Get Up And Code 41: North Pole Expedition With Austin Dimmer
In this episode of Get Up and CODE, Iris and I got to speak to Austin Dimmer about his experiences on his expedition to the north pole. Austin has a remarkable story of persistence and determination that we can all learn from. Check out the episode below.
Full transcript below
John: Welcome to the Get Up and Code Podcast. I'm John Sonmez and I'm here with my co-host, Iris Classon. Today, we have a special guest with us, Austin Dimmer. Before we get into talking about Austin and introducing him, I want to tell you about our sponsor so we don’t forget it. All those potential sponsors out there listening we love our sponsor. Our sponsor is signalleaf.com and signalleaf.com hosts our podcast and they provide podcast hosting services. If you want to get started creating your own podcast, believe me, there’s not enough developer podcasts out there whatever topic that you’re passionate about, check out signalleaf.com. It’s a lot easier than you think. At least they make it a lot easier than when Iris and I were trying to figure out how to get a podcast started up. I wish they were around then. Check them out at signalleaf.com.
With that, let’s welcome Austin Dimmer to Get Up and Code. Austin is the founder of Effective Computing. It’s a manufacturer of voice control systems for computers, and Austin holds a Bachelor’s of Engineering and Masters of Science and Ergonomics. Hopefully, I said that all right. The thing that we’re most interested at least in this episode in talking to Austin about is something really, really unique that not too many people have done. Welcome to the show Austin. Why don’t you tell us what this is? You could leave the listeners hanging for a little bit if you want.
Austin: Well, yeah. Thanks for the introduction and thanks to both of you for having me on the show here. It’s a great show and it’s an honor to be here. I did an expedition to the magnetic North Pole, 2006, and it was a pretty serious affair as you might imagine.
John: Oh, yeah.
Austin: I thought that it would be interesting for your listeners may be to hear how I coped with the pressure, and managed to keep my job and keep my life together at the same time. I think a lot of developers if they’re trying to work in a high pressure environment and also keep healthy it’s a tough battle. If I share my experience, hopefully there will be some benefits for someone out there. I hope at least it’s an interesting story. It is certainly one of the toughest things I’ve done.
Iris: It’s pretty cool. You actually went to the North Pole? You said the magnetic North Pole. What’s the difference between the magnetic North Pole and the North Pole, or is it the same thing?
John: Which one does Santa Claus live at?
Austin: I think there are actually 3 official North Poles, and I don’t know if I’m getting them all correct but there’s the geographic North Pole where the top of the earth would be. There are spins on it and it’s slightly off axis and it’s like a spinning top, if you like. That geographic North Pole, I think, moves in a little bit of a circle. The position would move. The magnetic North Pole is influenced by the cosmos and the position of different astral bodies and the impact of that on the overall magnetic field and on the planet. The magnetic North is a moving target.
We went to the magnetic North Pole because it was a race we were on actually and it was just organized by some ex-Royal Marines from the British Royal Army. These were pretty serious guys and they knew what they were doing. We had a safety network and to help support the race in the event of any catastrophes. There was help within a few hours. Hopefully, if you are lucky they could find you.
In the magnetic North Pole, your compass doesn’t work. If you hold a compass and we’re near the Equator, then it will point to that location of the magnetic North Pole because all the lines point to that area. We were going to the area that the compass would point to, but when you get near it your compass doesn’t work. You have a compass and it just spins around. Because you’re so near the magnetic North Pole, it doesn’t have any guidance to say it’s that way. Luckily, you have 24-hour daylight and you can tell by your shadow where the North Pole is, because you can actually look in the ground. You can see what time is.
If your shadow is directly in front of you, that’s twelve. If your shadow is to the right it’s three in the afternoon. If it’s behind you, it’s six. Then if it’s on the left, it’s nine. You know what time is just by the way your shadow lies on the ground and then you know what direction you want to move to try and get towards your destination.
It’s definitely interesting from the perspective of understanding how the sun, earth and all that stuff all works because when we live below the polar circle, we don’t—well, I understood I did physics and stuff at school, and I knew that the earth and whatever rotated but when you actually see going round the horizon all day and the first few weeks, the first few weeks because you have to go early in the season because the sea ice has got to be thick enough otherwise, it’s too dangerous. So you have to leave before the sun starts to become 24 hours. The first few weeks that you’re in the Arctic, the sun dips below the horizon just for a few hours. It dips below the horizon and then it just makes a circle. Towards the end of the expedition it was 24-hour daylight all the day and you could see the sun just circling around the horizon.
There are some special effects, actually. I’ll tell you the story if you’re interested. There’s a thing called a sun dog and it’s due to the ice and the cold temperature, and the humidity levels in the air and the angle of the sun. These things are called sun dogs and they’re – well, it’s probably the most mind blowing thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.
We’re going along one day midday expectation, so we’re all pretty exhausted at this point. We’re going away from the sun so it was about midday at this point, directly away from the sun. I noticed in the sky, beautiful bands of white light, just crossing down across the horizon and then an arc of white light going right around the horizon. I actually thought I was hallucinating and I said to my teammates in the expedition, there were 3 of us in the team. I said, “Look, guys. Can you see these bands of white light in the sky or am I imaging this?” We were checking our goggles. You’ve got goggles on all the time. You can’t expose your skin at all because a few seconds and you can get frostbite. If you take your goggles off, you can get snow blindness within a few seconds or a few minutes as well. You’ve got to be really careful.
They verified that they saw this white light as well, and we turned behind us directly into the sun. There were two complete circular rainbows around the sun and these bands of white light intersecting with the two circular rainbows, and intense bright points of light there also and then 2 arch-shaped rainbows in the circle like a heart shape into the two circles.
It was a vision of three-dimensional perfection and it was right across the entire horizon, front and back. I don’t know. That experience was one of the most deep experiences I’ve ever had in my life, just breathing and experiencing life as it unfolds. It just happened for maybe a minute and then disappeared. They’re called sun dogs and, yeah, that was certainly, I would say, the highlight of the whole expedition.
John: That’s amazing.
Iris: I'm looking at some pictures now. I just had to do a Google/Bing search for it. It just looks amazing and it’s so cool. I’ve never heard about it before. It will be worth the trip just to see that.
Austin: Yeah, that trip – to see that, I think the one that we saw also was quite a special one. I don’t know why I'm saying that but the conditions that day, the ice had blown – there was quite a lot of wind that day and where we slept on, an ice sheet, the wind had blown up like crystalline ice for about a few hundred meters into the air. There was this ice dust hanging in the air, and I think that created the perfect conditions to see these sun dogs. All 3 of us were just mind blown. I think even to this day, we’re still awestruck by what we witnessed by doing that. We did have to walk like for at least 14 days in the Arctic. It depends on the location.
John: Tell us about how you got started in this. You got to walk 14 days like you said. I don’t just say, “Oh, I was just going to go to the North Pole. Do you want to go to North Pole?”
Iris: I usually look online. Most people look online for going to warm places.
Austin: Yeah. I was into surfing and kite surfing when I was younger. This was like a good couple of years ago now. It was 2006. Well, it’s 2014 now so it’s almost 9 years ago when I was into surfing and kite surfing at that point. I had a kite surfing magazine and there was a tiny, tiny, little piece of editorial in it that said oh there’s a kite surfing … not kite surfing but kiting expedition across Greenland. You get your kites and get your skis, and you go right across Greenland with power kites. I thought, “Wow that sounds amazing.” I went and looked into it with a company that was advertising the travel expedition. It turned out that they were also arranging an expedition to the North Pole. To the North Pole, it wasn’t with power kites. It was manhauling they call it. You essentially got your own body weight and a pulk, and you’re dragging that to the North Pole that’s got all your supplies and tents, and safety equipment and so forth.
The day after I saw that presentation, I woke up in my bed and I was literally terrified because I knew that I was going to do it. It was just a weird feeling. I don’t know. I just got sucked into the whole thing and where I was at in my life at that point it seemed like a reasonable idea to train and get yourself to peak fitness and overcome that challenge and fear. I think the character that I had I was suited to that scenario. I just jumped in, signed up for the expedition. Then literally that point on, it was non-stop.
Iris: Did you have to find teammates or did you do this on your own? You had teammates? Teammates?
Austin: Initially, I joined as an individual and there was a training expedition in Austria. I think it was a two-week training expedition in the Alps in Austria. At that training expedition, you had to try and find teammates from the individuals. At this point, there were 50 teams of 3 people. Half of them usually had teams and half of them were just individuals who had entered. We had to mix and find. Out of all that emerged the teams. It was quite an interesting selection process because you’ve got to find some people that you can literally trust your life with to go to the North Pole.
You’re under such intense pressure at that point as well. The people and human relations can break down and people can go crazy and all kinds of things. It’s an important choice to get the right people. Luckily, I got 2 great guys. One of the guys I got in my team, Andrew Gerling, he came second in the Glasgow Marathon when he was in his prime. He was over 50 years old when we did the expedition, but he was like number 4 world duathlon championship. This guy is an extreme athlete, absolute athlete. The other guy in my team, Simon, I believe he’s climbed 5 of the world’s 7 highest mountains. He’s had some pretty serious expedition experience in there. He was really onto it.
We gelled together as a team. There were some other great people. It was disappointing not to go with them. At the end the decisions that we made to get the team that we had was absolutely correct. These 2 guys, Andrew and Simon, I would regard them as some of my best friends in the world. What we went through in the expedition, it was definitely—a great friendship was formed and we didn’t argue and end up hitting each other.
Iris: Yeah. You wouldn’t want to argue there.
Austin: Yeah. It’s terrible. One of the books I read in preparation for the expedition, I think, is called the Hillary Step, and it’s Edmund Hillary’s son. Edmund Hillary is the guy that climbed the Everest first of all. His son went to the Antarctic with an Australian guy and they were just – after a few days into the expedition they were just – hated each other. They had illnesses and they were vomiting and diarrhea, and severe expedition flu. Guys are being tough guys and saying, “Come on. Let’s go.” I think they ended up like almost killing each other. That was a shocking reading. You’re like …
Iris: Oh, that’s nice.
Austin: We don’t want to be up with this. Certainly, it was an interesting selection process for the team and I was very happy that I got some really solid people to come on board with me.
Iris: Yeah, absolutely.
John: You said you went to train for 2 weeks and then the expedition, I'm sure, took some time. Were you working for yourself? Did you tell your boss “I need to get to the North Pole? I’ll be back. I'm not going to be checking e-mail.”
Austin: I had a great employer in London. I worked in a company called Back in Action. We sold ergonomic office furniture systems and ergonomic furniture. My employer was very supportive. They didn’t really have a choice. I was just going to do it either way. I think I worked well when I was still there. Probably the quality of my work wasn’t as good as it was if I was entirely focused on my work. I really was training hard and I was working hard at the same time. There were some nights when I didn’t sleep at all.
I remember going into a theater performance in London with – it was actually Patrick Stewart. You know like Jean-Luc Picard. He was acting in London and I’d been up the entire night. I hadn’t slept. I was training and I was building the website and various things. I went to the theater and Patrick Stewart was performing Scrooge, the Christmas play. He’s a total genius. He performs every single character in the whole book or the whole play. He’s an absolute genius actor. I'm trying to stay awake watching this and it was very, very difficult. I was a bit disappointed that I was so exhausted I couldn’t pay that full attention to something that was literally genius in front of my eyes. You pay the price.
Iris: What kept you going though? Because a lot of people, as soon as they get a little bit tired or they find a few obstacles, they start second guessing their choices. At the end they go like, “Nah. I’ll do it another time.” What kept you going though?
Austin: In the race, there were 50 teams, I said earlier, and only 10 teams actually completed the race that crossed the finish line. A lot of people were dropped out. For me, it was never an option. I was never going to give up.
Iris: Why not?
Austin: I lived in London at the time so for instance, in the underground, instead of taking the escalator, I’d see the stairs and I’d go bang, straight up the stairs, see the top, and just go. It was just part of your training and it was just intense focus. I’ve never had such focus in my life and hopefully it will return again at some point. I just had that focus and the dedication, and just 100% belief that I was never going to drop out. There were nights like I got expedition flu in Austria in the mountains. I had a night where, for some reason, I had intense diarrhea and intense vomiting all night long. It was like minus 20 outside.
John: Oh, yeah. That doesn’t sound good.
Austin: Essentially, I just got no sleep. The next day, we were supposed to do the ice breaking drill where you jump into a frozen lake and try and get yourself out and warm yourself up to replicate what would happen if you went through the ice in the North Pole although it was nothing like that because if you went through the ice in the North Pole, I think you’ll die within a few minutes. They were still trying to prepare you anyway. I was just completely out of it that night and managed to get some sleep.
Iris: But you still did it in the morning?
Austin: No. I was totally wiped out. I’d been up all night so I just had to sleep. It was Royal Marines who were organizing. They were saying, “Yeah, do it,” and I'm like, “I'm not doing it. Sorry.” I would have collapsed. I would have physically. There comes a limit so you have to look after yourself sometimes and just say no. Another time actually on the expedition, I was moving along. Probably, we’re 18 days into the expedition at this point and we’re moving along. I think it’s called hypoglycemia where you have extremely low blood sugar levels. Is that right?
I was suffering hypoglycemia, and when you get that you literally can fall asleep. I don’t know. It’s like microsnoozing. I think at one point I just collapsed, hit the ground, and I was walking and I fell asleep while I was walking and just totally the end of your endurance capabilities. All I remember is my teammates coming around me and feeding me chocolates. You eat more than a kilogram of chocolate everyday so that was a bonus, because you can eat enough calories when you’re doing endurance.
Iris: You need the density.
Austin: It’s a natural thing to do to be honest because I think you’re expanding in the region of 7000 calories per day. You can only eat around about 5000, I think. You’re 2000 calories per day in deficit. You obviously have to start the expedition with a few extra pounds on you to help. Just never giving up. That was the idea. Even after that, I just attacked and came back. There was one more point where my teammate — because it was a race and this guy was like number four world duathlon championship so he’s very competitive and he’s really like the athlete’s mentality of “we’ve got to win.”
We were doing well in the race in the early stages, but I was having some extreme tendon problems. I was finding it difficult to push as hard as what he was able to do. There was a point where he put so much pressure on me, I literally broke down and couldn’t take the pressure. You’re miles and miles from anywhere. There are no hospitals there. It’s the tall edge of anything out there.
Again, after that happened the next day I came back, attacked, attacked, attacked, and pushed. You have to face your demons and your weaknesses, but if you can keep your mental strength. If you can keep that you’ve won the battle. It’s not physical mostly. It’s mostly mental. One of the books I did this research is Mind Over Matter. It’s Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
Iris: That’s a really good book.
Austin: He’s a great British explorer and his book was phenomenal. Another book that is great on this topic is his expedition partner, Dr. Mike Stroud. He’s a qualified doctor with a specialism in physiology. He wrote a book called Survival of the Fittest and that book was a really great review of human physiology and how we’re actually geared up for endurance feats. He basically tells a story about humans chasing mammoths and hunting mammoths. You might have to chase a mammoth for a few days to catch it, and then when you do catch it maybe one of your tribe gets injured and maybe gets a serious injury when you’re trying to kill the mammoth. Then he’s still alive so you can’t leave him. You have to bring him back and the mammoth. These guys were doing extreme endurance feats. Over those 10, whatever, thousand years, we had evolved. Our physiology was optimized for endurance activities.
Dr. Stroud in his book is saying that a lot of modern illnesses are lifestyle related and sedentary lifestyles, and cardiovascular illnesses and smoking related, and alcohol and so forth. It’s interesting to get a proper medical doctor’s opinion about these ideas. It’s a book I’d like to read myself again at some point, but, certainly, if any of the listeners are interested now –
Iris: It seems to go a little bit against – some of the trends today are certain believers of certain diets and fitness trends. I'm not going to say which ones say that people are not made for endurance. It doesn’t make sense to train endurance at all because we’re not built for it.
John: Here’s something interesting.
Iris: I reckon we are.
Austin: I think it makes sense. It couldn’t have been easy to live back in those days. I think their life expectancy was a lot less as well, but I think the level of physical activity it would have taken to just survive I think they would have had to have had endurance. I don’t think the obesity epidemic was a problem back then.
John: I don’t think so. It’s really interesting just hearing you talking. A lot of the guests that we have talked to on the show, there are 2 really common things like one that you keep on saying that when you told me that when you woke up in the morning you knew you’re going to do this thing, and you’re afraid. You just keep on emphasizing that throughout the whole thing that you knew you’re going to accomplish this. That’s like a great precursor to success. I think a lot of people that we’ve talked to that have had success, they’ve always believed that they’re going to do it. They’ve never had the doubt that they’re not going to do it and how powerful that is.
Then the other thing that you mentioned that was really awesome and, again, that I keep on hearing over and over again in stories of successful people that have done great feats that changed your lives, is falling down but then getting right back up the next day and just going on the attack again. That’s amazing. It’s clear that you’ve got what it takes and it becomes so clear when you hear someone, amazing story of what you’re able to accomplish. It’s like I break it down to those 2 things. At least in my mind that people really need to be able to, even just losing weight or whatever they’re trying to do, those 2 things are so important.
Austin: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a Japanese proverb that says, “Fall down 7 times, stand up 8.” It’s great and it’s tough though. I would have to say also that if you did fail, it’s no big deal. There’s no disgrace in failing. I think that’s another quote I love is “The only failure is not trying.” I think that if you have the attitude, at least if you try and you failed fair enough, it doesn’t matter. If you succeed, great, or you get somewhere.
Certainly, for me, I was happy that I did manage to complete the race and do it. There were some guys there. There was a team called Claim for Tibet, right? These guys were going to various areas of intense energy on the earth, and they were doing it for the claim for Tibet or for Tibet. They believe that there was – I don’t know, some persecution against Tibet that they didn’t agree with it. They were very big supporters of the Tibetan, Free Tibet Movement and stuff. Pete and Tess.
They actually had crystals that were given to them by the Dalai Lama that they took to these locations on the earth and then they threw them, and they asked and made a blessing. Pete was 50 years older and he was a great guy, fit guy, a really good mountaineer, but he had some heart problems. Doctors wouldn’t let him compete on the race. Once they got to the start line, they said, “I'm sorry. You can’t compete on the race.” The start line was like a 5 or 7-day walk to get to the start line, so it’s pretty serious test of endurance even to get to the start line. Pete and Tess had to, at that point, admit that they weren’t going to do the race. Literally, we were tears on the start line because these guys couldn’t do it. They were such nice people. There’s no shame in it and it was the right thing that they didn’t push themselves to the point where it wouldn’t maybe endanger other people’s lives as well.
They gave our team the crystals so we had to take these crystals. When we got to the magnetic North Pole I had to do a little peace ceremony and threw the crystals and wished peace for the world or whatever. That was part of the journey. I think that Pete and Tess would have – they were with us there in spirit. Actually, they didn’t just bail out. They managed to get to the magnetic North Pole, but they were assisted. We still saw them in the finish line which was great, yeah, just great people. I don’t know if they failed. They didn’t do the official thing but they still had a fantastic journey
Iris: It sounds to me like they didn’t fail. They just did a different journey. I have a small scale, a similar story, it’s very small scale. I ran Stockholm Marathon and I had a friend that was going to run with me. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to run the whole marathon. He would show up bits and pieces of the marathon and run next to me as much as he could, and then he would go to the next stop. It’s really at a very small scale. He would never be able to finish for 2 kilometers because his condition was pretty bad. He still wanted to be there. This was minus 3 degrees and it was snow, snow raining really heavily. There was heavy wind. Nobody was there but he would just show up here and there and try to run alongside me. He was definitely there at the finish line as well.
Austin: That’s awesome. That’s a great experience.
Iris: It’s the spirit. It’s just the spirit. For him, if he wants to run the marathon next time, that would mean that he’s mentally prepared himself because he did participate, but in his own way instead of just sitting at home watching the telly.
Austin: Absolutely. That’s awesome.
John: All right. Well, I think that’s a good note to wrap this up on. Yeah, that’s an awesome story. Gosh, I want to see some sun dogs now.
Austin: All right, cool. Well, it’s been great talking to you guys.
John: Yeah. Thanks for coming on the show. We really appreciate that.
Iris: Yeah. Thank you so much.
John: All right. Don’t forget to check us out at getupandcode.com. Today, I’ve got a special request for you. If you can take a look at iTunes, just search for us for Get Up and Code iTunes and give us an honest review if you like the podcast. This way, other people will be able to find it and we can help other programmers get in shape and to realize there’s this whole community of IT professionals and programmers that are interested in fitness and diet. Thanks. Thanks again for joining us. Thanks again, Austin, and we will talk to you next week.