Martin Hartley – Hero of the Environment

From National Geographic Traveller to The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine to The Guardian and many more inbetween, the work of photographer and adventurer Martin Hartley evokes both awe and angst in equal measure. Awe because of his ability to capture an insight into some of the most remote places on earth; angst because he’s been doing it so long, the undeniable changes to our planet are clearly identifiable in his work.

Martin has spent more than 400 days working in the Arctic and Antarctic on more than 20 polar expeditions and assignments. Time Magazine’s Hero of the Environment award acknowledged his contribution to science, whilst Sir Ranulph Fiennes recognises that his “ability to take beautiful powerful photographs in the most difficult places to survive on our planet, is inspirational.”

I wonder whether Martin considers himself to be a photographer or an explorer and adventurer? “Well… I am a photographer first and foremost and I do unusually qualify as an ‘explorer’ as I have actually placed footprints where nobody has before and together with that brought back new information. The term ‘explorer’ is used more often as a marketing tool than an accurate description, so I try to avoid labelling myself with that to avoid falling into that category of ‘marketeer explorer’, and there’s no shortage of those. As for ‘adventurer’, well it’s hard not to be one of those in spirit, it’s the best!”

“I have actually placed footprints where nobody has before and together with that brought back new information”

For all the science that tells us that our planet is warming up, that our ice caps are melting, very few people have seen this with their own eyes. On and off for the last 17 years, Martin has spent extended time on the Arctic Ocean and has seen change happen much faster than scientists have anticipated. “In 2014 I felt the full impact of a warmer Arctic Ocean; it was impossible to keep up with the speed of the drift. Because there is so much open water up there now, the ice moves very fast. In 2017, I got my greatest shock when I spent 22 days skiing on sea ice near the North Pole that was as flat as a frozen lake. None of the ice I had been on would survive the summer. That was a huge wake up call. The temperatures in the Arctic are about 60 years ahead of what science had anticipated.”

“Ten years ago I thought my photographs of the Arctic Ocean might be valuable in maybe a hundred years, after my death, maybe even longer,” Martin tells me. “That concept has changed too, and a lot faster than I imagined. The photographs I have now are fast becoming the only profound documentation of an environment that will be extinct, and sadly, very sadly in our lifetme.” It’s clear that Martin feels a duty to document the melting sea ice and to educate on the reality of climate change. “Right now I feel a huge sense of duty to get back out there to document the ice again before it is lost forever, extinct. Photographers are working hard all over the world to document endangered animals and habitat loss. The rate of loss is terrifying. The Arctic Ocean is so relatively unknown, almost invisible in the consciousness of the general public. It is hugely important to make a ‘song and dance’ about how important the ice is to everyone on earth. The loss of the sea ice will affect everyone on earth.”

“The temperatures in the Arctic are about 60 years ahead of what science had anticipated.”

It’s from this sense of duty that The Last Ice Sentinel legacy project was born. Driven by Martin, a small team will set off from the most northerly point of Canada to reach the most northerly point of land on earth, 300 miles away. Its purpose is to locate and photograph the last fragments of the rarest ice on earth; those cathedral-like monuments we often see tumbling into the ocean. “The Last Ice Sentinels Expedition is a great vehicle for this ‘shouting to the world’ and the photography will be a great tool for giving the Arctic Ocean a voice to capture images that people will understand and learn from,” Martin explains. “As our warming climate continues to transform the Arctic, the Arctic will continue to transform the world. Also the oldest ice of the multi year ice is a magnificent beast and photographs of this ice are very, very rare. It will be a huge loss to humanity once it is gone. I see it as a moral responsibility to go back and photograph it, before it’s too late. It’s so, so important that more people understand that what we do here on a day to day basis also affects the Arctic and the Arctic Ocean, every single day.” Imagine baring the weight of such mammoth, monumental change on your own shoulders. “It would be no exaggeration to say that I have lost sleep over the ice going, and the effects that will have on our health and our society. This impact will be felt through changing weather patterns, which will lead to unpredictable food crops, flooding in places and drought in other places. It is on my mind every single day. What will happen when the ice has gone? Nobody really knows. Flying over the Arctic Ocean is a very emotional experience. The feeling I have now is the same as flying over a huge forest that’s on fire… imagine how that would feel. The expedition is a huge unknown, we will be relying on satellite data to guide us to the areas where it is predicted the old ice would be. If we don’t find the ‘big ice’, that in itself raises a big question.”

I’d personally believed (or maybe just hoped…) that we’d turned a corner in our climate change consciousness over the last couple of years. Maybe that’s because I live here, in the mountain bubble, amongst people who really do care and are incredibly active in the pursuit of change. “We have around 10 -12 years to get our shit together globally as a species, to stop the global average temperatures rising more than two degrees Celsius. This target is already looking like it will be three Celsius. If that is the case, all of the ice on the Arctic Ocean will be changed to water by 2030 in the summer and by 2090 there will not be any ice in the winter either. The oldest of the Multi Year Ice will be gone within the next decade, that’s a hit we will sadly have to take.”

Back to the day job, it can’t be easy working endless hours in sub zero conditions. I wonder what the biggest challenge is for Martin? “The biggest challenge is keeping my fingers and toes, after that it’s keeping sane when trying to do anything if you get very cold day after day after day. The mornings are the hardest, packing the tent away and getting going. The first couple of hours in the day are really hard.” Think about that next time you’re waiting at the bottom of the Proclou chairlift on a January morning.

Whilst Martin’s entire focus is clearly on The Last Ice Sentinel project, his career is littered with incredible achievements and a lot of fun. After all, adventurers don’t go adventuring just to risk hypothermia or losing fingers and toes. “The most memorable expeditions are always the ones with the ‘best’ people. I’ve been to some amazing places with some difficult people. In 1999 I went to the Zaalayski Khrebet in the Eastern Pamirs. The mountain range was previously off limits to non-Russian nationals, tucked away on the borders of China, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan. There were four unclimbed six thousand meter peaks which we wanted to climb. We had an incredible time with great friends and truly huge hearted Russians who made our experience very rich. This was pre-social media days, the place was all ours and we were so lucky to have had that beautiful, beautiful mountain range all to ourselves and being completely cut off is real adventure. The whole expedition was based on a crappy photograph of the mountain range taken from about 60 miles away. We arrived at night and in the morning we were greeted by a wall of white over a hundred miles long, big fat ginger Marmots whistling away all around us and thick carpets of Edelweiss.”

“We have around 10 -12 years to get our shit together globally as a species, to stop the global average temperatures rising more than two degrees Celsius.”

“Another unique and now unrepeatable experience,” Martin tells me, “was in 2001. I walked, stumbled, crawled and waded 150 miles through the bottom of a huge canyon along the surface of a frozen river in the far North of the Indian Himalaya in winter. The purpose of the journey was to document a way of life before a road was built to this remote village, which was cut off from civilisation for seven months of the year due to the Himalayan snow. The life in the village is totally self contained, they grow everything themselves from livestock to grains to their own barley based wine. The people in the village were so welcoming as we were the only people to come up the river that winter. The road has just been completed after ten years in the making; it’s taken away the culture with its arrival.”

Did you hear the one about the bloke who took the FA Cup to the South Pole? Yip, that was Martin. “Possibly the most surreal photograph shoot I ever did,” he explains. “I was sat in a meeting in London with the PR agency for the FA. They were briefing me on an assignment that was to promote their social media campaign #FACUPADVENTURE. My brief was to photograph the fans on their ‘adventure’ on match days from start to finish, winners and losers, laughter and tears and everything in between. I suggested to ‘kick off’ the campaign that I should take the FA Cup to the South Pole, as I was heading to Antarctica a couple of days later. Initially that seemed like a joke, but on a Thursday evening at 23:00 I got a call from the FA saying if I could get the FA Cup insured before the weekend I could take it with me. So I contacted a previous expedition insurer Catlin and they said yes…. The armed police ‘interrogation’ at London Heathrow when I was taking it through security is another story.”

I spend a lot of time reading magazines, sometimes for ideas to improve the one you’re currently reading, other times because I genuinely love getting news, information and inspiration from physical pages. I discover that Martin is Director of Photography at Sidetracked, a magazine dedicated to personal stories of adventure, travel and expeditions. “Sidetracked is amazing and I am very proud to be a part of it. All credit should really go to John Summerton, he is the founder. I was asked to be the Director of Photography right at the very start, which was a great meeting to be involved with. John and I sat down for an hour or so with empty notebooks, slowly filling them with ideas and contacts and connections over a pub lunch in Stroud. We were talking about what was going on in the outdoor world and who we knew, who was doing what, and when. The Sidetracked Magazine conversation started and is still flowing today. Our credibility in the outdoor world is blossoming beautifully.”

I ask Martin for any final words for our Morzine Source Magazine readers. “I would say that it is now time to put the climate on top of every agenda in every country, every day. The science has reached a point where the facts cannot be disputed. There is no place for climate deniers in any political office. Everything we do beyond this point in history will cost every country money. We cannot fight nature.”

Martin Hartley – Hero of the Environment
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