It all started 29 years ago when he was studying at the Sekolah Tuanku Abdul Rahman boarding school in Ipoh.
Mohd Khairizal Mohd Khalif (or Rizal Khalif as he is more popularly known), then 13, would take the mel malam (local night train) to visit his friends in Johor and Butterworth during the school holidays.
“People were packed in like sardines and I was standing on the stairs at the entrance while the train was moving. At one time, I got so tired, I climbed up the locomotive to where the driver and engine are, and fell asleep there without the driver realising it. It was crazy but those were my survival instincts at 13,” Rizal recalled.
Today, Rizal is still very much the adventurer, although he has progressed from his early days of riding trains to greater things; in his own words, from “a kampung boy to Abang Polar”.
In April this year, Rizal became the first Malaysian to cross the Arctic tundra from Norway to Sweden by dog sleigh.
He was one of 20 participants selected (based on a strict online voting process and jury system), from 4,000 applicants worldwide, to take part in Fjallraven Polar. He represented the Asia-Oceania region.
If you met Rizal, whose youthful looks belie his 43 years, you might not think that he was an Arctic explorer because he looks like your regular guy-next-door. But that is what’s unique about the expedition. “It comprises regular, ordinary people like you and me, most with no prior polar experience, going on a tough expedition across the Arctic.”
What made him take up the challenge?
“I’ve always had the need for a new adrenaline rush.
“My adventures have always revolved around a tropical climate so the thought of going on a 300km journey across the Arctic on a sleigh pulled by six huskies, and being the first Malaysian to do so, appealed to me,” the Malaysia Airlines Berhad employee said.
When asked how he prepared himself for the expedition, Rizal said he could not do much to prepare for the extreme cold of -35°C, but the organiser provided the outdoor clothing and equipment, so he just had to make sure that he was mentally prepared.
“Having backpacked in Mongolia in 2016 and encountering sub-zero temperatures of -25°C helped somewhat.
“Fitness-wise, being a whitewater rafting guide (during weekends) did help. I’m also used to setting up tents in tropical conditions. But nothing prepares one for the conditions in the Arctic because you just don’t know what to expect,” he said, adding that it took almost an hour to set up camp under the harsh conditions, when it usually takes 10–20 minutes back home.
Rizal explained that the participants had to cook their own meals outdoors during the journey.
“Fortunately, I don’t eat much. And I have cooked in the wild before. But having to cook outdoors without the aid of matches or a lighter was a challenge. Thankfully, I survived!”
As a Muslim, did he encounter any difficulties having to tend to his own pack of dogs during the polar adventure?
“It’s a misconception that Muslims aren’t allowed to handle dogs. We can, but there are certain guidelines to do so. The Wilayah Persekutuan Religious department prepared a set of guidelines for travellers to the cold regions, on how to handle dogs, and also how to pray, carry out ablution, determine Qiblat (prayer direction), and prayer times. I prepared three pairs of gloves for myself, one specifically to handle the huskies,” he explained.
Rizal laughingly recalls his “worst” moment during the expedition. “I had to answer nature’s call the night before the expedition. We slept in tents for two, and at about 1am, I had to go to the bathroom. I only had on my base layer and unlaced boots, with no snowcap or gloves. On the way back to my tent, I fell into a chest-deep snow hole!
“No one else was awake then, so I had to rescue myself. After I got out, I ran into the tent, all wet and cold, my whole body shivering and my fingers and toes numb. I panicked!
“I was thinking, the actual expedition had not even started, but my base layers were already wet and I needed to use them in the morning. I was close to getting hypothermia! If I woke my tent mate up, he would try to save me – and the first Malaysian there would have to be rescued before the expedition even started!” he laughed.
The charismatic adventurer was quick to add that it was really a mental challenge.
“I calmed myself down, changed out of my wet clothing inside the cramped tent – in total darkness – and found a cream that helped to heat up my body. Then, I forced myself to sleep. I woke up the next day, alive and ready for the adventure!” he said.
There were many more challenging moments during his journey.
“After travelling in a bus for two hours, we reached the starting point and had to do everything on our own, from securing the six huskies to packing our stuff onto the sleigh. The first day, we went 80km and uphill! The journey took eight tough hours – and there was a snow storm!” he recalled.
Once they reached the campsite, they had to immediately attend to their trusty sleigh dogs: set up a line in the ice to secure them, cook for them, and dig holes in the snow for them to shelter from the cold wind at night. Then only could they put up their own tents, prepare their own meals, and rest.
For Rizal, the highlight of the trip was when he crossed the finish line, holding the Malaysian flag. “I remember one of the guests shouting ‘Malaysia!’ I was thrilled that they recognised our flag,” he beamed proudly.
“It was the journey of a lifetime and making new instant ‘family members’ from 23 different countries around the world was an experience in itself!” he enthused.
Rizal believes that age is no limit because it is all in the mind. At 42, he was the oldest participant to complete the expedition.
“If you set out to face all the challenges that are thrown at you, you can succeed; you’ll be surprised at what you can achieve,” he said.
The outdoor enthusiast also loves backpacking to off-the-beaten-track places, bike touring, and hiking. Rizal admits that he is not a seasoned hiker, but has conquered several mountains in Malaysia, as well as five volcanic peaks in Indonesia.
And he has trekked in Nepal and Mongolia, bike-toured through Peninsular Malaysia and Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, including the 1,000 Corners (a famous route for motorbike riders), Golden Triangle (where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos converge), and even up to Boten on the border between Laos and China.
When asked what’s next, he replied: “Antarctica. I really want to trek and sleigh to the South Pole. It will be an epic 10-30 day journey.” For that, he is looking for sponsors.
Besides adventure, Rizal has a heart for the less fortunate, too.
He visits underprivileged families, does volunteer work, and also gives motivational talks to students and corporate employees. It’s no surprise that people find him an inspiration.
Rizal, who has a sister and two younger brothers, revealed that he suffered from delayed walking and speech ability as a child, but managed to overcome it to get to where he is today. He is also colour blind.
“It crushed my dream of becoming a pilot, but I believe deficiencies make one different, and being different makes one unique. You just need to look at things positively!”