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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

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Cumbria's Blue Peter star Helen Skelton to tackle South Pole trek for Sport Relief

She has run 78 miles in 24 hours through African desert. She has kayaked the length of the Amazon.

Helen Skelton photo
Helen Skelton

She has walked a high wire between Battersea Power Station’s towers.

So when Helen Skelton says “This is definitely the biggest challenge yet,” it’s time to strap yourself in and pay close attention.

Helen’s new challenge involves a journey to one of the world’s most inhospitable places – the South Pole.

This is a fearsome prospect under any circumstances. But Helen is aiming to cover much of her 500-mile journey across Antarctica in an unconventional manner... by bicycle.

Helen’s Polar Challenge for Sport Relief, to give the adventure its official title, sees Helen powering herself to the pole by ski, by kitesurf and by a specially designed ice bike with tubeless tyres.

If she succeeds in her epic endeavour, Helen is hoping to set a new world record for the longest ever bicycle journey on snow.

She aims to complete the trek in 20 days next month, travelling up to 14 hours a day across the coldest and windiest place on earth, battling blizzards, 80mph winds and temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius.

The dangers include dehydration, frostbite, sun blindness, snow drifts and altitude sickness.

Helen, 28, will pull a sledge weighing more than 12 stone which contains her food and equipment.

Sport Relief has a proud history of celebrities tackling incredible challenges, such as David Walliams swimming the Thames and Eddie Izzard’s 43 marathons in 51 days.

Helen’s trek is a worthy addition.

“It’s not just the challenge but the environment,” she tells the News & Star. “It will be brutal. I didn’t realise at first, but if you take your gloves off you can lose a finger.

“After my last challenge everyone was saying to me ‘What are you going to do next?’ I was joking ‘Maybe I should do something cold’ because I hadn’t done anything like that before.

“This is the first idea that didn’t come from me. The office called me. ‘So, Helen, what do you think about this?’ It’s probably naivety that made me say yes.”

Growing up in Kirkby Thore, Helen has seen a cold winter or two.

But even the Eden Valley’s worst weather is no preparation for Antarctica.

“I’ve never been anywhere like that before. I don’t know what to expect. The first thing I did to prepare was go to the Snow Dome in Manchester.

“I camped in it for the night. It made me realise how uncomfortable it’s going to be. I wasn’t able to take my hat or gloves off.”

Since agreeing to the challenge four months ago Helen has been practising all three means of transport which will propel her to the pole.

She spent 10 days in Devon learning to kitesurf.

“That was my biggest learning curve. Kitesurfing can be dangerous. You can be blown out of the water and into the air. Six metres was my biggest elevation! I’ve got scars on my hips from where I landed.”

The rest of Helen’s preparation has not gone totally to plan.

She has practised walking with skis in Iceland. But her plan to camp on a glacier was scuppered by such bad weather that she and the camera crew were evacuated.

Helen has done plenty of mountain-biking but she’s had only one brief ride on the ice bike.

“I’ve tried it on a beach. It wasn’t that much fun. I would have liked to have used it more but hopefully it will be ok.

“I want to use the bike as much as possible during the challenge. The weather and the terrain will determine what we do. If it was flat all the way we’d be able to use the bike. But there will be boulders. And times when it’s too windy to kite.

“Someone has attempted to bike to the South Pole. He didn’t get there, and he’s a polar explorer.

“All the adults say the bike won’t work. The kids believe more. The whole point is saying to people ‘It’s not impossible – it’s just difficult.’”

Helen hopes to begin her challenge on New Year’s Day. A special nine-week Blue Peter series documenting the journey will begin on BBC One in mid-January.

“We get there for the 20th of December. Until the 31st I’ll be acclimatising and training, testing the equipment. There’s quite a lot of miles before we get to the start line.”

While the rest of the Skelton clan celebrate Christmas in Cumbria, Helen will be thousands of miles away. This is a source of sadness to her and her family.

“My Christmas will be different, spent with a camera crew I don’t know. I’ve only met them once.

“My mum’s quite upset that I’m away for Christmas. My dad just said ‘Oh, Helen!’”

There’s unlikely to be room for Christmas presents on the sledge that Helen will be dragging 500 miles.

She is currently working out what to take, and has concluded that even the handle of her toothbrush would be excess baggage.

“A woman at work was saying ‘Don’t forget moisturiser and fake tan.’ Fake tan? I can’t even take my toothbrush handle!”

Tomorrow is the centenary of Norwegian Roald Amundsen becoming the first person to reach the South Pole, famously beating Britain’s ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ by five weeks.

“I’m so excited I’m doing it in the centenary year,” says Helen. “A hundred years on, people are still talking about it.

“People keep trying to draw parallels with me and Scott. Everyone laughed at Scott. They said it wouldn’t work with skidoos, like they’re saying it won’t work with my bike.

“He took a Norwegian [ski expert Tryggve Gran]. I’m taking a Norwegian to teach me how to kite ski.”

It’s no surprise to hear that Helen’s main concern about Antarctica is the cold. She’ll have only a tent to sleep in and she knows there will be times when she feels demoralised and miserable.

So why put herself through it?

“It’s because of the people I’ve met at Comic Relief projects. People might think ‘Oh, she’s polishing her halo’. But you meet people like I’ve met, dealing with crap every single day, and you can’t complain about your problems.

“What I’m doing in the Antarctic is not all going to be fun but it’s for a little bit of time.

“How can I complain? I’ve met people with no legs and kids who sleep on piles of rubbish.”

The response to her previous challenges shows that Helen’s adventures have inspired many children. And it seems adults are not immune to her powers of persuasion.

“I was at the gym the other day in Penrith. This woman said ‘I’ve just done 10 minutes extra on the rowing machine because you were here!’”

Helen’s Girl on Wire challenge at Battersea Power Station raised more than £250,000 for Sport Relief, which helps people in the UK and the world’s poorest countries.

She doesn’t have a target in mind for her latest challenge.

“I always say it’s not about the money. I want the kids to get off their Nintendos and try something. But I’d like to raise a decent amount.”

It’s been quite a year for Helen – as most of them are.

2011 began with Girl on Wire.

Last month she became the youngest person to be awarded an honorary fellowship by the University of Cumbria.

And two weeks ago Helen, along with three Blue Peter gold badge winners, switched on the Christmas tree lights outside 10 Downing Street.

“The people that look after the house made us feel so welcome. We were in and out as if it was my auntie’s house!

“The Prime Minister spent a lot of time with us. I think he probably felt he was going to get an easier ride with Blue Peter than with the rest of the media.

“But then the badge winners started asking him why they hadn’t been able to get tickets for the Olympics!”

In recent years Blue Peter has struggled to balance the conflicting demands of its young audience and their parents. Helen feels the programme is now changing for the better.

“It’s changing massively. I think the kids will love it next year. There are fewer ‘makes’ and more guest presenters.

“We’ve had some parents phone up and complain that there’s not as many makes. But at the moment we’re the most-watched children’s show on TV.”

In September the programme moved from London to Manchester, as did Helen. She has many Cumbrian friends in the city and often takes advantage of the short journey to her home county.

This time next week, though, she’ll be far from home.

Until then Helen is facing the contrasting feelings which surface whenever she is about to push herself to another limit.

“One minute I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever agreed to do. I know I’ll look back on it and be pleased I did it.

“Other times, like now, I think ‘Oh no, I’ve got to go out for a bike ride and it’s windy and rainy.’ But that’s nothing compared to what it will be like down there.”

You can sponsor Helen’s Polar Challenge at www.sportrelief.com/helen

Have your say

Thanks for the invitation Cheesy. I would prefer to follow the exploits of somebody undertaking an outstanding personal challenge than watch most of the pap that is served up on TV these days.

Posted by Ed on 20 December 2011 at 10:13

I wonder if Ed will be replying in defence to Ebeneezer Scrooge's post!? Thank you for researching this waste of money.

Posted by Cheesy Cheester on 19 December 2011 at 20:18

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