UNTIL recently Winchester accountant David Aston had done nothing more dangerous than cross the road. But just two weeks ago he was sat at the North Pole after a four-week, 350-mile slog from Canada through snow, ice, sub-zero temperatures and blizzards, facing thin ice and potentially ferocious polar bears.

David took part in the toughest race on Earth, the Polar Race 2005, and his team Northern Stars finished fourth out of six. During the four weeks he and his fellow competitors faced sickness, frostbite and an unwelcome and potentially deadly night-time visitor. He tells Cathy Wallace about his experience of a lifetime...

FROM Resolute Bay in northeast Canada to the North Pole, through ice and snow-dragging his provisions on a sledge behind him, David Aston's 350-mile, four-leg slog through the Arctic lasted nearly 25 days and covered some of the most desolate terrain in the world.

"The whole scale of it was incredible," the 36-year-old said. "It's how large the place is. There's land but it's quite incredible to think you are walking on an ocean and in a couple of months' time it will be liquid and there will be whales swimming in it. But it's rock solid."

Six teams raced and the overall event was won by the UK/Italian team Neways Polar Team. David's team, Northern Stars, finished fourth overall.

"We won the first leg, which was very important," David said. "The highlight of the whole race was towards the end of the third leg. We got to the end of a normal day but were ten miles away from the checkpoint so we decided we would race through the night.

"Fortunately, it was a very still night, and from midnight to 2am the sun set and rose in about half an hour. There was a pale pink hue coming down from the sun and it was so still, it was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Visibility was about four or five miles, and all we could see was a pink hue shimmering off the snow."

A hugely important part of the event was teamwork and David, of St Giles Hill, Winchester and his teammates Alex Williams and Charlie Newington-Bridges were thrown together, having barely met before.

He said: "My teammates were fantastic and this was the big success of the trip. We didn't know each other prior to embarking on the race. We met a few times since registering for the race as part of preparation but two years ago I had no idea who these people were.

"We got along fantastically, didn't even come close to having an argument, which is incredible. Everyone was doing the best they could and you can't argue with that."

Northern Stars did not enjoy an incident-free race. Both Alex and Charlie became ill during the second leg and David developed a small amount of frostbite.

David said: "It was careless. I fell over in a ditch by a bit of rubble and got some snow inside my mitts that then froze up. I got a very tiny little bit of frostbite. When you get it you don't know how bad it is until a long way down the line. I was confident it was minor but I needed being told that by a doctor to put my mind at rest.

"It's all rather pathetic when looking at it now. But at the time you never know, it's always at the back of your mind that it might be bad. And I knew it would be five or six days before I got someone to look at it because we were just beginning the second leg."

Frostbite can be incredibly painful and in severe cases can lead to limbs being amputated. However, David said he never thought about giving up during the race.

He said: "If something happens something happens, but when you're out there you can't just give up. The only way to get out would be for them to fly a plane out for you - it never really crossed my mind, and when you get to the checkpoints, it's fantastic."

However, it wasn't just freezing conditions, sickness and frostbite the teams were pitted against. Polar bears can be potentially deadly and one team, the Channel Island-based Cable & Wireless Polar Team, almost found out how deadly.

A bear clawed its way into their tent while the two competitors were inside, and they had to struggle out of their sleeping bags and shoot the animal dead.

Race organisers said: "All contestants are made fully aware that we are the intruders into the bears' environment and given extremely thorough training in the many ways of scaring a bear away. Despite all this very occasionally the worst happens. The two Channel Islands contestants were put into an impossible situation and had no other choice."

David said: "We avoided the bears but I did see them from a distance of about 300 metres. I could just about see these things moving about in the snow - but that was the closest I got to them."

Now his yomp across the Arctic is over David will be going back to work for accountants Baker Tilly.

He said: "I don't think this will make normal life seem dull but it's bizarre to think a week ago I was sitting at the North Pole. Everything is back to how it was and it seems strange, but it's not dull. What I did was always going to be a relatively short-term trip.

"I don't see myself going off and doing things like that permanently. I might do another one but I certainly won't do many!"

He added: "I'm really really pleased I did it. If you turn the clock back to a couple of years ago when I started thinking about it, and thinking of all the reasons for not doing it - but if you asked me I would do it again and I would be twice as quick to join up!"

David's efforts raised money for leukaemia charity the Anthony Nolan Trust.


The Polar Race is inspired and organised by two British adventurers, Jock Wishart and David Hempleman-Adams.

The first race was held in 2003 and was a huge success with all nine competitors finishing.

Competitors travel 350 miles by ski or on foot from Resolute Bay, Canada to the Magnetic North Pole in four stages.

Winners receive the Blue Ice Trophy, specially commissioned by Wedgwood for the race.

The next race will be held in 2007. For more information log on to www.polarrace.com.