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Northern Stories

6. May 2009

Greetings All Now back on terra firma though it doesn’t feel much warmer here in Milwaukee!! The Arctic experience was huge. Going back to the start of the exercise…a four hour flight from Oslo had me in Longyearbyen which is the populated area of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. Longyearbyen at 78 degrees,  the world’s northern most town, was founded around coal mining and is under Norway’s jurisdiction.Here I met the other team members, Israfil from Azerbaijan, Sergey, Vitaly and Vladimir from Russia, Nathan from the UK and the Vicaar representatives, Victor our guide and his two assistants Mikhail and Ludmila.Some talented folks with  Ludmila being the only Russian woman in the seven summits club which are those that have climbed the highest peaks on all seven continents which includes Mt. Everest of course. Israfil is also in the club and is the only person from Azerbaijan to have achieved this.A couple of days preparation and then we boarded the Antonov AN-74 for the two and a half hour flight down to Vicaar’s camp “Barneo” which is set up on the floating ice each year for one month to facilitate these expeditions. Realisation of where we were kicked in when stepping out onto the ice and minus 34 degrees C. A few formalities then it was time to load the Russian MI 8 helicopter that would take us to our starting point at 89 degrees north. Skimming across the ice gave some great visuals of the pressure ridges and water leads between the ice floes, the two types of obstacles that we would be encountering. We landed at N89 E159 and being late in the afternoon decided to camp for the night before heading off in the morning. The ice grinding together creates “groaning” noises which is not evident when you are on the move but is very much so when lying still in a tent. By morning positive ice drift had moved us 5km closer to the Pole so that put a good setting on the day.The next seven days was a great experience and a good introduction to travel on floating ice.Being floating ice the “terrain” is very different to the land based surface on Antarctica. Ice rubble and pressure ridges created by wind affected sea freezing and huge ice floes smashing into each other are constantly presenting obstacles for man hauling pulks.If a path can not be found through the pressure ridges then it was skis off and man handle the pulks across the twisted ice before skiing again on the other side. Day two we had our first encounter with the more serious obstacle…water.After a bit of scouting Viktor decided to raft two of the bigger pulks together but in the process the floe we were trying to get across to drifted closer and risked crushing the pulks. Plan B was use only one pulk as a bridge which we all crawled across as it was steadied by the others. Day five produced some excitement with some more open water crossings which we were getting the hang of and then late in the day I was following Israfil when he disappeared. Israfil had broken one of his ski’s a couple of days earlier and was using snow shoes which worked well but did not distribute the load as well as skis. We were crossing a thin ice area which is formed when the water lead between two ice floes freezes. From the thicker ice floe section the thinner newly frozen water is tested with much prodding of the ski pole to verify whether it is safe to cross and if satisfied you step down onto the thin ice and move cautiously across with much prodding until back up on the thicker ice floe on the other side. We had been crossing these newly frozen sections every day without problem but this area did not support Israfil on the snow shoes so he was treated to an unplanned swim in the Arctic Ocean. Fortunately the ice edge had sufficient strength that he was able to quickly haul himself out and we soon had a tent up and a cooker going to warm him up and dry the clothes. As we were near the end of the day it was decided to set up camp.End of day seven we camped 2km from the Pole and were advised the helicopter would pick us up from the Pole at 1700 hrs the next day. Next morning was a crisp minus 38 C and as the others wanted to stay in their tents until later in the day I set off for the Pole armed with back pack and satellite phone just incase.1015 hrs Norwegian time Friday 10th April I arrived at the Geographic North Pole. What a great feeling and spending 30 minutes there by myself reflecting on the whole polar experience of the last 15 months was just fantastic. Back to camp and not much happening except news that a helicopter was bringing in an American couple for the worlds first North Pole wedding at 1300 hrs. No point in lying in a sleeping bag in a tent so back I went. The helicopter landed not long after I had arrived and a hoard of people including the first paraplegic, a chap from Canada who had suffered a crippling rugby injury back in his youth, spilled out to start the festivities. I was invited to join in and Victor Boyarsky the owner of Viccar did a great job of conducting the ceremony after which the wedding party retreated to the warmth of the helicopter for drinkies and I headed back to camp. Interesting to note that by following my original ski tracks I had ended up at the position on the ice that had been over the Pole on my first visit. On this 2nd visit that point on the ice had moved approx 250 metres from the Pole in 3 hrs due to drift.The team were just finishing packing up camp so we headed for the Pole as a group arriving just after 1600 hrs. Flags were flown, photos taken and smiles all round.A great bunch of people and a great trip.The helicopter arrived as scheduled and we were flown back to Barneo. A small celebration Russian style then onto the Antonov back to Longyearbyen.  SOLO:  During the last couple of days of the group expedition I had started to think it was about time I put myself to test as it were. During our stopover at Barneo after the Pole I approached Victor Boyarsky about undertaking a solo trip. Back in Longyearbyen negotiations commenced and before long the trip was confirmed.Monday 13th I was back on the Antonov heading for Barneo and at 2200 hrs that night was dropped at 89 degrees. A very different exercise was about to begin. Where we had had a dream run with calm days during the group expedition a stiff wind was blowing and as a consequence the ice was moving a lot. I would learn over the next few days what this meant!!Being so late in the day I camped for the night and was on the trail by 0800 the next morning. Some good positive ice drift towards the Pole over night was encouraging and going for the first part of the day was straight forward. Later in the day I encountered some big pressure ridges and after some reconnaissance ended up back tracking to try and find a way through the massive jumble of ice. Still not clear of the rubble when I set up camp, a lengthy process putting up the four man tent in winds, but a satisfying first day.After a solid hours work the next morning, which required a fair bit of man handling the 75kg pulk over the walls of broken ice, I was clear of the rubble maize I had got myself into and progress was much quicker. A few hours of good going until the next challenge of open water. The lead was about 10 m wide so there was simply no option but to follow along its path until an opportunity to cross appeared. At times I was hauling along a relatively flat surface near the edge of the water and able to see clearly what the situation was. At other times pressure ridges and rubble were formed near the edge and here I would take off the skis, leave the pulk and scramble up through the pressure ridges to see if I could identify and suitable crossing. I always felt a tad apprehensive leaving the pulk and skis but I guess that is just first solo nerves!!Time ticked by which was very frustrating as I was not on the correct heading but at least it was a north-east one which would help with the ice drift being experienced. After 3 hours I found an area that had some “stepping stones” that might enable me to get across. I left the pulk and went across a few times with much prodding and testing of the ice to try and ascertain if the path was stable enough. With the crossing surrounded by water I considered putting up the tent and getting a cooker ready incase I went in.  From the ice swim experience during the Norway training last year I knew just how quickly the body shuts down and how difficult simple tasks become. No problem in a group but a serious consideration when by yourself. After a lengthy 10 seconds of consideration I decided it was time to get on with the job and started hauling the pulk across. The adrenalin was pumping and during the crossing those “was this really a great idea” thoughts flashed through the mind but I was certainly grinning once across and still dry.That night I wrote in my diary that the water crossing was probably one of the riskiest things I had ever done. Base jumping off the Norwegian mountains seemed like a much safer option but then I have much more experience with skydiving and am only a novice when it comes to water crossings in the arctic.It was good to be back on a northerly heading and made good progress until coming up against another big lead late in the day which I followed until it was time to camp.Lots of ice grinding during the night but some good positive ice drift made for a positive start. Followed the lead for an hour or so and came across a spot where it looked like there might be a path across some loose floating sections. I could not take the risk of leaving the pulk and doing a reconnaissance run incase the sections moved and I ended up stranded from the pulk. It was time to get on with the job so I dragged the pulk onto the first floating section. Luck was on my side…three sections with gaps between that I could jump across and I was back on the trail. The problem with using up luck is that it’s not long before payback is required. I ended up in a massive maize of large pressure ridges and rubble from which extricating myself presented another “stepping stone” water crossing. I had told myself that after the previous “stepping stone” encounter that I would not take that risk again. Just didn’t seem so big a deal this time!! A few more miles then set up camp. A solid days hauling and with only just over 20kms to the Pole I was feeling pretty satisfied. Struggled to sleep during the night and considered packing up and getting going but eventually dropped off for a couple of hours sleep.  Straight into a big pressure ridge the next morning but man handling the pulk across seemed easy. I was on the home run!! Closing in on the Pole the converging lines of longitude were changing quickly and I needed to make sure that drift did not push me past the Pole which would then require an approach back against drift. A few easterly intersects and I had a very fast approach to the Pole with the wind at my back and drift in the right direction. 1240 hrs Norwegian time Friday 17th April I arrived at the Geographic North Pole covering the 110kms in three and a half days since being dropped at 89 degrees north. A very satisfying feeling. The “test” had been completed.The helicopter arrived the next morning and by Saturday afternoon I was back in Longyearbyen enjoying pizza and beer. I would like to thank Victor Boyarsky for running a great operation and all the Vicaar staff involved in the group expedition and those that assisted me with preparation for the solo trip. Also a big thanks to Eric Phillips and Doug Stoups, two very experienced polar guides who gave me some good advice prior to my solo journey. Doug also kindly lent me equipment, gave me some food and handed out some good navigational advice for the solo trip . Cheers mate.  Only 15 months ago I had never been on skis in my life and had no cold weather experience. Since then it has been cold climate training in Norway, the Polar Challenge race in the arctic above Canada, 53 days from Hercules Inlet to the Geographic South Pole, last degree to the Geographic North Pole and the last degree solo.What a 15 months!! I would like to thank all those who have offered encouragement and supported me in any way during this polar phase. It has been a great 15 months. RegardsRoss    

date Posted on: Wednesday, May 6, 2009 at 12:50 am

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