I’m not chasing “firsts” anymore,’ said one polar guide. ‘I’m chasing “lasts”.’ I recalled his words as I gazed down at the frozen skin of the Arctic Ocean from an aged Russian helicopter. The surface was scarred with jagged lines that varied in colour from the light grey of newly formed ice to the jet black of open water. Since satellite observations began in 1979, Arctic Ocean sea ice has been decreasing by 13 per cent every decade. Not only is there less ice, but the ice that does form is thinner and less stable, making any planned activity in the region – such as ski expeditions to the North Pole – increasingly challenging. With the scientific community predicting that the first ice-free summer in the Arctic Ocean will occur before 2100, many foresee that it may become impossible to ski to the North Pole in as little as five years time because the ice will no longer be able to sustain the runway and basecamp needed for logistics.
Even so, the sea ice appeared to be anything but fragile as the helicopter landed in the middle of a wide, smooth floe to deposit me and my team at a location some 80 kilometres from the North Pole. All around us were alarming reminders that we were not on solid ground but adrift on a constantly, and chaotically shifting, raft of frozen water. Around the edge of the floe, shards of electric blue ice more than two metres thick were piled in heaps, pushed out of place by the force of wind and current driving floes against each other. Elsewhere, an eerie fog hung low over the ice rubble, indicating the presence of open water up ahead where the floe had been pulled apart to reveal the dark ocean beneath. The ferocity and power of the forces of nature on display were intimidating. It would be frighteningly easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time out here on the ice.
The temperature was -38⁰C; most likely twice as cold as the inside of your home freezer. I watched my team try to absorb this new reality as we hauled our skis and sledges from the helicopter. The women had all been selected out of more than 1,000 applicants from across Europe and the Middle East. Previous experience had taught me that polar expeditions are a great leveller of people, a way to get to know others at their most raw. In creating this team I hoped the experience we shared would allow us to explore the relationship between European and Arabic cultures.
I had brought together a deliberately diverse group, the majority of whom had no previous polar or expedition experience. The team of ten included Mariam, a 32-year-old entrepreneur from Saudi Arabia for whom camping and skiing were completely new; Misba, a 49-year-old NHS finance officer and soon-to-be grandmother from Manchester who was a keen rambler but had never skied before; Olga, a 43-year-old mountain guide and mum-of-one from Russia who had previously flown to the North Pole but had always wanted to return on skis, and Susan from France who, at 37 was a marine biologist who had spent field seasons in Antarctica but was new to ski expeditions.
With a team whose experience ranged from none-at-all to quite-a-bit, we chose an unconventional approach to expedition preparation. Our first training session was usual enough – a week on a glacier in Iceland – but for our second we travelled to the less common location of the Omani desert. Pulling sledges over sand dunes in 40⁰C may sound like bizarre preparation for the Arctic but we discovered that the two environments have significant traits in common. The dunes are unmapped so it is impossible to plan a route for the day in advance. Instead, navigation decisions must be made on the spot as you travel, exactly the situation that would become familiar on Arctic sea ice. Heaving a sledge over sand also bears a strong resemblance to hauling the same sledge over snow; a comparison that is emphasised when the sand is as dazzlingly white as the Sugar Dunes of southeast Oman. So many times when skiing across a polar landscape I have squinted my eyes to blur the view a bit and willed myself warm by imagining the sparkling snow to be the pale sands of a tropical beach, lacking only palm trees. Now in Oman, I found myself doing the exact opposite.
Training in an Arabic, Muslim, country also provided the expedition with a fitting cultural backdrop as we invented solutions for challenges unique to the make-up of our team. Initially, the task of enabling half the group to not only stop for prayer while skiing across sea ice in sub-zero temperatures but also to undertake the necessary cleansing rituals beforehand (which normally require running water) without everyone else freezing as they waited seemed unlikely. In fact, it was all very straight forward. The practicing Muslim’s within the team explained that the usual five daily prayer times were reduced to three while travelling. Morning prayer was conducted in the tent, midday and afternoon prayers were combined and completed on the ice while the whole team was taking one of our regular ten-minute breaks. The sunset and night prayer were also combined and could be done in the tent.
I was repeatedly impressed by the commitment of my team mates to the observation of their faith, even in the most challenging circumstances, especially when 24-hour daylight made it hard to work out exactly when prayers should be said (normally this depends on the time of sunrise and sunset) and when being so close to the North Pole made it difficult to calculate exactly which way Mecca was and therefore, the correct direction for prayer. They made it work, even if it meant sometimes perching on the back of their sledges, still wearing skis.
A far greater logistical challenge turned out to be the number of people in our team, which was extended to include a film crew of three who were shadowing the expedition and two professional polar guides. It is hard to keep so many people moving together without stopping every other minute and leaving some people getting cold while waiting for others. Our first day on the ice was a complete shambles until we fell into a pace and a routine that suited everyone. We adopted the habit of travelling side-by-side in two lines with those at the front navigating and picking a route past any obstacles.
Our task was further complicated by two scientific projects, one focusing on the mind and the other on the body. The latter required each team member to wear a dozen different monitors ranging from heart rate sensors and watch-like devices recording sleep patterns to blood sugar buttons inserted into our arms and thermometers taped to our skin. I felt like a cyborg. Many of these instruments required power, as did our satellite phones, cameras and the filming equipment used by the camera-women. Despite 24-hour daylight and spotless blue skies, at the high latitudes of the Arctic in April there was not enough sun to reliably run solar panels for power. Instead, we depended on high capacity power banks to recharge equipment via USB to mini-USB cables.
The Last North Pole Explorers
Access to the Arctic Ocean sea ice around the North Pole is only possible thanks to one commercially operated runway and basecamp nicknamed Barneo. Every year a Russian company undertakes a mind-boggling logistical effort to establish the runway directly onto the sea ice somewhere around 89°N. The presence of this runway means that paying expeditions can be flown by plane from Longyearbyen on Svalbard to Barneo, and from there to the start point of their ski expedition by helicopter.
Despite the fact that the camp is only viable for three short weeks in April every year, the instability of the ice often requires the runway to be moved while the camp is in operation because cracks open up along its length. It is not unknown, in years when the ice is particularly mobile, for the runway to have to be moved more than once
Logistical operators in Canada who used to fly expeditions onto the frozen Arctic Ocean have stopped in recent years, blaming the unacceptable level of risk presented by current ice conditions. If Barneo ever became untenable – a situation many say is inevitable in the near future – it would become extremely difficult for expeditions to access the North Pole at all.
It may have been difficult to keep such a large group moving forward but in the end it was the ice beneath our skis that dictated the pace. It was a shock to witness how rapidly the ice moved. At the end of each day we would camp on what appeared to be solid, stable ground and wake in what appeared to be the exact same place. And yet one glance at our GPS would show that the ice we had camped on had moved several kilometres during the night. Our dread was always that the ice would have moved us away from the Pole but, thankfully, it moved us sideways in a clockwise direction around the Pole – and occasionally even towards it. One morning we woke to find that we had drifted more than five kilometres towards our goal without taking a step.
At the end of our seventh day of skiing, we counted down our last few paces until all of us stood together at the very top of the world, the North Pole. But it didn’t last. By the next morning the point we had marked as ‘our’ North Pole with two crossed ski poles, had already floated a few kilometres south. I liked the idea that the North Pole where we posed for our commemorative photographs would forever be unique to us. We would never share it with anyone else.
Many of my team mates on reaching 90 degrees north had become the first from their country to ski there. Gazing out over the chaotic landscape of buckling floes that felt so permanent and yet is so precarious, I couldn’t help but wonder if they might also be the last.
• Felicity Aston has led international teams of women on ski expeditions to both the North and South Poles. In 2012 she also became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica, a 1,744km journey that took her 59 days. In 2015 she was awarded a Polar Medal and appointed MBE for services to polar exploration. www.felicityaston.com
This was published in the January 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!