To the ends of the Earth

Laurence Howell

ABOVE: Laurence Howell guides a dog team in Antarctica in 1979. When the sea ice was thick enough, travel was possible via snowmobiles or dog sleds.

by Gus Morgan

“It’s quite interesting being hunted,” said Laurence Howell, reflecting on the time in 1982 when a wolf pack stalked him while he was stationed alone at a remote airstrip in the Canadian Arctic.

Laurence Howell selfie
Laurence Howell is a senior information technology (IT) consultant with ConocoPhillips’ Global IT organization located in Alaska.

At that time, Laurence, now a senior information technology (IT) consultant with ConocoPhillips’ Global IT organization located in Alaska, was at Tanquary Fiord, Nunavut, providing volunteer communications support for the Transglobe Expedition. Winter was ending and some of the eight wolves in the pack were old and starving.

“You couldn’t trust them,” Laurence said.

One day, while digging 45-gallon fuel drums out of the snow by the runway, Laurence noticed the wolves flanking him, working to cut off his retreat.

“They were definitely hunting me, because they were outflanking me,” he said, “like you see them do with animals on TV. I felt like a hunted deer or caribou.”

On the defensive, Laurence drew his gun, a small sidearm, and retreated to his canvas-covered hut.

Three wolves at a distance facing viewer on snow covered ground
Part of the wolf pack that visited Laurence in the Arctic. On another occasion, he was surrounded by the same pack while visiting the remote outhouse and had to wait for 30 minutes before the pack moved on.

Safe but shaken, Laurence’s close encounter ended when one of the big wolves reared up on its haunches and stared at him through the window.

“It was quite a feeling,” Laurence said.

As the 40th anniversary of the historic Transglobe Expedition nears, in September, his memories of that expedition, a trek that spanned from 1979–1982 and covered 100,000 miles, are top of mind.

To celebrate the occasion, the U.K. Royal Geographical Society is hosting a weeklong celebration and public exhibition in London, starting Sept. 2. Exhibits will include a replica of the team’s Antarctica travel camp and equipment used during the expedition. Laurence plans to attend the event and will provide equipment for the exhibit.

As a volunteer, Laurence provided communications, logistics and science officer support for the Antarctic and the Arctic legs of the expedition. During the Antarctic leg of the trip, between 1979 and 1981, Laurence provided support from Rothera Research Station, the British Antarctic Survey’s air base at Rothera Point, Adelaide Island. For the Arctic leg, 1981 to 1982, he was stationed at station Alert, Canada, then Tanquary Fiord, Ellesmere Island, the isolated location where the wolves paid him a visit.

British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes led the groundbreaking expedition. All team members were volunteers. Expedition patron Prince Charles described the adventure as “mad but marvelous.”

Laurence Howell with snow encrusted beard speaking into Walkie Talkie
 Laurence at Ward Hunt Island in the Canadian Arctic
People gathered near plane on ice runway with snow covered mountains in background
TGE35 Transglobe expedition preparing to take off from a sea ice runway in Antarctica.

In 1979, Fiennes, Charlie Burton and Oliver Shepard set out to make the world’s first circumpolar navigation by traversing the North and South Poles using only surface transport. The 100,000-mile, three-year odyssey was successful and remains the only expedition to complete the route, a path that took the explorers across the Sahara, through the swamps and jungles of Mali and the Ivory Coast, over huge unexplored crevasse fields in Antarctica, through the inhospitable Northwest Passage, and into the unpredictable hazards of the Arctic Ocean.

Laurence had already spent winter and a couple of summers in Antarctica before volunteering his time to provide long-range communications support for the Transglobe Expedition. He was there on contract for the British Antarctic Survey, who hired him for his ham radio and Morse code skills. Laurence was in charge of all communications and field equipment, plus various marine and aviation duties, including serving as a copilot for ski-equipped Twin Otters. He performed meteorological synoptics and field work from 1978 through 1981 and again in 1982–83.

“It was an amazing experience,” Laurence said of working in Antarctica, “very dynamic.”

Before Fiennes started his traverse across Antarctica, he invited Laurence to help him with communications during the Arctic portion of the expedition. Laurence took Fiennes up on his offer, a decision that led him from one end of the Earth to the other.

Laurence, smiling, in khaki shirt with jungle foliage in background
Laurence in Borneo

After the expedition, Laurence continued his volunteer work in the science and environmental realms, traveling on additional North and South Pole expeditions with Fiennes. Others followed, including an all-female North Pole expedition. He provided communications and base science on these expeditions, including glaciology and meteorology, for several universities and research groups.

Throughout his endeavors, Laurence’s input into science programs has been unwavering. He’s conducted research and field data collection on glacial ice movement, ice composition, high-latitude aerosol measurements, flora and fauna collection, and high- and low-frequency auroral radio experiments. In 1991, he became a Fellow with the Royal Geographical Society, the same year he earned his registered professional engineer certification. To this day, he remains active with data collection and scientific research.

Laurence on right in sweater and khaki shorts, man on left wearing long black robe with orange sash, mountains in background
Laurence, right, outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia with a member of the Raleigh International support team. Howell did two expeditions to Mongolia.

In his spare time, Laurence teaches radio communications and personal security to youths in organizations such as Raleigh International, with deployment in many third world countries; conducts lectures for the University of Alaska and Mat-Su College; and serves as visual effects technician for the Valley Performing Arts Theater in Wasilla, Alaska and the Glenn Massay Theater in Palmer, Alaska.

In the 1980s, Laurence was based in the Arctic and had radio contact with the now-decommissioned U.K. Maureen Alpha Oil platform, where he was a telecommunications technician. He started working part time for ConocoPhillips in 1982, providing the shore-to-platform Troposcatter microwave links. He became a full-time employee in 1985.

In fall 2000, he transferred to Anchorage as a network services supervisor, having worked in Aberdeen and Norway on joint J Block engineering projects. Laurence has subsequently lived and worked in Bartlesville, Singapore, Malaysia, China and back to Bartlesville, before moving back to the Anchorage office in 2012. He serves in a global role supporting IT telecommunications engineering and lives near Palmer, Alaska with his wife Sheri, their sons and some of their nine grandchildren.

During his career with ConocoPhillips, Laurence said, the company has been very supportive of his science, environmental and charity initiatives. Such work, he said, aligns with the company’s SPIRIT Values.

During his career with ConocoPhillips, Laurence said, the company has been very supportive of his science, environmental and charity initiatives. Such work, he said, aligns with the company’s SPIRIT Values.

Laurence advises young professionals to become well-rounded in their skill sets. When he was working in remote polar locations, he learned to do everyone else’s job, becoming a jack-of-all-trades. While he credited some of his career success to being at the right place at the right time, he said what made the difference was seeking out and seizing the opportunities that came his way.

“You have to take opportunities when they come forward,” he said. “Be dynamic and put yourself out there.”

Transglobe Expedition 1979-1982

The Transglobe Expedition lives on through The Transglobe Expedition Trust, a charity formed in 1993 to perpetuate the memory of the expedition by supporting humanitarian, scientific and educational projects that follow in the tradition of adventure and perseverance.

  • Led by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the expedition was the first to travel around the globe, from pole to pole, without leaving the Earth’s surface.
  • The expedition was planned and funded entirely through sponsorship deals and the free services of expedition members.
  • The expedition team was in Antarctica between January 1979 and April 1981; Ranulph Fiennes, Charles Burton and Oliver Shepard travelled across the Antarctic via the South Pole on snowmobiles, making the fastest crossing of the continent in history.
  • The team was in the Arctic between June 1981 and April 1982; Fiennes and Burton travelled across the Arctic, taking in the North Pole.


A Nansen sledge, foreground, and ice cliffs at Adelaide Island, Antarctica