Trek to the Magnetic North Pole

MAY 2013

For some people to reach 'a Pole' is a life long ambition. For me though it was something that really only came onto my radar about two years ago although it had crossed my mind many years prior. Those two years since have been wholly necessary to build on existing skills and to fill in the gaps where the required skills simply did not exist. First Aid, gun handling, navigation and general camp craft were relatively easy and just the beginning. Satellite Communications, understanding polar bear psychology and learning about frost bite treatments all added to the arsenal of skills needed to keep us in one piece and ensure our safe return.

Flying from Edinburgh to London and then on to Ottawa was easy. After that though the terrain seen from the plane window became considerably more rugged, the outside temperatures dropped ever colder and the planes that transported us grew smaller in size as the flights landed and took off from Iqaluit, then Iglulik, Arctic Bay and then finally Resolute Bay. Stepping off the last plane at Resolute the temperature was below -30C and the cold arctic air gave us its first taste of the torments that lay ahead of us. Down jackets were hastily put on over fleeces, everyone was suddenly wearing two layers of hats and gloves and coming to terms with the fact their nostrils were frozen. Arctic shock is a very real condition that can set in when expeditionists first come to these regions and can dash all hopes before people even venture out onto the ice. Thankfully none of us suffered such a fate.

Four days were spent in and around the South Camp Inn at Resolute. In a town of just over 200 people (which I believe is the most northerly, permanently inhabited town in the world) it was the place we chose to use as 'Base' and where we tested kit, finalised logistics, used the pump-action shotguns and bagged up food rations for the weeks ahead. It was a nice place which offered simple comforts but they were comforts none the less. Soon we would miss not just the warmth, but beds, hearty food, toilets, showers and privacy. Despite having visited 73 countries and taken part in countless expeditions across the globe this was a trip that would test me further than any other had done so far done.

The day that we left Resolute and set out across the ice was very deceiving indeed. The sun shone for us, the wind abated, we unzipped our wind suits, we only wore one layer of gloves. It seemed like a dream but the serenity was short lived and brutally broken only two days later. Plummeting temperatures, fierce head-on winds and swirling snow soon enveloped us. Some blue-skied days were magnificent and sunny, yet others were harsh and soul destroying in the way that they attacked us. The wind sapped your energy and stung every inch of exposed skin. You just never could tell what any particular day would bring when you first ventured out from the tent each morning. There were in fact three days where venturing from the tent would have been so dangerous that we decided to stay under 'canvas'. In themselves these were difficult days because staying in the tent was boring, stressful and cold. Even though all of my new found friends were great guys we were still effectively strangers and small tensions could easily arise. The required skill was to ensure though that none of these tensions manifested into anything greater. It never did.

For yourself try to imagine existing on top of a cramped double bed with two other men with roll mats, Thermarests, snow covered boots, wet sleeping bags and all your kit. You sleep there, cook and eat there, tend your blisters, clean yourself as best you can and wee into bottles in front of each other foregoing all privacy or modesty. Above our heads we had gloves, balaclavas, socks and mitts all trying to defrost and dry. As they did the droplets of water dripped down onto our clothes and sleeping bag. This then froze and added to our daily torments. Over the coming days and weeks the accumulated wetness mounted and the sleeping bags froze solid during the daytime so we had to work out how best to cope with it, each other, to cook and to do all we could to keep our clothes and sleeping bags as comfortable as possible.

One great and incredibly brave guy on our expedition was extracted with severe frost bite to three fingers. He had taken his gloves off to help another team mate with a task and paid the ultimate price. In spite of the pain he was going through he did not request an emergency plane, nor did he complain. In fact only the doctors initially knew of his plight. He waited for four days until the second scheduled resupply plane landed for us with food and fuel, announced that he had to leave to get medical treatment, and boarded the plane. The rest of us finished but felt sad for he who did not. -40C and -50C has a nasty habit of damaging the human body no matter how good the kit or how hardy you believe you are. A diet of well over 5,000 calories seemed fine initially but significant weight loss caught up with us all. I lost 20 pounds in less than a month but one of our team lost 29 pounds. The Arctic is a very real challenge.

We walked and skied nearly 600 kilometres harnessed to our sledges which weighed between 50 and 55 kilos. An easy day would be 8 or 9 hours long but towards the end and largely due to having been unable to move for three days, because of adverse weather, we realised that we had to considerably up the distances we covered. On the last few days we walked anything up to 13 1/2 hours which was utterly exhausting. Morale, thankfully, was generally good and that was down to the dynamics of the group. Great guys - every one of them. One thing that slowed us though was the wear and tear experienced by our bodies, mainly evidenced by huge blisters. Pulling on your boots and standing in the morning was often the greatest trial of the day. My feet suffered terribly.

Most of the time we were walking over the frozen ocean which initially struck me as a slightly unsettling thing to be doing. At times though we skirted islands such as Bathurst and walked over others such as Ellef Ringnes. The terrain varied from sheet ice to deep snow, ice rubble to icebergs and, on the islands, we saw mountains and towering rock formations. The sky was only either blue or white. The near total absence of both animals and trees was conspicuous. We saw some seals from a distance and we saw many polar bear tracks but we never saw the bears themselves. Towards the end of our expedition we saw a lone wolf and we also saw one bird which had no doubt been unable to migrate with the rest of its kind.

When we were just 0.1 miles from the Pole, we stopped and formed a line so that we could all reach the Pole at precisely the same time. Everyone had their GPS in their hand and was looking at it intently. When the GPS told us we were there we all unharnessed ourselves from the sledges, shook hands, hugged and took the obligatory photographs with our national flags.

The Magnetic North Pole is a place that will surely continue to lure many an explorer and expeditionist for decades to come. To have reached and enjoyed it makes me feel very privileged yet leaves me with an outstanding question no doubt also faced by those who reached it before me. 'What next?'

Trek to the Magnetic North Pole

MARCH 2013

After 18 months of planning and preparation, Mike has set off on an expedition to walk to the Magnetic North Pole. He has flown out to Ottawa in Canada, and will make his way to the expedition base in Resolute, from where, as part of a team, he will attempt to walk to the Magnetic North Pole.