Neither frostbite nor storms prevent Ontario builder from South Pole charity feat

by Sarah Frangione

            He’s been there and done that, well sort of. So why would a 46-year-old husband and father of three and his team of part- time explorers decide to do it again?

Victoria Wells, Ellin Bessner, Steve Stipsits and Sarah Frangione show off South Pole gear

Victoria Wells, Ellin Bessner, Steve Stipsits and Sarah Frangione show off South Pole gear



            Steve Stipsits, owner and president of Branthaven Homes in Burlington, Ont., in a joint effort with four other business owners, has just returned from the South Pole and managed to raise $600,000 in charitable donations for less fortunate kids.

            “Our donation was really to pay for the entire cost of the trip so that every dollar that we could receive for the charities would go towards children’s programming,” Stipsits said on Friday in an interview with Centennial College journalism students.

In 2006, the team trekked to the North Pole on foot, and by late 2008, they were at it again for the South Pole for Kids charity, this time on skis and facing colder temperatures (-40 C to -60 C).

“I’d get to think about how well off mine are (children) and how much need there is out there for others and so despite the fact that I really didn’t want to leave (my) kids for any length of time anywhere near that, we kind of felt it was necessary,” he said.

The extreme dangers Stipsits and his team faced in the Pole in 2008 were much more extreme than in 2006. Stipsits said in the interview the team had to rent a gun because the threat of polar bears was a constant one, although he added, they never had to use it.

One of the teammates, Mark MacLennan had to be airlifted out only two days into the expedition due to frostbitten fingers. It cost him $110,000, affected the team and slowed down their 200 km ski trek to the Pole by almost four days.

“We couldn’t go any further with him in his condition and we couldn’t leave him there, so we just had to be patient,” Stipsits said. “You realize how far in the middle of nowhere you are,” he said.

The whole 2008 South Pole expedition posed many obstacles for the team. Open water, fresh ice, constant gear breakdowns like broken bindings and a lack of gear, all the while hauling a 50- kilogram sled.

“We were shocked at how difficult it was to pull the sleds. Three hours only (into the expedition) and we were exhausted,” Stipsits said. “The sleds would get caught in the nooks and crannies just continually. We called them the ‘angry children’ because they just wouldn’t come along,” he said.

The team had no bathroom to use, they had to stay in the same clothes for almost a month and once they crossed the “magical latitude,” (the point where all lines of longitude meet and every step one takes will lead them in a southerly direction) they had to put everything into a bag and take it off the continent with them, including all urine and feces, Stipsits said. Adding, both the Poles are the two cleanest places on earth, most likely because nobody ever goes there.

Stipsits says he started the trip with high anxiety, but the longer he was there, the more he ‘saw the light at the end of the tunnel.’ Then just as they thought they were going to start their journey home, on Dec.16, the team was advised about a giant cyclone heading towards their base camp.

“When we got to Patriot Hills we realized everything counted on wind,” Stipsits said referring to pictures he brought to share with the students. “Here we are packing sides of the tent, piling it up with snow so that no wind would get under the tent. They said our tent will be gone, it’ll be at the coast before you can even reach for it,” he said.

“We had already thought we were going home once, you couldn’t see your hand at the end of your arm. Realize you’re not going anywhere, doesn’t matter if you’re George Bush or Jesus, they can’t come and get you,” Stipsits said.

Both trips combined, Stipsits and the team raised about $1.1 million. A distribution meeting on March 10 will precede the division of the $600,000 raised in the 2008 expedition to the South Pole.







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