of the journey.
With about 20 trips to the South Pole and countless wilderness journeys behind him, including guiding a team up Mt. Everest, Mr. Williams knows that the greatest threat to any expedition is not the external dangers posed by bad weather and rugged terrain, but the internal pressures that can leave people emotionally shattered.
"But we have developed a technique for dealing with that," says Mr. Williams, who at 59 is one of Canada's most experienced wilderness guides. "It's called brutal honesty."
Under the process, the group regularly holds sessions in which they express their feelings about the journey and about each other.
"You hear the good stuff about how people admire certain things about you, but you also get them levelling with you about the things that bug them. That can range from someone objecting to someone's habit of leaving stinky socks by the tent door, to real relationship issues."
With the first Pole to Pole trek, Mr. Williams tried to head off one problem in advance.
"Basically I told them that sex can destroy an expedition," he says. "It's not so much the pairing up, as what happens when couples break up and one of them goes on to a new partner. That can be explosive. So what I did was suggest [to the expedition members]that basically they should be celibate."
Pole to Pole 2 is in two legs: the first goes from the South Pole to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, then a second group takes over and goes from there to the North Pole. Two members will make the entire journey, going from one end of the Earth to the other.
The Pole to Pole concept came to Mr. Williams in a dream in 1997 when he was looking for a new direction in his life. He sold his wilderness expedition company, Adventure Network, and began to focus on motivational speaking and leadership training, which he does for corporations.
"In my travels I saw so much of the planet, and I saw the vast human potential that was out there and I thought, 'How can we tap into that?' The dream was very idealistic, about somehow motivating young people to change the world. The idea came to me about a pole-to-pole expedition. I thought young people could do it as long as we taught them the raw skills."
Mr. Williams says the qualities he's looking for in candidates are a willingness to learn, a passion for adventure and a burning desire to succeed. If they've got that, he can teach them public speaking, how to survive at 40 below, and how to deal with tent mates who leave stinky socks at the door.
Then, he says, they can go out and change the world, from one pole to the other.
More information can be found on-line at: www.poletopole