'World of people' inspired woman's historic North Pole trek

The first Emirati woman to conquer the North Pole says how she defeated cold and self-doubts to complete the adventure.

Elham al Qasimi, 27, the first Arab woman to reach the North Pole, speaks at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre.
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DUBAI // Elham al Qasimi, the first Arab woman to reach the North Pole and the first Emirati to do so unassisted, battled through self-doubt early in her journey. "The North Pole was something that I had dreamed about for a long time, and at this point in my life it was the right time," she told a crowd of hundreds who gathered for the Bold Talks yesterday at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre, where her presentation earned a standing ovation.

Despite months of training under harsh winter conditions, she was not prepared for the physical toll her journey would take. Yet she was determined to travel unassisted, meaning supplies would not be dropped to her along the way. "You're warned about the conditions you face, you're warned about the weather, you're warned about the difficulty of keeping your body warm and how much energy it takes, but despite the warning you just don't know until you get there."

It was only the second day when she began to regret her decision to go up against the Arctic elements. She began to wonder whether she was built for such an expedition, and whether she had trained enough. She told her guide she did not want to keep going, and he told her to stand up. After forcing water and food down her throat, she continued for another four kilometres. The next night she showed him a special journal she carried with her, a small book filled with encouraging notes from loved ones.

"I hadn't read any of them and I would read them as I needed them, whenever I felt low. He asked me why I didn't read it yesterday. "And I said that wasn't a low, it was a learning curve. It was getting to know the North Pole. It was just the beginning," she said. Ms al Qasimi described how she crossed open water and would walk on thin ice as it creaked and groaned under her weight. She recalled the landscape that would range from wide open expanses of white to rocky crags that loomed over her.

On the last day, the team was warned that weather conditions might cut the trip short. With the goal so close, a new desperation took hold as they raced to reach the North Pole while it was still possible. "I was worried about getting there and not really enjoying the moment. For the first few miles I was pretty uncomfortable and really unhappy." She decided to let go of her negative thoughts before reaching her goal.

"As I let go of that feeling. I found that I was not alone on that day, not one bit. I felt there was a world of people with me. What started out as a human achievement, an achievement that mattered to me that I thought would help me grow personally, turned into far more than that." For Ms al Qasimi, the last four kilometres of her journey were the happiest. "I got there feeling quiet, very humble and quite private."

The last thing she did was pour a bag of sand from the UAE on to the North Pole. "It was such a huge journey, and it would have brought me to my knees if I hadn't come from the place that I came from, so I wanted to leave it there to recognise that." @Email:amcmeans@thenational.ae