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A long cold trek to the Magnetic North Pole.

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.

Mike and the team set off from Resolute.

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.

Mike with his sled.

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.

Mike at the Magnetic North Pole. 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?'

View some of my pictures from the North Pole in the Gallery.

Map and Diary

My diary of the build-up to the trip, which includes some updates during the walk along with a map of our progress, remains below......

Mike Laird 2nd May 2013

We have all taken shelter at Isachsen where there is a landing strip, and are waiting for weather conditions to allow the plane to come in and fly us back out to Resolute Bay. The plane has picked up some of our group already and has left for Resolute. It should return for the rest of us within 7-8 hours depending on the weather.

Mike Laird 30th April 2013

We made it! I feel a mixture of elation at having arrived, and complete exhaustion at what I have put myself through to get here. I have pain in both hands, most likely caused by a case of frostnip in my fingers. My feet are in agony and I am having extreme difficulty walking. And unfortunately, it's not quite over yet..... We have to walk to Isachsen where we will be flown out to back to Resolute Bay, before making our way back to Ottawa via Arctic Bay, Iglulik and Iqualit. It has been a difficult and trying journey, and I am looking forward to getting out of the cold!

Mike Laird 23rd April 2013

It's very, very cold. Average temperature is -35 degrees celsius. The most experienced member of our expedition has just been removed from the group with severe frostbite for emergency medical treatment. I am suffering with painful tendonitis in a shoulder and some neuralgia, and I have extreme pain in both hands. Other than that, I am in good spirits and good health! 180 long kilometres to go......

Mike Laird 5th April 2013

Yesterday was my birthday and once again it has passed in an unusual place and, sadly, far from my twin sister. I have spent my birthday cycling across Australia, on Taransay, and in a desert but this is certainly the coldest place that I have spent it!

We have been out overnight to do final checks on tents, skis and all the other equipment. It has all gone remarkably well and we are back in the comfort of Base before we head off for the Pole tomorrow. The snow is hard to read. Sometimes it is soft and you sink into it, sometimes it is hard and the skis have no purchase, sometimes it is riddled with small stones which tear at the bottom of the sledges. The worst though will be the ice boulders that we will encounter further north.

Wind too will be either a great and useful friend or the cruellest of foes. When we skied with it behind us it was a sheer delight. When it whips up stinging ice and snow and hits you head on it is a completely different experience. And, when it hits you from the side it is difficult to stand and this is made even more difficult when pulling the sledges.

We are getting used to the cramped and damp conditions in the tents, peeing in bottles, having no privacy and eating the dehydrated food. It is all made bearable by having great people around me, seeing amazing sights and knowing of the accomplishment we shall each have made in just over three weeks. I am grateful to you all for the messages of support and I shall be back online in just over three weeks. Communication from here is difficult and slow so forgive me if I do not respond to you all or answer every email. Most important for me to do this blog so you all get some news! Stay well - more in 3 1/2 weeks. Mike

Mike Laird 3rd April 2013

Last night was our first night out in the tents. We were told that the temperature dropped to -34C and it surely felt like it. We have great equipment but there is still so much to learn in terms of making the most of the equipment and keeping as warm as possible too. Its too cold to go out to pee so we all have to pee in bottles and keep it in our sleeping bags so it doesn't freeze. If it ever does freeze then there is no way at all of defrosting it. Anyway, when its fresh it makes a very good hot water bottle and keeps our feet warm!

Once we were up and had breakfast we went out on the skis. I am an able down hill skier and have done some cross country skiing too but this is like doing cross country skiing in wellies. The boots we have are huge and the bindings on the skis are very flexible. I fell over twice in the first few minutes so any previous experience that I had did not make me any better than the other chaps. It only got worse in the afternoon when we ventured out again but this time we had sledges attached. It is very difficult to pull them up slopes and when going down slopes they have a habit of hitting you on the ankles which knocks you flying.

Tomorrow we are venturing out from base on a longer training sortie. It will be a new place to camp and let us practice all of the skills learned so far. We get more gun practice tomorrow before setting off. We have been speaking to some hunters who have been saying not just that there are far more bears this season but that there are plenty which are 11 and 12 feet tall. Lucky us!! We have also been told that there are 70km winds expected not far from here tomorrow. That will have the effect of dropping the temperature dramatically. It could be hard going.

My birthday is tomorrow. No idea if I shall be able to write again or not. As far as we can tell at the moment we are likely to leave Resolute for good and head out for the Pole on Saturday 6th April.

Mike Laird 2nd April 2013

It was a very broken nights sleep for me as two of the four guys in my room snored like trains and the other had a breathing style similar to Darth Vader. Both snorers are in my flipping tent so I am not best pleased but there is nothing at all that I can do about it. At least if they keep me awake I can look out for polar bears at night!

After a hearty breakfast we set off for a walk up a nearby hill. The temperature was a little below -30C. It was the first time that many of us had worn all of the kit. Even in -30C it was too warm which really makes us realise how mild it is here just now. The sun was out and there was not a breath of wind. However, if the sun disappears and the wind picks up this can become a deadly and unforgiving place very quickly indeed. The walk was good and most of us came down the hill on our bums just for fun. We slid at great speed and it was very good fun.

After lunch we each put the bindings onto our own skis, we were instructed more about the tents and then we went outside to set them up as we shall be staying outside tonight. My eyelashes froze today and so did my nostrils. It happens all so quickly. There is so much to delight us though that we hardly notice the cold at times. Nearby where we are camping there are several teams of husy dogs. They are tied to posts and stay out all night without even a kennel to protect them.

The tents were set up, we all made some mistakes but that is why the practice is so important. When we need to do it in a blizzard at -50C we should be pretty good at it - hopefully! In the evening we dried kit and set up the harnesses and tracers for pulling the sledges. There is always so muc to do and thsi won't stop when we are actually walking up to the pole.

Mike Laird 1st April 2013

We were up at 5.30 a.m. and there was no breakfast available at the hotel at that time. We loaded up a convoy of taxis with the vast amount of kit plus all of us and headed back to Ottawa airport. The check in procedure was quite stringent and it took us about an hour to get the sledges and kit bags through.

We took another jet up to Iqaluit which is the capital of Nunavut province. It was -17C when we stepped off the plane and it was not that long before I regretted just wearing a T-shirt and a thin fleece. Even my regular walking boots were soon proven to be wholly inadequate as my feet became uncomfortably sore on just a 40 minute walk into town.

The next plane was a turbo prop which took us to Igloolik where the temperature was much the same as it had been in Iqaluit. Each plane trip, irrespective of length, saw us topped up with coffee, cookies and sandwiches which was most welcome.

Back on the plane we headed further north and on up to Arctic Bay. As the scenery grew more spectacular, the temperature dropped yet further and it was a bone chilling -24C when we stepped off the plane here. I felt my norstrils freeze up in less than 30 seconds. The final plane took us to Resolute Bay where we stepped off about 8pm, after 13 hours travelling and just as the sun was about to sink below the horizon. it was -31C here.

Even with our huge puffer jackets on it was still firecely cold. Granted I only had one pair of gloves on, no thermal undies and inadequate boots but it still warns you that this place could be really evil if you don't respect it and take sensible precautions.

So, one truck took all the kit and a small bus took all of us. We came in to the South Camp Inn which is not a bonny building from the outside but it is very adequate inside. We had a massive room for all the kit. Further kit had already been brought here for us. Sadly we arrived at the same time as a wealthy American hunter who had paid $100,000 to be allowed to shoot a polar bear. Very sad indeed.

We were allocated rooms with 5 people to each room here. We had yet another briefing and then sat down to a very nice meal of chicken, rice and beans. Just what we needed to thaw us out. We all have comfy beds, sit down loos and a warm shower. This is the end of comfort though - tomorrow we are sleeping out in the tents!

Mike Laird 31st March 2013

We arrived in Ottawa after a pleasantly short transatlantic flight. The city itself looked drab as it was covered in the grey remnants of winter snow. Our hotel was very adequate and we had a briefing, a light meal and then straight to sleep. We are already three to a room, exactly as we shall be when we are in the tents.

Mike Laird March 2013

Our final meet before we head off. Thankfully too my last trip down to Somerset. It has been quite a stress driving between there and Edinburgh so often. Useful though!

Today we did mainly packing and final questions. Packing may not sound like a worthy reason to drive from Edinburgh to Somerset but it was one of the most worthwhile weekends we have yet met up for.

So my main bag has been packed, the payments have all been made (a huge amount of money), have been finalised ad I am delighted to be with Paul and Mark. I have had gastro enteritis lately following my trip in Venezuela (don't swim in the Orinoco River!) and I have also got a moderate tear in my gastrocnemius (that's a calf muscle to you and me!) for which I am receiving physio and badly cracked heels.

So we are all ready for it. We start from Resolute Bay which is where I shall have my birthday in a couple of weeks time.

Mike Laird February 2013

Discussions on camera work, EPIRB training, medical practicalities and sat phone use.

Mike Laird January 2013

Another fitness wake up call! This was quite tough for me. Running up and down sand dunes attached to three other chaps all of whom were younger, lighter and fitter than me. I made it without giving up but I found it tough. It is worth noting that some of my new found friends are ultra-runners and the sort of people who enter running races in the Himalayas!

We got a sledge and harness demo next which was very interesting too.

More practice with tent handling and stoves. You can never practice enough. Then just to delight us further - more practical GPS work.

Mike Laird November 2012

Another session on team management, stove handling (trickier than I thought), more on how to use the GPS handsets and gun handling.

The guns that we are taking are pump action shot guns. They will be loaded with blanks, then non lethal rubber bullets and then live rounds. The live rounds contain both shot and a slug.

Hopefully we never encounter a bear close up and if we do we can hopefully convince it to leave without having to take drastic action!

Mike Laird October 2012

Today we received our personal equipment which we had been measured up for several months ago. A giant kit bag containing a wind suit, down jacket, various layers of thermal undies, two different types of socks, three different types of gloves, two pairs of snow goggles, two pairs of sun glasses, hats, balaclavas, neck gaiters, face masks and so on. The boots will be picked up in Canada and various other items such as food and medical supplies, sledges, skis and guns will e available to us in Resolute.

We discussed team responsibilities, insurance forms, emergency contact details, more polar bear psychology, health and hazards and rounded off the day with food and food tasting. That was actually quite good fun as we were able to taste the dehydrated foods that we will actually be getting in the morning and at night. The breakfasts are all pretty horrid but the evening meals seemed to be quite nice.

During the daytime we will all be grazing from a bag containing dried fruit, chocolate, salami and cheese. We make up these bags when we get to Canada. We were told that we will be consuming about 7,000 calories per day and yet we are almost all expected to lose weight.

Mike Laird February 2012

Today we started with discussions about clothing and equipment. This ended with us all being measured for every item of clothing which will be provided and covered by part of the entry fee.

Next on the list was contracts. We then went outside to practice setting up and dismantling one of the tents that we will be taking with us. This sounds easy enough but we will have to work well as a unit to do this in howling winds at the end of each tiring day.

Tent organisation is also important. Where the gun gets kept at night, where the cooking is done, how the sleeping bags are laid out. It all needs to be thought through and done in a structured manner.

Finally today we discussed branding and where sponsors logos are allowed to be placed on any equipment.

Mike Laird January 2012

This meet started with Commando circuits which we were soon to realise would become part of what the organiser likes to call 'fitness wake-ups' where we are regularly tested and encouraged to enhance our own personal fitness levels. Very useful for me!

Then we did some team problem solving which was very interesting. We were told we would all need to get a doctors letter to confirm that our state of general health was adequate to take on the rigours of a 600km trek in challenging temperatures.

Then we discussed the up-coming training which is partly to do with fitness but also skills such as gun handling and navigation.

Psychometric tests followed with yet another session on local sponsorship and regional media. The final instruction for today was our first instruction on GPS usage.

Mike Laird November 2011

Having paid a deposit cheque the process started in earnest with interviews, various presentations, advice on raising sponsorship, tent displays so we could see some of the equipment that we would be taking, and information on polar bears.

The day was rounded off with a yomp over Marlborough downs.

(C) Mike Laird 2023