North Pole Exped is our most challenging adventure. It offers every element of a full-blown expedition – self-sufficiency, decision-making, team-work, ice travel – but without the urgency and anxiety. With three weeks on the ice, covering two degrees of latitude, you will return from the Arctic Ocean with a deep understanding of North Pole ski adventuring.
Meet in Longyearbyen and check in to hotel. Welcome dinner.
Preparation, packing, equipment check, ski training. Expedition briefing.
Morning flight to Barneo Ice Camp. Collect stove fuel, guide briefing. Helicopter flight to start point and begin ski expedition.
Averaging around 1km per day (not including ice drift) we ski northward until we reach the North Pole, camping there if time permits. Helicopter pick up from Pole and return to Barneo.
Flight to Longyearbyen and transfer to hotel.
We meet in Svalbard’s capital Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen (Norway) where a welcome dinner awaits us.
After preparations and some local training we fly 2.5 hours by Antonov-74 aircraft to Barneo Ice Camp. After collecting stove fuel we board the Mi-8 helicopter and fly south to 88 degrees north, over 200km from the North Pole. Temperatures range between -20° to -35°C but comfortably so in state-of-the-art polar clothing. Towing our own sleds, we set off towards the North Pole, spending 3 weeks on the Arctic Ocean, living from our supplies, surviving on our wit. This is true Arctic Ocean expeditioning, alone against the elements, challenging the drift, overcoming the constant obstacles.
The success of a North Pole expedition lies in the ability of a team, and its individuals, to adopt a rhythm of polar travel. Daily routines are established, both in and around camp, and during the hours in the harness, to ensure the expedition moves north safely, efficiently and happily. Each person is required to become an integral part of the team and lends a hand in every aspect of the trek, from cooking to route-finding to watching out for polar bears.
Skiing 10–15 kilometres per day there is no shortage of time to explore the real Arctic Ocean. Everything before us is as it was centuries ago, when early explorers first ventured into this truly remote region. The feeling is one of isolation and exclusivity, as if we are the first to discover the North Pole. After 20 or so days we reach 90 degrees north and celebrate our arrival at the top of the world. To top it off we may camp at the North Pole before being collected by helicopter the next day. We return on the 40-minute flight to Barneo, marvelling at the ice chaos below, our home for almost 3 weeks.
If time permits we may spend the night at Barneo, where we have access to cooked meals and heated bunk-rooms. We then fly on the AN-74 back to Longyearbyen, transfer to hotels, before commemorating our experience with fine Norwegian hospitality.
North Pole Exped, our most challenging Arctic adventure, is a serious Arctic expedition for the truly intrepid.
We wake around 6am and a call goes out to all of the tents. With the temperature inside the tent almost the same as outside, it's a little tough emerging from a warm sleeping bag to light the stove but it's a necessity for the nominated cook for the day/night to warm the tent and get breakfast and drinks ready. The other tent partner has the luxury of snoozing a little longer. But eventually everyone is sitting up in their comfortable camp seats, enjoying the warmth and sipping on a hot tea or coffee.
A hearty breakfast of high-energy porridge with milk powder, desiccated coconut, crushed pecans and protein powder, together with butter for those needing the energy, gets us fired up and ready for the day of hauling. We call it our breakfast bomb. But we have it as late as possible so that all of its energy is available for the morning sessions. Reheating thermoses and melting snow for water is also a morning task, one that consumes a fair bit of time.
Another morning task is to check the GPS for any overnight drift. Will we be lucky and drift north or will luck, like the drift, be against us? Drift could also be sideways or non-existent. Drift always plays a big part in an Arctic Ocean expedition. We try and start the trip from a position that maximises positive drift but it can never be guaranteed.
Slowly we start to pack all of our belongings, timing everything with the completion of snow melting so that once all tasks are done we can exit the tent and start packing our sleds. Hopefully we have choreographed this with the other tents so that no-one is waiting in the cold.
Around 9am, tents collapsed, decamped and sleds packed, we clip into our harnesses, check our bearing and begin the first session of hauling. A few days into the trip and we will have found a daily routine and rhythm that suits the team, something like 4 sessions of 2 hours each with 20-minutes break in between, a little longer for lunch. There's ample time to take a little drink during the sessions because we are often stopped by pressure ridges or open water giving the team a mini break while the guide scouts ahead. Sled hauling is not very difficult when conditions are perfect, pulks often glide easily across the ice. It gets tougher when we are confronted by pressure ridges where we need to pull the sleds up and over hard blocks of ice. Sometimes it's easier to take skis off and sometimes we need two or three people per sled to get them over bigger obstacles.
More exciting are crossings of thin ice or open water. Your guide is highly experienced in all situations and thin ice and water crossings are a natural part of North Pole expeditioning. Your guide first tests thin ice with prods from a ski pole and scans the scene for telltale features that give away the integrity of the ice. If it's thick enough you'll ski across. If not you'll follow the edge of the lead and look for a narrowing of the crack. Open water crossing techniques include spanning narrow cracks with a sled, perhaps two, and skiing or clambering across, rafting sleds and paddling across or swimming in a dry suit and setting up a raft of two sleds connected side-by-side to ferry everyone across. We carry throw ropes, ferry reels and a dry suit for every eventuality.
We are also on the lookout for polar bears. It's very rare to see them this far north but we prepare for the eventuality by scanning the horizon regularly, carrying flare guns and a powerful rifle as a last resort.
If there's even the slightest wind we'll look for a ridge to shelter behind when we take a break. If it's cold we'll put on our down jackets, over the top of the harness. A day bag containing food and drink, and anything else you might need during the day, is kept in the nose of the sled for easy access and it's not long before we're sitting on our sleds downing a selection of delicious snacks including crackers, energy bars, dried fruit and nuts, lollies and chocolate which help to keep us going during the next session. The breaks also serve as toilet stops.
After 15-20 minutes we are off again, heading north across the vast frozen ocean. If conditions are predictable there's opportunity for you to be out front, breaking trail, route finding, navigating, decision making. Don't worry, your guide is always nearby and ready to give advice or take over if it starts getting a bit hairy.
Your skis, skins, bindings, ski poles and boots are all designed for this kind of expedition. It takes a little while to become accustomed to the bulkier ski equipment, but eventually it feels very natural and it is certainly very warm. We design and manufacture our own Flexi Ski Bindings which are purpose built for North Pole expeditions. Your clothing too is designed to keep you warm and comfortable in the coldest of temperatures.
The weather can be anything from blue skies, no wind and -35c to warm, sticky blizzards where the temperature can rise to -5c. Fog, snow, clouds, almost anything is possible up here. Sometimes we also see evidence of open water in the skies. If it's cloudy open water is often reflected on clouds as a dark patch and if it's clear we can sometimes see 'water sky', palls of condensed fog above pools of water.
We stop for lunch out of the wind and put on warm jackets and take our skis off. First task is to add hot water to our noodles so that they are ready to eat in around 3 minutes. A chunk of cheese in with the noodles provides a mouth-watering stringy melt that is both soft and delicious. The lunch break is a great opportunity to chat, or just enjoy the surroundings, whatever you like.
We also carry goggles and a change of hat in our day bag. Blue skies and calm can switch to blizzard, or anything in between, so we need to have quick access to variations in our head and hand wear so that we stay warm and dry. The art of polar travel includes reducing perspiration to a minimum and we do this through venting - allowing the moisture to escape. Base layers wick moisture away from the skin, fleece layers continue the transfer while keeping us warm and breathable shell layers allow the moisture to escape to the outside. Zippers strategically located on our shell-wear assist in the venting process and a skilled traveler knows the importance of actively managing the moisture within. So no matter the weather, we remain in fine control of our body temperature and dampness through a balance of food, fluids and clothing.
As the day progresses we feel the onset of fatigue. And no wonder - we have travelled up to 8 hours, crossed many pressure ridges, negotiated any open water, meandered over and around obstacles, skis on, skis off, dragging our own sleds, sometimes assisting others, covering a distance further than the GPS reveals. It's time to camp.
After selecting a camp site that takes into consideration the number of tents, weaknesses (cracks, pressure ridges, ice thickness), shelter from wind and proximity to snow for melting, we pitch tents, using either snow stakes or ice screws for anchoring, depending on the surface. Snow is shovelled on the tent valances for added security and sealing from blizzards and a bag of snow blocks for melting is collected. After tossing anything we need for the night inside we climb in and prepare a cosy and ordered interior. Soon the stove is purring, the tent is warming, snow is melting and damp things hang on the drying line. Soup, dinner and some squares of chocolate for desert await and banter fills the tent. For those staying in touch, satellite phones and modems are warmed and the world hears of our progress through phone calls, emails, texts and blogs. We can send images too, bringing our wonderful expedition to life for the folks back home. A daily call to Barneo keeps their expedition manager up to date and we get a weather report, which we can also download on our modem.
On average, our day is divided into three eight-hour periods. The most important one is sleep - eight hours is available if you want it. Eight hours of hauling also becomes a standard as it helps us to cover ground and pace our day. The third eight hours is anything not sleeping and not hauling - rests, lunch, chores and camp life. If we need to cover more distance during the day we can easily compress our down time to give more hauling time, but sleep is sacrosanct, critical for our health and happiness. And after all is done we turn the stove off, slide into our sleeping bags, ruffle our down jacket pillow and sleep the sleep of explorers, to awake to a new dawn and live an Arctic day once again.