Adventure to the North Pole
Trekking to the top of the world with PolarExplorers
By Alan Fox
Trip Report, April 7: En Route to the North Pole
On March 20 of this year, the sun rose for the first time in six months at the North Pole, chasing away the long winter night. There was no one there to enjoy that frigid dawn, just a sheet of ice and snow, floating on the Arctic Ocean and stretching to the horizon.
A few days later, a handful of Russians parachuted from the sky within 50 miles of the pole. Food, tents and a bulldozer (for leveling an ice runway) also were dropped by parachute. In a short time, that barren and inhospitable place (average temperature this time of year, 30 degrees below zero) was capable of sustaining life.
The Russians call their temporary home Barneo, and they have built and occupied a floating camp like this every year since 2002. It is operated by the 169-year-old Russian Geographical Society and welcomes scientists and explorers from around the world.
For three weeks only, Barneo's 13th incarnation will serve as a research station and the base camp for small groups of travelers who fly in from Norway en route to the North Pole. This week, I'll be among them, traveling with the help of U.S.-based PolarExplorers, which contracts space at the camp and has been guiding expeditions to the North and South poles for 20 years.
Here are some interesting facts about where I am headed.
The North Pole is, of course, the northernmost spot on Earth, latitude 90 degrees north. If you stand on the pole and spin 360 degrees on your heels, every direction you look will be due south.
Longitude determines time zones for most places on the planet. All the lines of longitude, and therefore all time zones, converge at the pole, so no particular time zone is more appropriate than any other. It is customary to stay on the time zone of the town you left from, so we will be on Norwegian time.
In most locations, time of day is highly related to the position of the sun in the sky. The sun is roughly at its highest at midday.
At the North Pole, the sun rises and sets only once per year, and its position is not related to the time of day. For the 24 hours I hope to be at or near the pole, the sun will be just above the horizon and will not noticeably rise or sink in the sky.
The North Pole is a fixed location, but the sheet of ice that floats over it rests on 14,000 feet of water and is constantly moving. Water currents, wind and even the phase of the moon affect the speed and direction of the ice.
If you mark the North Pole on the ice with a flag one day and come back to the flag the next day, it will have moved measurably away from the pole, possibly many miles. Our group will locate the North Pole via GPS the day we go for it.
The ice over the North Pole is not a uniform sheet but a collection of ice floes that vary widely in thickness and average 6 to 10 feet. Ice floes sometimes crack and separate into pieces, revealing fingers of open water called "leads." The ice is so thin in some places that dog sleds and people have broken through to the water.
By the end of April, the ice will break up and it will become impossible to maintain the runway or the camp. It is for this reason that Barneo must be dismantled and rebuilt every year.
Sometimes the ice doesn't follow the plan.
A few years ago, the bulldozer and its parachute broke straight through the ice and sank to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, delaying the creation of the runway and the first supply flight by several days.
On numerous other occasions, cracks or violent storms have destroyed the runway at Barneo and stranded explorers while the crew built a new runway nearby.
In 2010, the ice under the tents suddenly broke into pieces, forcing an urgent relocation of the camp and halting supply and evacuation flights until a new runway could be prepared.
I am reminded of a quote from the sixth-century Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu, founder of Daoism: "A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving."
Note to self: Bring a flask.
The adventure starts tonight with flights from sunny and warm Houston to London to Oslo to Longyearbyen, Norway, the world's northernmost town, far above the Arctic Circle. Here, we'll acclimate to the cold and break in our gear.
After that, our flight from Longyearbyen to Barneo will take just under three hours, plenty of time to reflect on questionable life choices and finish the book on polar exploration given to me by my friend Jeff. I'm up to the part that explains how to thaw eyelids that have frozen together.
Trip Report, April 10: In Longyearbyen
When I booked my trip to the North Pole, I must admit I looked at the tiny town of Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, as merely a required stopover en route to the main attraction.
I knew that adventure travelers and nature lovers visit the island from June to September to look for polar bears and whales and to climb the snowcapped mountains and kayak the deep-blue fjords. Vacations To Go offers Arctic cruises and tours with the island as the main attraction.
But at this time of year, I expected to find the world's northernmost town would be a frozen outpost hunkered down against the cold. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Not that it isn't cold -- temperatures have ranged from 20 to minus 11 during our visit -- it just doesn't seem to matter to anyone. The wide, pedestrian street of shops, restaurants and bars is open for business, and the best eateries are booked to capacity every night. Tourists bound for cross-country skiing, camping and snowmobiling vacations fill the few arriving flights each day.
We landed two days ago in a snowstorm, swooping down on the runway with steep mountains on one side and a fjord on the other. We were met by Rick Sweitzer of PolarExplorers and taken to the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, a comfortable property with an excellent restaurant and a lively bar scene.
We have explored the village on foot, finding colorfully painted homes and businesses a pleasing contrast to the white roads, sky, mountains and countryside.
Of course, there are a few aspects of Longyearbyen that remind you you're not in Kansas anymore.
There are majestic mountains in every direction. The locals mostly use snowmobiles instead of cars for transportation. The sun is up 22 hours a day at this time of year, with two hours of twilight. Restaurants offer whale, seal, reindeer, ptarmigan and cod tongue along with more common options. And residents are required by law to carry a rifle whenever they leave town, for their own protection from polar bears. Residents pack rifles on their snowmobiles, carry them down the streets and even into restaurants and bars.
Our first night in town, we were upside-down from the time change and had no problem closing down the Radisson bar at 2 a.m. The storm had cleared out and the sun had just set, but there was plenty of light outside. We decided to climb one of the nearby mountains, known to locals as the mountain of Mine 2b, which we completed (sort of) at 5 a.m., an hour after sunrise.
That climb delayed our acclimation to the local time zone a bit but bonded us to the place in a way a good night's sleep could not have.
After a few hours of sleep, we headed into the wilderness on a guided snowmobile tour that took us to spectacular mountain vistas and past reindeer digging in the snow for a bit of grass or moss.
Tonight, we received a briefing on conditions at Barneo, the floating ice camp that's currently 50 miles from the North Pole, our next stop. There is a new crack in the ice between the tents and the runway, but there is no plan to relocate the camp unless it gets bigger. The weather has turned considerably colder at the pole, and the forecast for our arrival is minus 50. Hopefully, the colder weather will delay the breakup of the ice floe.
Tomorrow, we will board a Ukrainian-made Antonov 74, piloted by a Russian crew, for the flight to Barneo. One year the plane shattered the ice runway as it touched down, but the pilots managed to take off again and return to Spitsbergen instead of sinking into the Arctic Ocean. I'm sure the adrenaline will be flowing when we hit that sheet of ice about 5 to 6 feet thick.
If all goes according to plan, I'll be at the North Pole by tomorrow evening. Of course, on this trip, plans are only as stable as the ice.
Trip Report, April 11: Barneo to the Pole
It is estimated that 200 people will stand on the ice at the North Pole in 2014, during the short April season that begins just after the sun rises and ends before the polar ice cap splinters into pieces. All but a handful will travel through Barneo.
The Antonov 74 was specifically designed for short landings and takeoffs on ice runways in the Arctic and Antarctica. Two engines mounted above the wings give the plane a bit of a top-heavy appearance, like it might topple over on its nose at any moment. Ours had been modified to convert half the seats and the only bathroom into cargo space.
We climbed aboard in Longyearbyen carrying everything we would need to be wearing when we stepped out at the floating ice camp, Barneo, where the weather had turned bitterly cold. In a few minutes we were off, headed north, over the mountains and glaciers of Spitsbergen and then beyond, to the Arctic Ocean.
About 30 minutes into our flight, we reached the southern edge of the polar ice cap, broken into drifting floes of varying sizes with leads of open water in between. After another half-hour, everything below us was solid ice and snow for as far as the eye could see.
Barely two and a half hours from takeoff, we began to descend toward the ice runway at Barneo. We dropped lower and lower, until we seemed to almost touch the ice, and then leveled off for a long minute or two. Suddenly, the blue tents of the camp flashed by my window, but rather than touching down, the pilot gunned the engines, pulled the nose up and we began to climb again.
With no announcement and no flight attendant to ask why we had aborted the landing, our minds were filled with questions.
Had the runway cracked open to reveal the ocean below?
Was there a problem with the landing gear?
Were we headed back to Spitsbergen?
Where did I pack my flask?
The plane circled back and landed smoothly, leaving us to speculate that our Russian pilots had perhaps wanted a close visual inspection of the ice runway before committing to it, but we would never know for sure.
We scrambled into our insulated pants and polar parkas, our Baffin boots rated to minus 148 degrees, our face masks and goggles, our hats, gloves and mittens. The door opened, and we moved down the stairs into a strange, new world. A cold one.
For the next eight hours, we explored the area in and around Barneo and reveled in our location, now 60 miles from the North Pole as the floating base camp had moved 10 miles. We claimed cots in our heated, 10-person tent, ate soup and cabbage and mystery meat for lunch in the mess tent and sent texts home via satellite to confirm we'd made it to our next-to-last stop.
Mostly, we learned how to function at the camp's current temperature, minus 55 degrees with wind chill, where exposed skin can be frostbitten in 10 minutes.
We found that exhaling through a mask while tilting your head to look down will cause your own breath to freeze on your goggles, making it impossible to see. That once your goggles are frozen over and you must remove them, your breath freezes on your eyebrows and eyelashes and any facial hair, forming little white balls that grow and grow. In 15 minutes, you can see and feel the ice when you blink.
With goggles off, the skin around your eyes can freeze. A white spot on your face means your blood has stopped circulating in that area, the first indicator of frostbite. One member of our group had this within his first hour outside but received quick treatment from our guide before lasting damage was done.
We found that the batteries for our cameras and GPS and satellite phone all stopped working within 15 minutes outside the tent. You could change to a battery you'd kept warm in an inside pocket and get 15 more minutes, but that required you to remove both your mittens and your gloves, which made your hands so cold they did not recover by simply putting everything back on.
Five polar bears had wandered into camp in the eight days since it opened, and the Russians had fired flares and pistols in the air to scare them off, so we were warned to be vigilant and not to leave the camp alone.
At 7 p.m., Norwegian time, dinner was served in the mess tent -- beans and bread and some kind of large meatball of unknown origin. I wasn't quite over lunch at that stage so I ate a Snickers bar from my duffel bag and decided I could live on them if I had to.
At 8:30 p.m., the word we'd been waiting for arrived. All the tourists in the camp, about 20 people, were to report to the runway and the Russian Mi-8 helicopter for our flight to the North Pole!
For an hour, we flew in the deafening roar of the rotors, giddy with anticipation. From my seat by the cargo hold in the back, I had no window, but they were covered with frost anyway. Our chopper sat down so smoothly in the snow I did not realize we had landed until the engine was shut off.
The helicopter must stay well clear of cracks in the ice, snowdrifts and the pressure ridges that form when ice floes collide, so we were still 200 yards and one floe removed from the pole when we stepped outside. We followed our guide to the edge of the floe and looked over a pressure ridge to see an unexpected obstacle between us and the adjacent floe -- a band of new ice 10 yards wide, much thinner than the floes on either side. The two floes had pulled apart, and the exposed seawater had only recently frozen over.
The group of 20 was split on whether to proceed. Most decided they were close enough to the pole and stayed behind, but our guide offered to lead anyone who was determined to reach the precise spot over the thin ice.
"If the ice breaks and you start to fall through to the water, lunge forward," he advised.
Seven of us followed the guide over the ridge and down onto the new ice, which popped and cracked as the wind and ocean current ground it against the large floes on either side. We stepped up to the next floe and marched the last 100 yards to the northernmost spot on Earth -- 90 degrees north -- where every direction we looked was due south.
We tried to let the reality of our location sink in as we took photos of ourselves with the various flags and banners we brought. We would have stayed longer on that spot, but the Russians called out that the new ice was breaking up and to come immediately to cross back to the original floe. No one argued.
We tiptoed over the new ice and back to the floe with the helicopter -- our life raft -- where we celebrated with Champagne on the (North Pole) rocks and called and texted family and friends, via satellite, to tell them we had made it.
By the time we boarded the helicopter two hours later, my goggles had frozen over, my eyelashes and eyebrows and beard were covered in ice, my fingers ached from the cold and every battery I'd brought was dead. It was just about as good as two hours can be.
We are now back at Barneo, where the celebration has continued in the mess tent well into the morning. Americans and Russians, Brits and Germans, Italians and Kiwis, scotch and vodka. We are a tiny blue dot on the vast polar ice cap, with a new storm bearing down.
And we are united today, as all travelers are, in the spirit of discovery.