From Siberia to the North Pole
By Eric Philips
Published in Mountain Hardwear catalog, Fall 2002
We had just been choppered to the northern end of the Siberian island group of Severnaya Zemlya by Cerpolex, our Arctic logistics company. It was unseasonably warm for late winter, -10C. The perception was enhanced by a midday sun that hovered just above the horizon, drenching the pack-ice with a day-glo patina. A bedspread of radiant ground drift swirled in eddies by our feet before heading north. For a mountaineer, wind is foe, but for us, when it's blowing north, wind is friend, as it catches on every sail-face of ice rubble and pushes the pack toward our destination. On our second night, as absolute darkness closed around our little pyramid tent and we lay like mummies in our fat bags, water less than a metre below our butts, we drifted over 8km north.
But we couldn't rely on drift alone to get us to the North Pole. We were attempting a feat that had been achieved by only a handful of people - an unsupported walk to the North Pole. Three years earlier, together with my current companion, Jon Muir, I walked, skied and kited to the South Pole via a new route. But despite this, despite my treks across the world's four largest icecaps, only the Arctic can truly prepare you for the Arctic. The South Pole was attained a mere 10 years after the first serious attempt; explorers had been toiling for the North Pole for centuries before it was finally reached. The first unsupported walk to the North Pole was only achieved in 1994. Even now, most teams vying to reach the North Pole without support fail short of their target.
Despite never having stood on the Arctic Ocean before, the blurb on all my expedition literature drummed home the three great perils - polar bears, thin ice, and cold. There was a chance we would be stymied by at least one of them, but to be challenged by all three in the space of a week served to both sharpen our senses and emphasize our vulnerability. The Arctic cares not for your welfare.
Iceblocks move in the Arctic, sometimes at rapid speed. But this one was barrelling towards us like a polar bear. Oh fruit! The iceblock grew legs, then a head, all sprouting from an enormous body. It's a friggin bear! I fumbled for the flares in my leg pocket, Jon for the Magnum 44. Armed to the chattering teeth we relaxed an iota, but the brute kept coming. Jon jumped onto his sled and held his black duvet over his head as I placed my skis upright in the snow next to me - a bear will size up its opponent before attacking. The strategy worked and it pulled up 30 metres short and began circling downwind, sniffing the air. As it eyed us keenly we couldn't help but admire the beauty of the world's largest land-living carnivore, a supreme tracker and hunter. What the..??, we are the hunted! Admiration over, we steeled ourselves for an attack, but as it moved downwind of our unwashed bodies it took one whiff and bolted like a scared rabbit. Disbelief was quickly overtaken by elation at having thwarted an assault and experienced a passive encounter with such a superb creature.
'Don't forget I'm twenty kilos heavier than you!'
'Yeah, should be right, Jon. Just don't follow my line.'
Although Jon's face was hidden by whiskers and a neoprene mask, I'm sure his expression reflected mine - nervous confidence. Below his skis spanned an 8m-wide, 2cm thick meniscus of ice, and below that lay a dark, inky void. Liquid death.
Moments before, I'd skied across the freshly frozen lead holding a rope attached to our two kayak-cum-sleds, in preparation for pulling them across after us. What I hadn't noticed below my skis was what I now saw below Jon's - the dipping and bowing of the saline ice. It looked as though Jon was walking on a trampoline. Half way across he reached the nadir of depression and I watched horrified as water flooded slow motion around his feet.
'Jon, go ba...'
My warning cry was swamped by the realisation that Jon had just plunged chest deep into the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. We were alone, 1000km from the nearest outside help, it was -29C. 'Trouble' pulsed through my temple. I flicked the thin Kevlar line across and he made a funky walrus manoeuvre, both latching onto the line and heaving himself up onto the thin ice again.
'You're OK, Jon', I said lamely.
Before crashing through a second time I noticed a ski had fallen from his right foot. We carried a spare but no binding or skin. I'd like to say my thoughts were with Jon at that time of desperate need, but my primordial instincts seemed to suggest that survival was probable, continued progress only possible, and contemplated to myself, I think I can make another binding.
With a deft butterfly stroke out of the question we heaved and hauled, crunching through the remaining three metres of ice before beaching his sodden carcass. Behind lay a template of events, perversely preserved in the channel of broken ice cut by Jon's body. Auto-pilot kicks in. Tow the boats across. Get everything onto secure pack ice. Up goes the tent. Inside. Crank up the stove. Frozen clothes off. Dry clothes on. Dive in sleeping bag and don't peek out for six hours. In fact, don't emerge from tent for three days. Meanwhile I went back outside and hacked away at the polyethylene protective side-plates I'd riveted to the side-walls of our kayaks. From them, and an array of nuts and bolts, I fashioned an improvised flex plate between which I sandwiched a Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero overboot, then screwed the ball and toe of the whole shebang to the spare ski. Lastly, I cut one skin down the middle and secured the narrow strip onto the new ski. The binding was to last us the remaining 700km to the Pole.
We'd tried too early to get going after Jon's dunking. Our overnight attempt at drying his clothes, most importantly his inner boots, polar mittens and duvet, over the stove were pitiful and we seriously battled with hypothermia and frostbite for 30 minutes. Back in the tent. Crank up the stove. Frozen clothes off. Dry clothes on. Dive in sleeping bag and don't peek out for another six hours. Deja vu. From desperation comes savvy and from savvy comes action and by the end of the day we'd rigged a drier that had a constant plume of vapour billowing from the top of our Kiva tent. But we harboured a concern over our fuel reserves and I headed outside again to count our fuel bottles. I was dressed warmly and had covered my hands in both fleece and Windstopper gloves. Our tally of 22 litres was healthy enough, but after handling the bottles out of and back into our kayaks I returned to the tent to find five fingers frostbitten. Stupid! It was not my first exposure to the ailment and I knew that a month of excruciating pain lay ahead. Trying to heal frostbite in a freezer is like trying to repair a flat tyre without stopping.
To combat the Arctic Ocean requires copious and equal amounts of skill, humility and luck. Skillwise, we combined old techniques with daring innovations to overcome problems. I'd cut the decks from plastic white-water kayaks and used them as sleds - as good on ice as on water. Together with this method I employed large drybags so we could tow our gear behind us as we paddled. It worked a treat. Our humble approach seemed to work too. We gave ourselves an 80% chance of success so long as we remained open to the lessons the Arctic had to teach us - how to choose a secure campsite; learning from mistakes; being conservative with the risk game; taking time to weigh up options. We were never in a rush. As for luck, on the surface it seemed as though we were well short. The earth recorded its warmest three-month period in a millennium just before we began so our biggest danger, thin ice, was more rampant than ever. And the Russian side is known for its northerly drift, yet a surfeit of northerly blizzards kept our positive drift to an absolute minimum. Add polar bears, a swim in the ocean, a lost ski, frostbite, and one could easily suppose we were at the top of a hit list! Yet spliced into this bad fortune was daily luck that was more difficult to measure; miniscule luck, luck that we made ourselves, luck that we never even knew about. Four other teams were on the ice. We were the only to succeed.
But there seemed to be a fourth element to which I can attribute no explanation. We were up against it. Day 48 and we were still over 260km from the pole with only ten days food remaining. Although the sun now wheeled permanently above the horizon there was no hint of spring and the temperature remained consistently between -25 and -35C. Yesterday I battled with the cold for 9 hours straight before my fingers felt warm! We'd hoped for a moderation in ice pressure this far from land but the surface was as changeable as ever. Ten metre-high pressure ridges one day, one kilometre wide leads the next. Having just outflanked another lead and associated rubble I stood on a ridge and looked north, scanning for a route. Jon pulled up and the three of us chatted for a few minutes before heading off again. Ten minutes later I froze. Three of us! The chill down my spine turned to an inner warmth with the realisation that this presence, which was still so palpable I could almost lick it, was the manifestation of a good omen. Not at all discomfited by the spiritual reverence I placed on such a weird event, I turned to Jon and explained what had just happened concluding spontaneously with, 'we're gonna get to the Pole with no major difficulties and we?ll arrive on my birthday'. Thereafter Jon vowed to keep a close eye on me!
True to my belief, at 11.30 pm on April 30, my 40th birthday, we stood at the top of the earth's axel. No summit cairn, scientific base or welcoming committee marked our arrival, just pure wilderness, the way we had experienced it for the last 58 days. By the time we pitched the tent and switched our Argos beacon to Code 9 - 'Arrived at North Pole, Require pickup', we were no longer at the Pole - the southerly wind (every wind at the Pole is southerly!) we'd battled all day had already removed us. But nothing much seemed to matter now, so we ate, peeked out at the midnight sun, then slept with the sweet knowledge that tomorrow we need walk no further. Hours later the sound of a helicopter forced me outside and I almost fell headlong into a black chasm no further than a boot-length from the tent. It wasn't there when we arrived. The Arctic cares not for your welfare.
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