A Polar adventure
We made it to the North Pole – 90 degrees north – the top of the world on Saturday the 10th April at 4pm!
We all returned safe and well. One of the team did get frostbitten fingers but has made a full recovery.
It was an amazing trip; an extraordinary physical and mental challenge in an environment that is both very hostile and yet beguilingly beautiful. The camaraderie, and unity of the team of 7 Dutchmen and I the one Brit was something I shall cherish forever, as I hope they will. There were some challenging moments – as you may read below - and yet there was never any dispute or cross word between the members of the team. There was enthusiastic, even passionate discussion and debate, yet it was respectful and focussed on the goal of getting the team to the Pole – as one of the team put it - “every discussion had a higher purpose, it was never personal."
Statistically the location at which we were dropped to start to ski to the North Pole should have been optimal and should have benefited from the trans polar drift.... statistics however have distributions, and while we hoped to benefit from the “normal drift” it turned out that nature had something else planned for us!
We had a great start. We coped well with the extreme cold. During the first couple of days it was really, really cold. It was about -28C when we were dropped off and got colder, down to about -35C - but we dealt with it. The very air seemed no longer to nurture life but rather it seemed to suck the life from any unprotected part of the body. The 24 hour daylight took a little getting used to – but after a day’s skiing the body needed rest and the cradle of sleep came to the rescue. We encountered a seemingly endless labyrinth of broken ice and pressure ridges – still we got over them and made steady, if hard won progress.
Then about halfway through the expedition the wind speed increased and very unhelpfully shifted to blow from the North – North West – pretty much straight in to our faces! We “enjoyed” limited visibility because of the driving snow blasted at us by the wind. The whiteout made skiing a lot harder. Then, although we couldn’t see it, or feel it, the whole ice sheet started to move – South! In fact it had started to move quite a lot. Initially the ice drift just slowed us down… We skied 12 hours a day. We knew we made progress across the ice - but overnight we discovered that the ice had moved us back half the distance we had made the previous day – about 9km!
On one day, after 5 hours of effort skiing and pulling sleds over pressure ridge after pressure ridge and increasing amounts of cracked ice and open water we found that the GPS showed we had actually moved just 300 metres closer to the Pole! That was a bit frustrating – but we didn’t get down we got going! We encountered more open leads and crossed most without mishap, although one of our number did take an unscheduled dip! He was fished out and redressed promptly without any real damage.
After skiing somewhere between 105 and 120 kilometres, we were still over 50 kilometres away from the North Pole when the ice drift intensified. The ice was now moving at about 800 – 900 metres an hour or 20 Km per day. I was reminded of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” That was literally our situation - it was too much to overcome that level of back-drift on skis in the time that we had. Clearly a new strategy was required and, pragmatically, we adopted one!
The magic of the Iridium satellite phone connected us to Victor Boyarsky, the Russian project leader of the Barneo Ice Base. He assured us that for the first time in 15 years none of the “Last Degree” teams were going to make the Pole on skis. All had been stopped by the back-drift and a huge open lead over 70m wide and several kilometres in length.
The direction and speed of the drift was exceptional and unusual for the time of year. When we were dropped off at 89 degrees, we had about 112 Km to get to the Pole. We actually skied more than that initial distance – and yet we still had over 60 to go! Supporting our efforts and wanting to ensure that we did get to the Pole, our Russian hosts collected us in a wonderful orange MI-8 helicopter (what a fantastic bit of kit that is, and what brilliant pilots!) and we made it to the earth's most northern point on Saturday afternoon at 4pm! While waiting for them we used the time to advantage to do some ice and water depth measurements to help calibrate the Cryosat2 satellite that had just been launched.
When we got to the Pole, we cheered, took photos, drank vodka and celebrated being in every time zone at once! Not surprisingly, the icescape was little different to that we left when picked up. Bizarrely, to keep the GPS showing 90.00 North, one had to keep moving to compensate for the on-going drift! The North Pole is a very strange and wonderful place.
We returned to Spitzbergen (Svalbard) carried by another Russian aircraft, the Antonov 74 and it’s amazing pilots that delivered us safely to Lonyearbyen. To pass the time on that flight some of our team spoke with Sir David Attenborough who had been at Barneo making his next natural history series. After packing up the cargo for return to Amsterdam and a final dinner in Longyearbyen we flew home on the morning of Monday the 12th.
Back in London it took a little time to adjust to the noise and bustle of the city as well as the taste of the air and the very different temperature!
An amazing adventure for us all!