The once-in-a-lifetime journey sparked an ambition to reach the South Pole too. Now, with both feet firmly back on North East territory, after what turned out to be a trecherous and life-threatening struggle to the South Pole in December 2019, we catch up with Michael, who is now one of less than 250 individuals to reach both poles
While Michael Mitten describes himself as a keen skier and a lover of the outdoors (a love which, he tells me, stemmed from a trip to The Lakes at the age of 10), before 2009, his experience in polar environments was non-existent. ‘I’d never camped in a tent during winter in the UK, let alone anywhere else. It was completely and utterly alien to me at the time,’ he says.
The True North challenge in 2009 raised over £50,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support. It’s the charity which, Michael explains, allowed his father to live comfortably for four months at home, despite being told he was in his final hours. The challenge saw Michael journey for eight days from a floating ice station in the Arctic Circle to the Geographic North Pole, in temperatures that, at times, dropped below -47 degrees celsius.
The challenge came from Michael’s desire to do something good, and his determination to raise as much money as possible to help those battling cancer, and their families too. ‘When you’re going through grief and loss, especially of a parent, it’s horrific. Anything you can do to put yourself on a more positive path is a good thing,’ he explains.
A friend put Michael in contact with Doug Stoup, one of the UK’s most experienced polar explorers. He knew immediately that Doug’s suggested trek to reach the North Pole was exactly the kind of challenge he was looking for.
‘It was the end of October 2008. I called Doug and he said, “we’ll leave at the end of March, but as I’m going to the South Pole and will be out of contact for a few months, you need to tell me tomorrow whether you want to do it.” I took a deep breath and said, “I’ll tell you now, I’m doing it, just tell me what I need to do.” He said, “get fitter than you’ve ever been in your life and I’ll talk to you when I get back.” And that was it.’
Michael put his life in Doug’s hands, who had already trekked the same route to the North Pole four or five times. The pair reached the pole safely, although the trip was not without its challenges. Almost succumbing to hypothermia, falling through ice into the Arctic Ocean, minor frostbite and temperatures dropping to a dangerously-low -47.7 degrees celsius all presented a unique challenge to the duo, who travelled by themselves.
True North sparked something in Michael: a determination to push himself to the absolute limit. ‘The moment I reached the North Pole, I absolutely knew that I’d be going to the South,’ he admits.
Ten years later, in December 2019, Michael found the right moment (and a worthy cause), to embark on a trip that would push him to extremes once again. Although not in the way he might have hoped.
This time Michael’s goal was to raise as much money as possible for the MS Society, after witnessing his mother Christine’s suffering. She sadly passed away after falling as a result of the illness in 2016. In her memory, he wanted to raise awareness of MS, which affects over 100,000 individuals in the UK.
Despite battling with MS, Christine remained a fighter – something Michael believes enabled her to survive with the illness for so long. ‘I’ve met a lot of people who weren’t so lucky as my mum, either they weren’t born with a determination to fight, or they had a different type of MS which there is no way back from,’ he explains.
Christine suffered from relaxing and remitting MS, which goes through cycles of good and bad periods, rather than progressive MS which simply means you steadily deteriorate. It would be fair to assume that Michael inherited some of his mother’s determination to face challenges head on – despite being previously wheelchair-bound, Christine climbed Machu Picchu just two weeks before passing away.
Although Michael’s desire to reach the South Pole had been there since 2009, he admitted his mother’s passing made him realise how short life can be. And after recovering from surgery for a knee injury, he began training again in early 2019.
Planning his trek again with Doug, who Michael says has now become one of his great friends, he embarked on a training expedition to Svalbard in April 2019 , the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Circle, to reacquaint himself with the necessary skills for polar exploring. He then resumed a physical training programme to build the strength that would allow him to trek 111 kilometres across the highest, driest, windiest, and coldest continent to the South Pole, all while pulling an 80kg sled containing the equipment vital for his survival.
‘I went walking up and down the fells in the middle of winter,’ Michael says. ‘I spent near enough every weekend in The Cheviots, and pulled tyres up and down the beach or the town moor – that was the nearest thing to replicate dragging a heavy sled over the ice.’
While his regime was a strict one, there was limited preparation Michael could do to replicate the altitude at the South Pole itself, which stands at around 9,534ft high. ‘What I hadn’t realised or appreciated was that the physiological altitude there feels more like 12,000ft on the body,’ he explains. In the Antarctic’s high altitudes and extreme climate, the air pressure is lower, resulting in oxygen deprivation. This makes any form of physical activity more challenging, as the body has to work harder to make use of the limited oxygen available.
Another thing Michael hadn’t realised was that he was carrying a chest infection which, when combined with the altitude, would result in cardiogenic pulmonary edema – a condition which causes your lungs to fill with liquid. If not treated, it can result in drowning.
Part way through his trek, Michael suffered from a hypothermic event, as a result of a high fever. The following day, Michael and Doug continued on their route to the South Pole – Michael never strayed more than two ski lengths behind Doug, but the gruelling trek took its toll and, at the end of the day, Michael collapsed due to lack of oxygen.
‘It was pretty scary,’ he says, ‘but I knew I didn’t want to give up.’ After spending 10 years waiting for the right moment, and countless months training, Michael was forced to decide whether to call for evacuation. They decided on calling a medical team who, despite being over 1,000 miles away, came to the conclusion that Michael was suffering from a chest infection. ‘I had to spend the night sitting upright. If you have cardiogenic pulmonary edema you can drown, so I wasn’t allowed to fall asleep or lie down,’ he explains.
Once given the go ahead to continue by the medical team the following morning, Michael made less than half a nautical mile before breaking down in tears at the realisation that he wouldn’t be able to continue without putting himself in life-threatening danger.
‘You think about all of the people who have sponsored you,’ he says. ‘And think: am I letting all of those people down?’
At that point help arrived on skidoos, and Michael was transported to the camp at the South Pole. ‘I did get there, but not under my own steam,’ he says, sounding deflated.
‘It’s incredibly disappointing for me. When I went to the North Pole I had a euphoric, overwhelming sense of satisfaction, I’d pushed myself harder than ever before, and I triumphed. I don’t feel that sense of satisfaction now, and I don’t think I ever will, unless I make it to the South Pole in the way I intended,’ he admits.
Despite not feeling the same sense of satisfaction, Michael reminds me just why he took on the challenge in the first place. ‘Yes I was there for myself, but I went there for MS,’ he says. He explains that if promoting his mother’s story, and raising money to support the MS Society, gives just one MS sufferer the hope and reason to keep fighting, then it will all be worth it.
Although it’s evident Michael is still recovering when we speak, just two weeks after his return from the South Pole, I question him on whether his dissatisfaction means he has plans to return to the South Pole. ‘There are no plans yet,’ he admits.
‘I said to myself when I was stuck in Antartica, close to missing Christmas because of cancelled flights, that I’m not coming back. I even took a video of myself saying how privileged I was to be there, but I’m not coming back. But as soon as I got back, I thought, yeah, I’m going to have to go back.’