Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 January - 6 February 2008
Issue No. 882
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Conquering oneself

A Lebanese became the first Middle Easterner to reach the South Pole, Jamie Furniss listens to the adventurer's tale

Click to view caption
Chaya during his expedition and holding the Lebanese flag (photos: www.the3poles)

Maxime Chaya hoped to be the first person from the Middle East to reach Earth's three harshest environments: both poles and the summit of Everest, sometimes called the three poles, and he made it with an international team of five adventurers.

Already the first Lebanese to conquer Everest, he skied to the South Pole, with the team's chosen "all-the-way route", so-called because it began on the coast at Hercules Inlet, which is approximately 600 nautical miles or 1,100km long.

The team successfully completed their journey after 47 days, on 28 December, and Chaya was greeted back home by many supporters in the airport and on his blog. The team were travelling unsupported and unassisted, which means without kites, dogs, skidoos or other aids to travel, and without re-supply of food or equipment. Each member had to tow a sled weighing about 115kg.

This struggle against nature and the elements is about more than pushing physical limits, however. Chaya hopes to encourage young people, especially in the Middle East, to "grow beyond their potential".

Overcoming loss and struggling against odds have been themes in Chaya's own life. "When I was about 12 or 15 years old, I loved sports, especially competitive ones," he recalls, speaking by satellite phone from Antarctica, days before he reached his final destination. But the war, which prevented him from growing up in a normal way, stole his dream of a career as a professional athlete. As an adult, he set out to get it back.

Aged 37, having already bounced back from the earlier frustrations of war and politics through a growing involvement in endurance sports, Chaya entered an international mountain bike race in Kenya that nearly destroyed his hopes a second time. "I was winning the race by 11 minutes -- I had practically won the race. But in the penultimate stage, I fell and broke my shoulder," he recounts with striking emotion and immediacy for a decade-old event. Forced not only to abandon the race and rush home for surgery, but also to confront what looked like a career-ending injury, Chaya says he did a lot of soul searching.

"Do you just forget about everything you knew you had, start getting fat and live a normal life?" he asked himself. "I thought, no, this can't be -- life can't be so futile. So I thought of something else." His idea: to climb the Seven Summits -- the highest peak on each of the seven continents. He achieved the goal in 2006 with Everest and re-created himself in the process, once again transforming an apparently fatal set-back into a springboard to new growth.

The next step -- his current project -- is the Three Poles Challenge. "This is longer so you have to have a lot of endurance, but there is more danger on Everest and you have to be very strong on summit day," he says, comparing his experience on Everest to the current expedition. He expected the North Pole to be the greatest challenge of all.

While there may be less danger than on Everest, Chaya had to overcome the sheer monotony of the approximately nine hours he spent on skis every day. He mainly occupied his mind during that time with prayer. Occasionally, he also listened to his iPod.

Although he never takes books with him on expeditions -- filming, still photography and note-taking leave him no time for reading -- there are some books on tape on the iPod, and lately he has been listening to The World is Flat.

An ironic title for a mountaineer, perhaps, but nevertheless an apt summary of an Antarctic crossing. And in an odd way, Chaya does embody the flat world thesis. It is a truly globalised world where a Middle Easterner is involved in Antarctic exploration. But more importantly, because Chaya refuses to consider anything insurmountable, by force of will alone he flattens the seemingly greatest barriers to the ground before him.

No matter what the physical hardship, "in the end it's no longer the training I did, or the preparation, or my experience -- it's just mental," he says. "I find that I can overcome it by remembering how much I worked to get to this point, how easy it is to give up, and yet how easy it is not to give up." Quite so. The greatest mountains are mountains of the mind, and if you realise this, it really is easy not to give up.

Find out more about the expedition by visiting Maxime Chaya's photoblog www.the3poles .com which allows users to experience the expedition visually without travelling to Antarctica.

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