On March 14 1895, Nansen’s ship Fram of Norway sat very close to the same latitude we are right now, the highest a ship has ever drifted north in the trans polar current. Nansen and Johanssen left the ship for their attempt to reach the ‘North Pole. Nansen was the first one to use skis for his attempt. The ice was good then. In the first week they made 35 km a day and by March 29 they reached a new record at 85.09′N, only 450 km to the pole remained. On April 1 Johanssen’s chronometer stopped and their luck turned against them as the ice was getting rotten, leads were opening up and pressure ridges so high, it stopped the dogs. They were fighting the southerly drift (75 km to to the south) that Nansen wrote in his dairy ‘we seem to toil all we can, but without much progress’. Nansen skied ahead bur reported just leads and ice blocks stretching as far as the horizon. They had reached 86.13’06″N a record by three degrees. They turned around and headed for Franz Joseph land where they were hoping to be picked up by boat
> This very terrain is also troubling us like it did Nansen. Did we cross perfect plains further north, now we only cross pressure ridges and leads, interspersed with wretched snow, uneven ice and hardly any visibility. The Arctic has started to melt: not only because it is May but we are getting closer to the coast. We only did 10 km today, battling the flat light and dozens of pressure ridges that are formed like hedges around a lead and are painfully slow and holding us back.
By now I am used to the biting wind in my face, the cracks in my lips, the itching frostbite on my cheek, the bruises on my legs from falling on ice blocks and the nasty blister that won’t go away under my toe. The physical hardship has its own routine. Rarely am I ready to get up when the alarm goes off. My body yearns for another hour of sleep, or two. After a strong cup of coffee and porridge, It is time to go outside, face the wind expose your cheeks and do your business, fast. Two weeks ago, I actually got frostbite on my right thigh as I was too slow unrolling the toilet paper in a blizzard. One hour into the day, my hand hurts from the thousands of pole plants I have done so far, the repetition of the same motion, over and over again. After each break the blood flows back to my core and stomach to digest the food. I press my fingers around my thumbs that are frostbitten to get the blood pumping into my extremities, that can last a long painful hour. The physical hardship is temporarily forgotten when all attention is needed for a lead crossing or pressure ridge scramble but when we slog our sledges forward, the sensation and pains are right back. Hardship belongs on expeditions, it is not the same without it, the driving force of it all is suffering and no where to go for relief. How you deal with hardship is a purely up to the individual. Martin and I made a pact to check each other for frostbite on our noses and cheeks. We tend to push further and harder on expeditions because there is so much at stake and the reward so great if we reach Canada. Occasionally thoughts of doubt enter the mind, even now getting close to one month on the ice, after another hard day you wonder how much you still have left and if are strong, tough and resilient to complete this trip. If you let it, the mental hardship rules the physical one. What if, one morning, you can’t bear the cold anymore, the lack of stimulus, the remoteness, you simply had enough of it all? What if break down from bad news back home, or recover from a fight with teammates? Mental toughness gets you through everything on harsh expeditions like this, and you take the injuries and pains for granted. How do we get through? The more dire the situation, the more jokes we crack. Perhaps not the smartest but the best for us to get to Canada.
Iceberg was silent; I too was silent. i stood in the presence of God’s work. It fashion was that of the Great Architect! He who hath builded such monuments and cast them forth upon the waters of the sea is God and there can be no other!
Charles Francis Hall, 1860 upon arriving in the Arctic
The Arctic is a wayward place,whose floes open and close to no discernible rhythm. You ski for hours on a flat frozen ocean and suddenly you stand in front of giant ice cubes randomly thrown together, big as cathedrals on small islands. You can see the monster pressure ridges for kilometres. Between the blocks lives the fragile part, a deep liquid, called the Arctic Ocean, that has a hard time freezing when the wind gets its way. But when the first film of ices appears, like a blanket covering a bed, a series of ice roses, starts to form. Delicate like glass, these ice crystals have the shapes of christmas trees, If you look closer, the crystals have veins like leafs. What kind of purpose do they have here in this lifeless part of the planet? So beautiful, so out if place.
It is a place of mirages, where refracted light distorts reality and where you need to take time to let it all sink in. No hour is the same here, rose light filters through before breakfast, stark blue during the day and yellow as the evening arrives. As the days are warming up and we are moving further south and in the spring season, we are opening ourselves to the micro organisms of this environment and are awe inspired how alive it is.
We are back at square one with our sleds. The food alone is 40 kilos plus 35 litres of fuel and our usual gear, tent, sleeping bag, clothes, stoves, etc I reckon I carry about 85 kilos and the boys about 100 kilos. With every little bump you get stopped and jerked in your harness and you need to make your hips move forward like a Michael Jackson act. It is painful and annoying, You curse and swear at your sled but it can’t let you get down, this is the Arctic and this is its normal behaviour. Even though you always search for the perfect low angle on a pressure ridge, if the sled isn’t lined up correctly behind you, or the trace line is too long, it runs off on its own course, dive into dips and holes, get sideways and get stuck behind a piece of ice. You then have to unclip from your harness, ski to it, have a word with your sled before you haul it with all your power and strength to the highest point until it reaches its tipping point and plummet down your way. Going over blocks of ice is the worse. There are numerous blocks covered with a thin layer of snow and if you step on them at the wrong angle, you fall and the sled may land on top of you. Not good. Our sleds are made of plastic, polyethylene, designed by Eric. They are called Nilas. They are amphibious, shaped like a kayak with a pointed nose (like a torpedo) and a flat back for stability and they are incredible sturdy. They can endure anything and we already have put them through all kinds of abuse, floating, throwing, dragging, they are not fazed. We ski on carbon light skis from G3 – thanks to Oliver Steffen we got 4 sets of skis sponsored and they are the best because they are wide but light. We put skins under them so we can walk uphill but glide on the flat stretches in between. Now the sleds are heavy again, we like wider skis for more support.
. The pressure ridges are getting bigger and higher skiing south. We wonder if we start seeing 2 year ice appearing now we crossed into the lower latitudes. We need to feast on snacks and dinners so our sleds can get lighter before we hit the really big pressure ridges towards Ellesmere.
Governments around the world have promised to limit temperature rises to a maximum 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times to avert ever more catastrophic effect of climate change like heat waves, floods, droughts and rising sea level. The policies in place so far put the world on target for a temperature rise of up to 4.8C (8.6F) by 2100. Temperatures have already risen by about 0.8 C (1.4F) since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. The latest report from the IPCC scenarios showed world emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly from burning fossil fuels, would need to peak soon and tumble by between 40 and 70 percent from 2010 levels by 2050, and then to almost zero by 2100, to keep rises below 2C.
Here in the Arctic the evidence is the obvious. Twenty four days on skis, 350 km under the belt we have seen nothing but one year ice – ice that will melt this summer. What is already happening here will be the norm for areas south of here. Even if this year is the best ice coverage since years, one year is no trend, it doesn’t mean the Arctic is recovering, it is already the 5th worst season on record. it will be more important to see how this summer affects the ice and the National Snow and Ice Center in Boulder, Colorado will report this in September.
The IPCC also reports that we need to be open to methods of taking carbon out of the atmosphere, since we are losing valuable time. A simple method is to plant trees that soak them up as they grow, the IPCC says.
That is the premise of Plant for the Planet- planting 1 billion trees by 2050 by children, the generation that is going to inherit the severe effects of climate change. This expedition Hope is exactly about that, a show and tell, a finger on the pulse of the condition of the Arctic and establish a sense of urgency to curb fossil fuels and transition to alternatives and plant trees, that is the easiest thing to do. The flag in the photo represents wishes for the North Pole that children in Noordwijk wrote before I left on this expedition. I am carrying these wishes with me all the way to Canada and inspire them to help preserve this spectacular and important environment.
Wallace, the pilot, said on the radio he didn’t like the landing site we selected. He didn’t think the ice was thick enough. He circled around a few times touched the icy lead briefly but took off again. My heart dropped. It is up to the pilots integrity whether he lands or not. Martin’s stories of landing on ice come to mind and I slightly panicked as the pilot circles around once more and said on the radio he has to look for something else. If he can’t land we get the barrels dropped and that would mean we would have to ski to Canada from this location, which would be unachievable with the food and fuel we have left. Luckily, Wallace found a snow patch a few km away from us. At 22:00 we were airborne, the frozen arctic stretching into infinity below us. I stare at the endless white, broken up by leads, pressure ridges and cracks. Soon this will all be ocean again as it claims the ice in summer. It was the right perspective to get from the air, a cocktail of insanity and pride, but mostly I just sat glued to the window in disbelief what I saw., thinking it is impossible to survive out here and felt vulnerable. Martin filmed for an hour because it was so beautiful and couldn’t put his camera down. It is rare to fly so high over the Arctic in clear conditions. At W077 we saw the biggest lead, scattered like a broken dinner plate, it looked frightening to have to go through. and the pilot decided to drop us at W079. The landing took 4 attempts but on the 5th he touched down and was successful. We unloaded our sleds , Wallace said it would be clear sailing to Canada “there aais nothing in between you and the coast, see you in 10 days”. We laughed because we know better, before we reach the coast, we need to cross sand dunes, pressure ridges as big as apartment buildings, the arctic will throw its last challenge at us, we won’t come off the ice that easy . But if you are a pilot and see it from the air, the arctic looks flat, frozen and uneventful.
This morning we slept in until 9 am which we have never done on this expedition. The whole day we are reducing our gear to take on second our leg, fiddling, repairing and checking with each other if we really need all these batteries, bandaids, sugar cubes, extra pair of sunglasses or if we can live without for the next 25 plus days. At 6 pm I called Wallace, our pilot from Ken Borek to get an update of his whereabouts. He is doing great and will be here in 45 minutes. We then have 30 minutes to take all contents out of the barrels into our sleds, and load the sleds into the plane and get dropped at W78 tonight. Since we have been here at this camp, we drifted 15 km to the south and another 12 km to the east. The weather is stunning now and it is a great day to fly, we are very thankful. Lets hope the pilot can land on our strip which Eric has flatten a bit with an ice axe this morning. We will arrive at the location and go to bed immediately for the big days with heavy sleds ahead. Looking forward to part two of the expedition.
Picture:Eric and Bernice are scouting for a runway for resupply. The dot in the background is our tent.
Tomorrow is a day of excitement because it is our resupply. It is also the day that Eric and Martin are changing their underwear and socks. A twin otter airplane will leave Resolute Bay, at the crack of dawn, refuel in Eureka and fly up north to find us somewhere between hummocks, frozen leads and pressure ridges. It seems impossible to me but with our coordinates, satellite phones and vhs radio’s we communicate directly with the pilot during this 7 hour flight. Any sign of bad weather, wind or visibility change here I have to report immediately.
Inside the airplane, the pilots carry 5 barrels filled with 156 kilos of our food and 35 litres of fuel. It all has to be packed in barrels in case they can’t land and have to throw them out of the airplane onto the ice. It actually take some time to prepare for a resupply. You need to ski to to the coordinates you provided to the air service, find a suitable landing strip that needs to be 500 meters long, 15 meter wide, and 1 meter thick. The surface can be snow but need to be smooth, an packed and it can not be in a drifting area . It has to be a frozen lead. Tonight I just confirmed with the pilot while en route, he will hunt down a suitable place to land for us to relocate to a more westerly longitude. The reality of this expedition is we drifted too much to the east (150 km) to make it to Cape Discovery on this longitude of W052. We are currently directly above Greenland and we can’t get picked up there. We still drift daily to the east (10 km per night) and we can’t make it up in skiing west and south to be ahead of the drift, unless we add another 20 days to our trip. Therefore to have a shot at completing this expedition and arriving at Ellesmere, we get a shuttle to the longitude of W078 roughly 100km from here. So tomorrow we start part two of our expedition, halfway point and the push to shore. We get an another 25 days of food and fuel. Our sleds will be heavy again and the terrain much tougher but hopefully the deep cold is over and we will enjoy our last leg to Canada.
This morning I got the latest news from Cully about the Everest drama. The climbing season seemed to be cancelled, the sherpa community disrupted and 400 climbers are going home feeling either sad, disillusioned, frustrated or relieved. One season of climbers on Everest equals more then all the adventurers that have done the crossing from the North Pole to Canada or visa versa in polar history. Reinold Messner said that this trip is 10x harder then Everest, no wonder so few even attempt it. In our book it is the longest and coldest expedition on earth. You need stamina, resilience, perseverance, mental endurance and lots of luck. The Canada to North Pole route has also the highest failure rate. Some have taken 70 plus days to finish at the North Pole. Being on the ice for so long is more of a psychological challenge then a physical one, especially if you try solo.We are wondering why Yasu from Japan got an evac yesterday at 86 degrees of latitude. He started in the beginning of March so he has spend already 7 weeks on ice with ‘only’ another 2 before he would be finished at the North Pole. You wonder if people crack and break down after being out in this hostile environment and simply want to go home or did he run out of food?
Our expedition is only the forth one to cross to Canada from the North Pole.The reason for doing it this way is that we had hoped for the southerly drift helping us to ski to Canada but instead we have drifted 142 km to the east and are now above Greenland. Starting in April would mean warmer temps but we got the negative oscillation of the Arctic and the temps were seriously and dangerously cold for a few weeks. We got two major blizzards so far so the verdict is still out whether this is the smarter route to take across the Arctic but given what the other teams skiing to the North Pole went through we got less of the hardship and we will end on land in much warmer temperatures.
The print is big but more worrisome is the freshness of the track. We had just taken a break and not even five minutes after we started again, we run into a fresh set of polar bear tracks heading the same direction as we are, south. We just about to enter 86 degree of latitude and the icescape has changed significantly. Giant leads of dark water appear, the size of lakes, many km long and wide . Eric saw a seal popping his head up in a lead and we know we need to be alert in polar bear territory. Polar bears travel extreme long distances over the ice to look for food. To find tracks so far north is a bit of a surprise since the open water and their food source is mostly further to the south. Last week a mother with two cubs were spotted and that was at 89 degrees. When polar bears come out of hibernation they already have given birth to cubs,almost always more then one. The mother delays the pregnancy until she has found a suitable den and during the course of hibernation she will give birth to the cubs who then will come out in the spring when they are getting hungry, a few weeks ago. Other then humans, polar bears don’t have enemies but for the little cubs, the biggest enemy is the male polar bear who will hunt the young and eat them. A Russian scientist told me that they are quiet concerned about the exodus of polar bears migrating from Russia to Canada to areas along the Baffin coast where the multi year ice is stacked against the shoreline. Polar bears can use the land and the sea ice to find food, a baby walrus on an ice floe or a sea lion on a beach. Perhaps we start to see more polar bear tracks as we are heading south and getting to seals. Got into the 400 km range to Cape Discovery and tomorrow we reach 86 degrees of latitude, half of our degrees of the trip. The temp is frigid again (-20C) and we are still drifting to the east and skied with the wind in our faces. Spring weather has come and gone.