The North Pole

April 10, 2009

Background information:

Altitude: Sea Level (plus 5' of ice above the ocean surface)

Tidbits:  The lines of time converge at the pole, so time is anything you want it to be. More people make it to the top of Everest than make it to the North pole.

 

Pole Achieved, April 10, 2009

 

Time Zone: All of them

When to go:

Due to the incredibly difficult logistics, there is a very narrow window to get to the pole on foot, usually from the first week through the third week in April. I timed my arrival at the pole as close as possible to the 100th anniversary of the first conquest of the pole by Admiral Perry (who reached the pole on April 6, 1909).

Route Selection:

The trip to the pole involved 10 flights, 2 helicopter shuttles, 18,000 miles of (roundtrip) air travel, and a short walk (or long ski) starting from my home in San Francisco, connecting in Newark, flying to Oslo, then a flight to Tromso (the northernmost city in mainland Norway), then a flight to Longyearbyen (the northernmost inhabited town in the world located on Spitsbergen Island in Norway, about 1,000 miles NORTH of Iceland), followed by a flight on a Russian AN-74 cargo plane supplying the Barneo Arctic floating research station, then a flight on a Russian MI-8 military helicopter to the vicinity of the actual pole, then a hike to the actual pole itself.

Hotel and Climb Reservation:

The pole can only be achieved with massive logistical support. I used the services of the famed Russian Arctic Explorer Victor Boyarsky who runs the Barneo Floating Research Station. Arrangements should generally be made at least 5 months in advance, but many people make arrangements one year in advance since only a limited number of people can be transported to the pole at a given time due to logistical limitations. In Longyearbyen there are a limited number of hotels and guest houses that are expensive and fill up quickly.  Book early. I stayed at the SAS Radisson Hotel (the northernmost hotel in the world, but then again, everything in Longyearbyen is the "northernmost"). The cost for a room was about $275 (US) per night. Another hotel that I recommend in "Basecamp" located about 300 yards from the Radisson and is completely decorated in a trapper's theme with wood, furs, etc. (the restaurant at Basecamp was exceptional, especially considering where you are).

Packing List:

The weather during my trip was a little colder than usual (-40). My gear consisted of a wicking underwear layer, a flannel shirt/pants, a wool sweater, and a Thinsulate-insulated pants and coat, thermal socks (worn over thin nylon socks), waterproof boots, an insulated wind-stopper hat, balaclava (in addition to the insulated hood on my jacket), and a pair of insulated gloves. I was told that Gore-Tex jackets are not really necessary due to the lack of precipitation and I found I was quite warm with all of this equipment. I also carried a small backpack with an insulated water bottle (which began to freeze in less than 2 hours) and a GPS to find the actual pole. You should note that high-power rifles are absolutely required at all times due to the risk of Polar Bear attacks. Some groups choose to take a large-caliber pistol, but the stopping power of this type of weapon against a hungry attacking bear is questionable.

 

Getting There:

There is only one option to get to Longyearbyen, which is to fly SAS Airways.  The cost from Oslo is about $500 roundtrip. Nearly all flights stop in Tromso. If your schedule permits, you may want to stop over for a night an enjoy this picturesque city which bills itself as "The Paris of the North". It also claims to have the world's best vantage point for viewing the Northern Lights. Getting from Longyearbyen to the Barneo research station and then to the pole must be coordinated through Dr. Boyarsky's company, VICAAR, based in St. Petersburg Russia. Roundtrip arrangements including flights from Longyearbyen cost between $15,000 and $20,000. You can book through other companies, but they will ALL use Vicaar's services and you'll end up paying more.

So, as I entered the next phase of my midlife crisis I was tempted to buy a sports car but opted to try something different and head to the North Pole on the 100th anniversary of Admiral Perry's trip.  I started making plans in October of 2008 for a April 2009 trip.  The logistics of getting to the pole and maintaining equipment is extremely expensive and there is only one company in the world right now that maintains logistical support during the hiking season. 

 

The company is VICAAR located in St. Petersburg, Russia and run by Arctic Explorer Victor Boyarsky. The research station is setup and dismantled every year during a very narrow time window when polar night ends on March 21st. VICAAR scopes out suitable locations (e.g. floating icebergs of suitable depth with flat tops within 100 miles of the pole) a year earlier. The iceberg will get frozen in the icecap and they parachute fuel and a bulldozer in late March.  A crew will helicopter in and prepare an ice runway. The station is then constructed and equipt with generators, about 8 tents, and the only "out-house" within 1500 miles.  Once the runway is constructed, supplies and personnel arrive and the station is maintained by a crew of about 18 people. They also fly in two massive MI-8 helicopters. They need to abandon the facility in late April since the ice begins melting and the surface water poses a threat to the aircraft.  A video of me at the pole can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMVDcos7iq8 ...the construction of the Barneo camp can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kX-T-PEZHdM

Longyearbyen Arrival Pre-Flight to Pole

Arriving in Longyearbyen...the launching point for the trip and the northern-most commercial airport in the world. SAS Airways lands on a snow-covered runway.

Downtown Longyearbyen

Downtown Longyearbyen...few people, fewer hotels, and many polar bears.

Longyearbyen Polar Bear's in Restaurants?

I came across this amusing sign in the restaurant. Polar bear attacks are a real threat...they are hungry in April and you are their next meal. High-power weapons are an absolute requirement if walking about.

Longyearbyen- The Doomsday Vault (the Global Seed Vault)

The Global Seed Vault, also known as the Doomsday Vault, is located in Longyearbyen. The site was selected due to its remoteness and the permafrost, allowing the seeds deposited there to remain frozen and safe in the event of a global catastrophe such as a meteor strike, nuclear attack, or biological threat.

Pack Ice Melt in Route

On route to the Barneo Floating Research Station, which will be my launching pad to the pole. It was amazing to see open water such as this only a few miles away from the pole.

Barneo Floating Research Station

Arriving at Barneo. This camp exists for a few weeks each year and is run by Russian Explorer Victor Boyarsky. An amusing safety briefing..."1 Whistle, ice is cracking, stay in tent...2 whistles, polar bear in camp, stay in tent...3 whistles, tent is on fire, leave tent."

40 Below

Temperatures were 40 below zero. Ironically, -40 Celsius and -40 Fahrenheit are the same temperature. COLD!

Pre-flight to pole

VIctor Borarsky and I during the pre-flight of the Russian MI-8 helicopter...one of the few aircraft that is durable enough to fly on the polar icecap.

BYOP (Bring Your Own Pole)

Arriving at the pole...with a pole.

At the Top of the World!

Standing at the exact North Pole. Time is anything I want it to be and I can walk around the earth in 5-seconds!

Snow Mobile Trip across Svarlbad to the Russian Mining Colony

I had a free day after returning from the pole so I decided to take a snow mobile trip to a Russian Mining Colony about 40 miles away. Weather conditions were poor!

Crash and Rescue

One person in another group didn't see a crevice in the ice and crashed.

Crash and Rescue Continued...

As soon as you stop moving, the rifles come out in case there is a polar bear close by.

Conditions Deteriorating

Weather conditions worsened. Here is a photo of an expedition in the area traveling on foot.

Glacier Tunnel Exploration

One of the longest glaciers in the world is in Longyearbyen. There is an interesting phenomenon where the ice internally melts and forms a narrow tunnel about 3 miles long covered in ice crystals. This is the entrance (not for the claustrophobic)!

In the Ice Tunnel...

Incredibly beautiful ice formations line all sides of the tunnel.

In the Ice Tunnel...getting narrow!

Getting a bit narrow!

Santa's Castle

For those of you with small children...yes, Santa's Magic Castle is at the North Pole! I stole a hat from one of the elves and stuck in!

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