The ultimate race against time: an interview with explorer Mark Wood

Mark Wood, polar explorer, educator, and adventurer has covered thousands of miles of frozen ice, and visited both the North and South Geographic poles. Starting tomorrow, along with two other explorers, he’ll be taking part in the Race Against Time Expedition across the Arctic, aiming to complete the 470 miles across ice completely unsupported in under 40 days. This may be the last time this expedition is possible due to the melting ice.

Mark is no stranger to Skype having conducted video calls with thousands of students across the globe during previous expeditions. Once again, he has partnered with the Microsoft Educator Community to share his journey with students around the world via audio updates and images.

Teachers and classrooms can enter a competition to win a Skype call with him to learn about climate change from those who have seen it first hand in the Arctic. All competition entries will have access to their next expedition to summit Mount Everest in 2017.

We managed to catch up with him to ask a few questions before he starts the expedition.

Explorer Mark Wood

How have you been preparing for this expedition?

We’ve been preparing for two and a half years—it’s been a mixture of training, business, logistics, and a total rollercoaster of emotions.

The only way to cross the Arctic now is to make it a reverse North Pole Expedition, so we will start from the North Pole, which has made it a lot more dangerous. As we are setting off later in the year, the temperature will be warmer and the ice will be melting faster—it’s a huge concern. But the purpose of the expedition from the outset is to record what we see and do on ice as modern day explorers. Climate change is a reality, it’s an environmental cancer, and one of the problems we face is how to communicate the issues of climate change. By showing that we are ordinary people, we hope to show an honest account of our journey and reach a global audience.

Mark Wood and colleagues among expedition equipment

The Arctic has had the warmest winter on record. What will you do if you find the ice has melted? Can you cross open water?

Through experience and team work. We have all the necessary equipment, and we have trained to cope with all conditions. If there is a large area of water we need to cross, we’d have to put on a dry suit, and our sledges float, so we’d swim across on our backs, or find a narrower crossing. We could also put the sledges in the water and walk across on them, depending on the area of water we need to cross (known as “open leads”).

What do you think will be the hardest thing about this expedition?

The unpredictability of it. Changing scenery every day. It really goes back to the definition of exploration which is heading into the unknown, mapping out new areas. We don’t know what is there anymore as it’s changing—that is what is happening right now.

Mark Wood on a skiing expedition

How long have you known the other team members, Paul Vicary and Mark Langridge?

Funnily enough, I actually met them at the south pole in 2012. I was doing a solo trek and they were doing a trek to retrace the steps of Scott Shackleton.

What is a typical day on expedition like?

Every day we try to keep it simple: when you get polar bears, storms, ice, you need to be able to react quickly. The worst part of the day is waking up in a freezer and quickly getting dressed. Then we have breakfast (freeze-dried) that we hydrate with boiled snow water—we have to collect the right snow and ensure it’s salt-free. On expedition, you have to ensure you’re hydrated and drink plenty. After that, we’ll pack our kits and sledges. You always take down your tent last in case you suddenly need shelter. Once that’s packed up, we set our navigation and start to ski.

We’ll walk for an hour, then have a 5-minute rest, and continue this pattern for 8-10 hours. Then we’ll set our tents up for the night. We need to make sure we set up tents in a safe area and not on ice that is too thin, otherwise you could fall through overnight as the ice is melted further from body heat and cooking. At night time we have some hot chocolate and warm up, maybe have a bit of a chat, write our diaries and go to sleep. It won’t be dark though as we’ll have 24 hours of daylight whilst we are there.

Camp on the ice

How do you scare a polar bear?

We try to keep aware of where the polar bears are: watching for footprints and any signs of them. If we see a bear, it’s usually from a distance and they are just inquisitive. We have time to scare them away by making a noise or firing a flare. We don’t let them get familiar because they will eat your food, trash your equipment and then start to think of you as a food source which is dangerous for both them and us.

A polar bear in the distance

Why do you explore?

It’s my passion. I use exploration to communicate to schools around the world from the extremes of the planet.

What’s your most memorable Skype in the Classroom experience?

In 2010, I had a Skype call with a school in Japan who had been hit by the Tsunami, and had seen extreme devastation. I called them from a small school 3,500 metres up in the Himalayas. The Skype call wasn’t about me, it was about linking children in Nepal with the children in Japan to understand cultural differences and to see how similar they actually were.

On Skype with Nepalese children

Find out more about the Race Against expedition and follow updates here.

Expedition Website:

Mark will announce the 10 teachers and their students who win a call with him and the team in early May once they have completed the journey.