The Joanna Lumley Interviews: Ice Team Leader, Brian Newham
Without a doubt it was physical education. All I wanted to do was participate and I’ve never been that interested in being a sports spectator. As a youngster I was highly competitive, but I have moved away from that and it’s now more about testing myself and enjoying whatever it is I’m doing. Besides sport, I was keen on the practical subjects like woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing, until I got more inspired in the sciences and mathematics when I realised how relevant and interesting they were.
What make was your first car?
A Triumph Herald – the sole purpose of which was to cram in lots of climbing gear and climbing friends so that we could get to the crags and mountains. It was cheap and easy to fix yourself, but it didn’t go around corners very well. Not very trendy but it didn’t matter to me at all.
When were you last afraid?
In early summer of 1998 I set off with five others in a 33ft fiberglass yacht and we sailed from Scotland to the west coast of Greenland to explore, ski and climb on some previously unvisited peaks. Crossing the North Atlantic we were battered by countless storms and when we were 120 miles off the southern trip of Greenland we were faced with 60 knot (69 mph) winds. We were running before the wind under bare poles (no sails) and towards the end of the second day of that storm we broached on the face of a wave. The boat was literally thrown off the wave and she landed on her side as the wave broke over us. Fortunately nobody was badly injured and the helmsman was still tied into the cockpit but the boat had quite a bit of damage although the mast was still intact. Amongst the damage was a split right through the hull just above the water line, seemingly caused by the entire hull flexing and an internal bulkhead punching outwards through the hull. Five days later we crept into Nuuk on the west coast of Greenland after nearly a month at sea. After make-do repairs we carried on north and had a very successful few months in the mountains. The voyage back to Scotland in the autumn inevitably saw us facing more storms and the compromised hull was a definite worry. It was a prolonged and intense experience.
Are you superstitious? Do you have a mascot or lucky charm?
I’m not superstitious but I do have a very luck charm. My father was a RAF navigator in WWII and flew heavy bombers. Somehow he survived over 90 operations and he puts that down to a very large slice of luck, but I think a considerable degree of skill also helped. When he flew he always wore his uniform with his “Observers” brevet which identified him as both a Navigator and Air Bomber. One of my roles on this journey is navigator and I have his badge discreetly sewn into the inside of one of my jackets. I wear it very proudly.
What was you earliest ambition?
I‘m not sure why but I have always loved the snow and that’s quite strange as I was brought up in the suburbs of London. At the age of about nine I decided I wanted to ski and the only way that seemed possible was to take matters into my own hands. I saved some pocket money, bought some wood and built a pair of skis. My father helped perfect the MarkII version, which was a considerable improvement, and whenever it snowed I took them on the hills of the local golf course. I still have those skis. I look back on it now and smile but I really do believe, given a certain amount of reason, that if you truly want to do something enough then you can find a way to do it.
What has been your greatest disappointment?
I’m extremely goal-orientated and I like to succeed, although I’m not keen about shouting about it afterwards. The primary goal of this journey was to cross the Antarctic in winter. As it’s turned out, and given our approach to the challenge, we have done incredibly well to get as far as we have and anyone that believes we gave up too easily is misunderstanding both our situation and unavoidable facts. Despite what I believe is an outstanding and very bold effort, the figures stand against us and we have only covered about 10% of our intended journey. When you are goal-orientated, that’s a massive disappointment and it hurts.
If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?
I‘d just start again. Material things don’t really matter to me. I get enjoyment out of the physical act of doing things, enjoying situations and reaching goals. If I lost everything it would just mean that my starting point had shifted. It would be quite liberating.
In what place are you happiest?
Standing at the top of an untouched snowfield with good friends and good skis. Cold but sunny, 300mm or more of fresh, dry, powdery snow and several thousand feet of descent to enjoy. Where else would you want to be? Yehaaa !
How do you think the expedition will be remembered?
It’s hard to say whilst we are still down here and the journey not yet over, but my view is that we have made a lot of noise but we haven’t really delivered. There are good reasons for that, but I’m not sure how well understood they are. I’d like to think that any legacy will shift to the efforts we have made towards the scientific, educational and charitable aims. It will be interesting to see how that view changes when our bubble of isolation bursts and we get a better feel for general opinion.
You have spent more than 20 seasons in Antarctica; there are very few people alive who can make that claim. What has this expedition taught you about the continent which you never knew before?
You would probably be surprised how many people there are that have done many, many seasons in Antarctica. In the UK, they will have worked for British Antarctic Survey and/or one of the several commercial companies that operate in Antarctica. They are skilled and professional people and they are drawn by the challenges they face and they are in various ways inspired by the continent. The vast majority are quietly humble, do not seek recognition for what they do, and they do it because that’s what they like to do. I respect them for that. This journey was about pushing the boundaries and trying something that hadn’t been tried before. We’ve been taught quite a few lessons and we need to go back to the drawing board if we are to solve the logistical and practical riddle of completing a winter crossing. That’s what sometimes happens when you try something new. It’s too early to start suggesting what those changes might be as the journey is far from over.
On a more immediate level I never appreciated just how persistent the winds could be on the edge of the plateau in winter.