Arctic traveller: In pole position
Flemmich Webb gets face to face with polar bears on the adventure of a lifetime
Saturday 20 October 2007
Leaping out of my tent in my long johns, banging a cooking pot to scare away the polar bear that was lumbering across the ice towards us, I wondered fleetingly what the hell I was doing. Had it been a good idea to answer that advert calling for volunteers to join an Arctic expedition to the geomagnetic North Pole, the central point from which the Northern Lights can be seen? It had caught my eye on a crowded tube train 18 months previously and, fired by the heroic stories of Shackleton and Scott in the Antarctic, I'd gone along to – and passed – the selection weekend in Wales.
Headed by Arctic explorer Jim McNeill, who has 23 years of experience on which to draw, the not-for-profit company Ice Warrior, which runs the expedition, promised to turn regular Joes into Arctic explorers. Given that I had once got lost for seven hours in the Lake District, I was doubtful that I'd make the grade. But evidently the training weekends in the UK, Norway and the Canada had paid off. As the polar bear got within 60 feet of the tent, one of us managed to fire a flare just in front of his nose and it scurried off to find less resilient explorers to bother.
One of two Ice Warrior expedition teams (Team 2 were five days behind us), we were camped on sea ice off the east coast of Ellesmere Island, the most northerly landmass of Canada. Greenland lay to the east, but I was more inclined to look straight ahead: 150 miles to the north was our goal, the Pole.
The sun, which never sets at this time of year (late March), was just high enough in the sky to shine over the huge cliffs that reared up on either side of our eight-person tent, but offered little warmth. At temperatures of –35C, as I was finding, metal sticks to skin, plastic becomes brittle and toes and fingers are completely numb.
The morning after the polar bear sighting I struggled out of my sleeping bag, brushing the accumulation of the night's frozen breath from the bag. It was my turn to cook breakfast, which meant getting up before everyone else and a 10-minute battle to get the stove lit. This time, miraculously, it roared into life at the first attempt, and soon the kettle was boiling and people were trying to enjoy their packets of lumpy porridge.
My fellow explorers were the marketing director of a multinational company, a civil servant, a charity worker, two journalists, a fireman, a scientist, an outdoor pursuits instructor and a solicitor, with ages ranging from 23 to 48, four women, five men. Strangers before the training begun, we were now bound together by a common objective, ready (we hoped) to deal with anything that the Arctic could throw at us.
Up until now, 10 days into the expedition, the going had been quite good, and we had averaged between eight and 10 miles a day. But now as I surveyed our bright white surroundings I realised progress was going to get slower. As far as I could see, twisting icy lumps and blocks – some up to 30 feet high – formed by the sea freezing when it was rough, lay between us and the Pole. There was no way of avoiding this glacial rubble. The only option was to pick a route through and hope it flattened out somewhere not too far ahead.
We took down the tent, loaded our equipment into our sledges, which weighed about the same as our own bodyweight, put on our skis and clipped ourselves into our harnesses. Today was going to be tough.
As it turned out it was tough for the next eight days, as we struggled over the rubble, our skis slipping and sliding on ice or disappearing under powder snow. Our daily average distance dropped to about four miles. When the Twin Otter plane that had brought us the 600 miles from our base camp at the Inuit settlement of Resolute Bay 10 days earlier had disappeared back over the horizon, there had been an overwhelming sense of isolation. Now, as I slipped a nd tripped over the knife-sharp ice lumps, I understood how serious an injury could be. Although the group had a satellite phone and a personal location beacon to call for help in an emergency, there was nowhere in this wilderness for a plane to land. If someone got injured here, we would have to drag them out to flatter ground.
We struggled on. Each day was split into five 75-minute skiing sessions with a 10-15 minute break between each. As well as eating, drinking and keeping warm during these rest periods, we carried out scientific research. We collected six pints of snow daily for the University of Washington, to assess the influence of pollution on the reflectivity of the polar ice cap, a key factor in global warming. Five times a day, we carried out snow-depth measurements for government-run Environment Canada to determine by how much precipitation had fallen over the winter.
As we trudged up the coastline, the team passed landmarks steeped in history: Norman Lockyer Island, named after the British astronomer and founder of Nature magazine; the Kane Basin named after the American physician and Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane who led a search for missing British explorer Sir John Franklin from 1853-1855. The history of Arctic exploration leapt from the map, relayed through the names of headlands, capes, islands and passes.
Finally, after eight days, I caught sight of Dobbin Bay, where the ice opened out into a large flat pan, ideal for skiing across. Marvelling at the snow-draped cliffs that surrounded us, we entered the bay from which we would launch our attempt at the Pole. That night, as we prepared for the early morning start, there was a growing sense of excitement. The months of training and fundraising were about to come to fruition in a 27-mile (there-and-back) dash to the Pole.
We set off early in the morning and after three hours' skiing, reached the head of the valley, from where we could look back down on our campsite, a tiny orange speck engulfed by a vast ice sheet. As we got closer, the route got narrower and colder, and by now everyone was exhausted after skiing for 10 hours straight.
And then, almost unnoticed, the GPS showed there was just 20 feet to go. I looked around. It couldn't have been a more nondescript location, a barren rocky, snow-covered hillside with no distinguishing features. But it didn't take long for the initial sense of anti-climax to be swept aside by a sudden feeling of achievement, relief that the physical effort was nearly over and the realisation of how far I had come – me, an expedition and Arctic novice at the geomagnetic North Pole. There was a flurry of handshakes and tears of relief before we all hurried inside our shelter to cook some food and get a little rest.
Because, of course, we still had 13 miles to go to get back to the tent. By the time I skied into camp some 27 hours after setting off, my feet blistered and raw; I was more tired than I've ever been. It was all I could do to force down a hot drink and clamber into my sleeping bag. I awoke, cold, 18 hours later to find I'd only made it halfway into the bag before falling asleep.
I may never get another chance to experience the ethereal, harsh beauty of the Arctic, but one thing is for sure, I'm glad I answered that advert. Despite the bone-chilling cold, the physical exhaustion and the threat of hungry polar bears, taking part in an Arctic expedition sure beats commuting. It makes you feel alive.
For more information on Ice Warrior and , call 01344 883861 or see www.ice-warrior.com
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