Focus On

On a desolate, barren continent lawyer finds rich life experience

Thursday, February 25, 2016 @ 7:00 PM | By Geoff Kirbyson

Claire Kennedy has always dreamed of standing at the top of the world, but she made it to the bottom first.

The Toronto-based tax partner at Bennett Jones LLP had long yearned to venture north of the Arctic Circle in Canada, Russia and Scandinavia.

She heard about a previous trip, skiing to the magnetic north pole, but didn’t have enough time to get organized.

“My personal bucket list is to go north of the Arctic Circle in all of the arctic countries. (Going to Antarctica) had some symmetry for me. Going to the bottom of the earth seemed like a symmetrical approach to life,” she says.

She ended up travelling to Mount Vinson, one of the world’s Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each of the seven continents), in Antarctica in January.

She joined 16 other Canadian business people and eight soldiers as part of the True Patriot Love Foundation’s signature fundraising event of the year.

In addition to having a friend involved with the expedition, Kennedy was aware of the foundation because Bennett Jones also acts as its pro bono legal counsel.

“It was the hardest 10 consecutive days of my life,” she says.

Far from a mountaineering expert, Kennedy’s first real taste of what was to come was during a training camp at Mount Athabasca in the Rockies prior to leaving for Antarctica, although she had previously visited several cold weather spots, including Greenland.

She wasn’t scared — she admits to having long ago read Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s firsthand account of the Mount Everest expedition where eight climbers lost their lives in May, 1996 — but she stopped watching mountaineering and survival movies once she committed to the trip.

It didn’t take long for reality to set in. As their cargo plane landed on an ice runway, they were told they would be on their own until the pilot returned to pick them up a week and a half later.

They started out at the base camp, which was at an altitude of 6,900 feet. It was a serious hike to get to the next site, Low Camp, at 9,000 feet, where in addition to carrying their packs, they also had to pull sleds full of gear and supplies.

Then things started getting really difficult. The trek to High Camp at 12,300 feet required conquering a steep ridge with the help of fixed ropes.

“I had an ice axe in my left hand and crampons on my climbing boots. We were each carrying about 50 pounds of gear, climbing a 45-degree rock face covered in snow. That was easily a 12-hour day. It wasn’t fast but it was relentless. There were hours where my only thought was ‘put one foot in front of the other.’ Then my goal became putting the other foot in front. I wasn’t thinking two hours ahead, I wasn’t even thinking two minutes ahead,” she says.

But when it finally came time to make the final push to the summit at 16,050 feet, Kennedy turned back at around 14,500 feet. She was one of just five of 25 team members who didn’t reach the top but she has no regrets. The altitude was starting to affect her and she didn’t want to put anybody in danger.

“I had been going for a number of hours and I felt I was thinking very slowly. I thought it would ultimately not be safe because I couldn’t react quickly. Because we were roped together on a glacier, I thought, ‘If I’m not capable, then I’m putting other people at risk.’ A couple of people decided to turn back and a guide was going down so I elected to join them,” she says.

Kennedy doesn’t know what the long-term impacts of her trip might be but she’s certain it was one of the best things she’s ever done in her life.

“It’s given me an appreciation for hot and cold running water and flushing toilets,” she says with a laugh.

On a more serious note, however, she says, she has a fresh perspective of the goodwill that can be formed in a team environment.

“Nothing binds people together like a shared experience of adversity. I’ll have a sense of goodwill and a real emotional connection that I couldn’t have imagined before I did the trip,” she says.

The experience won’t change her as a tax lawyer but it has given her a deeper sense of what will benefit her in her life, including being connected to a new group of teammates spread across the country.

“It was incredibly affirming about the best of the human experience. We were a long way from home in hard conditions and the degree of camaraderie happened almost immediately. We were largely a group of strangers to one another but any of us would have done anything for the other. We expect kindness from our friends but kindness from strangers when people are vulnerable is extraordinary,” she says.

One thing is for sure, however, Antarctica is one of the most beautiful places she has ever seen.

“It has a totally barren landscape where you get a sense of being totally insignificant as a human being. I’ve been pretty far north and there is still vegetation there and a number of animals and birds. In Antarctica, there is nothing. There’s not a speck of moss, a blade of grass. It’s completely barren of life. I was awestruck by the landscape,” she says.

Kennedy raised nearly $110,000 for the True Patriot Love Foundation, more than double her personal fundraising goal, thanks to the generosity of her partners at Bennett Jones and others in the legal community.

In all more than $1 million was donated to the charity, which honours the sacrifices of members of the Canadian Armed Forces, veterans and their families.