NORTH POLE EXTREME SKI 2009
By Eric Philips
North Pole Extreme Ski 2009 was like no other that I have guided in my eight years on the Arctic ice. New Zealander, Michael Archer, a fifty year-old builder and athlete, had just completed a polar training course in northern Canada, and was raring to go. We just needed the Arctic to co-operate, and judging by previous seasons, this would be a demanding call.
In 2008 the drift of the pack ice was so severe (over 15km per day to the south) that we began our trek only 25km from the Pole, allowing ourselves five days skiing to reach it. After 5 five days we were 35km from our goal, the drift having pushed us backwards faster than we could progress forward. And it was cold to boot, -42C judging by the frozen Vodka.
The previous year we were dropped 100km from the Pole with eight days to cover the distance. On the eighth day, despite hard and fast skiing, we were 25km short and again forced to fly the remainder. The southerly drift had yet again thwarted our best intentions. This natural phenomenon can be either frustrating, as it had been in these two years, or joyous, as it was this year.
Michael and I were dropped off at 89N on the afternoon of April 2, with 112km, a full degree of latitude, between us and the North Pole. It was cold, in the low thirties, but the drift was north, a seemingly rare event and the ice very stable, more like Antarctica. Waving the chopper goodbye we took off and quickly found a steady pace that we felt we could maintain for the journey without burning out. Despite the slow northerly drift, things can change here at the bat of an eye and I knew that we had to take every opportunity to advance forward.
After only 90 minutes of skiing we stopped and set up camp, and much to our dismay found that we’d covered over 5km. This was to be the norm for the next five days. The following day we pulled in 24km, a record for my guided expeditions, with similar distances the following four days. The surface was perfect with very few pressure ridges – certainly none that warranted removing skis and booting over – and we found only one lead of open water. Fortunately we discovered a handy constriction nearby and crossed it with ease.
It was the temperature that posed the biggest challenge, topping the low forties and making our breaks short and perfunctory. Little energy was wasted on anything other than eating and drinking with twenty minutes being the maximum time we could afford being still before the cold seeped in. We endured three of these breaks per day, with four 90 minute skiing sessions between camps.
It was a joy to pitch tent without the usual anxiousness over wind and ice pressure. The still conditions meant slow drift which means little pressurization of the pack ice. It’s not always so. In 2006 I woke my slumbering team at 3am and, with cracks slicing between our tents, we shifted camp 200 metres. When we awoke again our old camp was a pile of ice rubble. I have previously clambered over crumbling pressure ridges, jumped across shifting floes and rafted over widening leads. The Arctic is a veritable playground of uncertainty.
After five and a bit days of skiing Michael and I arrived at the North Pole. We had covered a full degree in a combined 31 hours of skiing, averaging 3.6km per hour, a rarity on the Arctic Ocean. The sky had remained clear and still, the ice stable and the temperature bitterly cold to the end, to the final pickup by helicopter. It was an Arctic like I had rarely experienced it. This is the beauty of a North Pole trek, there are no two expeditions alike. That’s what keeps me coming back year after year: new people, new ice, new adventures. Thanks for your company Michael!
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