I find myself writing this, surrounded by expedition gear, a day before leaving on a Polar training expedition in Finse, Norway. It’s fair to say that my life has never felt so busy and varied as the past 12 months since admitting to myself and the world that I would be embarking on a solo, unsupported expedition to the South Pole.
My name is Cat Burford, a dentist in Cornwall, and in November this year I am planning on covering a distance of just over 700 miles in temperatures as low as -50°C and wind speeds of up to 60mph to reach the southernmost point on earth.
The question that I am inevitably asked when people learn about my plans is, "Why?". Unfortunately, it’s a question that doesn’t have a simple, short answer.
For me, adventure and the outdoors have always been a part of my life, and with that comes a willingness to take risks. In fact, my desire to become a dentist began at the age of 10, the result of my fearless and competitive streak, racing my sister, on my bike, down the steepest hill in Eastbourne. I ended up head over handlebars and missing half of my front tooth, the reconstruction of which set me on the path to my ultimate career.
I used to spend Sunday afternoons leafing through my Dad’s National Geographic magazines which were a window to a world that I was impatient to explore. I loved Geography at school and had a teacher that really brought the subject to life. The lightbulb moment came as she announced that the largest desert on earth was Antarctica, and a picture of a vast, frozen landscape filled the projector screen. It is a continent of extremes. The highest, the driest, the coldest and the windiest continent on earth. I knew then, that one day I would step foot there.
At 18, I took a gap year to teach English in Borneo and test myself on my first solo venture. I grew in confidence and the experience instilled in me a desire to keep on exploring. For my dental elective, I joined a research expedition in the Gobi Desert and since then, have embarked on numerous voluntary dental roles in Nepal, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Bolivia and Argentina. I even moved to New Zealand for a short while, lured by the outdoor lifestyle and how it could balance my somewhat sedentary vocation.
Lockdown proved a pivitol moment. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit and we were forced to stop for a while, that I decided to take the steps toward my ultimate dream. I was frustrated at how the pressures of work felt like they were holding me back. I always knew that there was a big challenge in me and, turning 40, I realised that the timeframe in which I would be at my fittest and most able was rapidly reducing. So, I signed up for a polar skills training course to see if I had what it takes to make my dream a reality.
Finse is a small mountain village in Norway that can only be accessed by a “snow train” and is steeped in polar history. It’s where Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton all prepared for their Antarctic expeditions over a century ago. Today, during the winter months, you will find famous names amongst the polar community training there. In March 2022, this is where my dreams of a solo, south pole expedition began and where the name, “The Molar Explorer” was born.
This expedition is not just about the end goal of reaching the South Pole, but the journey that started a year ago. It’s been a real rollercoaster, testing me both physically and mentally as I navigate my way through this challenging process. I am learning new skills, but I am also utilising those transferable skills I already have as a dentist; resilience, communication, adaptability, decision-making and planning.
I’m excited to take you on this journey with me, giving insight into the highs and lows of what it takes to ski solo to the South Pole. For now, though, it’s time to close the laptop, pack up my kit, and follow in the footsteps of those famous polar explorers.
The Molar Explorer