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.