NORTH POLE EXPLORER 2008
By Eric Philips
This year we offered a new program, North Pole Explorer. It was named such because it offers the opportunity to, well, explore – explore the Arctic, explore skiing, explore Ice Station Borneo, explore in miniature the delights and challenges of a North Pole expedition.
Almost anybody is suited to North Pole Explorer, but typically those that are limited in either time, skill or physicality. Heinz Fischer and Lyndy Fischer, our two customers on Explorer, are skilled outdoors people, still active as pilots, sailors, scuba divers, skiers, the list goes on…, with plenty of time, but their tender ages, 79 and 76 respectively, had naturally reduced their ability to undertake the sorts of demanding expeditions they had undertaken earlier in their lives. Explorer would immerse them into a new world and they were clearly in their element.
After kitting them out with specialist clothing, tested during a shakedown ski tour around Bjorndalen, an old glacial valley on the outskirts the Longyearbyen, we boarded the Antonov-74 and flew north on the morning of April 11. The 2.5 hour flight is always one of excitement and trepidation – what lies ahead? But touching down on the ice runway at Borneo, an event sometimes not realised such is the skill of the pilot, everything galvanises in an instant. Cold weather clothing turns passengers into fat mummies, boots are tightened, a draft of icy air enters the cabin as the door is opened, then…cold. And ice.
I always try and capture the faces of people introduced for the first time to the Arctic ice. Astonishment, bewilderment, awe…they are all expressed in words and expressions. Lyndy and Heinz were no different, despite their worldly travels that included Greenland and Antarctica. At this point I should introduce Chris Furhoph, from Germany. Chris joined us at the last minute and with his age in the late 40’s, we brought the average age of our quartet to 62. This would be Chris’ first time on skis.
After extracting our sleds from the belly of the plane we headed for Borneo’s heated mess tent where we had a cup of tea and some lunch. In the afternoon we settled into our sleeping quarters then it was on with the skis and hitched into the sled for a scoot around the local ice. The weather was perfect, around -26C with a very slight breeze and a blue sky. The ice drift, that a week before had been over 1km/h to the south – away from the pole – was now a few northerly metres per hour. Everything was stacking up just fine.
The evening gave the team plenty of time to finalise their selection of clothing and an early night had us raring to go come morning. After a breakfast of porridge and coffee we boarded the Mi8 helicopter with sleds and skis and flew north for over an hour to our drop off point just over seven kilometres from the North Pole. The chopper settled on the ice and we unloaded by its right wheel where we felt virtually no wash from the rotor blades as it flew off, effectively in the eye of the hurricane.
Wasting no time, Heinz and I fixed our position as a waypoint in our GPS’s and found our bearing and distance to the Pole, then we all clipped into our sleds and skied into the horizon. Conditions were absolutely perfect. New ice dominated the landscape, that is, single-year ice formed over the previous winter. This ice is typically around 1.6 metres thick, very flat and fast. When pressurised and fractured it also gives rise to luminous blue blocks of rubble that build into walls of demolition – pressure ridges. Some of these ridges had formed recently, within the last week or so. So too had leads, avenues of thin ice that had been open water a just days earlier. We discovered one in the first hour and it headed north. This is relatively uncommon as most leads that are discovered, open or frozen, cut across the path of travel and not with it.
This lead was just ripe. Sizeable frost flowers had grown on its surface and, scraped away with a ski edge, the grey colour of the ice below revealed a skin that had sufficiently thickened within the last 12 hours or so. Any darker and it would have wobbled below our skis, relegating us to the pack ice on either side.
Chris scuttled along like a born skier, his stride and balance belying his inexperience on skis. He was well covered, a synthetic fur hat and blue neoprene mask covering his head and face. Bursts of spontaneous and excited chatter would emanate from his mouth. Lyndy, with glaucoma and two hip replacements, could rely on her years of outdoor experience to move herself forward over the challenging ice. Lightly dressed, she was conscious of the need to vent and reduce moisture in clothing. Yet her face was totally covered, protecting her from the extreme cold. It was like being out on the ice with a professional ice traveller. Heinz is extremely fit and could have ran me into the ground. He is also an avid navigator, flying his plane and balloon has honed this skill to perfection. “Eric, we need to go further to the right.” I was following my compass rather than the GPS, which is ultimately less accurate, given the compass relies on data from the GPS. But I continued in my chosen direction, following the path of least resistance, which included the wonderful frozen lead that continued to take us north.
A quick lunch and we were back on the trail, closing in on the pole. Everyone was mesmerized by the icescape and time seemed to ooze between our fingers. I’ve been many times to the North Pole but today was one of the nicest I have experienced, the blend of weather, surface and company was wonderful.
I asked Heinz to take us into the pole, given that he had concentrated so much on our navigation, and he diligently and skilfully led us to the top of the world. It was a magnificent feeling for me to see Lyndy and Heinz, almost octogenarians, so energised and excited by what they had just accomplished. I doubt that anyone older has skied such a distance to the North Pole, certainly they are the oldest couple ever to have done so. Chris seemed a lot more pragmatic about his achievement but the sparkle in his eyes showed that he was pretty chuffed to be standing further north than anyone else in the world. Photographs around the North Pole flag topped off the ceremony then it was into the tent and out of the cold.
The weather held splendidly and we spent a great night camped at the North Pole, though all the while drifting slowly from it, as ice never stays in the same place on the Arctic Ocean. After lunch the helicopter flew in and landed near our camp. We quickly packed and piled into the chopper for the +1 hour flight back to Borneo. Here we had time for a cup of coffee before the flight back to Longyearbyen.
What a trip this was! It was a great privilege to travel with Heinz and Lyndy, they felt like peers and friends. Chris too was great company, The inaugural North Pole Explorer was a great success and we hope to run this trip again next year. A really fun, enjoyable yet challenging insight into expedition life on the Arctic Ocean.
|© 2011 Icetrek Expeditions|