Geographic North Pole
Last degree Ski
Sking the last degree, to the Geographic North Pole:
Our trip started in Oslo, Norway where we continued to fly Northwards to the island of 'Longyearbyen', to the small mining town of 'Svalbard'. After exploring the local area by skidoo and witnessing wild herds of reindeers, we did a final gear check, re-packed all our equipment and then headed North again, towards our goal...the Geographic North Pole.
A Russian Antonov flew us high up into the Arctic circle, landing at 89 degrees latitude, at the temporary Russian built ice station called 'Barneo'. From here we were left on the ice, with nothing except for our sleds filled with food, fuel and equipment for our ski journey to the Geographic North Pole, which was roughly 125kms true North of us and about two weeks of skiing.
Being out on a frozen ocean was an unnerving feeling at the best of times and certainly challenged us both mentally and physically. Although we had experienced a lot of these challenges before, during our time in the mountains, nothing could have prepared us for the gruelling and harsh conditions of the Arctic. The terrain was far from flat and we would spend most days navigating over and around pressure ridges and sastrugi, over huge fields of ice rubble and finding paths around open leads of water where the ice had pulled apart exposing the ocean below. Such dramatic movement of the ice break up occurs due to the strong ocean currents moving beneath the ice, together with the storms and high winds pushing the ice around on the surface, creating something similar to a jumbled jigsaw puzzle. All of these components led to our very difficult and slow traverse towards the Pole each day. In actual fact, on a really excellent day, we didn't notch up more than about 10-15kms, depending on which direction the drifting ice was moving in. On a bad day, we could drift back as much as 10kms eradicating all our previous hard earned efforts. During our time at the North Pole itself, we were stuck in a storm that lasted for three days and the ice was moving so fast that we drifted 16kms South in one night. With a bizarre temporary lull in the weather (the eye of the storm), the wind suddenly turned 180 degrees and we drifted back over the Pole again without actually moving from out tents!
The most beautiful thing about being out on the ice was the incredible silence all around us. At most you'd hear the wind and your skis occasionally 'squeaking' as they slid over the sheer blue ice. It was an odd silence but a wonderful time to reflect. Sometimes you'd think someone was calling you and you'd stop to look around, but everyone had their heads down...all deep in thought.
The worst thing was the intolerable cold. No matter how many layers we were wearing, the only time we could generate any kind of heat was when we were moving. Putting on frozen boots every morning was a real challenge and we would have to run around the camp to keep our toes from freezing, until we were ready to start skiing. Each day we left shortly after sun up. The thing was, the sun never actually went up or down. Being so close to the North Pole during this time of the year meant one long day...every day. Sleeping required eye shades and was very disorientating at night because you never had any idea of the time or how long you had slept.
Finding a campsite every night had its own set of challenges. This would involve finding a place that was not near an open lead of water and generally camping on older ice, that was not likely to break up underneath us during the night. We also surrounded the camp each night with a polar bear alarm. This consisted of a set of posts around the camp, with flares attached strategically to them and joined together by a fishing line, that acted as a trip wire. Luckily we did not have any encounters with the bears, but did witness fresh polar bear tracks most days, so we knew they were close by. We still saw these tracks very close to the Pole itself, which apparently was quite unusual. This was an indication that their hunting territory was being reduced around the perimeters because of the melting ice, which was driving them further North to look for food.
To stay nourished and to fight the extreme temperatures, we needed to eat around 6000 calories a day. This was a diet mainly based upon fat and food high in carbohydrates to keep our energy sustained during the long, cold days and to get us through the extremely cold nights. At the beginning of the trip, getting through three or four family size bars of chocolate a day, seemed like a chocolate lover's paradise, but the excitement soon diminished as biting into yet another 'frozen brick' became a chore to say the least and of course our toothpaste also remained permanently frozen, along with our mitts, jackets, sleeping bags, goggles and everything else that had stiffened like cardboard because of the heavy moisture in the air. That was one of the big differences to being on Everest. Even though in the mountains it was cold, the air was very dry and down clothing kept us nice and warm. At the North Pole, the moisture permeated everything, making our clothing extremely damp and uncomfortable to wear.
Drinking four liters of liquids a day and staying hydrated, was hugely important for our performance and to generate body heat once in the tent. The hardest part of this was collecting enough ice to melt each day, which then took hours to boil. However it was all worth it, as one of the day's highlights was drinking our Swedish guide Ola's secret recipe 'hot blueberry soup' (he never did disclose what was in it!).
When we finally arrived at the Pole, we knew we were there as our GPS read '90 degrees North'. There was absolutely nothing around us except ice in every direction. We were at the most Northerly point on the planet and from here we could only head South. Within an hour of arriving, a huge storm was setting in, which we had been warned of for the last 24 hours as the sun had been surrounded by a halo, signifying frontal activity ahead. We were literally just finishing putting up the tents, when the storm began to rage around us and lasted for three solid days with no respite. It was so cold as temperatures plummeted down to minus 40 degrees C and the barometer just kept falling. It was extremely disheartening. We were also moving very fast on the ice flow and the only thing we could do was to try and keep warm in our sleeping bags.
Finally, the storm abated and we were able to get our helicopter pick up. It was only a brief window however, as not very long after we had made it back to Barneo ice station, another front came in and this time lasted for a week. Luckily we were stuck at the camp with some scientists and fellow explorers and we whiled away the time in true Russian style, with vodka and a lot of singing! The ice runway broke up twice and by the time we got to take off, our runway had been reduced by half. This was not a problem for the Russians however, who simply took out some seats to lighten the load and happily proclaimed 'Nostrovia!'. As we flew back to Svalbard, I looked out across the barren ice desert with its open leads of water, that we'd had to navigate around so painstakingly over the last few weeks and couldn't help wondering, for how long this ocean would remain frozen?