North Pole Last Degree 2005
By Eric Philips
The 2005 season proved to be markedly different from other years and offered it’s own unique challenges, for guides, participants and private expeditions alike. As always, the bottom line never changes and Icetrek ensured that the experience would offer adventure, education, fun, safety and challenge. This we experienced in abundance.
Australians Matt McFadyen and Rob Porcaro joined me (Eric Philips) in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, on April 7 with plenty of time to prepare before the April 11 departure for Borneo. Equipped with Flexi bindings, Atlas harnesses and Icetrek sleds (kayaks) the team looked distinctly different and attracted much inquisitiveness from the transient and local adventuring community in Longyearbyen. These items would also be used during Matt and Rob’s solo South Pole expeditions at the end of the year so the opportunity to test them in the Arctic was an integral part of this Last Degree expedition.
Rob boarded the AN74 in Longyearbyen on April 11 with a developing flu and the trip would prove to be onerous on both him and Matt (who copped the brunt of the domestic work of tent pitching and cooking). I tented alone and, though lumbered with an annoying cough, was separated from the challenges of the infirmary.
Borneo offered its usual hospitality of hot meals and a heated mess tent but the first night was spent in an unheated dormitory tent which served as a great and gently introduction to cold-weather sleeping – Matt and Rob coped marvelously and stayed warm in their new, puffy down bags, despite temps close to –30C.
April 12. Day 1
The morning was spent finalizing our packing and confirming a communications schedule with Borneo and flight coordinator, adventurer and all-round nice guy, Victor Boyarsky. At 1.30pm we bid the locals farewell and headed north from Borneo. With a slightly shortened season the guys made the decision to begin from Borneo, and not 89N, to ensure their arrival at the North Pole. With sponsorship and fund-raising at the forefront of their minds, it was more important to attain the pole than begin on the 89th parallel.
Both the guys had never been on skis before but their concerns at coping were quickly allayed. Matt and Rob are highly coordinated adventurers and looked as though they’d been a lifetime on skis; however a generally good surface throughout the trip (more like Antarctica) assisted their skill development and speed and Matt lead for much of the afternoon, compass swaying around his neck. We skirted a small, soft lead just short of camp at 5pm, happy with our progress of 5.5km. Both guys perspired a great deal and were icy under their wind jackets, a problem we would actively work on over the coming days. While setting up camp Rob chilled quickly due to his flu and Matt did well to get him in his bag and warm him ready for a recuperating hot dinner of pasta, spicy sauce, pine nuts and bacon. Once in our tents a happy banter passed between our walls and I was happy in the knowledge that our first day was a success and, though Rob’s flu was deteriorating, the future looked promising.
April 13. Day 2
Awake at 6am to porridge and coffee and the boost that we had drifted north 100m. A fast pack-up saw us in our harnesses by 9am, pretty good going for an inaugural morning. The clear sky didn’t last and we were soon under a blanket of cloud, heading into the eased but persistent NW wind. An unseasonal blanket of drift snow disguised holes in the rubble and covered fresh leads making us wary about crossing anything without giving it a good poke. I led all day to give the guys an opportunity to develop their skills on skis and we traveled fast covering 11.8km by 4.30pm. Very happy about that though we were fully aware that a blizzard, large open lead or deterioration in illness could easily set us back a day or two. Rob and I coughed in unison throughout the night, Matt heard nothing and contributed to the symphony with arias from his vocal chainsaw.
April 14. Day 3
Another quick start, these boys are dedicated! A great surface for much of the day, little rubble to contend with and no leads, just the exquisite beauty of the unmistakable Arctic Ocean, breathless, captivating and constantly changing. The sky continued to drop and contrast and definition were terrible. Matt had a go at leading but found effective navigation and route finding a challenge. However, I very much respected his willingness to contribute, learn and develop with no hint of self-consciousness or over-confidence. Rob was now on antibiotics to help kick his developing lung condition and I asked whether he wanted to unload some equipment to ease his burden. He’s a tough guy and saw the challenge of struggling though tough times as an integral part of pushing boundaries in the polar environment, declining my offer with a glance northward toward the coveted pole. Covered 12.6km, another respectable day, leaving us 56km to reach the North Pole.
April 15. Day 4
Four hours to get moving this morning, stewing in the warmth of our cosy havens, the guys making calls on their Iridium phone to families, friends and interested media in Australia. A clear sky and light breeze greeted us and we reveled in the perfect clarity and vision. However, the surface pulled the trump card and we struggled through large areas of rubble and pressure. To the credit of Rob and Matt, they fumbled little on their skis and rose to the challenge of the bane of every Arctic Ocean traveler, pressure ridges. Colder today and we eased our hands into ever thickening layers of hand-wear, ensuring our fingers were well looked after. Frostbite is a constant threat and a conservative approach to its combat is fundamental to Icetrek guiding philosophy. Same goes with crossing leads, such as that we confronted in the afternoon. Much of this giant fresh region was consolidated but areas were too new and we gave them a wide berth, scouting an annoying but safe route through the surrounding rubble. The guys found the challenge of route finding fun and exciting, experiencing the focus and intensity that the Arctic forces upon all that travel on her surface. Matt added another level of consciousness by plugging into his MiniDiscman. Strains of song filtered through the rubble as we headed north, not a bad voice Matt. Later that evening I tuned into Rob’s iPod with my SW radio, enjoying recordings written and performed by he and his two sons. Our own high Arctic radio station, DJ Rob and Ice Matt. Actually, Matt has been dubbed Polar Matt, a title earned from the ease with which he confronts all the challenges of the North, he’s a natural and I suspect he’ll be back. So much so that he has also taken the self-bestowed diminutive of my given title: JG – Junior Guru.
Both guys have begun to respect the art of venting using the array of zips in their outer clothing. Venting is the key to minimizing ice build-up in the clothing, increasing warmth and reducing the dampness in clothing once inside the tent. Matt is virtually ice-free in the afternoons now, Rob still requires the help of another to peel his accreted jacket from his fleece underneath. We use a scrubbing bush to scratch any ice from the inside of the jackets before diving into the tent. 10.8km for the day, 45km to go.
April 16. Day 5
Drifted backwards 200m overnight, as well as waking to an open tide crack within a metre of the tent. What a place. In the first session we were greeted by a dynamic pressure ridge, at least 8m high, tumbling, grinding and crunching with the sound of a hundred shunting trains. We stood by the behemoth and squealed as thin cracks in the 2m-thick surrounding pack shot past our skis. Nothing ominous but awesomely powerful, commanding respect. An overcast sky opened from time to time, revealing pockets of emerald sky to which we prayed for an easing of wind and emergence of sun. No such thing; a cold wind kept blowing in from the NW. In terms of training for a South Pole expedition, where head winds are the norm for a southerly trek, the opportunity served as a great learning exercise. The fur ruffs came in handy and protected faces from the ravages of frost-nip and worse. The tent was ever-welcome and Rob’s improving condition fostered a mirth fitting of a pantomime or comedy festival. Matt is a natural entertainer, joker and raconteur. I expect to see him on Idol someday. Another solid 14km covered today, only 31km to the pole.
April 17. Day 6
A blizzard developed overnight and the NW wind drifted us backwards almost 5km. A disheartening scenario but, with two guys intent on learning everything they can about polar travel in preparation for gruelling full-length South Pole journeys, I wasn’t up for wallowing in our tents. I called out at 6am and Rob responded. Though I’m sure he and Matt pondered the sensibility of my push through the storm, they also knew that it was a training opportunity not to be missed. I assured them that storms always feel worse inside the tent than out, and that blizzards brought warmer temperatures - both were appreciated once on the trail. Visibility was less than 10m reducing travel to its most basic form - pick the bearing and follow it. Route selection through rubble from afar was not an option and it wasn’t until my skis punched through drifting snow-banks that I realised we were on anything but a decent route. I stayed out front. Fresh leads were the greatest concern in the bad visibility and high winds but we were blessed with safe ground. However at times it seemed like we were going in circles and indeed on one occasion I’m certain we did. Breaks were welcome as we always found shelter behind pressure ridges, enjoying the brief eddies while we could. The guys also began enjoying the blizzard - warm fingers, goggled faces and blind travel make for interesting times. Beats listening to commercial radio in a traffic jam. With a papal blessing from Matt in the morning together with reverential mutterings of a clear sky by midday, the miracle was performed and in a seeming instant, around lunch time, we were surrounded by blue, still sky. Matt For Pope, we say. As if the improvement in weather was not enough, the surface transformed to that of the Antarctic plateau with sweeping vistas of flat, firm pack festooned with the distinctive and beautiful striations etched by the polar wind. Another 14 km put us within striking distance of the top of the world, tired but happy.
April 18. Day 7.
As a reward for yesterday’s efforts we awoke to a clear and still day. Wow! A nasty pressure ridge broke our stride in the first session but the second, led by Matt, was fast, furious and flawless. I could see in the boy’s faces that they were pumped, today was our day and we would take every opportunity to move northward as fast as possible. But the Arctic always has the last say and a fresh lead stopped us in our tracks. It was here that the kayaks showed their true colours. I have been using kayaks as sleds for over 10 years, including my expedition to the North Pole from Siberia in 2002. I offered to the guys that if the right opportunity were presented we would use them to cross the water. They jumped at the chance. Very quickly we rafted the two boats using skis as braces, I climbed on top and they shoved me out to sea. The boats crunched through the thin veneer of ice and I reached the other side of the narrow lead with a push from Matt and Rob with their extended ski poles. Once across we set up a ferry system and were all across in just a few minutes, safe, warm and energised despite the post-blizzard cold of –35C. Bring it on, nothing can stop us now!! Or can it. 4km from the pole we were met by yet another lead, 20m wide but firmer than the last. Words of “We can’t blow it now” rang in my ears from my ’02 trip and I decided not to attempt a kayak crossing. It was beyond our combined limited resources and experience. But Rob and Matt were fired up, Matt forging along the edge of the lead to will a crossing out of it. A kilometre SW we found a crossing of frozen-in floes and we skipped onto the opposing pack with the knowledge that the nearby pressure ridge was probably all that remained between us and the pole. This proved to be true and at 9pm, after 21km for the day, we strode triumphantly onto the top of the world. Nothing else existed but the elation of standing on this very special place, the North Pole. Matt grabbed his Aussie flag and sang the national anthem at the top of his lungs. After photo sessions we pitched camp where we stood, under a blue sky, and made our final supper. Banter was in free-flow and we celebrated in our own special ways. Matt supped on his flask of Bundaberg rum, me on my Scotch whisky, Rob happy with the knowledge that he pushed though one of the most severe illnesses he can remember to fulfil a dream.
April 19. Day 8.
Overnight the weather deteriorated and our GPS recorded our drift of 5km from the Pole. I sent in our position to the Borneo Iridium pager and by early afternoon we heard the distinctive drone of the Mi8 chopper following our longitude from the Pole. We packed quickly and boarded the aircraft. There was no rush to depart as the chopper had to wait for other teams to struggle through the storm to reach the pole and we celebrated with Russian vodka and chocolates, enjoying the company of the pilot, crew and Borneo representative. We were in good hands, the pilot had over 27 years and 14,000 hours of flying time in the high Arctic. The two other teams, who we never met en route, arrived at the pole with little time and opportunity for celebration and we were thankful for our hard push yesterday to reach the pole in good weather. All on board, tales of hardship, triumph, joy and friendship flowed amongst the teams and a bond of shared adversity united almost a dozen represented nations.
It was a challenging season with the constant wind and overcast conditions. However, many teams experienced good surface conditions making for speedy travel. But it wasn’t all beer and skittles for every team, highlighting the fact that the Arctic is forever in flux and the experience is different for every individual and every team. The British team that started from 89N were caught by large areas of open water and covered less than half the required distance to the pole, being pulled from the ice after a week of desperate travel.
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