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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

UAE Portrait of a Nation: the youngest Arab to reach the North Pole

Abdulla Alahbabi trained for five months and on April 21, reached the North Pole unassisted

Abdulla Alahbabi, 26, reaches the North Pole unassisted on April 21. Courtesy Abdulla Alahbabi
Abdulla Alahbabi, 26, reaches the North Pole unassisted on April 21. Courtesy Abdulla Alahbabi

Abdulla Alahbabi wanted to show his fellow UAE youth that anything was possible. But to do that, he knew he would have to walk the talk.

So, five months before his attempt to reach the North Pole unassisted, he put on skis for the first time.

Over the preceding months, he visited Ski Dubai regularly to train for the task ahead. And on April 21, he did it.

Mr Alahbabi, 26, from Abu Dhabi, is now officially the youngest person from any of the 22 Arab League countries to have reached the North Pole.

“I wanted to do an initiative in the Year of Zayed. And I chose to do this because it was challenging,” he said.

“It’s one of the very toughest expeditions if you compare the North Pole, the South Pole and the seven summits. It is right at the top, under [climbing Mount] Everest. I knew it would add more value to the claim that nothing is impossible,” said Mr Alahbabi, who is studying political science.

His trip started on April 4, when he left the UAE for Oslo, where he took a flight to Longyearbyen, an island off Norway. There, the expedition group of six underwent an intensive training programme to teach them how to set up camp, ski and pull their sleds.

“It was very intense,” he said.

After his expedition last month, Abdulla Alahbabi is youngest Arab to have reached the North Pole unassisted. Pawan Singh / The National 
After his expedition last month, Abdulla Alahbabi is youngest Arab to have reached the North Pole unassisted. Pawan Singh / The National 

The team left there for the Barneo ice cap, a Russian research centre, which serves as a launch point for expeditions, where they took a one-hour helicopter ride to 89 degrees north. Then the hard work began.

“We skied from 89 degrees north to 90 degrees north, which is where the North Pole is,” said Mr Alahbabi.

“It took us eight days. It was supposed to be 10 days but we did it two days faster.”

That is not to say that it was easy. The 160km trip was gruelling, and often boring.

“We would start from 7am until 5pm or 6pm skiing. We would be in silence because everyone was in one line. The person in front of you is actually paving the way for you.

“So you don’t really have a chance to speak to anyone because it is so loud with the wind. Some people would listen to music. I would listen to audio books sometimes,” he said.

One of the most challenging parts was climbing the pressure ridges created when the ice plates collided.

“You are not just skiing. You are pulling your sled. And your sled is 45kg,” said Mr Mr Alahbabi, who lost four kilogrammes on the trip, despite maintaining a diet of high calorie packet food and chocolate to give him energy.

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And it was cold – colder than he had ever experienced, and he was no stranger to snow, having lived in Minnesota in the United States when he was studying his bachelor’s degree.

“It was like -40°C most of the days,” said Mr Alahbabi.

And being in polar bear territory, the group had to be mindful of the dangers of running into them. They each had to carry two shotguns and two flare guns. Luckily they did not encounter any, but they did see their footprints, so they knew they were nearby.

“I was nervous. Especially if you are the last person in the queue when you are walking. Everyone else’s jacket was blue or red. Mine was black – and you know what black resembles, right? Seals. I was probably the person on watch the most,” he said.

The experience was exhausting, but he never questioned why he was doing it, although the thought hovered close at times.

“In the end you focus on why you are doing this and you just keep pushing on,” he said.

“Going to one of the last frontiers makes you see how little time we have on earth. It is very vital for each individual to get out of their comfort zone and seek the impossible for what they want to achieve in life.”

The biog

Siblings: five brothers and one sister

Education: Bachelors in Political Science at the University of Minnesota

Interests: Swimming, tennis and the gym

Favourite place: UAE

Favourite packet food on the trip: pasta primavera

What he did to pass the time during the trip: listen to audio books