In 2001, while leading a ski expedition in far north Greenland in temperatures of minus 35 degrees, the ice cracked under Nicolas Dubreuil’s feet, plunging him into the water, still attached to his sled. “My first thought was, ‘I have gone too far. I will die.'”
Instead, as his charges screamed in panic, Dubreuil managed to swim back up onto the ice. A Greenlandic man who was fishing nearby with his two children heard the noise and rushed to the rescue, piling him onto his sled, a child on each knee, to pull him by snowmobile to the nearest settlement. But then the ice gave way and Dubreuil fell into the water again – with the kids, aged six and eight. “It was a nightmare,” he says.
The fisherman dragged all three of them to solid ground, and then sped off with his soaked children, telling Dubreuil: “Save your life. I save my children. I can do nothing for you.” His limbs frozen and his mind confused by hypothermia, Dubreuil somehow made it to the hospital. “It’s a miracle you’re still alive, so be happy,” the doctor told him. “But we are going to have to cut off your hands and feet.'”
Dubreuil, a Frenchman now aged 48, still has his hands and his feet, which he credits to never touching cigarettes or alcohol. That near-death experience utterly changed his life. “There is this saying that I love,” he says. “You have two lives, and the second one starts when you realise you only have one.”
Luxury cruise to the North Pole
With that second life Dubreuil has became expedition director for Ponant, a French cruise operator. He was in Australia recently to spruik the company’s world-first “luxury icebreaker”, due to set sail in 2021 and capable of taking tourists to the North Pole.
Dubreuil declares he cares nothing for luxury. The first time he attended a gala dinner on board a Ponant ship headed for Antarctica, he took one look at the couples in their evening gowns and tuxedos, turned tail in his jeans, and fled to his cabin – vowing to tell the captain in the morning this gig was not for him. He’d finish his contract and then he’d be going home, thank you very much, to his tiny hut in a remote settlement of 400 people and 1000 dogs in far north Greenland.
“I was dazzled by the luxury,” he says of that first encounter. “But then I got fascinated by the captains, and the teamwork on the ship.” Today he spends time between Paris and Marseilles, where Ponant is headquartered, but his home base is still that spartan hut in Kullorsuaq, halfway up Greenland’s west coast. He also still wears jeans to black-tie events.
His first encounter with the Arctic was through a holiday job with a polar expedition company when he was a 22-year-old computer science student in Paris. Over the years, in between earning his PhD and teaching computer science at Strasbourg University, Dubreuil led more than 100 polar expeditions.
Greenland ice cap
He’s crossed the Greenland ice cap eight times and the North Pole three times. “But, honestly?” he says. “It was a little bit boring.” Not to mention a trial dealing with the A-type personalities such expeditions attract. “The egos! You know, they want to be the first. They want to be fastest. And they miss everything around them.”
Dubreuil had his own important lesson in surviving in the wild when he was 18 and a family friend, a trainer in the military special force in France, held good on a promise to take him kayaking from Vancouver to Anchorage.
“He said to me, ‘OK, you can camp there.’ It was dark and raining, and the first time I’d put up a tent. I had to put up a tarp, but the only knots I knew were shoe knots, and that didn’t work. So I asked him to help me. I had this old lamp, and I couldn’t see what he was doing so I said, ‘OK, you show me again tomorrow.’ But he took my arm, like this, and he said, ‘No, I show you once only.'”
That early journey taught Dubreuil he was tough. “I can sleep anywhere, I can eat anything, I can kill anything to eat, and I can survive everywhere.”…
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