Marc Corlinessen was born in the Netherlands, the only boy in a family of five siblings. As Marc passed through the trials of youth his adventurous plans began to take shape and he formulated an ambition to put his footsteps on the two zero points of the Earth. He first stepped on the ice crust of the North Pole in 1996 and the emotional pull of the Earth’s poles has become an almost obsessive attraction for this most intrepid of explorers. When Marc first reached the North Pole he cried as he visualized the beauties of human societies and the web of connections that link life on our planet. The more times he has reached the poles, the more he is motivated to safeguard the natural beauty of our planet.
An ardent campaigner of the global warming awareness in association with Ben & Jerry (Ice-cream) brothers, Marc talked to Hom Paribag on a heart-to-heart basis about his life, experiences and motivations of becoming an explorer and campaigner.
Marc, can I ask you what your adolescent ambitions were and how these laid the foundations for your incredible adventures?
When I was younger I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to do. Sometimes I wanted to become a medical doctor or an engineer or an architect….or some kind of creative person. Sometimes I also considered being a pilot as well. I actually did military service in the air force. But I was never involved in any hostility but instead worked in the hospital helping the sick and injured.
When did you make a concrete decision to become an adventurer or explorer and what kind of adventurer did you envision yourself becoming?
I recall I was twenty five or twenty six years old. You know I was a free person with little money, but I was not a prisoner of the economy. I was never actually really focused on any specific expedition. I’d done some mountaineering when I was sixteen. When I was planning to study architecture, one of my professors offered me some investment money out of his bureau to let me understand about what’s involved in expeditions. And it was really a very nice chance. At the same time I was also making some small scale expeditions up in the high north. I’ve tried different expeditions, for example I once crossed the Gibson Desert in Australia and I’ve become part of some archeological expeditions in the north-eastern part of Peru.
When was your first expedition to the poles and how did you get on with your expectations?
The first big one was in 1996. It was an attempt to reach the magnetic North pole in North Canada. Well you start to go there by plane, to the high north starting from the base camp. At that point our base was at Resolute Bay in North Canada next to the Transatlantic. From there you go onto the ice. The position of the magnetic North pole is shifting and moving here and there….we were expecting to travel 650 km a day. That was the plan for more than a month. Without any re-supplies, carrying all our gear such as food, fuel, communication and safety stuff. When you travel to the North Pole region you need a lot of energy to compensate for the cold. I had to eat roughly two and a half times more than I eat at home. You have to eat food with little weight but with a lot of energy….plenty of chocolates and peanuts and a lot of penancun which is dried meat, full of animal fat.
What was the real expedition like? I mean the details of which!
It involved a lot of walking and skiing depending on the conditions. If we could find very solid snow cover we would try to use specially devised mountain bikes. But the biking wasn’t too successful. There were two teammates on the first expedition and the only one on the ice with me quit after just five days. It wasn’t because of the harsh weather, for some reason he wasn’t committed to the challenge. As all the energy of the body would be absorbed in tackling the landscape he couldn’t get any enjoyment from it. After one and a half years of preparation he quit within a few days.
Once you reached there what did you see in the landscape?
The truth is I never made it to the magnetic pole in 1996 because of the withdrawal of my teammate. Then it was an Easter weekend of the same year that I restarted the expedition on my own, only taking a dog with me. That was a very intense experience which can be seen on the recordings I made on my video camera.
How many times so far have you reached the North Pole? How was your experience at the moment you reached the point?
I have reached the North Pole twice. The real big one for me was reaching the real magnetic point in 1997 in the month of May. The second one was in 2004, after a relatively short expedition. I still remember the very first visit. Our positioning equipment told us that we had arrived but there was nothing special, we were looking for that special point, we were expecting that something would have told us “this is the North Pole” We were a little disappointed since we couldn’t find anything material. I’d imagined that there would be some special terrain or special block of ice or something that would have told you “this is it. this is the North Pole.” But it was nothing like that. Our journey took us seventy days of struggle to get to the point, to the North Pole. We’d got this enormous energy and once we made it we were very happy. When we found the exact point of the North Pole that made us feel it was a meaningful and worthwhile thing to do.
Inside your soul, spiritually speaking, what did you feel when you found the point?
I was crying…I had so many questions in my heart before about whether I was going to be able to reach it, if I was going to be able to work together with people. I had in my mind the failure that I had experienced one year before. This was an incredible feeling. And also knowing that whatever happens in
your life doesn’t really matter, you can handle it, and you can make it. You can make the best out of any situation and it will be good enough. Even if you have a big house, a nice car, the only thing that matters is deciding what you want to do in your life.
Did you have a feeling of intense individuality or was it more an awareness of your place and being in the entire planet?
Oh yes, it was a feeling of ordinary humanness. I had this thought that we absolutely must take care of the planet for ourselves. I still remember very vividly being brought back by a Canadian tornado airplane, we were flying back to base camp over the North Pole and it just looked like an enormous whiteness, the emptiness. This was the great paradox of our achievements, considering the incredible desire we had before we got there.
So you are saying how complex, yet how simple and ultimately what a great nothingness life itself is?
That’s exactly how it is to experience it. But it was also knowing that what really matters are the decisions you are ultimately responsible for in life. It absolutely matters to make choices in life because there is an end to life and we must make it worthwhile while we are around. My expeditions have given meaning to my life, a focus and direction and they have given me the drive to share my experience with others. People have been very captivated by the stories that I have brought back from my expeditions.
Please talk about life after you came back to the Netherlands from the base camp.
I felt almost ashamed that we would abandon this very basic life. That was part of the sad feeling. It was too much to deal with civilization again. Knowing that you are part of society as it is today. We realized we couldn’t turn back the clock as life was as it is meant to be. Once we returned to the Netherlands, exactly after one hundred days, there were too many pressures. The car. The fridge. We had to commit ourselves to daily life as we were in it before. I found it very hard for some weeks to cope with that. It was an enormous adaption.
Based on your experience, you’ve become an environmental campaigner. Am I right
We’ve had some media platforms and we thought it was very good to talk about the arctic climate and climate change, although it was nothing new. When we arrived back we were offered help by the World Wildlife Fund and as a result we gave many presentations on television. We have also published some materials in a way accessible to a non-specialist audience.
The ice is melting at the poles and by many accounts the situation is reaching a critical phase. How do you feel about that?
Well if you go to the Arctic and you talk to people who have lived there for generations they can tell you how things are changing. For example in 1996 there was a moment when it started to rain and the rain turned into a very thin but strong layer of ice on top of the snow. When I returned I saw muntjacs roaming around Resolute Bay, trying to get to the vegetation under the ice layer. These normally shy animals shouldn’t have been there but desperation had forced them into open view. And that year I know that about 60% of the muntjac population died.
You also mentioned that you spoke to some local people there. Who were they?
One example is Simon. He belongs to the Enwit tribe. They are not a completely traditional people but were forced by the Canadians to settle down in small villages so the Canadians could claim the land as part of their territory. Simon taught me about terrain conditions, the ice condition, polar bear behavior etc… Initially they were skeptical as they sometimes felt like I was a tourist hanging around. But if you express sincere interests then there is sincere contact, which is what I got. I became an integral part of their life and way of thinking.
You have been to Antarctica as well. What are the differences between the two different poles of the planet?
I went to Antarctica in 2000. I have been to the peninsula once, which is the more beautiful side of Antarctica where all the beautiful animals live. I have been to the Geographical South Pole once, which is my most extreme expedition. Actually the two poles are completely different. The North Pole is a frozen sea measured in centimetres and you can see the deep blackness (not blueness) through the surface. It’s almost like the sky opening up and trying to eat you. Antarctica is completely different, it’s a land mass, a continent and on top of this continent there is snow that has accumulated for millions of years, sometimes two kilometres thick. For some reason traveling through Antarctica became painful inside my mind as I really began missing homemy family, my father sitting with his old fishing rod and the fresh coffee all these small things came to my mind and they were dangerous game.
Did you ever think that you were the only human beings, like the way Adam and Eve must have thought?
I am very happy with your question. What if a world war broke out and we were the only ones left. I did feel special, but I also realized that everyone is special because I don’t think of myself as being an extraordinary person. Everyone has enormous potential and it’s almost your responsibility to look for it and just go for it.
Interview by Hom Paribag
Editor of Society Today Magazine