28,000km of flying saw us travel around the World from Australia and New Zealand to the far Canadian High Arctic. Each flight saw us taking a smaller plane, the airports giving way to airfields and finally to simple airstrips made of northing more than hard packed snow. We finally arrived in Resolute, a tiny outpost of human habitation and warmth set deep in the frozen and unforgiving wilderness, 800km North of the Arctic Circle.
In Resolute we spent invaluable time learning the polar survival and expedition skills that would be necessary to survive out on the ice. Most importantly trying to get used to functioning safely in the constant extreme cold where simple mistakes could, at best, mean a lot of discomfort and at worst, cost you your fingers. Our first night out in the tents recorded a balmy -380C. This is where we learned the daily cycle of polar travel. Everything revolves around three key activities, melting snow and ice for water, staying warm, and covering distance. The day starts with melting block after block of snow to make breakfast and fill flasks to last you through the day. Once out of the tent minimal time is wasted doing anything that isn’t covering distance. The day is divided into periods of skiing and short rests for fluids and food. Rest too long and you get cold so as much constant steady movement as possible is key. Once the night’s camp is reached and tent is up, the melting begins again for dinner, drinks and a little spare to start the process again the next day.
Once training was complete setting off for the Magnetic Pole was a strangely simple thing. After sleds were loaded, harnesses shouldered and skis strapped on – and we just skied straight out of Resolute heading North, not breaking stride as the snow-covered landed became frozen ocean beneath our feet.
Things started well; most importantly we had good clear weather, temperatures only in the minus 20s and smooth firm ice. We made excellent time and soon settled into the polar routine, the days and kilometres passing with the ice under our skis. After only five days had made it to the first of our two resupply points three days ahead of schedule.
Unfortunately that was the last of the good weather we were going to see for a long time. At the resupply we spent a full day hunkered down in our tents near the shoreline of a small island, with the wind howling outside making it too risky to head out further onto the ice where there might not be enough snow cover to safely anchor our tents down in the gale. For the next week we had a near continuous succession of bad weather; white-outs where only the red figure in front marked where the ground and the sky met, deep soft snow that the sleds dug into and gale-force head winds that froze our tears on the inside of our goggles and pushed the temperature down into the minus 50s.
We lost another two days storm-bound in our tents and when the weather finally broke we were several days behind schedule but worse of all, our most experienced party member had suffered serious injury in the cold. He had to leave his tent in the storm to mend a broken tent pole, become frustrated in his cumbersome thick gloves and briefly taken them off to grasp the offending pole. He sustained frostbite to all the fingers of his right hand. We managed to warm and patch his hand up as best we could and help him along for a further five hard days over some very rough ice to our second resupply. Sixteen days in and our guide was evacuated on the resupply plane.
Somehow this sacrifice seemed to appease the Gods and we finally had some blue-sky weather and were able to set about the business of getting some serious mileage under our belts. We needed to cover around 35km a day for the next week and that meant around 13hrs a day of sled hauling. Luckily the weather held, the ice flattened out and though tired we managed to hit our distance goals day after day. A terrifying incident reminded us that the cold wasn’t our only threat out on the ice; one night we were woken by the unmistakable sounds of a polar bear sniffing around outside our tent. We lay terrified in our sleeping bags, not daring to reach for the gun nestled between us lest the noise alert the bear. After what seemed like an age the bear wandered away leaving us counting our lucky stars and wondering why we’d gotten away without at least our food being plundered if not worse. The next day answered our question, not far from camp we passed the grizzly remains of a recently killed seal staining the snow red for metres around the breathing hole where the bear had made it’s kill and eaten it’s fill.
Finally we were within one last epic day of the Pole. A 600m high peninsula of land bared our way and as we dragged our sleds high up above the frozen world around us we were treated to stunning views, gazing out at the endless ice stretching to infinity in all directions. Finally after 15 hours of man-hauling, 23 days and 600km we reached our goal on stood on the frozen ocean at the Magnetic North Pole.