Emirati Abdulla Alahbabi becomes the youngest Arab to reach the South Pole
The young Emirati placed the UAE flag in Antarctica mere months after conquering the North Pole
It is one of the most barren yet beautiful landscapes on Earth, a sea of glistening white and blue ice as far as the eye can see. But on a crisp Thursday in January, at the southernmost point of the world’s surface in Antarctica, there was another burst of colour – the red, black and green of a UAE flag.
It was placed there by Abdulla Alahbabi to mark the moment he became the youngest Arab to reach the South Pole. That is quite the feat on its own, but when coupled with his expedition to the North Pole last April, it is truly remarkable.
At the end of 2017, the Emirati adventurer, 26, strapped on a pair of skis for the first time and set himself a challenge: Alahbabi wanted to become the youngest man from the 22 Arab League countries to reach the North Pole. Within five months, he had done it. However, before he even had time to take in that achievement, he was already on to the next challenge.
“The North Pole seemed like such an impossible task when I set myself the challenge,” Alahbabi says. “But when I completed that, it was so great, I felt so confident, I just wanted to do something bigger. The South Pole was the next natural step.”
The 160-kilometre journey to the North Pole may be the longer of the two, but the 130km expedition to the South Pole is much harsher. With the temperature dropping to -50°C and elevation reaching 3,300 metres above sea level, it is a challenge that pushes even hardened explorers to their limits.
Despite training weekly at Ski Dubai and following a gruelling fitness routine in his home emirate of Abu Dhabi, the reality of Antarctica’s conditions were still a shock to the system for Alahbabi. “I was using a mask to limit the air supply of my breathing while training, but once we got there, it was totally different. Breathing was very difficult for the first few days,” he says. “You just can’t truly prepare for it.”
On top of the trouble he had breathing and the risk of frostbite, Alahbabi and his five teammates were unassisted in their expedition, with each of them pulling a 50-kilogram sled laden with their food and camping equipment. For 12 long hours each day, they skied through the pain. “The mental demand is very high; it’s another challenge in itself,” Alahbabi says. “At that level, in the depths of Antarctica, it’s just you against you. There’s no talking, it’s just you inside your head.”
To get through the hours staring out at an endless sea of white, Alahbabi listened to podcasts to keep his mind engaged and his spirits high. “It was a tip I picked up from the North Pole expedition,” he says. “I listened to the Tim Ferriss show, mostly, it helped get me through. But one of the days, the temperature dropped so low, my headphones froze. It was just the worst day on the trip, because for those 12 hours it was just me – it was really tough.”
At the end of each day, the group set up camp and prepared to sleep through the howling winds before getting up for another day of trekking. But despite the conditions, it was these moments that Alahbabi would cling to during the toughest parts of the trip.
“That was the most prized moment of the day – setting up camp, relaxing, reflecting on the day, patching up wounds, and just having a chat,” he says. “When you’re skiing, you’re in a straight line and communication is very limited up until the breaks, so it’s good to have that human contact at the end of the day.”
Each night before going to sleep, Alahbabi would put on four pairs of socks, four layers of thermals, four pairs of gloves. “Pretty much everything in fours,” he says. “We would just tuck into our sleeping bags with a hot soup.”
Between the six team members, four nationalities were represented – Britain, the United States, Germany and the UAE – all of them meeting for the first time on December 14 after landing in Chile. But the group soon became close, developing a camaraderie as they powered towards their goal.
For Alahbabi, that moment came after seven of the toughest days of his life, but placing the UAE flag in the crisp snow made it all worth it. “It was just an amazing experience,” he says of the expedition. “To finish something that started as just a simple thought at the start of last year, to do these two great things, it was very emotional and I was just so happy to get to both Poles within a year.”
While Alahbabi wanted to prove to himself that he could complete the epic challenges he set, taking the title of the youngest Arab to achieve both feats along the way, there was a greater purpose to his expeditions. He hopes that his story will inspire other Emiratis, young and old, to make their own mark.
“I want it to give hope and inspiration to young kids – or whoever is reading this. Anything is possible,” he says. “I hope they are inspired to do something, even if it’s something small. I would be so proud to have been the catalyst for that.”
Updated: February 11, 2019 04:59 PM