NORTH POLE EXTREME SKI 2007
By Eric Philips
This year was my fourth guiding season at the North Pole, and by far the most challenging. Seems like all this talk of climate change came to roost on top of the earth during April this year. For the second year running, the fiord outside Longyearbyen, the Norwegian gateway town to the North Pole, didn't freeze over winter. Then, on April 13, during a string of storms rarely seen in the High Arctic, the ice runway that services Borneo, the Russian drift station near the pole, cracked open, delaying the Antonov-74 flying schedule by almost a week, no flights in or out. This was frustrating for the people waiting to return to Norway, heartbreaking for the teams waiting to fly to the ice. But Russians being Russian, they built another runway when the weather cleared.
Making up the team was Peter Gregg and Paul Bonney from Adelaide. Both are experienced skiers and had recently walked the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea. Good friends for over 40 years, it was a delight to hear their giggling and joking coming from their tent each evening. Rob Knight from Hobart joined the team days before departure and, just to show off his determination and stoicism, suffered a suspected broken wrist by slipping on the ice the night before flying to Borneo. With his humour and youthful vitality he was a welcome addition to the team. Rob shared a tent with Sara Kameswaran, an Indian girl living in San Francisco. Sara had skied to the South Pole months earlier and came to the team as the most experienced client. Despite her diminutive size she had a dogged determination that was always a joy to witness. She would become the first Indian woman to ski to both poles. Paul, at 49, and Rob, at 22, would become the oldest and youngest Aussies to ski to the North Pole.
After being delivered to our lonely start point on the Arctic Ocean, we wasted no time and strapped on skis and harnesses for a couple of hours of hauling, covering a decent 3.4km. The sky was a sparkling blue with the temperature around -15C, reasonably balmy for spring in the Arctic, and the surface was good, giving us further daily distances of 15km...bang on target if it wasn't for the incessant drift that took us backward as we skied and slept. This drift, amounting to 6-7km per day, is not unusual and in my experience doesn't last for more than a few days, either slowing, stopping or changing direction. Not this year. It had been drifting in the one direction for a week already and continued for the 9 days we were on the ice, and beyond.
The following morning we were on the ice by 8.30 after waking to the alarm at 6am, very good going for a new team. With a full moon comes ice movement, the bigger tides creating cracks that expose the ocean below and pressure ridges that grow and grind their way across the icescape. In turn we ground over them, often removing skis to clamber over the chaos. At one point we found ourselves in the middle of a pressure zone that suddenly came alive. Massive floes, seemingly the whole horizon, were floating past us and we hurried to cross the fractures lest they open up mid-crossing, separating the team. The area then erupted, with cracks forming beneath our skis and plates of ice rupturing and bobbing around us. The air was alive with the sound of splintering, cracking and groaning ice. It was incredibly exciting and a rarely-witnessed display of the power of this environment. Lunch in the lee of an uncommon iceberg brought a welcome relief from the breeze.
The evenings are always a delight, an opportunity to mull over the events of the day, rest weary muscles, get stuck into some tucker ( and the odd nip of Scotch or Aquavit) and sleep the sleep of warm kings. The morning was a mess, new pressure had formed everywhere, a chaotic landscape that still moaned, buckled and heaved as we booted carefully through it. Twice we crossed open water using our kayak/sleds. Securing two of the kayaks side by side, I use the raft to cross very thin ice, utilising a ski to paddle and prod my way across. Always the most difficult part is alighting from the sled onto the far shore but once negotiated we could set up a ferry using tow ropes. Despite the perceived danger this technique presents, I have done it many times, developing a fast and safe method to cross leads that would otherwise present frustration and delay. All agree that itís a welcome distraction from the hard work and a lot of fun.
Now, the pole so close by, we could truly absorb the beauty of our surroundings and headed north in a state of bliss. By mid-afternoon we were on top of the world, a feeling that canít be explained in words. What an achievement for novice polar trekkers and smiles beamed from their faces. I had now trekked to this mathematical point six times and although there is nothing visually distinctive about it, there is always a mood of surreality that envelopes me. I know too that Rob, Sara, Paul and Pete, despite our short helicopter flight, felt the same. There is nothing easy about walking 100km to the North Pole, particularly during a season such as this one, but more importantly one comes away with an intimate perception of what this enigmatic place is all about. After finding 90.00.00 to mark in our GPS's, we set up camp and reveled in our hard-won achievement. When the chopper picked us up the following day, we were 8km from the North Pole. Flying for 40 minutes back to Borneo, Pete commented that it was almost unfathomable that we walked over all that chaotic ice.
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