by Victoria Wells
It was the biggest challenge Steve Stipsits ever had to face.
Trudging 200 kilometres on skis, dragging a 100-pound sled behind him and confronting -50 C wind chills that sapped his strength and never ceased – all with no hope of escape.
Though he had prepared himself physically and mentally for half-a-year for his trip to the South Pole, Stipsits felt, after only one day in Antarctica, that he could never have prepared enough.
“All that [preparation] went out the window that first night,” Stipsits said. “It was completely gone. It was complete anxiety, realizing that we are so deep now, and there is no way to get out of here.”
Stipsits, 46, owner of Branthaven Homes, trekked to the South Pole with three other businessmen from the Hamilton area in December 2008 to raise money for children’s charities. Their efforts netted close to $600,000 in funds for kids’ nutrition and music programs in the Niagara, Hamilton and Halton regions. Distribution of the money is set for March 10.
Originally planned as a two-week long trip, the expedition stretched on for over a month. After reaching the Pole on Dec. 15, the explorers were stranded by bad weather before a plane could pick them up and take them to the Patriot Hills base camp. Once there, another storm grounded them on the continent, forcing them to miss Christmas with their families. They finally made it back home on Dec. 29.
Stipsits said the trip was extremely demanding, both physically and mentally.
“There is no question that this is the most strain I’ve ever been under,” he said. “The entire time we were there it felt not enjoyable. There were not five instances in the 30 days where you’d say, ‘Well, that was fun.’”
Stipsits is among a group of less than a hundred people to have skied to both ends of the earth. In 2006, he joined three others in an expedition to the North Pole to raise money for children. For that trip, his team raised over $500,000. The money was distributed to the Hamilton-Wentworth school board and earmarked for arts and breakfast programs.
For both expeditions, team members covered all their own expenses to ensure donations went directly to charity.
But, for this trip, Stipsits said knowing children would benefit from the expedition is what really helped keep the team moving towards their goal of reaching the South Pole.
“You go out and solicit so much money from people to provide for kids’ charity, and then you have almost 5,000 students back home tuning in every day through the (website),” he said. “You just can’t not make it.”
That motivation especially came into play when team member Mark MacLennan’s hands became frostbitten while trying to retie his sled. The accident occurred only two-and-a-half days into the journey. MacLennan had to be airlifted to Chile for treatment to his fingers with no way of rejoining the others on their expedition. It was a blow for the team, one they struggled to overcome.
“It was a tough time,” Stipsits said. “Just to get him evacuated we were sitting there for three-and-a-half days. We couldn’t move. You realize how far in the middle of nowhere you are, and we couldn’t get a plane. We just had to wait, just had to be patient.”
Once MacLennan was removed, the team resumed their journey, suffering through the intense cold and never-changing scenery. The only time they stopped was for short refuelling breaks each hour to take in much needed calories. During those times, Stipsits said, the team could hardly talk to each other because they were so exhausted.
“It felt very alone,” he said. “The trip was mind-numbingly monotonous. One of the guys would count the steps, just playing mind games to get through the monotony, just to keep going.”
Even actions Stipsits usually took for granted became huge challenges.
“If I would go to put a sock on, which is a next to nothing task, I was completely out of breath,” he said.
Though Stipsits said the end of the journey brought a great sense of relief, he hasn’t had much chance to relish in it. He is now in the process of helping his company weather the current economic storm. The global recession has been particularly hard on the building industry, and Stipsits’s company is no exception.
“Over the last financial quarter, our sales are down roughly 90 per cent. We are going to have to make adjustments to the size of our company, and that is weighing extremely heavily on me right now,” he said.
But, Stipsits looks to his recent experience in the South Pole for strength.
“Perseverance will get you there eventually,” he said of lessons learned in business and in his expeditions. “This too shall pass.”
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