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On top of the world

On top of the world

In April, Chancellor Jim Leech, MBA’73 (then Chancellor-designate) participated in the largest expedition ever to trek from King Christian Island (200 kilometres north of ­Resolute Bay, Nunavut) to the magnetic North Pole. The journey, organized by the True Patriot Love Foundation, brought together Canadian business leaders and athletes with soldiers and veterans who had been ­injured ­during service. The goal of the 11-day expedition was to raise both awareness and funds to help soldiers, particularly those living with post-traumatic stress disorder, and their families.

It was a love of adventure trekking and travel combined with a goal to support Canadian soldiers that made Chancellor Leech decide to take part in the expedition. “They gave to their country and here was a way for me to help them,” he says. ”I was probably also trying to prove something to myself that I was not old. That’s no small part of it!” At 67, he was the oldest member of the team: the youngest was 24.

He admits that he had moments of self-doubt. “The first was when they took us out and dropped us in the middle of nowhere! We had just flown for 2½ hours and the plane landed on the snow. And they don’t even really turn the engines off – they just throw all the gear out with the propellers still going,” he recalls. “After the plane took off, there was just ­silence. I looked around and saw nothing but white forever. I thought, ‘Oh my God, they aren’t coming back!’ There was a flash of panic, but it was also so beautiful.“

[photo of Jim Leech]Jim Leech takes a selfie during his trek to the magnetic  North Pole.
Note the tricolour mitten strings around his neck.

The group was divided into “pods” of seven to nine ­people. Fellow Queen’s grads and business leaders Andy Chisholm, Com’81, Phil Deck, Artsci’84, and Dougal MacDonald, Artsci’81, were in other pods.

The group also included Bjarne Nielsen, a soldier who had lost a leg in combat and who travelled on a sit ski ­fitted with outriggers for balance. ­Fellow trekkers took turns pulling Sgt. Nielsen (who also used ski poles to propel himself along) and lugging his gear.

Each day, the group travelled for hours, skiing 16 to 20 kilometres over ice and hard-pack snow while pulling sleds filled with food, tents and ­supplies. “I do a lot of cross-country skiing,” says Chancellor Leech, “but this was not cross-country skiing; it was shuffling! You needed to have both feet on the ground at all times. And the ­toboggan you’re pulling has a mind of its own. If you fall, it’s a 10-minute process to get up again. You have to take your gear and your skis off, and then you just don’t have the energy to get up.”

The trekkers also had to manage their exertion levels and body ­temperature. “The challenge was to wear just enough clothing to ski slightly cold in order not to sweat and freeze the ­moment you stopped or the wind picked up.”

Snacks consisted of high-caloric treats like truffles and deep-fried bacon to give the skiers energy to push through. “There was also a fruitcake that was fascinating because, even at ­-30C, it didn’t freeze!” They couldn’t eat while skiing, however. “Your balance was at such a premium that you had to have your poles ready at all times to stop yourself from falling.”

The 10-minute breaks after each leg of the day’s travels tested Chancellor Leech’s time management skills. “Removing your 50-pound backpack and fetching your parka basically used up four ­minutes. In the remaining six ­minutes, there are four things you could do: eat, drink, pee and fix your gear. But you only have time to do two of them.“

At night, they stopped to make camp, using snow saws to carve out latrines and walls to shelter their tents from the bitter wind. Melting ice to hydrate their food took two hours. After eating, they crawled, exhausted, into their sleeping bags, making sure to bring in their electronics and food items that would freeze if not next to body heat.

Reaching the magnetic North Pole after 11 days, the travellers were greeted by the sight of the Canadian flag fluttering in the wind. “We had been skiing for 10 hours that day. We lined up, with the soldiers in the front. We started singing “Oh Canada” in French and English. Everyone was ­crying. We were so wasted emotionally and ­physically.” ­

After the team had set up camp, their guide brought out ­letters from each person’s family, written before the trek began. “And if you weren’t destroyed on the march in, you were a total wreck after the letters. People were ­crying and laughing at the same time. I would certainly rank it as one of the highest emotional ­levels I’ve ever been at.“

While physically recovering from the expedition took weeks, Chancellor Leech says he wouldn’t hesitate to make the journey again – primarily for the camaraderie. “That was one of the magical things about the trip – how all these disparate groups melded into one.

For ­instance, Paul ­Desmarais Jr., the chairman and co-CEO of the Power Corporation of Canada, was paired with a 24-year-old corporal. Within minutes of that first ­training session, they were Paul and Harry, out building a ­latrine together. So there is huge bonding across that ­potential ­divide. For the soldiers, it was great – they felt ­valued, and they proved to themselves that they could still do this. And that was an enormous step in their ­rehabilitation process after ­suffering from post-traumatic stress. It’s all about self-worth and self-esteem.”

With files from Meredith Dault

Queen’s new chancellor

Though he stepped into the role on July 1, Jim Leech was installed as Queen’s 14th chancellor at a convocation ceremony on Nov. 18. Follow ­Chancellor Leech on Twitter: @QUchancellor


[Queen's Alumni Review 2014 issue 4 cover]