Elham Al Qasimi has always pushed herself to the limit, but she took on a whole new challenge when she attempted to be the first Emirati woman to reach the North Pole
Elham Al Qasimi has always been a high achiever – this is obvious from her list of academic merits and her successful career as an investment banker. But when she decided to attempt to become the first Emirati (and Arab) woman to trek to the North Pole, she was taking on a new sort of challenge.
“I felt like I’d challenged myself already on a number of different fronts – in education and my career – but I wasn’t progressing in learning about myself; I needed to push myself to the limit,” explains the 29-year-old native of Dubai. “I wanted to do something outside my comfort zone, but something that would not be easy.”
That was 2009 and over a year later at exactly 1.15pm on April 23, 2010, Al Qasimi gazed down at her all-weather GPS screen after almost three weeks of cross-countryskiing. What she saw filled her with elation – the co-ordinates ‘90.00 00 000 000’ which meant that she and her expedition team had finally reached the North Pole.
It had been a long and arduous journey. The team had departed from the Russian ice station Borneo but returned via Longyearbyen, Norway, in fact four days ahead of schedule. What’s more the expedition had been ‘unsupported’ – meaning that no supplies had been delivered to them en route.
“The North Pole appealed to me because it’s so isolated and remote and I knew I would have only my willpower and determination to rely on,” says Al Qasimi. “Once you get there, you find it’s completely untouched: there’s no trail, no trash left behind you and there’s no sign of civilisation. In fact, there’s no real base camp, so you’re very much on your own,” she adds. “When the helicopter drops you off on the ice, you can’t go back – you have to see it through.”
Al Qasimi is no stranger to challenges. She graduated with a BA in Business from the American University in Dubai in 2004 and then studied for an MSc in the Management of NGOs in London, earning a distinction in her thesis as well as an overall merit award. Between 2006 and 2008 she worked for JP Morgan, moving to the Impetus Trust as Investment Manager until her North Pole Trek.
In sports too she has always pushed herself – swimming on a daily basis and doing gymnastics since the age of six.
When it came to the expedition, although she has a small frame she says the sled wasn’t too difficult to pull because she had undergone intensive training in the run-up to the trip. She did find it hard to pitch her tent in the sub-zero conditions however. But after a day in the extreme climate, Al Qasimi became good at regulating her body temperature and noticing when her fingers weren’t getting enough blood, for example. She was tasked with chopping ice for drinking water; this improved her circulation and helped to keep her warm.
The physical consuming demands of the expedition necessitated a lot of calories and it was difficult to ensure her intake of enough food. Meals were packaged and usually eaten straight out of their vacuumpackaged pouches. To her team’s surprise, however, Al Qasimi experimented with the ingredients on a couple of occasions.
“I made a quasi-pizza after messing around with ingredients, when normally we would just eat straight out of the bag. The team were very happy,” she says.
The hardest part of the trip however was not the physical demands or the endurance necessary to withstand the icy temperatures, but the sheer mental strength needed to see it through. Al Qasimi points out that you have to be mentally prepared for such a journey. “Your success depends on how much [mental] preparation you do. Housekeeping in other aspects of your life gives you free space in your mind and stops you becoming stressed and preoccupied on the expedition,” she says.
“Try having nothing to do: no phone to answer and no bills to pay, for 14 days straight,” she adds. “If you have nothing to do but ski for two weeks, you’re left only with your own thoughts and feelings come up that are deep rooted. You’re left with anxieties and insecurities.”
Being in such an isolated place with one goal in mind and nobody talking to each other, the explorer found herself churning over issues in her mind; and after a few days of hard thinking, came to a decision.
“I had a definite moment after a lot of churning, when I had to choose whether to continue to carry my [mental] burdens or to clear out the skeletons in my closet,” she says. “It was as if I could turn around and see little packages left behind me in the snow, each one with a story being put to rest. And I felt noticeably lighter because of it,” she smiles. “I continued the journey living in the present rather than in the past and that helped me enormously.”
Al Qasimi’s family were supportive of her mission, although at first they took some time to “get comfortable” with it, says the young woman who became the first UAE National, as well as Arab woman, ever to reach the North Pole.
She is typical of a new generation of young Emirati women. And while she’s pleased with the progress of women here have made in general, she’s also aware that more must be done to encourage them to take up challenges of every kind.
“I think women here are a far greater force for development, a more forwardlooking and valuable human capital than we necessarily appreciate,” she says. “In fact there are many accomplished, smart and talented women in the country and I believe they can contribute more in a creative and economic sense to the UAE of the future.
“I’m pleased with the achievements they’ve made so far, but I think we should set our standards and goals higher. Women have to do what they love rather than simply what they think they should do.”