North Pole, April 2008

The helicopter came over from its landing pad to the runway and it was time to get on board.

Helicopter coming in Helicopter landing Ready for boarding Ready for boarding Ready for boarding

It was quite crowded on board. We were two groups to "Walk to the Pole", our 'Icetrek' group of four and a group of six Chinese with a guide from "Polar Explorers", so there were eleven people with one sledge each, plus, I think, four people going directly to the Pole. The helicopter usually seats 24 passengers, but that's without eleven sledges taking up a lot of room.

It was a bit like sitting (or standing) in a bus at rush hour.

Crowd in helicopter

And it was amazingly noisy. I didn't quite realize how loud it was, until I tried to listen to my MP3 player and full volume couldn't hear anything at all. Only with my hands pressed over my ears, I could even detect there was some sound coming out of the earphones.

I got a view short views out of the window. The ice sheet looked pretty solid with no visible open water leads. Looked like it was going to be a good trip.

Arctic ice sheet Arctic ice sheet

After about an hour we landed and got our sledges and skis out of the helicopter. Cowering right next to the helicopter, we waited for it to take off. A gust of downwind from the helicopter and we were alone on the ice.

Just after the helicopter left Just after the helicopter left

Eric took out his GPS, fixed our position, took a bearing, we put on our skis, clipped the sledges to our backpacks and we were ready to go.

Not thinking things through properly, I was quite surprised Eric announcing a bearing of 270°. I usually have my GPS set to 'True North', so the bearing to the North Pole quite obviously has to be zero degrees. And 'everyone knows' that you don't use a compass at high latitudes, due to magnetic variation.

But, of course, navigating with a compass relative to magnetic north makes a lot of sense.

The 'a compass is quite useless at high latitudes' factoid comes from map navigation. If you use a map, what is usually geographic north ('up' on the map) may differ quite a bit from where the compass is pointing. And even if the map gives you the magnetic variation and you adjust your compass for it, you still have to make sure that the information on the map is fairly recent.

But this is not really relevant for a GPS, which 'knows' where you are and where the magnetic pole is currently located (with a reasonable amount of variation), so it will just give you the 'proper' bearing (and near the North Pole, you're far enough from the magnetic pole that its movement does not affect the bearing significantly).

And if you just use the GPS to get a bearing and then navigate by compass for most of the wat, you can go without using batteries for most of the time, which is the most sensible way to navigate near the North Pole. I just had never thought about this.

When we were set down by the helicopter, we were about six kilometers from the North Pole, so we started to move.

Somewhere in the vicinity of the North Pole

After about a kilometer, we came across a frozen over lead, which was three or four days old. I assumed that we would have to walk around it, but at these temperatures, three days seem to be quite sufficient to provide a ski-able ice layer.

Ice crystals on freshly frozen lead Entering fresh lead Entering fresh lead

Eric went onto the ice and jumped up and down a bit.
"Does the ice wobble when I do that?"
"No, it looks stable."
"Ok, then let's go."

So we crossed the lead and continued on the other side for a kilometer before having a short break and taking another GPS reading.

Short break on the ice Still feeling perky Short break on the ice

I had been skiing without any face protection and Eric went around to check for potential problems. I had a bit of a white spot on the cheek, so he recommended putting on my face mask for the rest of the trip. (White areas are a sign of reduced blood flow, which is not a problem as such, but when ignored, these areas are the ones likely to develop frost bite, so it's best to check for them and cover the areas as soon as the first signs show.)

After about 15 minutes, we were ready to go on. A short walk later, we met the lead again and it was heading in our direction, so Eric decided to just move onto the frozen lead and follow it as far as possible.

From time to time he checked the ice condition by pushing the ice crystals away with his ski and looking at the ice surface. The blacker the ice appears, the thinner it is. On a fairly black spot he jumped up and down for a bit and the ice did noticeably wobble, so we went along an area with slightly older ice, closer to the side of the lead. (Though the process wasn't quite deterministic. On another spot, which seemed to wobble in a similar way, Eric just motioned us to cross it. I'm not quite sure what the difference was, but we moved over without any problem, so I'm not complaining. According to Eric it was probably about three centimeters of ice below us, which is (usually) sufficient when the weight is distributed with skis.)

So now we were on the lead and we had our own 'arctic highway' taking us almost all the way to the North Pole.

An utterly perfect trip.

Good temperatures (between -26°C (-15°F) and -29°C (-20°F) during the trip), clear blue skies all around, sunshine all day (and later on all night, obviously) a path of fresh, flat ice to ski on, with just enough of a frost layer to provide enough traction and magnificent views of the scenery.

Couldn't have been better.

(And I really had to remind myself that these were highly unusual conditions. It seemed all just so easy.)

And it was also great that Heinz and Lyndy were taking it slow and also clearly enjoying the trip. So there was no feeling of "Let's get to the Pole as quickly as possible and be done with it." or some sort of "Are we there yet?" mood. Everyone seemed to like the sights, the surroundings and our journey through it.

Edge of the lead Edge of the lead Wide lead Skiing along the lead
Eric taking a new bearing Skiing along the lead Skiing along the lead Skiing along the lead

After following the lead about four kilometers, we were less than a kilometer away from the Pole and it was time to leave the frozen lead and continue our way across the snow covered ice.

Somewhere ahead: The North Pole

North Pole area

Time to ignore the compass that had brought us this far and follow the GPS for the final bit.

Oddly enough, reaching the Pole had two distinct phases.

When we arrived at the Pole, the first reaction was more a feeling of closure than a feeling of arrival. The trip was over and this was the North Pole was little more than the marker to tell us that we have to stop.

Me, arriving at the North Pole

This was followed by a slightly silly phase. Heinz and I went off, each with a GPS in hand, to find the exact spot of 90°N and take a picture.

I wasn't aware of this (until Eric told me), but most GPS systems really show 90° at the North Pole. I thought that it would display only 89°59.999', since that is usually the most northern point you can set as a waypoint, but it really shows 90°00.000' at the Pole. (Oddly enough, on the internal track it is stored as 89°59.999'.)

So we went more or less randomly across the ice, moving a few meters back, a few meters forward, trying to find just the right spot. I probably looked like some kind of surrealistic ballet...

GPS at the North Pole GPS at the North Pole

I found 'my' North Pole was about 30 Meters from where we first arrived. Since the ice at the Pole is swimming on the sea, it is in constant movement (on the day we were there, it drifted about 3600 meters per 24 hours, about 150 meters per hour), so it seemed to move away slowly (even though it was actually us moving).

The Chinese group had arrived some time ahead of us and when we came to the North Pole, they were already standing some distance away. (They went to the place where they found 'their' North Pole, celebrated and took pictures and remained there, so at the time we arrived, the Pole was already somewhere else and we had our own, so to speak.)

So when I went looking with my GPS, there had already some time passed since Heinz led us to the North Pole with his GPS, so 'my' Pole was a but further on.

There is probably some deep motivational saying along the concept "Everyone has to find his own personal North Pole" waiting to emerge here, but I can't think of a reasonably snappy phrase.

After zigzagging around the Pole, we looked for a nice flat place and started to put up our tents.

Eric put up a big tent for himself and his two original clients, while I had the tent originally intended for me and my guide.

Luckily I didn't really have to put up the tent. VICAAR had one client doing "Overnight at the Pole" (where you fly to the Pole by helicopter, spend the night there and fly back on the next day), so they had one guide and his client and their tent already at the Pole. So Mikhail came over and did most of the work in putting up my tent. (It wasn't that I was unwilling to put up the tent, but trying to figure out a modern tent without having seen it being set up is surprisingly tricky. So I assisted, put the tent poles together and shovelled snow onto the site of the tent, but didn't have to do the main work. After making sure that everything was set up properly, Mikhail want back to his client.)

Anyway, after half an hour I was sitting comfortably in my tent, the fuel burner running and it was time to contemplate dinner.

Which turned out to be slightly trickier than I thought.

The 'food box' I had received contained mostly dried 'camping' food of the 'just add water' kind. While the ice itself wasn't useable for that (since it is from sea ice and thus quite salty), the snow layer was thick enough, it was just a matter of getting outside and putting some snow into the kettle and melt it, so getting water was easy.

The tricky bit was the labels on the individual food packs. Since they were of Russian origin, the text was in Cyrillic. Since I can't read Russian, I didn't have the slightest idea what was in there.

(According to the original planning, I would have had a Russian guide with me in the tent, who would have been able to translate, so this was just a side effect of me unexpectedly having Eric as the guide. And if I had really wanted to know, I could have walked over to Mikhail and ask him.)

Food. Some sort of. Food. Some sort of. Food. Some sort of.

But I'm not overly fuzzy with food anyway, not allergic to anything, it added to the sense of adventure and I was quite hungry, so I just decided to just open anything and eat it. (I was a slightly irritated by the one thing that I could read on the labels - dates such as 17-OKT-2007 and 14-FEB-2007 (or maybe 14-SEP-2007), which I just hoped would be the 'packing dates' and not the 'expiry dates'. But this kind of food doesn't really spoil, so I didn't worry much about it.)

The first pack I opened contained some sort of crispy, brownish looking lumps. From the looks of it, I assumed that it might be some sort of breakfast cereal, probably with chocolate flavour.

It turned out to be some sort of beef soup.

Tasted good, though.

Breakfast cereal? Beef soup? Home at the Pole

This first course was quickly followed by the next random pack, turning out to be some sort of breakfast muesli. A stroke of luck there, since the box also contained a little tube with a yellowish fluid and a cartoon bee. The muesli went well with honey!

The next pack turned out to contain dried noodles. But it wasn't a complete meal, so there weren't any tasty bits in there. Possibly it they were supposed to go with the beef soup.

But, oddly, there was one recognizable bit of food that was not dried: a pack of sliced bacon. Since I had a cooker with two flames and also a pan, I fried me some bacon and it went very well with the noodles.

Though I wondering a bit while preparing it. Normally, there are no polar bears in the vicinity of the North Pole. While there have been sightings in the past, they usually don't go to latitudes that high. But in the unlikely event that there was a polar bear around, was it really a good idea to fry some bacon? Is there anything that says more distinctly 'humans and food can be found here' than the smell of fried bacon?

But then, polar bears in that area are really quite rare...

After a long and quite diverse meal (I hadn't realized how hungry I was until I noticed that I had eaten almost three quarters of the food), it was time to lie back, relax and enjoy camping at the North Pole.

While most of the time so far had been spent doing something practical, like skiing or preparing food, being at the North Pole hadn't quite emotionally caught up with me. While I was certainly aware of the fact, it didn't mean much beyond "this is the point to stop skiing and to take a picture of the GPS."

Now I had some time to think about it and to enjoy the feeling: I've now been on both geographical Poles, something that I wouldn't have believed to be even marginally probable five years ago. To quote a line from an old song:
"Lately it occurs to me: What a long, strange trip it's been."

But enough of melancholic ramblings.

A nice bonus of the situation was that I had the tent to myself. Originally intended for my guide and me, I not only had lots of space (so I didn't have to be keep my stuff in anything more organized than a heap), I also could enjoy the feeling to be all alone on top of the world (with some other tents nearby, of course).

Camping in cold weather conditions in the middle of nowhere, all alone in a tent, snuggled in warmly in my sleeping bag. Pure bliss!

I enjoyed that feeling for quite some time before finally calling it a day and getting some sleep.

Onwards to the next part about the North Pole trip.

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