North Pole Report - Part 1
At 7:32pm local time (GMT + 1 hour) on the 14th April, I arrived at the North Pole. We had taken full advantage of the excellent, but extremely cold (-60 deg C), conditions to ski in excess of 70 miles to the pole in just over 4 days, ie 15-20 miles per day. This compares to the 8-12 days that we had scheduled for the trip and the 10 days that a polar-experienced Slovak American team would take from exactly the same drop-off point and time. Whilst official records are not kept, we understand that we have now joined a group of approximately 350 people that have reached the pole unsupported (no outside help) and unassisted (manhauling all supplies), which for context compares to over 3,000 successful summits of Everest.
I am in the process of documenting my experiences, based on memory and the diary that I kept whilst in the Arctic. Below is the first instalment. I hope that you enjoy reading it and / or scanning the photos.
Portugal (4th April 2009)
I have just received a text from Jason de Carteret (team-leader) stating that our scheduled flight from Svalbard, North Norway to Camp Barneo (c.70 miles from the Pole) has been cancelled and that we are now due to fly out to our drop off point for our ski to the North Pole 3 days earlier, which will mean that we only have a matter of hours in Svalbard versus the scheduled 3-4 days, to test and pack equipment, acclimatise and adjust mentally. After a day in the sun and a long boozy lunch / supper with Catherine this doesn’t seem to be too big a deal.
Portugal (5th April)
Reality strikes and a hint of panic sets in.
London (6th – 8th April)
In a manic two days, I do my best to wrap up all of the loose ends on the business front and trek all over London to buy the missing items from the kit list. It’s an unusual shopping list and includes such items as Duck tape, talcum powder, neoprene face masks, Vaseline etc.
A last minute birthday dinner with Catherine, Chris and Kenny on the 7th April to celebrate my fortieth (sorry, 30-10th), during which we all very confidently predict the wrong Lions captain (O’Driscoll). Chris kindly offers to lend me his -30degs C sleeping bag. My -20degsC should be man enough for the job given that temperatures rarely dip below -25degsC at this time of the year in the Arctic, but I accept his offer nonetheless as I remember spending most of my nights shivering uncontrollably when training in north Norway last year.
I regret this decision when I pick it up the next day and have to lug his uncompacted, duvet size bag around SW London on my moped as I shop for the final, final pieces of kit.
Packing in the afternoon includes making a start on my food day bags (which we will have very limited time in Svalbard to prepare) and insulating my flasks and bottles with neoprene from an old wetsuit to minimise heat loss. Then a mad rush to the airport to nearly miss the flight, unsuccessfully charm the check-in girl regarding the excess baggage (though was only charged for 10kgs vs the actual 40kgs) and, finally, I am off……
Oslo to Longyearbyen (8th-9th April)
After an uneventful flight to Oslo and an overnight stay at the Oslo Airport Radisson, where I first met my team mate Kevin at breakfast, together we catch the flight to Longyearbyen, Svalbard via Tromso.
The flight is packed due to the imminence of Easter and I spend most of it furiously writing out “To do” and check-lists to ensure that I don’t miss anything in the rush that will be the few hours that we have between landing at Longyearbyen (“LYB”) and checking in our sleds for the flight to Camp Barneo.
LYB, the world’s most northerly town, is the most populated settlement in Svalbard, which is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, about midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. The traditional primary industry of coal mining, supplemented by trapping and fishing, have been superseded by tourism, both with regard to Svalbard itself and as a transfer for the North Pole. The stunning glacial and mountainous islands are snow covered for the majority of the year, with peak Summer temperatures of only 5degsC despite the presence of the midnight sun which is evident between April and August each year, albeit followed by polar nights (ie constant darkness) between October and February.
We arrived in LYB to a bracing -12 degs C and the final team member, Lance, before collecting our luggage and being transported to Basecamp, our LYB hotel.
Having taken over the hotel’s dining room, we spent the next 2-3 hours sorting and re-sorting kit and packing our sleds prior to their weighing and checking-in for the next morning’s flight to Camp Barneo.
Packing was further confused by the addition of both kit left for me by Jason and also an unexpected complete kit-list provided by Vicaar, the Camp Barneo operators, meaning that I had duplicates and triplicates of many items which necessitated a decision regarding whether to take spares, or if not, which item to select. In the end, I leaned towards taking more rather than less, rationalising that I should be able to cope with the extra weight, but that I might not be able to cope without some items, including a complete change of clothes should the unthinkable occur (ie falling through the ice into the freezing Arctic Ocean). I also preferred items of clothing that I knew fitted and that I had used successfully in the past (for example on Mont Blanc and the Arctic training in north Norway the prior year). That said, arguably the most important bit of kit, my Sorel ski boots, were completely untested apart from a very brief test run across my flat in London to ensure that they vaguely fitted. I was aware that this was a potential recipe for disaster, particularly in light of my somewhat uniquely shaped feet, and a classic case of what not to do.
Longyearbyen, Svalbard, North Norway
The other major component of the packing was food. I had pre-bought and pre-packed much of my food in London (hence the excess weight), to which I topped up on supplies that Lance, having arrived the previous day, had bought in LYB.
In an attempt to simplify matters, I packed all items into colour coded bags (eg large blue = thermals) and also packed 10 day packs, which included consumables that I would need on a daily basis. The individual day packs would make the whole transition of equipment from the sled to the tent much simpler and faster, a simple case of removing the old day bag (now a rubbish bag) from my tent bag (ie everything that we would need in the tent overnight) and replacing it with a new day bag from my sled, rather than having to source the various items from various different bags. The day pack consisted of:
- 2 x Sachets of Porridge (for breakfast. Low GI, ie slow energy release which is ideal for endurance)
- 2 x Sachets of Hot Chocolate (1 for breakfast, 1 post dinner)
- 2 x Diarolyte Sachets (for water bottles / flasks to replace fluids and salts and prevent dehydration)
- Wet-wipes (for a bed-bath)
- 12 x Nurofen (for pain relief and anti swelling)
- 1 x Sweet day bag (inc 250g of chocolate and 250g of sweets, topped up by dried strawberries provided by Lance – more later!)
- 1 x Savoury Day Bag (inc nuts, dried fruit, salami and pork scratchings – at 7 calories / gram, pretty much the most calorific food by weight you can find).
- 1 x Dehydrated evening meal
- 1 x Soup
- 2 x Hand Warmers (shake and put in mitts for about 8 hours warmth)
The missing ingredient to our diet being water, which would be generated by the laborious process of melting snow over periods of several hours every morning and evening.
So, at about 5:45pm, less than 3 hours after landing, we were back in the transit van with our packed sleds on our way to the airport for their weigh-in and check-in for the next day’s flight. At 50kgs, my sled was mid-way between Lance’s (55kgs) and Kevin’s (45kgs), albeit that it would be topped up by some additional items, most importantly fuel, when we arrived at Camp Barneo.
A session of feet preparation (nail cutting, zinc oxide taping for blister prevention and ankle support bandaging) was followed by an excellent meal in Kroa, the restaurant attached to the hotel, where I first experienced the phenomena that is Lance and his phone. Then off to bed leaving both Lance and Kevin swearing at their lap-tops / pdas as they attempted to post their blogs.
LYB to Camp Barneo - 10th April
It seemed somewhat odd to be subjected to all of the standard airport hassles pre the flight to Camp Barneo, including putting all liquids in small see-through plastic bags. However, rules is rules.
We had been advised by Jason (who was already at Camp Barneo) to jostle for position to ensure that we could bag the front row on the plane, as these were the only seats with windows, the other rows having theirs covered for heat retention.
Unfortunately, others had been advised of the same and were significantly better jostlers than us. I was tempted to sprint past them in the last few yards as we approached the plane, but dignity prevailed and so windowless, window seat it was.
A mixed lot on the plane (an Antanov AN-74 apparently), most of whom were being flown to the pole by helicopter, including an American couple that were to be the first to be married there, a disabled man in a wheelchair (also a first), our team and one other (the Slovak American Window Hoggers) also due to ski the last degree and, finally, a Norwegian / British team with that would attempt the last 2 degrees with a team of dogs.
Unloading the Anatov at Camp Barneo
Less than three hours later, we landed on the ice runway at Camp Barneo, to be greeted by deceptively bright blue skies given that it was -37degsC. More warming were the welcomes from Jason and Christina, who I had trained with in Norway last year and who had been training for her attempt to be the first woman to ski “all the way” to the North Pole solo next year.
It is of course impossible to describe what -37degsC feels like and even now, only a few weeks after the experience, I am struggling to accurately remember the sensation. We had been prepared for the conditions and were fully layered before we exited the plane, including down jackets, face masks and balaclavas and thick, multi-layered mitts. This, combined with the immediate task of unloading our gear from the plane (no baggage handlers) which served to keep body temperatures up, led to a false sense of security regarding the cold.
This did not last long.
A brief visit to the open air men’s loo, where I removed my gloves for a pee, provided a warning dose of reality. Within no more than 30 seconds, I was frantically grabbing my mitts to put them back on with all of my fingers in extreme pain. I briefly thought that I may have contracted frostbite and mentally gave myself a good talking to for being complacent and risking my expedition before it had even started. I was reminded of Indian Ocean Rower, Abers’ sound advice to protect my key assets at all costs – my hands, my feet and my head; and to not do anything within my control that would result in a stupid, avoidable accident which in the unforgiving, extreme environment would most likely end in an evacuation and failure. It was one of my mantras before and during the expedition, but was much easier thought / said than done.
Camp Barneo to Drop Off (10th April)
Camp Barneo is a temporary station that is erected on the floating ice approximately one degree (60 nautical miles) from the North Pole for a few weeks in April each year, being book-ended by the polar nights prior to April and the ice-melt post April. The logistics are incredible, with all of the initial equipment being parachuted into the site (including bull-dozers), prior to the construction of the runway, whereafter supplies can be flown in.
We had a few hours at CB prior to our drop off, during which time we caught up with Jason and Christina and made any final adjustments to our sleds.
Conditions were excellent, with the benefits of the untypically extreme temperatures being excellent ice and snow conditions, with fewer leads (open water) and a very low risk of polar bears, albeit that this was tempered by the increased risk associated with crossing leads, which had resulted in two guides falling through the ice over the previous few days. Usually, opaque ice suggests sufficient thickness to support a man’s weight (spread over skiis) and that of one’s sled. However, the extreme cold had meant that the ice was super-freezing very quickly rendering it less strong and more prone to cracking at lighter weights, which would make the crossing of leads more risky than usual.
In light of this, we ran through the procedures to be adopted should someone fall through the ice, which in brief, was panic hysterically and pray.
Sorry! The reality was that each lead was to be assessed on its own merits and that a contingency plan be agreed prior to any crossing depending on the lead’s attributes (eg width) and the route taken. The onus was to avoid risk wherever possible, but should a break-through occur, the priority would be to erect a tent, fire up the stove(s), strip all wet clothes and replace with dry ones as soon as possible. With my recent experience in the loo fresh in my mind, I was acutely conscious of the very brief window available to avoid hypothermia / frostbite in such a scenario and, therefore, the importance of avoiding it.
So, prepared mentally and physically, we boarded our luggage and ourselves onto the helicopter to fly us to our drop-off point.
I don’t know much about helicopters, but ours looked old and chunky.
Nevertheless, Jason was relaxed and as a qualified pilot I bowed to his expertise. Furthermore, Lance cheerfully announced that he had been reliably informed that signs of oil leaks round a chopper were a good sign (the implication being that if there were none there was a strong likelihood that the was no oil on board) and that ours had plenty!
We shared the flight with the Slovak / American team which comprised 3 men and 2 women and was lead by Karl who has successfully skied “all the way” from the coast to the South Pole (c.1100kms) during the winter.
I felt excited and apprehensive in equal measure and the photos of the flight show that I spent the vast majority of the time with my face pressed up against one of the small windows trying to soak up the reality of where I was and what I was about to venture on.
On the helicopter
From our vantage, the terrain looked not dissimilar to a birds-eye view of snow blanketed fields, separated by relatively regular dry walls (ie the seams of ice rubble), albeit that our vista was without any man-made or living interruptions and seemingly endless. Even from this distance it was enticing and alluring, with the only perceived concern being 2 or 3 extremely wide and long leads, running East to West along our return route, which would have to be crossed at some point over the next few days.
Drop Off (10th April)
The Arctic ice cap is constantly moving, driven by a combination of tides and winds. The drift, which is totally unpredictable and subject to instantaneous changes in direction, had been predominantly West to East over the previous few days and we had taken an educated gamble that this would continue given the stable nature of the weather conditions. Accordingly, at 5:21pm local time (ie GMT + 1 hr), 10th April, we were dropped off on the opposite side of the Pole from Camp Barneo at N 89 degs, E 148 degs in an attempt to mitigate the risk of negative drift (ie being carried away from the Pole).
For those not in the know, which included me until relatively recently, a degree is made up of 60 minutes which measure 1 nautical mile each. A nautical mile is equivalent to 1.15 miles, or 1.85kms. Hence the last degree represents a distance of 60 nautical miles, or 69 miles, or 111kms – assuming that one travels in a straight line of course.
Due to the presence of an enormous lead, running East to West, at bang on N 89 degs, which could have prevented us from making any progress North for a number of days, we were given a slight head start from our scheduled drop-off point. My first reaction was of disappointment and concern that we were in some way compromising the challenge by not skiing the whole last degree, but pragmatism prevailed – much better to swallow a little pride and make it to the Pole, than sit in a tent for several days unable to progress further. Instead, I made a vow to “make up” the extra couple of miles should we reach the Pole.
Open Lead at N 89 degs
The mad scramble of getting ourselves and our kit off the helicopter (apparently a Russian MI 8), was followed initially by the commotion of the helicopter taking off again over our heads and then by an eerie silence and on overwhelming and palpable sense of being alone.
Helicopter takes off and our journey really begins
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