What It Took to Reach the North Pole

31 Aug

Photo Gallery: What It Took to Reach the North Pole

In spring 2017, the team trained in Oman’s Rub’al Khali desert, where sunset offered relief from the day’s soaring temperatures. The Arabian Peninsula was nearly 130 degrees hotter than what they’d face at the North Pole.
Anisa Al Raissi, a desert guide for Outward Bound in Oman, and British chaplain Misba Khan test equipment in the Arctic outpost Svalbard, where the team was grounded in April awaiting the start of the expedition. Helicopter aviation permits were revoked by the Russian government, the fallout of two recent chopper crashes. We waited to see if permits would be reinstated quickly enough for the expedition to have a chance of success in what, in a good year, is only a three-week polar expedition season.
In extreme conditions or crisis, it becomes imperative that routines are muscle memory. Perfecting tent set-up was another way the team burned time and nervous energy while waiting for the expedition to launch.
Aboard the cargo plane bound for the Russian ice station Barneo, launch point for the expedition, even team leader Felicity Aston was feeling the pressure.
The Russian ice station Barneo, which exists for roughly a month a year, is all about the runway. This year’s is 100 yards shorter than ideal and was built 72 hours before we arrived on April 14. How? By parachuting in two tractor-plows, 40 tons of equipment, and a fleet of hardy workers.
After three weeks of waiting and filming around Svalbard, cinematographers Ingeborg Jakobsen, who is from Norway, American Kathryn Barrows, and I are finally on the ice. And happy! The exhilaration atrophied a few hours into pulling our sledges laden with six cameras, a couple hundred pounds of batteries, and another hundred of food, like dried fruit, chocolate, peanut butter cups, nuts, and more nuts. Add to that the ton of worry that comes with producing a film in these conditions.
At 2:30 a.m., hunching against blowing snow and the howl of the chopper, the team is left on a crust of frozen Arctic Ocean huddled with what they’ll need to survive for 12 days. It’s time to move—standing around in these temperatures can be fatal. The team clicked into their bindings and strapped on harnesses as the MI8 chopper became tinier and tinier, disappearing into the frigid blue Arctic sky.
Omani rock climber Anisa Al Raissi’s fiery drive to be the first from her nation to reach the pole is unmatched. Every day she and her teammates leaned into skills they learned during trainings on Langjokull Glacier in Iceland and the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula.
Day five brought open leads of water, the danger that Aston most feared. The strategy: the team crossed small leads and wended its way round the wide ones, carefully progressing from one frozen chunk of sea ice to another. No one fell in.
In April, there is are 24 hours of light near the pole. Every “night,” team members set up tents, melted snow for dehydrated meals, prayed, made notes for the psychological and physiological studies they were taking part in, and then slept—except for those on polar bear watch. The women took 90-minute shifts throughout the night, firearms ready, watching for the telltale three black dots in the distance (two eyes and a nose).
Asma Al Thani, a marketing executive for the Qatar Olympic Committee , prays toward Mecca during break time. We kept to a strict routine of 90 minutes skiing followed by a seven-minute break, since it’s crucial to keep moving in extreme polar environments. Prayer times were carefully calculated into the routines from the outset of training.
French marine biologist Susan Gallon worked to capture data about the impact of extreme conditions on female physiology before this fragile polar environment is gone forever. With global warming and the rate of ice melt, expeditions like this may be possible for only a few more years.
In the final days before reaching the pole, the team faces its biggest challenge: making their way through an ice rubble field created by colliding floes. Not knowing where the field ended and if it was even navigable required a new level of teamwork and faith.
The Herculean achievement of reaching the North Pole is fleeting. Being on moving ice means that almost instantly what was 90 degrees North no longer is. As they reached the pole, several women wielded their GPS devices, chasing true North; others hit their knees. Here, Aston hugs Al Raissi.