Tales from China’s bravest traveler
Shanghai-born and -bred Xiao Yuan (肖远) didn’t always fit the profile of plucky, arctic adventurer -- though the irony of his given name “Yuan” (远), a character representing “distant” or “faraway,” really can't be denied.
It’s believed by many in China that one’s name determines destiny; in this case, his name has served him well.
Following a typical childhood and study at Shanghai’s East China Normal University, Xiao embarked on his first post-graduate adventure taking his masters degree in the United States, which was followed by a successful career in banking and investment abroad.
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After 10 years in business, Xiao hit a fork in the road.
Temporarily retiring from his banking career, Xiao was one of the first Chinese to have navigated both North and South Pole and braved their icy waters.
A change of pace … an icy path
Xiao decided to pursue his boyhood dream of exploring the South Pole, sending him in a new direction and on the adventure of a lifetime.
Soon after, his plans and destinations became more ambitious by the day.
“I decided to travel to both the bottom and the top of this globe with seven billion inhabitants -- to climb, to ski and to scuba dive,” says Xiao.
The initial plan was followed by several months of meticulous preparation and more than a year of hard training for his maiden South Pole adventure.
His warm-up exercises ranged from cross-country skiing in New Zealand, to backpacking 10 bottles of water plus three dictionaries up 33 flights of stairs in his apartment building in double-layered mountaineering boots after midnight.
The North Pole scuba diving was without a doubt the most intense mind-blowing experience and most dangerous.— Xiao Yuan (肖远), Shanghai adventurer
Only after an ice-diving training and preparation program in Russia at the Arctic Circle Dive Centre with renowned North Pole dive master, Dr. Mikhail Safono, did Xiao feel ready.
Xiao’s “Pole to Pole, Sea to Summit” program officially began in December 2010, creating a new page in Chinese history.
Not only was his journey an incredible story, but -- according to Xiao -- it made him the first Chinese citizen to have trekked to both the North and South Poles and navigated the icy waters below.
“In the end, my itinerary included climbing the highest point in Antarctica -- 4,897-meter Mount Vinson -- a trek to the South Pole, scuba diving in the Antarctic Ocean, ice diving training in the White Sea in Russia and a trek to and scuba diving at the geographical North Pole,” says Xiao.
December 2010-January 2011: Mount Vinson and Antarctica.
January-February 2011: Ice dive in Antarctica and sailing on the Southern Ocean.
April 2011: The Arctic and ice dive under the North Pole.
The Price of Adventure
Polar explorations are tough on the wallet, with South Pole expeditions costing at least US$70,000.
For those who can stomach the cost, top physical fitness is absolutely vital.
“We [Xiao and his diving team] reached the North Pole at 3 p.m., and unloading 750 kilos of scuba diving and camping equipment from the helicopter and hauling it piece by piece across pressure ridges to our dive site was the first physical challenge,” says Xiao.
“By the time we finished setting up an equipment tent, two sleeping tents, warming up a compressor to fill up four scuba tanks, cutting two maina (the triangular- or rectangular-shaped holes cut through the ice used as entry/exit points) in the thin ice, and gulping down our warmed-up dehydrated beef stroganoff with some vodka, it was already 3 a.m., 12 hours after our landing at the North Pole.”
Respecting the elements
At the North Pole, ice diving is deemed the most physically challenging and dangerous. Risks appear from the very start. Unpredictable landings sometimes can result in weeklong delays to training, which can turn deadly at a moment’s notice.
“Frozen-up dive equipment leads to fatal accidents very easily -- keeping the scuba diving equipment warm and unfrozen is a critical task for scuba divers to come back alive at the North Pole,” explains Xiao.
More icy paths ahead
I feel proud as I may be the first person in the world, not just the first Chinese, to have done this. Otherwise, I feel it was just adventures as usual.— Xiao Yuan, Shanghai adventurer
Xiao returned to Shanghai in April.
“I wouldn't take it back for one moment, these beautiful experiences in the South,” Xiao says. “The North Pole scuba diving was without a doubt the most intense mind-blowing experience and most dangerous.”
His next destination: Mount Everest (珠穆朗玛峰).
Everest is pegged as the final leg of Xiao’s “3+2 expeditions” -- that is reaching both poles and the top of Everest, and diving the depths at the North Pole and Antarctica.
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“Mount Everest may not happen in the near future, but it remains my goal and I'd like to wrap up my expedition series at some point," he says. “I feel proud, as I may be the first person in the world, not just the first Chinese, to have done this. Otherwise, I feel it was just adventures as usual.”
Four things to consider when planning an Arctic adventure:
Tips from Xiao Yuan
- Interest: You really gotta want it. This is no destination for the blasé.
- Physical stamina: Are you up for the physical challenge? The importance of fitness is no joke.
- Money: Sponsorships are always a good option.
- Time: You'll need lots of it.