Big Kid In a Wicker Basket
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David Hempleman-Adams, 46, is a glue salesman, father of three, and Britain’s most accomplished living adventurer. The first to hike solo and unsupported to the geomagnetic North Pole (a goal he attainted last April), he was also the first to pilot a hot-air balloon over the North Pole in 2000. Prior to that, in 1998, he completed what he calls the “explorer’s grand slam,” knocking off all Seven Summits (the highest peak on each of the seven continents, including Everest), plus the North and South poles. He has twice been awarded the Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal for rescues; he’s lent his name and energies to Ireland’s Special Olympics; and he’s a cofounder of the Polar Race—”probably the world’s toughest” adventure race. But until a week ago, he had not managed a trans-Atlantic crossing in a balloon. Twice he’d tried, and twice he’d had to ditch before making it to open water. Finally, on September 26, 2003, he lifted-off from Nova Scotia, and, alone in an open-air, four-foot-by-seven-foot wicker basket, soared to 14,000 feet above the North Atlantic. Eighty-four hours later, exhausted, cold, but elated, he descended from a low bank of clouds near Blackpool, in northwestern England, and—at 6 p.m. on September 30—landed safely in some hedges. While waiting to hear if he’d be invited on CBS’ Late Night with David Letterman, (he was eventually passed over for the latest Survivor: Pearl River castoff), Hempleman-Adams took our call.
Outside: Was there a moment during this latest flight when you didn’t think you’d make it?
The closest call came in the middle of the night one night when there was so much ice on the envelope, or balloon, that it nearly forced me down. All the altimeter alarms went off. I lost about 500 feet a minute. I had to cut away four tanks of fuel. At about 5,000 feet, I finally evened off. I was only a few hours from land-fall then. I was close, but I was anxious because I knew that others like Don Cameron had almost made it—he’d been in sight of land—but then landed six-feet off the beach. You have to get over land or you haven’t done it. It must have been frickin’ cold.
It averaged around minus 12 degrees Celsius [ten degrees Fahrenheit].
Did you get any sleep at all?
About an hour. I’d get ten minutes here, ten minutes there. I had some of my polar kit with me to keep from freezing, but it was a bit smelly. I didn’t get to clean it properly after my last trip.
One hour’s sleep in four days?
So why a wicker basket? Why not an enclosed, warmer ride where you could catch a nap?
I feel like with the large, pressurized gondolas you start to lose the plot, like taking a yacht instead of a sailboat. It goes against the spirit of it when it becomes less a question not of “Can you do it?” and more “How much money will it take?” I’m for simplistic, Jules Verne adventure—no heating, just a regular, big laundry basket.
But the basket would sink if it hit the water, no?
In less than two minutes. I had a little rubber life raft with me, and a parachute, but I’m not sure I’d really have been able to get out in time. And if you ditch in the middle of the Atlantic, no matter how good your communications, no one will be there to come and help you. So I read and re-read my ditching drill every six hours. It had these steps—one, two, three, four—of what to do in an emergency. But the first time I thought I might need to follow them, I was sitting on the cooler box at four in the afternoon. I’d brought along Sports Illustrated—the one with all the swimsuits. I was flipping through it for probably the 50th time, when there was this terrific sonic boom—from the Concorde, I learned later. I thought the flying wires were snapping, I dropped so suddenly. And the first thing I could think of doing was to save my magazine. Forget saving your life! All the mind does is think of sex on a beach!
It seems like asking-for-it to be that exposed. Do you ever think “firsts” are getting too absurd?
However you cut the cake, it’s been done before, but really that should give you a huge psychological advantage. But, right, it leads people to ask, why I am doing this? Unless you’re a black, one-legged lesbian, you can’t be the first. But I’m interested purely in the adventure of it. I suppose it’s one of those clichés, but for balloonists the Atlantic is like Everest is for mountaineers. And everyone on our balloon team, we all have proper jobs. We don’t expect to make a living at this. We didn’t even tell anyone we were doing this until we landed. Well, I did tell the wife.
And what did she say?
She just thinks we’re all big kids who never grew up.
Is she right?
How about your daughters, do they take after their dad?
The 14- and ten-year-old can already out-ski me, which is a bastard.
Ever consider retiring, so they wouldn’t have to worry about losing you?
I’m pragmatic about it. You can minimize the risk by not being foolhardy. In 26 years, I’ve never once been rescued and never once made an insurance claim. I’ve seen some of the best climbers do some fantastic, outrageous things in the mountains, and then die in a car accident. In my view, when you’re number’s up, your number’s up.
So how did you manage to pull this off without sponsorship?
Well, our budget for this was quite small: $15,000. And I have had sponsorship in past, from Uniq [a company specializing in “chilled convenience foods”]. That comes from my friend, Peter McPhillips. He’s for me what Beardmore was for Shackleton, although the story goes that Shackleton was shagging Beardmore’s wife, and the best way Beardmore could think to get rid of him was to sponsor his expedition so he’d leave on it. Unfortunately, I haven’t got that problem.
I think our team is game to try a flight over the United States in the same wicker basket.
You have some “unfinished business” on Everest, too. What is that?
I want to fly over Everest in a hot-air balloon. We were preparing to make an attempt just before September 11, but after what happened, we just packed up and came back. You know how people ask, What were you doing on that day? I was sitting at base camp with these stunning views of Everest. It was just incredibly beautiful and tranquil, but we were listening to the terrorism acts unfolding on the radio.
Finally, the booze question. You’ve said booze is your greatest incentive to make it home, so what’s your drink?
Never champagne. I’m very superstitious about that because we had these great magnums of champagne in 1983 and all the bottles smashed to smithereens in the cold, and then I failed to make the North Pole. All I ask is a pint of Arkelles.