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TIS THE SEASON FOR NORTH POLE HIKES
It’s not exactly a traffic jam up there yet, but it’s getting a little congested. Seven expeditions are currently trekking across the frozen Arctic Ocean, including teams from France and Norway that are racing to be the first to cross from Russia to Canada via the North Pole without supplies being flown in along the way. That’s not counting two teams that have given up attempts to reach the Pole this season.
“It’s been a little too warm this year, with lots of snow,” says Alberta-based veteran High-Arctic expedition coordinator Peter Robinson. “That makes it tougher.”
Note that by “too warm,” Robinson means temperatures around 20 degrees below zero F (29 degrees below zero C) at Resolute Bay—staging area for most Canadian polar attempts—compared to the 30 degrees below zero F (34 degrees below zero C)that he considers normal there for this time of year. Temperatures at the Pole itself can dip into the 50s below zero F (40s below zero C), not counting wind-chill factor.
It’s cold enough that ten days ago, Swedish adventurer Goeran Kropp’s thumb became so badly frostbitten that he had to be rescued by helicopter after skiing halfway to the Pole. His partner, Ola Skinnarmo, is continuing alone in the hopes of being the first Swede to reach the fabled spot.
Frostbite or no, this is the time for polar travel.
Anyone hitting the ice much earlier than the first week in March would need the ability to see in the dark, since the sun doesn’t come up over the horizon in these latitudes until then. People setting out much later than the end of May would encounter melting conditions, and, unlike the South Pole, there’s no ground underneath the white stuff here.
People have set out for the North Pole in recent years by an astounding variety of conveyances besides the traditional foot, ski and dog team. Successful trips have been made by motorcycle, helicopter and ultralight aircraft. Four-wheel-drive vehicles and horses have been tested on the sea ice, and one person has parachuted in.
In 1998 Debbie Harding of West Vincent, Pennsylvania, became the first woman to fly a hot air balloon over the Pole. One individual this year is attempting to go in an open-cockpit airplane.
Among the more ill-advised schemes was an attempt by some Japanese who set out on motorcycles. They carried emergency rations of jelly beans tucked away in their handlebars. Five Swiss tried it riding mountain bikes. Neither team got very far.
These and other debacles have led the Canadian government periodically to consider licensing expeditions to weed out the hopelessly unprepared, who could require costly rescues.
Less adventurous travelers can charter airplanes. Upon arrival, they can sip champagne and hit golf balls before climbing aboard for the trip back. A round-trip ticket from Ottawa costs in the neighborhood of U.S. $18,000, compared to the U.S. $100,000 or more that an expedition can run.
But even plane fares come with no guarantees. Several years ago a Russian plane landed on unsound ice and sank to its wings. Passengers disembarked safely—in their evening clothes—and were rescued before the ocean swallowed their aircraft. Ships are an option later in the season. A U.S. beer importer once booked an icebreaker for a rock concert cruise near the Pole.
Those doing it the hard way have to endure weeks of life-threatening conditions: hungry polar bears powerful enough to kill humans with single blows of sledgehammer paws; temperatures cold enough to freeze exposed flesh within seconds; and blinding whiteouts and storms that can last for days, accompanied by zero visibility and vicious winds.
WHY DO THEY DO IT?
All offer some variation on George Leigh Mallory’s famous answer when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest: “Because it is there.”
“Going to work every day and punching time clocks may be fine for other people,” says Nil Bohigas, who in 1992, at the age of 33, became the first Spaniard to reach the Pole on foot—one of the few to do so traveling alone. “But it’s not for me. I dream of other things, like doing this.”
Bohigas, a professional adventurer from Barcelona, also has climbed Mount Everest and parasailed back down. With so many people doing it in recent years, it’s getting hard to pick off important records that haven’t been set already. Go-getters are now reduced to reaching for more recondite goals, some of which include the North Pole only incidentally. In 1998 British adventurer David Hempleman-Adams became the first person (a) to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents AND (b) to visit both geographic poles AND (c) both MAGNETIC poles.
Most polar trekkers who start from the Russian side embark from the Siberian archipelago Severnaya Zemlya, which has the advantage of having its own staging area. The staging area on the Canadian side is Resolute Bay—from which trekkers have to endure a four-hour ride in a small airplane to Eureka—an airstrip in the middle of Ellesmere Island. Here they refuel and fly on to the jumping-off place, barren Ward Hunt Island.
From there, it’s just 450 frozen miles to the Pole. To complicate matters, some of the ice is in the form of pressure ridges—small mountains formed by shifting ice plates. As the season progresses and the ice continues to break up, travelers also encounter “leads” (pronounced LEEDS)—open stretches of seawater that either must be bridged or traveled around.
Nevertheless, they still come—many hoping for some modicum of fame.
Before his untimely death from a heart attack in 1995, Arctic travel expert Bezal Jesudason of Resolute Bay predicted, “There will always be a new way to get there, and a new record to be broken. It’s just a matter of time before someone tries to get to the North Pole by elephant.”
Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at http://www.earth-info.org.