On December 28, 2007, Lebanese sportsman Maxime Chaya successfully completed a 47-day expedition to the South Pole with his four teammates. For Chaya, who turned 46 during the trip, reaching the southern-most point on the globe meant achieving the second objective of his Three Poles Challenge that includes climbing Mt. Everest and reaching the South and the North poles, which he plans to complete in the spring of 2009. During his journey to the South Pole, Chaya kept a blog at www.thethreepoles.com, which recorded one million hits as of January 24.
Before starting the Three Poles Challenge, Chaya became the first Lebanese national to reach the summit of Mt. Everest and complete the Seven Summits Challenge, climbing the tallest mountains on all seven continents, on May 15, 2006. As a corporate ambassador for Bank Audi, he gives motivational talks to Lebanese schoolchildren on a weekly basis, encouraging them to pursue their dreams. He is currently organizing La Patrouille des Cèdres, a ski competition on March 8 in the Faqra-Kfardebian region of Lebanon modeled after the Swiss La Patrouille des Glaciers and which is sponsored by Bank Audi (www.audipdc.com).
NOW Lebanon: How did you get the idea for the Three Poles project?
Maxime Chaya: I said to myself, “I made it to Everest and completed the Seven Summits Challenge. Does that mean that’s it? I’ve reached the top and it’s all downhill from there?” I still like waking up early and training every morning. And I still like the challenge of new projects, and I know there is potential for me to do more. So I thought a way to continue in the same manner would be to complete the Three Poles Challenge. As you know, they call Everest the third pole, so I said, “Let’s overlap the two projects because Everest is on both [the Seven Summits and the Three Poles challenges], and I’d like to do something longer, more challenging and more difficult.
NOW: Didn’t you go to the South Pole before the Seven Summits Challenge?
Chaya: Yes, I did go to the pole, but I only did the last degree. I went from the 89 degrees to the pole at 90 degrees, which is equal to 60 nautical miles or 113 kilometers. It’s like running a 10k [race] instead of a marathon. What I did now is ski from the Hercules Inlet (on the coast of Antarctica) all the way to the pole, which is ten degrees or 1,130 kilometers. It’s totally different. The real thing is doing it all the way. I’ve also skied the last degree to the North Pole before, but hopefully in spring 2009, I’ll go all the way from Ward Hunt Island in Canada to the pole.
NOW: Were there any surprises this time around?
Chaya: Well, actually there was. What happened was, I wasn’t able to put on enough weight before I left, so I did not have enough “fuel” for this long and arduous journey. Body fat is a must for a journey like this, and I simply didn’t have enough on me. I lost more than 10% of my body weight, and I dropped down to six percent body fat before I began to eat into my muscle. I completely began to lose power. It was very tough, not only the physical bit but also the mental bit, knowing that you were a V12 engine with 500 horsepower on one day and the next day you’re reduced to a four-cylinder 60 horsepower engine, and knowing that you have to pull weight and you need the horsepower to the pull a sled for nine hours a day in the bitter cold and the freezing wind.
NOW: You mentioned in your blog that you had to eat a lot of fatty food to prepare for the trip and to keep you from losing as much fat as you did.
Chaya: It’s a hard thing to do for an athlete. It’s become a part of my way of life. I just don’t like fatty foods. It’s not that I know that it’s bad for me. It just becomes an acquired taste; you only like food that’s good for you. But over there [in Punta Arenas, Chile], before leaving, I had to eat everything that’s not good for me to try to put on as much fat as possible, knowing that I would need it in due course.
NOW: How did you keep the motivation for 47 days, especially with what you went through, losing your body weight?
Chaya: You know, I’ve been asked that before and I’m not sure I have the right answer for that. For sure, for sure, for sure, all the support and all the encouragement I got from the comments on the blog – mainly people writing to me from all corners of the world, people who don’t even know me – kept me going. I kept thinking, “How can I possibly fail after all this tremendous support?”
But how do I keep myself motivated? I knew for sure that I was going to give it my 100%, not 99. And having given it my 100%, if there was a valid reason for me to ask for an evacuation, then I would have done it and gone home knowing that I gave it my very best. Had I decided to turn back, there would have been a reason.
But the fact that it was tough only makes the victory or attaining the goal that much sweeter. A little hardship is not a bad thing, especially when you make it to the end.
In actual fact, although I’ve been to the poles and I’ve done the Seven Summits Challenge, this one was sentimental. Maybe because it took so long and maybe because when we made it to the pole we knew that we were going to fly back to Patriot Hills [base camp]. And when you make it to the summit, that is only half the journey; you have to come back down.
NOW: How did it feel coming back to Lebanon after this?
After so many days of living out there, you just cherish all of the things that we take for granted in our daily lives. You know the things that you really learn to appreciate when you get deprived of them. After having to dress and undress every single day sitting down in a tent, you get to appreciate doing it standing up.
But it felt really good coming back to Lebanon, having reached my goal. And after losing all that weight, I’ve been enjoying putting it back on and eating anything and everything I like and sleeping in a clean bed and showering every day, and all those things that I didn’t get to do during my trip.
NOW: Are you back to your original weight now?
Chaya: I’m back to my original weight, and actually just this morning was the first time I’ve trained since I reached the pole almost a month ago.
NOW: Tell me about your next project, La Patrouille des Cèdres.
Chaya: In Switzerland it’s organized by the Swiss Army. It’s ski touring. It’s a special kind of skiing where you don’t have ski lifts. You put skins on the bottom of your skis, and when you get to the top, you remove the skins, you lock the bindings, and you ski down like you do in normal downhill skiing.
As you may have seen, here in Lebanon we have some beautiful mountains that are covered in snow in the winter, and only a few of them have ski lifts. So there are so many of them that you can enjoy with that special type of skiing.
So I’m organizing the race with the Swiss authorities because the Swiss are the ones who began this race in Switzerland called La Patrouille des Glaciers (www.pdg.ch). It’s a much bigger race; it has 8,000 applicants, and they only take 3,500, which is humungous. It’s much longer, as well. But we’re starting our only little race here. And it’s growing quite a bit. We’re getting a lot of people coming in from abroad. We hope the [political] situation will allow it, because as you know, it’s not been rosy here of late.
The race is going to go on on March 8. It’s in teams of two. The Patrouille des Glaciers is in teams of three. Our PDC is less technical. You don’t really need to be wearing crampons or ice axes or ropes. You don’t need to be roped up together like you need to in the Patrouille des Glaciers, and you don’t need to be wearing a harness.
NOW: It’s so good to hear that while the country is trapped in a political deadlock and public figures are being assassinated, you’re still achieving these great accomplishments, motivating students and setting up projects like the PDC that are serving Lebanon.
Chaya: What you’re saying is exactly what people have been saying on the blog. “Max, all we hear from Lebanon is bad news. And you’re really the only good news coming out of there. ”
Hopefully soon, there will be other people sending out good news from the country. Not just me.