James May

James May

Cold comfort

The fundamental problem with any journey to the North Pole is that there are, in fact, two: the Magnetic North Pole, which is a physical phenomenon, and the True North Pole, which is a cartographical convention established from the shape of the Earth and the axis of its rotation. Bored yet? This is only the beginning.

You might wonder why this is. Well, the Magnetic North Pole is useful for most basic navigation as it determines the direction of a compass needle. Unfortunately, it moves around a bit over the years, and severely buggers up map-making. Also, for the purposes of dividing the globe into lines of longitude, which relate to time as well as position, the True North Pole is better because it's right at what we think of as the ‘top' of the planet. Serious maps are oriented towards True North, and if navigating with a magnetic compass, as most amateur sailors and airmen do, it is important to allow for something called ‘magnetic variation'; that is, how many degrees away from True North your Magnetic North is. This changes around the planet and is indicated on maps using something called ‘isogonal lines'. In London, for example, magnetic variation is currently about 3 degrees west. Bloody hell.

It's important to establish which North Pole you are talking about when using an expression such as ‘let's go to the North Pole'. Technically, if you are at the North Pole, everything is to the south, no matter which way you turn. If you are at the Magnetic North Pole, then the True North Pole is to the south, and if you are heading to the Magnetic North Pole and find yourself at the True North Pole, the North Pole is still to the North. Unless, that is, you are working to true bearings, in which case you will stand at the True North Pole with your Magnetic compass still pointing north, but actually that's south.

Anyway ­ we decided to head for the Magnetic North Pole; or rather, Clarkson and Hammond did. Clarkson, the best off-road driver in the world, would go in a Toyota pick-up truck, and Hammond would eschew at least a century of progress and be towed there by some dogs. I didn't actually want to go atall. I hate snow, I hate extreme cold, I hate dressing up and I knew it would involve quite a lot of camping, since there are no hotels around there.

But Jeremy insisted, saying I should come along as his navigator. This was pretty insulting really, because navigating to the Magnetic North Pole is a simple matter of heading north with a compass, obviously. Even if, starting from Canada, I followed the wrong end of the needle I'd know about it once we got to Mexico.

Now we have completed this great odyssey, I can categorically confirm that going to the North Pole, by whatever means, is a completely futile and miserable exercise. It starts with the special Arctic clothing, all of which is covered in stupid zips that catch in everything and makes a really irritating and deafening rustling noise if you so much as scratch your head. Doing a poo in the Arctic involves removing 10 layers of this stuff and then quite literally freezing your nuts off. And that's if you don't get eaten by a bear while your trolleys are down.

You might imagine that endless vistas of snow, interrupted only by theoccasional abstract ice sculpture, is something quite beautiful to behold,and it is. For an hour or so. But after a few days it's a bit like looking at a screwed-up sheet of plain A4 paper. Open the freezer compartment of your fridge and look at that for two weeks to get an idea of what it's like. The extreme cold ­ minus 30 at times ­ is a nuisance. Because the atmosphere is extremely dry up there, none of your personal effects ever freezes solid; they just become very cold. My favourite line from Jeremy: "Ooh, this pillow's nice and toasty warm. No, hang on, what I meant was it's f***ing freezing."

However, the instant you spill anything ­ your gin and tonic, say ­ then your trousers become part of the landscape. I took a packet of Johnson's baby wipes with me, for the purpose of ‘washing', but within 10 minutes they'd become a scented iceberg. Only in the Arctic have I been presented with the problem of having to keep my tins of tonic warm enough to drink. And don't imagine that we were nice and warm in the car ­ we weren't allowed to have the heating on because it would interfere with our special misery-spec Arctic on-board cameras.

I hardly dare remind myself of the camping. It's not just that the tent had to be erected and dismantled every day, or that the zips on that always stuck as well, or even that the rudimentary kerosene stove set light to my face. The real problem was having to share it with Clarkson, who was incapable of helping to put the thing up, even though the job required the use of nothing more than his favourite tool, a hammer.

"Doing a poo in the Arctic involves removing 10 layers of this stuff and then quite literally freezing your nuts off"

I'm not a great camper but Clarkson is a worse one. Every night he would zip himself up completely in his cocoon-style sleeping bag, even his head, and then blaspheme into the thick down all night long. It was like sharing a tent with a big sweary maggot.

There was little respite during the day, whatever the day was. Because it was the summer, the sun simply cavorted up and down the sky like some cosmic fairground attraction, and at one point we had a huge row over whether it was lunchtime or midnight. We honestly didn't know. Driving was a simple matter of enduring the constant crashing and rattling of the overloaded Toyota, punctuated by the occasional dull report of another exploding tin of Schweppes as we crept further north (Magnetic).

I honestly believe that it was only the drink that kept us going. Even asking Clarkson if he'd like some ice in his G&T wasn't funny after a day or so. The conversation started well enough, with intelligent debate about politics and geography, but after a few days we were arguing for hours about the significance of just-in-time manufacturing versus the importance of interchangeability of parts, and by day four we had been reduced to food fantasies involving sandwich spread and sausages. I cheered Clarkson up with the caviar and quails eggs I'd smuggled past the Arctic exploration nazis, and he rewarded me by shooting my tin of Spam, for which I wish an especially virulent pox upon him still.

And when we finally arrived at the pole, there was nothing. No monument, no visitors' centre, not even a cairn of ice cubes. It was just more snow. We intended to leave a small Top Gear flag we had made, but discovered that we'd forgotten to bring the stick for it. So, I have been to the Magnetic North Pole, or 78 degrees 35.7 north by 104 degrees 11.9 west.

With the mission accomplished, the doctor we'd taken along as part of our small support team asked me, "So, James, now you've done it, do you think your life will be better or worse for the experience?"

In the end I decided it would be worse. Because occasionally I would remember it.


James May, Column

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