Polar Challenge

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Top Gear, Series 9 Episode 7 of 8

Duration: 1 hour

It's the ultimate test of man against machine or should that be dog against machine? Either way, it's Top Gear's most ambitious and arduous challenge to date.

Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond attempt to race from the town of Resolute in northern Canada to the Magnetic North Pole, 450 miles away.

The terrain in between is some of the toughest on Earth - a mix of mountainous land masses and jagged sea ice where temperatures can drop to a mind numbing minus 65 degrees centigrade. And then there are the Polar Bears. The Arctic is home to 80% of the world's population and when it comes to lunch they really don't care if it's seal or human.

This being Top Gear, the three presenters' modes of transport are a little out of the ordinary. Jeremy and James drive a specially adapted pick up truck whilst Richard travels on something a little less high tech - a sled pulled by a team of ten Canadian Inuit Dogs.

Pitting dog power against horse power may sound like a one sided contest but given the nature of the terrain there's no telling who will make it to The Pole first. In fact there's no guarantee that either team will reach the finish line at all.

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  • From the Top Gear Team

    On life-in-the-freezer Top Gear, the team wrapped up warm and undertook the most extreme challenge in the history of the world's most extreme motoring show - a race to the North Pole.

    You'll probably agree that 450 miles of Arctic tundra, ice boulders, polar bears and -35 degree temperatures make a quick jaunt across Europe in a Bugatti look a little tame by comparison.

    Richard's transport would be a tried-and-trusted team of ten Inuit dogs and a wooden sled, while Jeremy would be attempting a world first by driving a car to the pole - well, a heavily modified Toyota pick-up truck. This sounded a little unfair on Richard, so to even the odds Jeremy was given a little handicap. James May.

    Before heading to the Arctic Circle, our three intrepid presenters were sent to a cold-weather training camp in Austria to get an idea of what an icy death might feel like. Here, an ex-special forces type with a pixelated face got very shouty while showing the boys how to put up a tent, and pushed Jeremy into some extremely cold water. That done, everyone felt much better prepared for their assault on the pole.

    The starting point was Resolute, Canada's most northerly town. The dogs were primed with food and the Toyota filled with freeze-resistant fuel. The team was finally ready for the off.

    At first the going was pretty easy, especially for Jeremy and James, who invoked the spirit of classic Victorian explorers by sipping gin and tonics while the Toyota surged forward. But when they encountered an Arctic sea with very thin ice, it soon became apparent that Richard's sled had its advantages. One slip here and Clarkson would be reliving his Austrian ice bath experience - only there wouldn't be a nice cup of cocoa and a dry pair of pants waiting for him this time, just a slow death as hypothermia took hold. Hammond and the dogs had no such problems and the gap started to close.

    The next major obstacle was a field of ice boulders. These enormous and immovable blocks of ice form an almost impenetrable maze and, needless to say, James's navigational skills were pushed beyond their limits. The Toyota quickly became bogged down as it beached itself on the boulders time and time again.

    Disaster finally struck as Jeremy's impatience got the better of him. He powered the Toyota over a huge bump with too much enthusiasm, wrecking part of the suspension and tearing through the Toyota's inch-thick armoured underside. Spares were available, but fitting them in freezing conditions took time. All the while, Hammond and his hounds where hunting the pair down.

    Eventually - and with a sense of relief that can't be expressed in words - the Toyota broke free of the boulder field and made its final push for the pole. Richard had no chance now and dog power was resoundingly bested by horsepower. Frankly, everyone was glad to have made it there safely. Now all that was left to do was go home. But that's a story for another day.

    First shown on: 25/07/2007 (Series 9 Episode 7)

  • Production notes: Polar special

    Production notes: Polar special

    Now, here at Top Gear we enjoy a good race - man and machine pitted against the elements and usually some form of dastardly public transportation - and the word 'epic' tends to get bandied about quite a lot. On this particular occasion, however, it doesn't really do justice to the task at hand.

    As usual, the race featured a contest between our three presenters. But this time the destination wasn't a delightful restaurant in southern France, a top-of-the-range hotel, or even a ski resort. It was the North Pole.

    Jeremy and James were attempting to become the first men ever to drive a car to the Pole, using a heavily modified Toyota pick-up truck, while Richard was going the full-Amundsen by using a sled pulled by a tried-and-tested team of dogs.

    As you can imagine, the effort and logistical planning that went into making this polar special went a bit beyond the usual. After all, mess up here and a lingering icy death is a genuine possibility. Here are just a few of the behind-the-scenes stories that went into making our most technically challenging and scariest film ever.

    • First of all it's important to point out why we decided to aim for the Magnetic North Pole, and not the True North Pole. To be honest, this one's open to debate. You see, while the True North Pole is a fixed cartographical point which relates to time as well as position, the Magnetic North Pole (the one your compass points at) actually moves about over time. So you could find yourself at the True North Pole and still need to travel north to reach the Magnetic North Pole - understand? No, nor us really.

    • In the end (and bear in mind it was James doing the navigating) we decided to go for the Magnetic North Pole, simply because you can't miss it so long as you follow the needle on your compass. Trust us, though, it's every bit as cold and staggeringly hard to reach as the True North Pole, so don't feel short-changed.

    • Richard never actually made it to the Pole. Communications between the two teams were unreliable at best, and after Jeremy and James arrived and we realised just how far behind Richard was and it seemed cruel to make him go the extra distance just so Clarkson could gloat.

    • Once the race was over, the three presenters were taken to clear landing sites and evacuated by specially adapted snow planes. The support crew and camera teams, on the other hand, had to turn around and go back the way they came, through another 400 miles of ice, snow, and hungry polar bears.

    • In these health and safety-obsessed times, we felt it might be considered irresponsible to send our three pampered presenters into the most inhospitable environment on Earth completely unaided. After all, their combined pre-Top Gear extreme cold weather experience consisted solely of Jeremy's biannual skiing holiday and James once building a really big snowman.

    • As Jeremy points out in the film, the presenters weren't alone on the journey - we did need to send some cameramen to film them. Two other similarly modified trucks travelled in convoy with Jeremy and James, carrying the film crew, mechanics, a doctor, and a Special Forces-type.

    • Richard had a slightly smaller team accompanying him on skidoos (a sort of miniature snow mobile), so he too could be filmed and potentially rescued if the worst happened. Of course, he also had the unparalleled experience of Matty McNair to draw on.

    • Anyone who doubts just how tough this challenge was should simply take a look at the busted visages of Clarkson and May towards the end of the film - for these are the faces of broken men. I mean, seriously, they'd make Bob Geldof shudder. Temperatures of minus 36 degrees, precious little sleep, and the sheer physical exertion of hacking their way out of a giant field of ice boulders, all took their toll. Although ask them both now and they'd probably admit it was having to share a tent with each other that came closest to forcing them to throw in the towel.

    • Hammond, of course, had it even harder. He arrived in the Arctic Circle a week earlier than Jeremy and James to take a crash course in dog-sledging. Much of his journey was done either on skis or standing on the back of a sled, and this while facing a steady stream of flying dog poo.

    • As you may know, the polar bear is the largest land carnivore on the planet. It can run as fast as a race horse, has an incredibly keen sense of smell, and is the type of bear most likely to prey on humans. We encountered lots of them. In fact, the doctor who accompanied Hammond's team, and who travels to the Arctic Circle every year, said he'd seen more bears on this trip than any other he'd made. The shotgun wasn't for show.

    • Speaking of shotguns, the crashed Douglas C-47 plane that Jeremy and James stumbled upon shortly before reaching the Pole seemed to be peppered with holes from AA fire, and there's been some speculation on the internet about this.

    • The 1949 accident that brought the C-47 to its icy resting place actually took place during take-off, and all crew members walked away with only minor injuries. The holes come from pot-shots taken by passing explorers. It seems no one can resist firing off a few rounds when they see it. Considering it's the only man-made object for hundreds of miles in any direction, and that most explorers are heavily armed with anti-bear weaponry, this is perhaps understandable. For safety reasons, Jeremy's shotgun had been confiscated at this point.


Jeremy Clarkson
Richard Hammond
James May
Nigel Simpkiss


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