‘A wrong decision can mean life or death’ – preparing for a solo expedition to the South Pole

Molar Explorer
Cat Burford (centre) is planning an expedition to the South Pole

Cat Burford tells Dentistry.co.uk about her plan for a solo, unsupported expedition in the South Pole where temperatures can reach -50C – and how she is physically and mentally preparing. 

Please tell us about your journey into dentistry

There are no dentists or medics in my family, so my decision to become a dentist from a young age was a bit of a surprise to my parents. Growing up, I always enjoyed going to the dentist. But it was following a head-over-handlebars incident at the age of 10 and an emergency repair to my front tooth, that dentistry became my calling.

From then on, it gave me something to aim for and influenced my decisions on subjects at school. My love of Geography was the only thing that made me waver on occasion. However, dentistry would be a career that would enable me to pursue both.

I took a year out before heading to university, to teach English at a village school in Borneo, and travel around south east Asia.

In 2000, I started life as a dental student in Liverpool, an easy choice when deciding where to study.

At that age, five years feels like a long time, so choosing the right university was really important. I knew that in such a great city I would be able to enjoy the right balance of work and play!

Have you always enjoyed hiking? How did you get into it?

I’ve loved hiking from a young age. My dad is a great walker, having completed many of the multi-day UK routes, so walking was a regular activity on family holidays. I wasn’t necessarily always enthusiastic, though!

Being in the mountains creates a feeling that’s difficult to describe. I love the sense of achievement at reaching the top, having put in hours of effort and the being rewarded with incredible views. I joined the outdoor club at university so that I could spend weekends in the mountains of North Wales, the Lakes and the hills of the Peaks and Yorkshire Dales.

It was following university that I sought out some of the famous treks to complete, such as Everest base camp, Machu Picchu and Patagonia.

What made you choose the South Pole as your expedition location?

One Christmas, as a child, I remember receiving a small, inflatable globe and closing my eyes whilst pointing to it, trying to find the most obscure and exotic places to one day visit. From Borneo, to the Gobi desert, Inner Mongolia,  I seek out places that are not routinely on the tourist trail.

To be honest, I’d always thought that the South Pole was somewhere ’other’ people got to experience. I’d read many books about the legendary Polar explorers. They all experienced incredible hardships in such a wild environment, trying to be the first to reach the Pole. Yet there was something captivating about Antarctica that kept drawing them back.

This also appears to be true for modern-day Polar greats. The more I read, the more I wanted to experience this landscape for myself. But it has been many years since that first thought to being where I am today.

Strong incentive

It was in 2009, when I was trekking in Patagonia, knowing that the next land mass south was Antarctica, that I started to realistically think about going there one day.

Like many, lockdown provided the time to reflect and to think about what I really wanted to achieve in my life. I had just turned 40 and with that came the awareness that time isn’t infinite and there are some things that can’t be put off another 10 years.

I knew that a South Pole expedition took a lot of preparation, planning and training and that if this was something I truly wanted to do, I couldn’t delay it any longer. The thought of regretting not even trying was a strong incentive to get the ball rolling and to take the positive steps needed to get there. Reading that back, it does come across as perhaps looking like a midlife crisis!

I signed up to a Polar skills training course in Norway with ‘Shakleton’, led by Louis Rudd MBE and Wendy Searle. Spending time with these Polar greats was truly inspiring. They are to blame for giving me the confidence to go for it, to take the next big step and to plan a solo, unsupported expedition.

When are you going? What can you expect on it?

If I can get the sponsorship together, I am aiming for November 2023.

What can I expect? That it’s going to be hard. Very hard. I’m expecting to be completely out of my comfort zone, where a wrong decision really can mean life or death. I will be the most focused I’ve ever had to be. The temperatures reach as low as -50C with wind speeds of up to 60mph.

I will be on the ice for between 45 and 55 days, depending on the conditions, skiing 700miles whilst pulling all my belongings, food and fuel behind me on a pulk.

How are you preparing for the challenge?

Preparations for such a challenge start early, about two years ahead of the expedition. To step foot on Antarctica as part of an expedition, I first must prove that I am capable. This involves building up a Polar CV of expeditions, qualifications, and training in the years prior to the trip.

I have past navigation and multi-day trekking experience, but I will be undertaking more advanced navigation courses, preparation expeditions in Norway and Greenland and focused endurance training with tyre pulling a key element.

This will all play a part in my mental training to prepare myself for months on my own with my own thoughts. The isolation is something that is particularly difficult to prepare for.

How has it been balancing this with dentistry?

The summer months certainly make training easier. On most days, I get up at 5am to get my workout done before a day of dentistry begins. Some days require a workout at the end of the day as well. My problem is that I’m also a bit of a night owl and struggle to get the amount of sleep in that my body needs…still working on that!

I’m lucky that dentistry is a career that although stressful and demanding during the day, it rarely takes up my spare time. This gives me the time to train and plan. Time off for the expedition and the longer training expeditions is something I am still working through.

Obviously, all my holidays for 2023 are taken up with this. But I’m fortunate to work in a fantastically supportive practice and for a corporate that have been enthusiastic with my ambitions and plans, seeing it as a positive reflection on the practice itself.

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