The Waiting Game
overcast 25 degrees F (very warm)
05 April 2016
With the recent deployment of US F-15's to Iceland, cold war relations may be at their iciest in quite some time. However, here in Svalbard the spirit of the Arctic and adventure (and unusually warm temperatures) have melted away any political ideologies as we wait for the Barneo Ice Station to be repositioned. The Russians here are key figures in our upcoming adventure plans.
Organized by the Expeditionary Center of the Russian Geographical Society (RGS), Barneo is a temporary ice base on the Arctic Ocean generally located around the 89th parallel. The goal of the RGS is to ensure the implementation of scientific, ecological, social, educational, cultural and other programs and projects of the Company. Barneo itself serves as a staging area for tourist trips (like our Last Degree North Pole Expedition) and scientific research.
Today, we were informed by the Russian Logistic company that the runway at Barneo had cracked and was unable to be repaired. Therefore, they would now be forced to find a new section of ice on which to establish a runway and temporary base.
Finding and / or maintaining a kilometer long runway on the Arctic Ocean is no easy task and becoming more and more difficult as the climate warms. This year, the crew had found a somewhat suitable piece of ice to construct Barneo, but still hoped to find for something slightly more stable. After a day of searching they found no other alternatives and began constructing the runway and camp. Three days ago, the runway cracked in three pieces and today we learned it was completely fractured and the Antonov-74 would now be able to land Therefore, the Barneo ice station and runway will need to be relocated once another suitable section of ice is found.
To understand why we are in this particular situation, you need to understand a little more about the Arctic Ocean itself. The North Pole and the temporary ice station Barneo are all floating on a thin skin of ice on top of nearly 14,000 feet of water. There is absolutely no land. Winds and currents push the ice sheets (or pans) together where they form pressure ridges or cracks and split apart forming leads. But it's not that simple, the ice is constantly fracturing and colliding, freezing and refreezing, which creates ever changing surface conditions. It is unlike any other environment on the planet.
Only 250 individuals have skied the full distance from land to the geographic North Pole (compared with roughly 6000 Everest summits) and less than 50 of those have been 'unsupported' and 'unaided' (no resupplies, kites, dogs, etc) like our 2014 North Pole expedition and one that will realistically be the last of it's kind in history. This year, a British team was hoping to reach land from the pole - the reverse route. But it looks like this additional set back will be the final blow to a timeline that was already a week or so beyond a realistic timeline for completion. As is stands, this is now the second year since 2014 with no full human powered expeditions. Ryan and I have been the only team to reach the pole from land in the last six years!?!
But there are still a variety of adventures that can realistically continue in the Arctic Ocean and the Geographic North Pole for some time into the future. One of them being 'Last Degree' expeditions - which is the reason why I am here now. I am guiding two clients, Masha Gordon and Julie Schulz. Starting at the 89th parallel, we will ski and snowshoe 60 nautical miles to the Geographic North Pole. Along the way, we will encounter all sorts of obstacles: pressure ridges, thin ice, open water and perhaps even a polar bear. Depending on the ice conditions and drift, it will take roughly eight days. While substantially shorter in both scale and scope to a full journey this is still a formidable adventure and one that is becoming increasingly popular.
Masha and Julie are both accomplished adventures having already skied the Last Degree to the South Pole in December of 2015. Masha is also working on a bigger project to climb the seven summits and ski the 'last degree' to both poles. In conjunction with her project, she created the Grit & Rock charity (https://www.facebook.com/masha.gordon/) to encourage inner city teenage girls to challenge themselves, increase self-confidence and help those in deprived areas develop love for active lifestyle. Unfortunately, for Masha however, any delay here in the Arctic has huge implications in her time line for climbing Mt. Everest which she hopes to do still this May.
For my part, I really enjoy this type of expedition guiding and sharing my experiences. Masha and Julie have been adept students and it has a been a fun few days prepping gear and food as well as practicing our polar systems. With luck we, will be on the ice soon... or as the case when dealing with anything Arctic Ocean related - relatively soon!
Image: Masha and Julie on a short training ski just outside of Longyearbyen.