SOUTH POLE, Antarctica — After spending more than two decades building a successful consulting company in the Middle East, a 1986 Northwood-Kensett graduate decided about nine years ago he needed more balance between his work and personal life.
So after climbing the majority of the Seven Summits — the highest mountains on the seven continents — Paul Adams turned his attention to horizontal adventures, completing a skiing-related feat fewer than 400 people have achieved.
Adams and the three others on his team — expedition leader Ryan Waters; Katrina Follows, of the U.K. and Scott Kress, of Canada — arrived in Antarctica Nov. 17, 2016, for a 44-day polar expedition.
They covered more than 560 miles as they skied from western Antarctica, south of Berkner Island on the Ronne Ice Shelf, to the South Pole, arriving on Dec. 30, 2016.
Adams, 48, says he's the first native Iowan to reach the South Pole, and the eighth American to complete a full unassisted, unsupported South Pole expedition.
He visited Antarctica in January 2010 to climb the 16,067-foot Mount Vinson, one of the Seven Summits, and met Waters, who completed a nearly 1,120-mile traverse from Berkner Island to the Axel Heiberg Glacier in 2009-10 with Cecilie Skog of Norway.
It is considered the longest unassisted, unsupported trip in Antarctic history.
"I got the idea back home, if he can do it, I can do it," Adams said. "I just had to find the time to do it and other people to join us, but this year it finally happened."
While he says his wife and two sons don't like or encourage his outdoor adventures, they are supportive.
Adams first approached the South Pole expedition while out to dinner with his wife — a miscalculation, he says.
"She started crying," he said. "It was like something out of a bad Hollywood rom-com."
His boys, he says, are "quite happy to look down at their phones, look at me going out the door with gear and look back down at their phones.
"Hopefully, I plant a seed in them to get out and find their own adventures," Adams said.
He began preparing for his journey nearly a year in advance, hiking while hauling a heavy tire near his Greenwood Village, Colorado, home. He put on about 20 pounds in the process as the tire mimicked pulling a sled loaded with about 250 pounds of supplies.
"We were an unsupported expedition — with no supplies dropped off — so we brought everything we needed to survive," Adams explained. That included fuel, tents, food, medical kits, skis, solar panels, compasses designed for use on the bottom of the world and GPS, which also posted location updates to his Twitter account.
After being flown in by Antarctic Logistics and Expedition, a company that provides a way for people who aren't scientists or government employees to reach the continent, his team began their days at 6 a.m., melting snow for water and eating dehydrated food.
"You don't pay much attention to exact time because it is constantly light," he said. "The sun circles you like a halo; it never goes down."
Once tents and sleds were packed, they began skiing by 8 a.m., with a few breaks to eat. Adams said they covered about 12 to 13 nautical miles each day, about 14 to 15 standard miles, on terrain ranging from as flat as a kitchen table to the stormiest sea of snow imaginable.
The team's meals included oatmeal, cheese, salami, cookies, nuts, dried fruit, oils and dehydrated camping meals.
"I can guarantee not one of the four of us want to eat oatmeal again in our lives," Adams said. While he personally looked forward to a thick steak and a glass of wine upon returning home, he enjoyed teasing his teammates about food.
Although he consumed an average of 4,000 calories each day, adding an extra 500 calories the last 20 days, Adams lost the weight — and then some — that he had gained to fuel the expedition.
The warmest days were minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, Adams said, while the coldest days dipped as low as minus 31 degrees.
Due to constant movement and pulling heavy sleds, Adams said it was "not hard to stay warm." The team wore thin base layers, pants and jackets similar to windbreakers with fur-lined hoods, mittens, goggles and face shields.
"When we stopped and sat down, we had huge down jackets that would come out, because it was easy to get cold very quickly," he said, noting his team was fortunate to avoid major cold weather-related injuries.
Portable stoves, the sun and heavy down sleeping mats kept shared tents "downright warm" at night, Adams said, especially if it was clear.
"We had a lot of sunny days, which made it easy to navigate, but during white-outs, navigation is nearly impossible," he said. "All you can do is look at your compass and stay on course.
"Those were very long, mentally challenging days."
Upon reaching the South Pole, Adams took photos that included Northwood-Kensett Elementary School's flag.
"I try to get one for the school whenever possible," he said. "In this day and age, where it is all apps and social media and everything can be done sitting in a chair, I'm hoping that there are a few kids there who want to get out and see the world."
Adams was also able to tour the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a U.S. scientific research facility. Scientists there are using a particle detector to search for neutrinos, which are subatomic particles produced by radioactive decay, in stars or in supernova.
Although dangerous and with a price tag close to seven figures, Adams aspires to complete a North Pole trek soon. He wants to complete a crossing first, possibly in spring 2018.
"It's unfortunately become an expedition that is nearly impossible because of global warming and arctic ice breaking up much sooner," Adams said.
Unlike the land-based South Pole, the North Pole is located amidst Arctic Ocean sea ice.
In addition to a shortened timeframe for the trip, Adams would face darkness and potentially polar bears — but he said the expedition would be so epic it would likely be featured on the Discovery Channel.
Those who take on the trip have to ski, snowshoe, swim and climb while pulling a 300-pound sled 480 miles for 50 to 70 days, according to National Geographic. Only one unsupported expedition has successfully completed the trek in the last five years.
Researchers believe that is due to thinning arctic ice, which breaks more easily, resulting in a rougher surface and more swimming for those taking on the polar expedition.