Many days last year, Tom Davenport of Cabin John walked to the nearby C&O Canal towpath and strapped on a harness that was connected to three 40-pound tires by a nylon rope. Then, for up to four hours at a time, he pulled the tires along the packed-dirt path.
Davenport, now 49, was training for a 1,500- mile trek on skis across Antarctica to the South Pole and back—an extraordinary two-month journey that he completed in January. What’s even more extraordinary, though, is that he started the expedition just 15 months after he completed treatment for life-threatening colorectal cancer.
“As soon as I knew I was going to get through [the illness], I committed to myself that I would make the trip as soon as I got the OK” from doctors, Davenport says. “There was something about proving I could do it.”
Davenport had decided to go to the South Pole before learning he had colorectal cancer. Friends and family members say they weren’t surprised that he wanted to go on the expedition—or that he was even more motivated after his diagnosis.
“Tom was past being someone who had cancer,” says younger brother, Andrew Davenport, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. “When I asked him to postpone so I could go with him [Andrew couldn’t go on the trip because of family obligations], he said, ‘I’m going now because life is short. You have to seize an opportunity when it comes.’ ”
“Tom embodies the philosophy of doing something no matter the obstacles,” says Richard Reid, a Canadian strength and conditioning coach who guided Davenport’s training. “His illness was just an adjunct to his plans.”
Davenport has been an explorer and adventure seeker throughout his life. In 1976, at age 16, he cycled 500 miles from his home in London, Ontario, to Montreal to see the Summer Olympics. At age 24, he spent six months hitchhiking throughout southern Africa, covering elections for African publications. Davenport became fascinated with polar exploration as a teenager after reading about Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the first person to lead a successful expedition to the South Pole, and British explorer, who reached the South Pole but perished with his team in Antarctica in early 1912, just weeks after Amundsen had completed his successful journey. “Seeing a photo of Scott at the South Pole was mesmerizing, and reading the tragic story of his expedition fascinated me as a teenager,” Davenport says. “It became something I always wanted to do.”
Amundsen’s expedition was supported by teams of dogs pulling sleds. Scott’s final push to the South Pole was attempted on foot, with his men pulling sleds after their horses died from exposure. Davenport, a guide and three other explorers reached the pole on cross-country skis, each pulling a sled attached to a harness burdened by 160 pounds of food, fuel and gear—and into a fierce headwind. The 750-mile trek took 53 days to complete. He and the guide then skied back to the base camp in 12 days, the return trip aided by kites that took advantage of the trailing winds. The others flew back.
In 2004, Davenport had learned of Matty McNair, a world-class polar explorer who specializes in polar training and adventure guiding. McNair is based in Iqaluit on Baffin Island, at the head of Frobisher Bay in northern Canada. Born in Pennsylvania and raised in New Hampshire, McNair guided the first all-female expedition to the North Pole in 1997, a grueling 82-day British women’s journey over the shifting polar ice pack. She then led an expedition to the South Pole in 2002. Her daughter, Sarah McNair-Landry, became the youngest person to ski to the South Pole at age 18, and the youngest to reach the North Pole at age 19. McNair-Landry, now 23, led Davenport’s South Pole expedition.
In February 2006, Davenport spent two weeks in Iqaluit training with Matty McNair. Frozen Frobisher Bay is similar to the icy environment of Antarctica, and Davenport and others practiced cross-country skiing, kite skiing, dog sledding, navigation and route finding, all skills needed to master polar travel. “We learned how to survive, how to keep warm, what foods to eat,” he recalls.
The training included pulling a sled filled with 150 pounds of dog food to simulate the weight of what they would need to carry if they went on a polar expedition. “I remember thinking in the middle of the training that it felt exactly right…the cold, the challenge, the wintry beauty of it all was everything I expected, and more,” Davenport says. “After the training course, I realized, with sufficient preparation, this dream of traveling to the South Pole could be possible. It felt as close to a calling as I’ve ever experienced.”
Expeditions to the South Pole take place during the Antarctic summer—November to January. Davenport planned to start his trek in November 2006.
‘A different path’
A few months after the polar training, Davenport began having intestinal problems. “It wasn’t uncommon for me to have some sort of malady stemming from my travel,” says Davenport, whose work in private sector development for the International Finance Corporation at The World Bank Group sends him on frequent trips and long-term assignments to Africa and Asia.
Davenport says he wasn’t concerned by a little blood in his stool. When his stomach acted up, he usually was treated with a strong dose of antibiotics, and the issue was resolved. When the condition persisted, Davenport’s wife, Gail, suggested that he see a doctor. The physician wrote a prescription for Flagyl, an antibiotic frequently used to treat parasites and other microbes. However, the medication did nothing for the “bad tummy” he had associated with travel in the developing world. Davenport says he hadn’t had a physical exam in seven or eight years.
In December 2006, Davenport had a colonoscopy at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. After the test, “The doctor asked if Gail was coming to pick me up,” Davenport recalls. “We just waited until she arrived, and then he said it looks like cancer. I remember thinking, oh, really…I guess it could be, so what does that really mean?”
Gail says she had suspected something was terribly wrong when the hospital called to say that Tom was waiting for her. “It was the drive full of dread,” she says. “When the doctor said there is a tumor and he’s pretty sure it’s cancer, you don’t know how big the paradigm shift is, but you know you’re suddenly on a different path. From the minute Tom was diagnosed, there’s only one outcome acceptable to him, and it would be positive. Tom’s outlook is, this isn’t the way his story is going to go.”
Davenport’s younger sister, who lives in Canada, had been treated for breast cancer a year earlier, so he had encountered similar news in the past. But he says he found dealing with her illness “more difficult than my own because, well, she’s my younger sister. I was confident I could deal with this.” Ryan, the Davenports’ son, was 17 at the time. His initial response was fear. “Anytime you hear the word cancer, it’s scary,” says Ryan, now 20. “My dad and I are very close.”
The cancer, located in the rectum, was considered an aggressive form at Stage III. Subsequent tests showed that the cancer had not spread to other organs.
Because it was located in the rectum, there was concern that removing the tumor could result in the need for a permanent colostomy. A colostomy is created when a portion of the colon is removed and the end of the remaining section is brought out through the abdominal wall and connected to a drainage pouch. The surgeons that Davenport and his wife spoke to offered a range of opinions, from dire—that he would be saddled forever with a colostomy bag—to upbeat—that his normal colorectal function could be preserved.
During the search for a surgeon, Davenport began radiation treatments at Sibley in an attempt to shrink the tumor. Gail drove him to his daily appointment, and then to work at the International Finance Corporation. He didn’t miss a day of work during that time. “We didn’t change much, maybe socialized a little less, but that’s what you do when you’re dealing with a real challenge: You pay attention to what you need to do to get through,” Gail says. Davenport says his philosophy during this time was “you break it down, you say to yourself, one step at a time.” He would employ the same approach in Antarctica. Says Ryan: “I remember Dad saying, ‘I’ll be fine, I’m going to fight this,’ and he never broke his stride. He approached it the way he approaches everything—with total intensity and complete focus.”
A friend told Davenport About Dr. W. Douglas Wong, a colorectal surgeon At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Wong had good news for Davenport. He said there was a 90 percent chance the tumor removal surgery would be successful and that Davenport would avoid a permanent colostomy.