Britons hope Polar Race win will bring in funds for refugees
GENEVA, May 8 (UNHCR) - Two intrepid young Britons have won an Arctic sprint to the magnetic North Pole which they say should boost their chances of raising £250,000 (US$495,000) for the UN refugee agency.
Co-organiser Jock Wishart confirmed on Tuesday that former UNHCR staffer Jake Morland and teacher James Turner had reached the Pole last Wednesday and edged out five other teams to win the 2007 Polar Race.
The two, racing as Team Refuge, trudged across 560 kilometres (350 miles) of snow and ice in 14 days, 20 hours, 36 minutes and 53 seconds, almost seven hours ahead of second-placed Polar Horizon and five days faster than the final team, which included a 62-year-old woman and her son.
Morland, reached by telephone at a lakeside retreat in Canada on Tuesday, said reaching the North Pole was a bit of an anti-climax because there were no distinguishing features in the flat icy northern reaches, but he was relieved that it was over and they did not have to walk any further.
"When I think of all of the hard assignments I've had with UNHCR, nothing can compare to the desolation or difficulty of surviving in the Canadian Arctic," said Morland, who has served in East Timor, Iraq, Sri Lanka and the Sudan. "The long process of recuperation is beginning," he added.
"I think they went about it very professionally and thoroughly," said race founder Wishart: "It was very hard up there this year because of the ice conditions." He said competitors lost an average of 20 pounds (nine kilogrammes) each.
Morland and Turner also had to battle freezing temperatures and watch out for polar bears, two of whom took an interest in the team's equipment early in the race.
Wishart compared the race to the annual London Marathon, which some competitors enter in order to win and others simply for the fun and experience. He said the British pair would be awarded the Wedgwood Blue Ice Trophy during a ceremony on June 1 in London's Travellers Club.
Bad weather conditions around Resolute, Canada's northernmost settlement and start point for the race on April 9, had delayed the return of the 15 polar racers to civilization until Friday morning. The first plane damaged a ski on landing and a second plane had to be sent to pick everyone up. The competitors were flown to Ottawa and most returned to Britain on Monday.
Arch Insurance (Europe) donated £40,000 (US$80,000) to Team Refuge to cover the costs of the race, which means that all additional funds raised will go straight to UNHCR. The public will be able to continue donating to the team through the rest of this year.
Morland said more than £50,000 has been pledged to date, adding that the win should help add to the pot. "It should make it a lot easier to approach people, capture their imagination and get a donation from them."
The polar veteran has said he wants to earmark £250,000 ($495,000) for a special trust fund to cover urgent medical evacuations for refugee children and a quick access fund to enable field officers to bypass some of the regular paperwork which can slow things down.
UNHCR has an historic attachment to the Arctic. Nobel Peace laureate and Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen was the world's first High Commissioner for Refugees, serving in this position for the League of Nations, precursor of the United Nations. Each year UNHCR awards a prize in his name to a person or group for outstanding services in supporting refugee causes.
By Leo Dobbs in Geneva