Finally, a Way to Classify Polar Expeditions

Antarctic Arctic Poles
A new way to classify polar expeditions now makes vague terms like "unsupported" clear. Photo: Eric Philips/icetrek.com

When Colin O’Brady tried to claim the first unsupported and unassisted crossing of Antarctica in 2019, the polar adventure world rallied together to point out the inaccuracy of the American’s assertions. O’Brady had unwittingly unmasked a decades-old issue for the adventure community: the over-hyped, inaccurate, sometimes mistaken, and sometimes deliberately false claims of adventurers.

For years, polar travelers have been claiming ever more obscure or tenuous firsts, and by and large the public, media, and record organizations (such as Guinness World Records) played along, because there were no clear, uniform standards. Not all previous travelers set out to hoodwink knowingly, but a lack of knowledge of historical context and no standardized language or expedition comparison system led to a bit of a mess in the record books.

So in the wake of the O’Brady saga, veteran polar guide Eric Philips, along with other senior members of the polar community, decided that standardization was overdue in the polar world. Over the past two years, they developed The Polar Expeditions Classification Scheme (PECS), which was launched earlier this week.

Skiing unsupported from the Ross Ice Shelf to South Pole via the Reedy and Kansas Glaciers. Photo: Eric Philips

The aim of PECS is to harmonize the language of polar adventure. Using keywords and definitions, the classification system allows adventurers, media, and the public to accurately and equitably compare polar journeys.

Without such a unified classification system, we have seen polar adventurers squabble endlessly over details, such as what constitutes support (e.g. a food drop), assistance (e.g. kite skiing), or geographical issues, such as what defines crossing a frozen landmass like Antarctica. These details might not matter if your expedition is just for personal pleasure, but there are those who earn their money guiding, speaking, and writing about polar travel. Inaccurate claims unjustly steal credit from those who have accomplished truly amazing feats and deserve full recognition.

Support? Assist? How does kiting fit in? Photo: Geoff Wilson

This system might be new to the world of polar travel, but any mature, self-regulating community needs a common language and unambiguous way to classify. Take science. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, scientists have pooled and harmonized data from clinical trials of treatments and vaccines conducted across different countries and continents. This is only possible thanks to standardized data collection methods and coding systems.

The newly launched PECS website gives an extensive taxonomy of definitions relating to polar travel, as well as a do-it-yourself tool to allow future adventurers to categorize their own expeditions. The PECS group has also teamed up with Guinness World Records to ensure accurate polar expedition labeling and record-keeping. Importantly, a legacy agreement keeps bona fide pre-PECS records intact.

Eric Philips gives a detailed overview of the system in this previous ExWeb article and video interview.

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About the Author

Ash Routen

Ash Routen

Ash is an outdoor and adventure writer from the UK. He juggles a day job as a public health scientist with a second career in outdoor writing.

His words have featured in newspapers, magazines, and on various brand websites. Major bylines include Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Porsche, Outside Magazine, Rock and Ice, and Red Bull.

He holds two degrees in Exercise and Health Sciences, and a PhD in Public Health.

His areas of expertise are polar expeditions, mountaineering, hiking, and adventure travel. In his spare time Ash enjoys going on small independent sledding expeditions, outdoor photography, and reading adventure literature.

Read more at www.ashrouten.com or read Ash's bi-monthly newsletter via https://hardtravel.substack.com

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Alex Hibbert
7 months ago

Imagine skiing all the way from Alaska to Svalbard, but forgetting to cross a line between the GNP and the POI. You’d not have crossed the Arctic Ocean, and so would have to go back and do it all again.

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Louis-Philippe Loncke
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Hibbert

Well, not really.Doing let’s say Alaska to Svalbard in a straight line would be a great achievement. If the map is provided, the means (amounts of resupplies etc…) then we would recognize the big effort. PECS are there to be able to make comparisons. With a map and the details of the “how”, we can compare as well. And yes, if someone did the traverse/crossing with the POI+GNP it would be an even better (longer/harder) achievement. It’s like O’Brady’s crossing, it needs the labels and the other great Antarctic achievements before him to be able to put records in perspective… Read more »

Alex Hibbert
7 months ago

The PECS identifies a line on the Arctic Ocean, not a zone, circle or polygon, that it’s necessary to pass through to ‘cross’ the ocean. It would be possible to fail this test, yet perform an expedition near identical to one that does cross the line. Even drift could mess up an intention to pass through one or both of these symbolic locations. I think you’re talking about a land to land Arctic Ocean journey which avoids the widest expanses of the ocean, and so misses the middle area entirely. This would be performing a chord of the ocean, and… Read more »

Last edited 7 months ago by ahlon
EricPhilips
Editor
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Hibbert

PECS’s definition of a crossing is: a Path that crosses from one margin to an opposite margin via a recognisable point. The Arctic Ocean has two recognisable points, the North Geographic Pole and the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility (the centre of the largest circle that can be drawn within the Arctic Ocean without encountering a coast). It arguably has other recognisable points but history does not show us that they are significant. And so, by connecting NP and NPOI we have provided a classical, logical and achievable central objective that a crossing should include. If a journey does not want… Read more »

Alex Hibbert
7 months ago
Reply to  EricPhilips

Eric this is where case by case peer review, of the sort that took the polar titan Mr O’Reilly to task, is preferable. So few trips occur that this isn’t too hard. Surely you can see plenty of routes across the Arctic Ocean that might intentionally, or accidentally, miss this GNP-POI line, but are still clearly a crossing, not a chord, or a coastal jaunt. I do of course note that you aren’t claiming any sort of official, universal *rulebook*, and I’m sure you know I’m all for methods to stop people making stuff up and profiting from it. Can… Read more »

EricPhilips
Editor
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Hibbert

Yep, sure. If a team can justify its recognisable mid-point then of course our committee would review it. If however the team proposed to cross via the NPL and missed their mark yet still claims a Full Crossing, then this would be reviewed with skepticism. The intent is important. For example a North Pole Expedition or Crossing of the Arctic Ocean can still be claimed with an offshore start/end if conditions dictate, but it can’t be pre-panned. It just could not be referred to as Full. And if it used a margin more than 50km offshore then it becomes a… Read more »

Alex Hibbert
7 months ago
Reply to  EricPhilips

Thanks for the reply Eric. I agree with the fundamentals of your efforts here (and have always done) with the caveats I state. Most centrally that I don’t think it would serve a community well, or the public, for a governing body to create and broadcast unilateral rules – rather, to offer up international consistency and a sounding board. It’s another matter, but the partial/full debate is a hornet’s nest. The ‘you must start from land’ thing probably killed Arduin all those years ago. But the question then is where is the line, from being AAA rated, to being a… Read more »

Last edited 7 months ago by ahlon
EricPhilips
Editor
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Hibbert

We have been very careful not to frame PECS as a bunch of rules, as was the case with Rules of Adventure. We have consulted widely with experts across numerous fields of adventuring and feel we have developed language and guidelines that reflect the current state of polar expeditioning, is respectful to our past while projecting into the future. Regarding margins, Dominick Arduin’s death could have been avoided had there been not so much emphasis placed on land being the only valid start point for a North Pole expedition. Under PECS, had she started north of the thin ice and… Read more »

Alex Hibbert
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Hibbert

*O’Brady.

Apologies. Freudian slip having watched Fawlty Towers…….

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ipgon
ipgon
7 months ago

Your text is brilliant

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