A team of British adventurers was poised last night to become the first to row to the 1996 magnetic North Pole.
They were less than a mile from the end of their journey after a 28-day struggle through Arctic waters to complete a historic trip only made possible by climate change.
The retreat of the Arctic's summer ice sheet has left navigable water where only a few years ago explorers would have to walk if they wanted to reach the pole. It was still a close-run thing, with wind-driven ice floes threatening to smash into the reinforced rowing boat and destroy it. Ironically, the last two miles of the journey had to be completed by hauling the boat onto an ice floe which had floated over the pole as the team approached.
Jock Wishart, the veteran adventurer leading the expedition, said the team was exhilarated at having defied the treacherous elements. He recalled several dangerous encounters with polar bears but said the most risky part of the journey was trying to row in fog past shifting ice floes. "Trying to navigate through moving ice in fog isn't much fun. There have been a few hairy moments. The worst was about two weeks ago when we tried to cross the Wellington Strait," he said.
"We were a little bit too cocky and were out in poor visibility. We found ourselves trapped with the ice closing in around us and had to go back. We were lucky. The ice could have knocked us into matchwood." The team set off from Resolution Bay in Canada on 29 July and, despite global warming turning much of the Arctic ice into water, were exposed to howling winds that combined with the wind-chill brought temperatures to as low as -15C.
It is the first time a rowing boat has been used in a polar expedition since 1916, when Ernest Shackleton hauled his men off an ice floe to the safety of Elephant Island before continuing to South Georgia to get help after his abortive attempt to cross Antarctica.
Mr Wishart, who has rowed across theAtlantic, added: "We are all exhilarated and relieved that weather conditions were in our favour. It is an enormous achievement, and a privilege for our team to have been part of what is one of the world's last great firsts."