North Pole success!
By Eric Philips
Icetrek's 2004 Last Degree North Pole expedition arrived at 90 degrees North on April 18.
After some fun with sled weights at the airport (average of 40kg), the team of Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Simon Holland and financial planner, Mark George of Melbourne, Australia, and petrochemical broker, Tom Smit of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, together with me as guide, flew from Longyearbyen in Svalbard, on April 9, bound for Ice Station Borneo, located at N89.14. The wind was howling and blowing snow and our 11.30pm departure served as an exciting start to the journey. The flight of 2.5 hours was uneventful though and we arrived at Borneo in bright sunshine and a temperature of -30C. By 3am we had the tents up and tried to get as much shut-eye as possible before our transfer to 89N the following day.
At 2pm on April 10th we loaded our sleds onto the helicopter and flew the 20km south to 89N, 140E. It was indeed a great moment to step into our skis, point our noses north and lean into our harnesses for the first time. The fur ruffs on our hoods were pulled over our faces as a slight tail wind pushed at our backs. It was immediately clear that Tom was to be the hare, Simon the turtle, and Mark somewhere in between. We had 112km between us and the top of the world, we would make it as a team regardless of our different speeds.
We made good distance, 4km in 2 hours, before camping for the evening. By the morning, April 10th, we had done another three. The northerly wind had pushed the ice, and us on top of it, toward the pole and we shouted our joy between the tents.
The drift continued and so did our good surface conditions. The biggest challenge now was the cold, with temperatures at around -35C. The sun circled slowly above the horizon with no detectable change in altitude. It gave us no warmth. Its benefit lay in our navigation. At our current longitude, and keeping Spitsbergen time, we determined that the sun would be at due north at 5pm. With this, knowing that the sun and our shadow move 15 degrees every hour, we could determine our preferred direction without the use of a compass or GPS. Of course we used both from time to check to check heading and position. By days end we'd covered 17km. The most amazing thing today was Tom's sleeping mat incident. During setting up camp, the wind whisked it away without him knowing. I thought he'd be in for a few cold nights but he was lucky to find it in a hollow about 30metres downwind.
Over the next few days the temperature began to increase into the 20's (minus, that is). We also were confronted by our first lead, which took a while to negotiate and slowed our pace, 11.5 for April 12.
The wind overnight forced the frozen leads around us to open again and we were almost marooned on an island, however a fortuitous constriction allowed our escape onto the pack. Though we'd camped on solid pack, Mark wondered whether it was such a good place to camp but often these things are totally unpredictable. The wind, the strength of the ice, the unknown terrain ahead, the freshness of the team, all direct us toward making the most appropriate decision at the time. As it turned out we found a frozen lead that took us north for much of the day. The spectacular light as we pitched camp topped off a memorable day.
By now we were starting to average about 12 km per day, honest travel with no further northerly drift; we were starting to find a rhythm. Tom began to tease Simon about his pace and called him Slo-Mo. Simon took it well, knowing that he travels at his own cadence leaving plenty in reserve if required, but wasted no time in returning the humorous sarcasm. This was the tone of the expedition, lighthearted ribbing, jibing and endless laughter. We'd struck a harmony in the group based on the ability to laugh at ourselves and each other.
The skis provided by my Russian partners to the team caused the biggest problem throughout the trip. They were fitted with only a short strip of skin underneath and provided inadequate traction on the often uneven surface. Yet they persevered stoically, their prowess on skis overcoming almost everything that was thrown at them. Full length skins will be used next year.
Open water continued to challenge us, a large lead heading W-NW took us off track for a while but ended at a fracture zone where we managed to cross to firmer ice. Our combined efforts overcame everything, the cold, water and pressure ridges. We got lucky too, with big northerly frozen leads and expanses of flat pack ice. The wind had eased to almost nothing, but every stop was still a battle with the cold. Particularly for Tom who sweated ferociously with the smallest exertion. He did well to endure the short breaks, his sweat slowly cooling and freezing into his clothing.
The last few days moderated in temperature and wind though our 7th day on the ice proved to be a cold one on all our fingers and we reverted to mittens. But our last day, April 18, was quite incredible. With temperatures in the high teens and no wind, it was a luxury to ski in thin gloves and light tops. With 11.1km to the Pole, an air of excitement swept over the team as we headed north. Everything went our way. We were confronted by a lead early in the day but its edge was made of week-old new ice and was as flat as a pancake. The lead headed almost due north and just as it swung towards the east it ended at a fracture zone where we completed a crossing of sled ferrying. A seal popped its head out of the water to admire our technique, it was obviously impressed.
Seven kilometers later, at about 4pm, GPS's out and active, we edged towards the pole. With the sun shining from a still blue sky the team walked to exactly N90.00.000, with that exact figure on all of our GPS's. A great cheer went up and we celebrated with a shot of single malt whisky. To be standing at such a place doesn't come easy and the team worked hard for it, overcoming every challenge like seasoned veterans. It was a joy to be with them and revel in their achievement. All there remained to do was pitch camp and look forward to our first sleep-in.
The following day we were picked up by chopper and flown to Borneo where we stayed a night in the warmth of the base before flying back to Longyearbyen on the 20th. Nothing can describe the luxury of a shower, a hot meal and a beer, and the swashbuckling feeling of success.
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