Andy McNab: how I survived a polar bear encounter

This spring Andy McNab agreed to join a 60-nautical mile trek to the North Pole. But the expedition got more than it bargained for when a pair of polar bears made a visit to their camp...

It was early evening, the sun was low as it always was, and the five of us were in the tent making a brew, getting our kit sorted and getting calories in. Although it is 24-hour sunlight, the sun never gets high, so it was a weird twilight atmosphere. Then there was a crunching sound in the snow outside and everyone stopped talking and looked in the direction of the sound. I assumed it was someone venturing out to the toilet initially.

Bears aren’t usually found that high. We were around 35 miles from the Pole, so there is no food source to entice them up there. We had seen arctic fox tracks earlier that day which, in my ignorance, I had thought was nice. I had failed to realise that they are a sign that there are bears about, as they scavenge from the bear prey carcasses. My Norwegian mate, who had spent over 300 nights up at the Pole, confessed that he’d never seen a bear up there, so we were all rather stunned when we realised that it wasn’t one of the team out there, but something much bigger and scarier. With the sun so low, it wasn’t long before we saw the silhouettes, just metres away from the tent, of not just one bear but two! A fully-grown female with her maybe two-year-old cub.

The danger for us wasn’t one of the bears attacking us individually. It’s not like in the films where they start clawing at you; in reality they just get up on their hind legs and land on top of you. It’s what they do with seals to kill them and, frankly, if they’d wanted to finish us all off in one go, getting up on their hind legs and landing on top of the tent would probably have done it.

How I survived a polar bear encounter

We knew that if they came within 5 metres of us, we wouldn’t have a choice; we’d have to shoot them

We all started screaming, banging the cooking pots and making as much of a racket as we could before venturing out of the tent. We had whistles and flares to add to our arsenal of cooking pot banging, but we were aware enough of the danger of polar bears to have also equipped ourselves with a rifle. If push came to shove we would obviously use it, but no one wanted to do that if they could avoid it. It is a massive deal killing a polar bear. Plus, there’s the danger that it won’t be a clean shot (especially if you’re shooting under pressure) and you will leave it maimed and even more dangerous.

With all our screaming and shouting , we managed to startle the bears and push them backwards maybe 20 metres, so out we went, grabbing the rifle for safety. We knew that if they came within 5 metres of us, we wouldn’t have a choice; we’d have to shoot them. We got out the flares and tried to fire them so they exploded above their heads. For a while it seemed no deterrent. But suddenly they turned away, and ambled off behind one of the ice floes.

We didn’t waste too much time staring after them; after all, we were all pretty close to freezing having had to come out of the tent without any of our outside gear on. We got back in the tent, got our gear on, and then started drawing straws for who would act as night watchman for the first shift. Having had a close shave with a couple of polar bears, you don’t want to leave much to chance. Now they knew there were multiple food sources just sitting in tents keeping nice and warm for them, the chances were high that they could have come back. They will always approach from downwind, which of course was the opposite direction from the front of our tents, so at least the wind was behind the watch, who had to look through the tent’s cooking vent with one of the pressure cookers on to get some warmth.

In the morning there were prints everywhere, and we realised that the moment we heard them crunching through the snow outside couldn't have been the moment they arrived; they must have been roaming around for a while. We had truly had a lucky escape.

The first thing anyone asks when I tell them about my meeting with a bear and her cub is whether I took any pictures. Funnily enough, getting my camera out wasn’t top of my list of priorities just at that time, but the following morning she had kindly left some evidence of her visit in the shape of some paw prints. So at least we have a souvenir.

How I survived a polar bear encounter

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