Why Nobody’s Going to the North Pole This Summer

17 Apr

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you that the 2019 North Pole season has been cancelled by the team that operates Barneo, the temporary ice camp near the North Pole run by Russian and Swiss private interests. The camp serves explorers and others going to the Pole. After suffering through nearly 10 days of delays due to political wrangling for planes between Russia and the Ukraine, the final straw was that the backup plan to bring in a Canadian plane to take travelers to the ice camp failed as well. 

Ukrainian planes were scheduled to bring adventurers to the camp, but Russian officials banned the planes from landing there. Other reports suggested that Ukrainian officials would not let their planes fly to Barneo, which is operated by Russian and Swiss private interests.

Poor relations between Russia and Ukraine stem from the former country’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in the eastern Ukraine. That translates to players in both governments who don't want to see any collaboration to operate and maintain Barneo.

Complicating this year's saga was a Russian news story touting that country's operation of the Barneo ice camp eventually that made its way to Ukraine inflaming the already tense relationship. Some of the Russians I talked with who facilitate much of the Barneo operation say that this news piece is broadcast every year as propaganda. Ukrainian officials viewed that news story as Putin trying to claim the Arctic for Russia. 

Until 2018, Barneo was owned by a Russain named Alexander Orlov who was connected to the current Russian government. Last summer, the ice base was purchased by a Swiss company owned by Frederik Paulsen, a Swedish billionaire.

Once travelers could no longer count on Ukrainian flights, a Basler (DC-3) was contracted from the Canadian company Kenn Borek. But the window for flying in and out of Barneo is a short one because the ice melts and breaks up, making it impossible for planes to land and takeoff. The Canadian plane arrived in Longyearbyen last Friday, but by that time the weather was too unstable to guarantee that visitors could be taken to the ice camp and flown out safely. Canceling trips to North Pole was a perfectly logical decision. It was also a relief, ending an extended period of uncertainty. 

There is no question that this has been a frustrating process for everyone involved. Worse, this is a situation where everyone loses. Skiers, guides, and the Barneo team, each of us invested a substantial amount of time, energy, and expense that will not be easily recovered.

The Arctic Ocean is untamed wilderness—one of the last great frontiers left on planet Earth. No matter how much we try to wrangle it into compliance for a few weeks every spring to make the trek to the North Pole, the sea ice still has the final say. I fear that the opportunity for this particular adventure will not last; the clock is running out on the ice. That, more than the cancellation of this season, makes me sad. 

How to Weather a Storm

1 Aug

On day eight of my 2014 North Pole expedition, my expedition partner and I woke to 50 mph winds and a complete whiteout. With the outside temperature hovering around 80 degrees below zero, there was no way to travel.

This is the norm for Arctic travel. I have literally spent years of my life in a tent, caught in storms, on one adventure or another. During that time, I’ve gained a few insights into the best strategies to overcome the boredom and anxiety that can ensue. After all, learning to deal with delays is just as important as knowing how to tie a figure-eight knot—and these are lessons that apply well beyond a four-by-three-foot nylon space.

Nepal
When leaving the tent is suicide, keeping busy is the key to sanity. (Eric Larsen)

#1. Relax and Take a Nap

Too often on expeditions, I’m operating on too little sleep and too little energy. Long travel days and heavy loads take their toll. At some point on every trip, I actually hope a storm blows in so I can rest and recuperate. Sleeping an extra two or three hours is just as important as moving, I’ve learned.

One pro tip: Buy earplugs. The sound of nylon violently flapping in the wind is only one level of hell above fingernails on a chalkboard as far as I’m concerned.

#2. Take a Minute to Organize and Repair

After wearing through both thumbs in my mittens during a month on the trail, I made a whole new pair of handwarmers by sewing together two Granite Gear stuffsacks with dental floss. I used up nearly an hour and half of tent time in the process.

Equally important is staying organized. There is no question that at some point, my gear becomes, shall we say, disheveled: only one glove liner; mismatched, wet socks; weird fungus growing in my food bag. The first thing I do on a storm day is take all my gear out of stuffsacks, make sure everything is in good working order, then repack it in a way that keeps important items accessible.

#3. Don’t Demonize the Smartphone

I once spent nine days in a tent stuck on a small ice sheet off the coast of Siberia with nothing to read and only a small, 512-megabyte MP3 player. By the seventh day, I was so mentally fried that I couldn’t sleep. Had smartphones been around at the time, those nine days would have flown by. Music, games, podcasts, audiobooks, games, digital downloads…the list goes on and on. (I can effortlessly slaughter two hours of storm time with Fruit Ninja.)

Wary of getting too closed off from teammates and adventure buddies by too much earbud alone time, we often listen to podcasts together on a Bluetooth speaker, which often spawns additional conversation.

#4. Read a Book

I don’t think it’s all that hyperbolic to say that nearly every piece of poetry and prose ever written has been read and appreciated on the side of a mountain in a storm. Reading, discussing, and exchanging books is de rigueur at base camp.

#5. Communicate

Now we can text from anywhere in the world. My Garmin InReach goes with me on any expedition or adventure, and downtime is often a chance for me to send messages to friends and supporters. I’ve gotten a few message from friends in the field, too.

#6. ...And Talk to Each Other

I know as much about my expedition partners as I do my wife. At a certain point, everything else becomes boring and being tent-bound is simply hanging out. From my experience, conversations run the gamut from childhood experiences to unrequited love to favorite movies and food. We’ve had some good, gut-busting laughs, too. After a certain number of hours spent sitting, everything becomes ridiculous.