24 August 2018 by Misba Khan
From weekend walker to North Pole adventurer
For Misba Khan from Manchester, joining a Ramblers group was the start of an incredible journey that led her all the way to the Arctic.
I was inspired to start walking by my children, who were involved in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and Queen’s Scout Award. I loved seeing how confident they were becoming with different life skills. l started learning to read a map and compass from them and was always interested to hear about their trips. Sometimes they’d moan about having to do a hike, and I’d remind them how lucky they were. I didn’t have the privilege of experiences like that growing up.
I joined a Nordic walking group and fell in love with the outdoors. I mentioned to a fellow Nordic walker that I wanted to see more of Britain. She took my address and said I’d get some information in the post – it was all about the Ramblers! My first walk, to Skipton, was 10 years ago now. At first, I didn’t know about the countryside at all, but gradually I built my understanding. I felt inspired by the Ramblers’ guides and their knowledge of nature and landscapes.
The first mountain I climbed was Helvellyn in the Lake District. I fell in love with the rugged landscape and the challenge. So I decided to tackle a mountain abroad – Mount Toubkal in Morocco, and in 2015 I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. It was a friend from that trip who told me about the Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition. I encouraged my daughter to apply, but she suggested I enter instead.
When I looked at the entry criteria, I fitted every one. The expedition leader, explorer Felicity Aston, was particularly interested in recruiting women in their forties and fifties (I was 47) who spoke English, had internet access, and could commit to training and fundraising. So I applied... but I never thought I’d get through! The purpose of the expedition was to foster understanding between Western and Arabian cultures. Nearly 1,000 women applied and I was selected to represent the UK. Others came from Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Cyprus, Russia, France, Sweden and Slovenia.
We first met on a two-week trip to Iceland in 2016, learning skills like GPS navigation and cooking on a camping stove, as well as about injuries and surviving in cold weather. Then we put everything into practice, camping on a glacier at -18°C. We were taught how to pitch a tent on the ice, survive on rations and ski. Next, we trained in Oman, pulling our equipment across the desert in sledges for 10 days in 35°C heat. Then we returned to Iceland for our final briefing and training, including cold-water training in an icy lake.
We set off for the North Pole in April this year. On the first day, one team-mate got frostbite and had to be airlifted to safety. It was the saddest time, and a reminder of the risks we were taking. Our aim was to cover 15km a day, but sometimes we could only manage 5km. The ice was moving as we skied across it. We couldn’t feel it, but we could see it on our GPS. On thin ice, we crossed two at a time. It was -38°C, so while waiting we moved our fingers and toes constantly to avoid frostbite.
The scariest thing was the terrain. Crossing pressure ridges was like an obstacle course – hard and physically draining. The sledges got stuck, so we had to form a human chain and pass everything along.
Despite the difficulties, it was a hugely positive experience. We all helped each other, learned from each other and gave each other strength. As I spent more time outdoors, I felt my faith getting stronger, too. I felt spiritually energised and connected to nature. The highlight was reaching the North Pole with such a diverse team of ordinary but extraordinary women.
I hope my achievement will inspire other women to reach beyond their expectations, as well as breaking down stereotypes. There’s a perception in some ethnic communities that women, especially older women, stay at home with their family. But I’m seeing more women swimming, cycling and trail walking. It can be hard initially, but when you find a passion for something, there’s no limit to what you can achieve. I’m just an ordinary mum. l never knew my full potential until l challenged myself. If I can do it, you can, too!
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