Last Degree North Pole Trek: Eric Larsen
In between big mountaineering and polar expeditions, I like to keep busy by guiding winter camping training courses and leading ‘Last Degree’ polar trips. I enjoy the challenges of managing groups in some of the most inhospitable environments on the planet. I also enjoy helping my clients grow and expand their skill sets so that they too can stay warm and dry no matter the conditions.
This year, I spent two weeks in Antarctica and a few short months later I was in the Arctic, leading a ‘Last Degree’ North Pole expedition. While land to pole traverses of the Arctic Ocean are no longer possible due to a shrinking ‘ice’ season and logistics window, shorter 60-mile and 120-mile expeditions are still feasible. Each year, a few select polar guides lead small groups over the shifting sea ice of the Arctic Ocean to the geographic North Pole. In good conditions covering the Last Degree trip will take roughly seven days. But getting to the pole is not guaranteed, ice conditions are constantly changing and open water leads block forward progress while negative drift (moving ice) churns skiers backward on an icy tread mill erasing hard earned mileage while teams sleep in the tent.
To get to the jumping off point for these Last Degree trips is an adventure in itself. The first step is simply getting gear, food and team members in Longyearbyen, Svalbard which isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but you can definitely see it from there. The few days prior to departure are a flurry of activity – short training trips, food pack, gear prep and more. Paramount for any of these types of adventures is checking gear. Surprisingly, many people dress too warmly for this type of travel wearing thick fleece instead of moisture wicking Helly Hansen base layers. I take extra pains to explain which base layers I use and why.
Our initial plan was to fly to the temporary ice station Barneo, roughly 100 kilometers from the North Pole on April 4th, but due to fracturing and moving ice on the runway and some unforeseen political posturing, we didn’t get the green light until the 13th!?! It goes without saying that my clients – now four strong – Julie (German), Masha (Russian – but now British living in France), Colin (American) and Rohan (originally from Jamaica but living in Connecticut) were chomping at the bit.
After a short two hour and a half hour flight, we landed, miraculously on the Arctic Ocean! Amazingly, in just a few days time, a new runway had been cleared and a temporary camp erected. When Masha inquired as to the difficulty of constructing the new runway in such a short time, one of the snow camouflaged soldiers replied, ‘in our language we don’t have a word for difficult.’
We then loaded all of our gear into a large MI-8 Orange and Blue helicopter and flew with a Norwegian team to the 89th parallel at the 135th east meridian. Flying low over the sea ice, I tried not to think about the overall surface conditions.
‘A lot of pressure and a lot of open water,’ were the reports that we received in Barneo.
As my Arctic Ocean luck would have it, we also saw a set of polar bear tracks – probably a young male – heading off to the west. While it is amazing to know these animals are here and after several very close encounters with polar bears over the years, I prefer if they keep their distance.
After a couple of days, we settle into a good rhythm – traveling for an hour then taking a short break, then traveling for another hour, but with temperatures ranging from 20 to 30 below, it doesn’t take much of a break to become bone chillingly cold. Still, the miles slowly add up and we begin to close in on the pole. We increase our daily travel time to 8 hours, meaning we were on the trail for roughly 10 hours each day.
On the fifth day, we encountered a six foot wide crack in the ice. Three feet below, at the sea level, there were two thinner sheets of ice buckling together. I initially wanted to go around but the crack spanned to the east and west as far as I could see. I was wary of the ice’s stability but with the sheets overlapping slightly, I knew it would be stronger. I instructed everyone to keep their skis on while I took mine off. I would step down in the crack and help relay sleds over. The team would individually cross with their skis on to help distribute their weight. I had tested the ice with my ski pole and it seemed stable. Julie went across first and I guided her sled up onto the far side. Just as I was lifting her sled up, the ice disintegrated underneath me. I could feel myself sinking and dove for the far ice edge. I managed to get my arms up to my elbows on the ice but the lower half of my body was in the ocean. I yelled for Julie to help me, but at first she thought I was just telling her to keep pulling her sled. Finally, she turned around and I was able to grab onto her arm and pull myself up. I quickly rolled onto the snow to soak up the excess water.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t completely soaked. My Helly Hansen pants had shed most of the water. The plastic bags I put over my boot liners helped keep most of the water out of my feet. Still, I was fairly wet, but the sun was out so I decided to ‘ski myself dry’ which I did. Huge props to my HH base layers that kept me warm and dried out completely over the next several hours.
By the last shift of the day, we stumbled onto one of the biggest leads I have ever seen. Luckily it was frozen and safe and we skied effortlessly for over an hour to the other side.
The team (Colin, Masha, Julie and Rohan) had become increasingly more efficient, allowing us to up our daily travel time to 8 hours, meaning we were on the trail for roughly 10 hours each day. With temperatures of ranging from 20 to 30 below the entire trip, it didn’t take much of a break to become bone chillingly cold.
Overall the ice conditions were decent, but the last three days were definitely the most challenging of the entire week. Almost in an instant, the surface conditions changed from larger multiyear (ish) pans to smaller pieces with lots of newly pressured ridges and blocks. Several times, we formed human chains shuttling sleds and gear across unstable areas.
One of the challenges of Arctic Ocean travel is traversing pressured and broken ice. While most of the ice can appear stable and strong on the surface; in reality, it is just a thin skin of frozen water floating on a cold ocean thousands of feet deep. As ice sheets (pans) collide and grind against one other they break up into a variety of pieces and shapes…and because of the random nature of this movement, every ridge and obstacle poses a unique problem to solve. Worse yet, the pans are also separating at times meaning the blocks of ice that were once stable due to pressure are now loose, floating like ice in a glass. This constant movement of ice and diversity of terrain is one of the best and worst parts of this type of adventure. You are constantly engaged in problem solving but added to that is the stress that, at any given point, the ice that we are traveling on could easily break up underneath us.
We had a good travel day on the 18th covering over 11 nautical miles, but by the end of the day we still had over three miles to reach the pole. Despite some initial protests of continuing on, I made the decision to camp for the night. The ice had been devolving into smaller and smaller pans and bigger and bigger pressure. I knew all too well how badly things can go. In 2014, it took us over 8 hours to cover the last three and a half nautical miles to the pole. Pushing on after 10 already difficult hours in subzero temperatures was definitely not safe.
In the end, it proved to be a good decision as we experienced some of the worst ice of our entire week-long adventure over those final three miles to the pole. But despite winding through a variety of ridges and thin ice sections, we finally reached a fairly wide pan and after a bit of walking back and forth, located the North Pole with the Garmin GPS and DeLorme inReach.
After a brief celebration at the pole, the entire sheet of ice that we were skiing on – larger than several football fields – buckled and cracked underneath us. At the same time, huge blocks of ice bigger than cars were being heaved up into the air nearly twenty feet as two pans collided. The ‘show’ lasted for over 20 minutes as we tried to find a way to cross to meet up with the Norwegian team for a pick up from one of Barneo’s MI-8 helicopters. Even strong and formidable Rohan commented on how scary and intimidating the scene was.
‘Have you ever seen that before?’ Colin asked. ‘Many times,’ I replied. Which, just to reiterate, is one of many reasons why I am so careful here.