On 29th March 2010, I left for an expedition that was different from my normal trips. For the first time in 12 years, the goal of this trip was not the mountains but the sea. A frozen sea but there was no real climbing planned this time.
My first stop was Oslo. The next morning, I then flew on to Longyearbyen. This is the most northern city in the world on Spitsbergen, a group of islands north of Norway. There, I met the rest of the expedition team. In total, there were 13 of us: 3 Americans, 2 Dutch and 8 Belgians. Together, we had been preparing for this North pole expedition for two years. The goal of the trip was to ski the last degree to the North pole.
In Longyearbyen, I got a taste for what was waiting for us on the North pole: it was – 16 C and a cold wind was blowing in my face. The rest of the team had already been there for a few days to make the final preparations for the trip. This basically meant making themselves acquainted with the equipment and pack the sleds. Douglas Beall, my climbing partner for years had been so kind to volunteer me to pull a big sled. Those contain part of the group equipment and are therefore heavier. On the 2nd day in Longyearbyen, we took the sleds out for a spin. Pulling a 60 kg sled actually went better then I expected.
On 2nd April, we then flew with an Antonov airplane to Barneo, the base that the Russians set up on the ice at the end of March each year. There, a helicopter was waiting to take us to our starting point. That starting point was 89 degrees North or 110 km from the North pole. As soon as the helicopter dropped us with our sleds, we unpacked our skis and got going.
The weight of my sled had increased to 70 kg in the mean time because I had picked up a container with fuel in Barneo. The first day, we limited our trip to about 2 hours of skiing. Then we decided it was evening. Since the sun never sets on the North pole at this time of the year, we could decide for ourselves what would be morning, day, evening or night. The tents were set up and we spent a first night in the cold. Outside it was – 30 C. Fortunately, inside our tent the temperature rose to an “enjoyable” -15 C.
As of that day, we operated according to a fixed time schedule. Get up at 7 am, leave at 10 am, take a break every 90 minutes and set up camp between 5 and 6 pm. The first couple of days, our trip went reasonably smooth. We managed to get 15 km closer to the North pole every day. Often we skied on long stretches of flat ice where it was not too difficult to make good progress.
But at times you also need to get across compression zones or pressure ridges. When two ice shelves push against each other, they can push blocks of ice up that then create a wall if ice blocks of up to 1,5 meter high. Getting across these compression zones with ski’s and sleds takes quite a bit of effort.
It also remained bitterly cold the first days. It was so cold that one of our team members had to be evacuated at the end of the 2nd day. 3 of his fingers were frozen and to continue the trip would have been an unacceptable risk. A setback for the team, but also a serious warning to the extent that that was necessary.
After a couple of days however, the weather changed: the temperature rose and the wind turned. That wind no longer blew from the west but from the north. On the polar ice, the direction of the wind is very important because you are not skiing on land. You are on a frozen see and the ice typically drifts with the wind. So if the wind blows from the North, you drift South, away from the North pole.
The fourth night we drifted 15 km backward, as much as we had progressed during the day. To make matters worse, a lot of wind also means that the ice shelves start breaking up. This means you there will be more open water between the ice shelves. And that takes a lot more time and effort to navigate.
The fifth day, we only progressed 6 km in 6 hours. And the following night we drifted 6 km backwards. It started feeling like we were skiing on a tred mill. On the 6th day, it became clear to us that we were not going to achieve our goal. We had 2 days left before the Russians were going to pick us up and we were still 75 km away from the North pole: mission impossible.
We still left camp on that 6th day, but not with the same determination as we had in the previous days. To make the best of our stay on the ice, we even decided to go for a swim. Not in our swimsuit but in a dry suit that we could wear above our warm clothes.
On the 10th April, we got the confirmation from the Russians that they were on their way to pick us up. As a consolation, they did fly us to the North pole for a few photographs, before flying us back to Longyearbyen via Barneo.