Day 51 (April 22): The North Pole!
That the lead we camped next to closed overnight could only be a good omen we thought. But the Arctic Ocean, had other ideas. For starters, we drifted two and a half miles south while we slept. The first shift found us floundering through drifts, pressure ridges and small fractured pans.
Later, Darcy asked that I navigate the last few miles to the Pole in honor of my efforts in organizing and leading the expedition.
Personally, I would have prefered to ski in the back and take pictures but my hands were frozen so I agreed. For a while, I regretted my decision but my legs felt good and energy was high. After some thin ice, open water and moving ice, I skied out onto a massive vast stretch of flat ice. Before me, about a half mile farther was the North Pole. I smiled quietly to myself.
I looked back at AJ and Darcy. "Almost," I said. We would ski the last few feet together.
Achieving the North Pole on Earth Day is not only the realization of a dream but also a reinforcement of a basic philosophy. The quality of our lives is directly linked to the air we breathe and the water we drink. At the North Pole, lines of longitude begin, grow and extend until they reach everyone one the entire planet. In spite of its remoteness, this is the one place that connects us all.
Nearly four months ago, I was at the opposite end of the world, the South Pole (another of Earth's connecting points). Today, the North Pole. In another four months, the summit of Mt. Everest. Standing here now is the culmination of three-and-a-half years of preparation and planning as well as the efforts of many people. While I may be personally involved in these adventures, the Save the Poles expedition is not about me. My importance in any of this stems only in my ability to share my experiences with others.
On this expedition, we often traveled within a narrow margin of safety. We had limited resources and had to conserve and meter food and fuel. There is no question that now, the 21st century, we need to use resources to ensure our health and survival. But which resources we use, how we use them (and in what quantities) and if they are renewable are cornerstone to preserving our planet for future generations. Ultimately, when we view ourselves part of a whole, we can begin to understand how our actions affect other people and the planet.
After all, we are all explorers in one fashion or another, but the job of explorers in the 21st century is not to conquer but to protect.
Thank you for following and thanks to our great partners listed below:
Major Sponsors: Bing, University of Plymouth;
Project Sponsors: Terramar, Goal0, Atlas, Madshus, Sierra Designs, Optic Nerve;
Environmental Partners: Seventh Generation, Center for Biological Diversity, Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, Environmental Law and Policy Center;
Science Partners: National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Plymouth;
PR: Scream Technology;
Web Expeditions Equipment: Madshus, Cliff, Stanley, ACR, Atwater Carey, ThermaRest, MSR, Granite Gear, Surley, Potable Aqua, Princeton Tech, Wigwam, Action Wipes, Scarpa, Iridium, NorthWest Co, Tap Logic, Sobeys, Wintergreen, Mountain House, Neve.
Day 50: 50 Down, One to Go
I have been relying on my Optic Nerve sun glasses with a mini nose beak that I made from fleece and duct tape for face and eye protection but today's biting wind sent me digging for my partially stove-melted goggles. If I look through mostly my right eye and the top part of the lens, I can see fairly well. It was nice to wear them again. My face was instantly warmer.
The weather started out relatively calm but the wind steadily increased to what I would consider near brutal proportions. We skied with our down vests and even our Sierra Designs down parkas at times. Brrr. I guess it was the Arctic Ocean's fun little way to remind us who's in charge around here.
The wind seems to have caused a big crack to expand into a fairly wide open gap of water. We need to cross it to get to the pole but for now we are camped on the south side. Hopefully, it will be frozen in the morning.
I'd like to write more but it's late and we're drifting south. If all goes well, tomorrow I'll be writing to you from the top of the world.
Day 49: To Move Mountains
Milk and Honey. That's what we call big flat pans. After struggling through yet another drifty, slabby, thin ice area, we crested a pressure ridge and were greeted by a nice long flattish pan of ice.
"Is that milk and honey I see over there?" I asked AJ and Darcy. "Yes it is," they replied smiling. As with most good things, it never lasts and the flat ice turned into an interesting mix of heaved and cracked multi year ice slabs and small pans bordered by wide swaths of jumbled blue block ridges. If we didn't have to get through it, I would have thought it beautiful. OK, who am I kidding, it was beautiful. Unfortunately, it's been cold lately and stops to marvel and awe quickly turn into hand freezing hypothermia fests.
Look as I ski, I remind myself.
Nothing has gotten much easier here. We are pushing hard to make miles, but are also fighting against ice that is pushing us south as we sleep and time chewing veers around thin ice, big drifts and huge ice blocks. Still, we have managed to eke miles and are now only 16 miles away from the North Pole. Wow. It feels good to be here.
Today, we reminisced about the early days of the expedition. "Remember that big ice canyon we went through?" I asked. The guys did and smiled happily that it was a memory now and not a new obstacle.
We are seeing lots big blocks of ice cracked and pressured. Some are easily five feet thick and 30 feet across. We know how they are formed — slow punctuated movements of ice pushed by wind, tides and currents. This must be similar to how mountains are formed but instead of ice and water its the earth's crust driven by convection currents in the mantle.
This trip has reinforced my wonderment at the natural world. This is quite some home we have. Perhaps the ice and mountains can offer some good lessons. Big massive objects can be moved with combined steady effort. To solve the problem of global warming might seem like trying to move a mountain, but with a combined and steady effort, we can.
Day 48: Repetition
Six in the morning seems to be coming earlier and earlier for some reason. However, I am surprised to find myself awake before the alarm goes off. For anyone that knows me (especially Bill and Dongsheng my two South Pole clients/team members), I am many things but a morning person is not one of them. While we are a bit more tired these days, getting up is easier as there is less frost in the tent due to 24 hours of sunlight.
First shift skiing was good — no real problems — lots of winding through drifts. During second shift Darcy got into some bigger pans and it felt like we were making miles. Third shift seemed to be a mix of thin ice leads, cracks and drifts. Fourth shift - overall pretty good. Fifth, a cold start after soup break, AJ had a few difficult spots but overall a steady plod. Fifth, more winding back and forth through drifts and pressure. Sixth, and last shift of the day, winds die and temperature drops. We count the minutes down to tent time.
Of course, there was much more that happened than just that and more than enough slips, falls and other struggles. Now more than ever we are simply enduring. Each shift is work. But somehow, it's also not that bad. There is lots to look at, plenty of quiet time and as much ice and snow as we could ever want. Today, I found myself taking pictures of snow drifts and ice blocks. None of the images will do the real thing justice unfortunately - yet I keep trying. I want desperately to share this place with you.
Taking off my Sierra Designs parka then an extra Terramar base layer, I had to laugh. How many times have I done that exact same action with exactly the same movements? Every day for 48 days.
Remember, Bing is helping students become aware of their environment through an Earth Day Photo Contest. If you know of teachers and students that are interested in photography and want to take part in a great cause, have them enter at www.earthdayphotocontest.com.
Day 47: Getting Closer
I have finally allowed myself to think about the end of the expedition although mostly from a logistical perspective - coordinating our pick up, flights back to Canada, etc. Being done, relaxing in a chair, seeing Maria, camping with my nephew Tyler ... These are still very far away, and if there's one thing I've learned about polar travel, it's that anything can happen (and usually does). Four more days of travel means four more days of drifts, leads, thin ice, pressure ridges, cold wind and more.
Still, the fact that we are are here is not lost on me. I find myself looking around and trying to remember every moment and feeling.
"What's it like being back?" people often ask. I'm not going to lie, after two months on the ice living inches away from two other stinky guys (we haven't showered since March second) eating freeze dried meals and Cliff bars (yes they're good, but variety is nice too), it's really nice. However, the weirdest thing is simply not being the ice. I have the rest of my life to sit at tables or watch movies. This moment is fleeting. It can never be captured, but for now I am holding on tight.
It was colder and windier today. The sun was out to which made things a bit more pleasant. Still, we cooled quickly during breaks. We are actually having conversations during breaks now and we have to now strictly enforce the 10 minute break rule. Our last shift of the day was the best ice. Flat for nearly a half hour of skiing. Then some more drifts, and another long flat section - a nice way to end the day.
We got seriously bogged down for over an hour veering and crossing small leads. Several times we had to set up a relay to get the sleds across unstable brash ice. Later, one bigger chunk of ice broke free and rolled as Darcy and I were scouting a lead jumping point. You have never seen two people scramble backwards so quickly.
Most impressive today was watching the ice pressure. It feels like the Arctic Ocean is alive and the chug, chug, chug sound of grinding ice is its pulse. We all stared for a long time hesitant to look or ski away trying to remember this incredible moment.
Day 46: The Three Wonders of Today
"I'm glad I'm not first going over that lead," commented Darcy as he watched AJ step out onto a very unstable piece of ice. I watched AJ, too — carefully place his ski on the opposite side of a small open gap. With nothing to freeze against, the ice nearest to the water bowed dramatically under his weight. I groaned out loud. "Yikes," I thought as I knew the weight of AJ's sled would damage the integrity of the ice. But not totally, I would most likely be able to cross safely.
Looking back at Darcy I smiled and said, "I'm glad I'm not the last." We all laughed long and hard as each of us have all been in the same situation — first and last. With our progress inching closer to the pole, the stress is noticeably lifting. We laugh more and have actual conversations at breaks.
Today was full of wonderment and awe. It was difficult with a wide variety of weather from whiteout to blizzard to sun to cold to warm. The ice was bad as our mileage indicates; however, we stopped frequently to take pictures and watch with amazement. While there were many incredible sights today, there were three wonders that caught my attention most.
Wonder number one: Sleeping last night I thought I heard ice pressuring in the distance. Getting out of the tent first thing this morning, we were surprised to see a five-foot-wide lead of open water only 15 feet from the SD Big Kev. Had we pitched the tent slightly north, we would have been quite wet. By the time we left the tent after breakfast, the gap had closed to only two feet.
Wonder number two: We skied through a section of big thick triangularish slabs surrounded by water. The ice was moving and the pans were being shoved, cracked and twisted in all different directions. They bobbed haphazardly in the water. The light was rich and yellow. We all took several pictures.
Wonder number three: I don't have a list of the most incredible things I've ever seen, but if I did this would be on it. We were walking on a thin ice lead when suddenly we felt the ice shift violently to our left. We moved only two inches or so, but the whole lead we were standing on (nearly a half mile long) shifted at once. Simultaneously, we heard the loud 'CHUG' of ice sliding over ice. This happened five or six times. Incredible.
Day 45: Time
We use our watches religiously to keep track of time during our navigation shifts, but really there are only five basic times here: Tent time, is any time we're in our Sierra Designs tent. Happy time (named after Darcy, who becomes noticeably happy) is when we pull our sleeping bags out of our SD bivy bags and go to sleep. Soup time is the halfway point of our travel day when we pull out our Stanley flasks and have warm soup. Break time — self explanatory hopefully. And the rest is simply, time.
Each day we put in our time. Add it all up. Multiply by the number of days we've been out here and maybe, just maybe, we'll be close to the pole. After 45 days, I can finally say we are close to the North Pole. Sometime late this afternoon we crossed the 89th parallel. Now only 58 miles left. It feels good to be here. I can feel myself relax if even just slightly.
We struggled today in the morning with low visibility, ice blocks and drifts. Our bearing takes us perpendicular to the long ridge lines of steep snow drifts. It is hard work skiing forward. We did get lucky with a couple newly frozen leads that spanned in exactly the same direction we wanted to go. However, they are still wet and slushy and the thin layer of snow on top sticks to our ski skins, which makes it hard to ski. We decided to take off our Madshus skis and walk. It was a nice break, but we were soon back in deeper snow where we rely solely on our skis now.
There were two bits of excitement today. First, we had another track and field meet — meaning we had to jump across a four-foot-wide gap (too wide to span with skis, too narrow to swim). Later, we would ski into an actively pressuring ridge and hop across unstable brash ice on the other side. Both situations were potentially dangerous, but realistically more fun than anything else.
Most important, April 17th is my nephew Tyler's Birthday. He is officially now 12 years old. Soccer star, straight 'A' student and all around good guy, he is my hero. Happy Birthday old man! I hope you have a great day.
Every once in a while I bring my SUUNTO compass into the tent and use the mirror to check my face for cold damage. Mostly, I just want to confirm that I still exist. There are some new lines around my eyes now. Gray hair in places too. I have always looked young for my age. Not so much anymore. With my own 39th birthday coming up soon, I think about time more than I used to. Time...
Time for bed, but first for us, happy time.
Day 44: Ice mirages
Question of the morning: what would today's ice be like? Answer: good, bad and then medium. We woke to sunny skies and a even a bit less wind than yesterday, and for nearly three hours, we skied on really nice ice. Visibility was poor but not terrible. Our moods soared. During our first couple breaks we joked and laughed — much different from our quiet effort to eat quickly and start moving again before we're frozen.
When the sun came out later we all stopped to marvel at the blueness of the ice and wind blown snow. Then, the ice changed and we were back to the usual grind.
There is a unique phenomenon that we see regularly that I wanted to share — superior mirage. Not really the mirage we are usually hoping to see. You know, the whole oasis thing. Palm trees, a small pond just inviting us to take a warm swim... No our mirages have to do with ice. When we navigate, we usually find a big distinct looking piece of ice and ski towards it. From far away, the ice chunk often looks huge (several stories tall) but when we ski up next to it, the ice is only a few feet tall. Superior mirages are formed as light is reflected off of warmer layers of air.
I somehow managed to melt one side of the lens of my Optic Nerve goggles when I was thawing out my nose beak. I can still see through them but visibility through my left eye is impaired enough to make navigation very difficult. My heart sank when I saw what happened. My whole face and eye protection as well as hood and ruff management is centered around my Optic Nerve goggles. Argh! I spent the day pulling my ruff out of my face and my neck gaiter over my nose to prevent frost bite.
What is that saying... You avoid mistakes with good judgment. Good judgment comes from making mistakes.
The Save the Poles expedition is sponsored by Bing with major support from the University of Plymouth, Terramar, Seventh Generation, Goal0, Atlas, Sierra Designs and Optic Nerve.
Remember, it's cool to be cold. Save the Poles. Save the planet.
Day 43 (April 15): The Zen of Polar Travel
While the wind abated substantially today, it was still brisk. Once again, we spent our short 10 minute breaks huddled behind snow drifts and ice chunks. However, we did not have to face life or death battles with the spindrift. For most of the day, we struggled through drift after drift after drift. Serpentine. Up, down, around, over, our course was anything but straight.
83 miles to the pole. We are dangerously close, but still far enough away for a million different things to happen. Most of them bad. Physically, we feel good despite the strain of 43 hard days on the trail. Mentally, right now is all about managing expectations.
"I was doing all sorts of calculations in my head while I skied," Darcy said. "Trying to determine our potential mileage and when we'll arrive at the pole."
I've heard of rock climbers, who during long difficult routes, achieve a zen-like state of calm even though their lives are in great danger. While the imminent threat of death isn't quite as high here (some might argue otherwise), we face our greatest challenge from the lengthy duration and increasing difficulty of our journey. It is natural to have hope for better conditions and strive for the end. Home, friends, family, warmth and chairs are so close we can almost touch them... But we can't yet.
For me, this is the part of a long expedition where everything and everyone else just fades away. Finishing is a result of a plan we enacted six weeks ago. It will happen when we get there. No sooner or later. Now, each day is what it is. I am here so I like it all that more because I am here. To expect anything else but what I get is unrealistic.
The ice worsened in the afternoon into a fractured expanse for as far as we could see. This was newer pressure and thick (four feet) blue blocks were heaved in random directions. Darcy's lead shift was through the worst of it. At one point, we were strung out over 400 meters — each of us locked deep in our own battles of sled, ice and gravity.
With Earth Day approaching, many people often ask what they can do to help protect our environment and reduce their own impact. "Begin with one step," I always answer. On Savethepoles.com you'll find a whole range of options from buying carbon offsets to getting a home energy audit to simply changing a light bulb. We can also make environmentally friendly purchases. For paper and cleaning products, check out Seventh Generation.
Once again in case you missed it the first time, Bing is helping students become aware of their environment through an Earth Day Photo Contest. If you know of teachers and students that are interested in photography and want to take part in a great cause, have them enter at www.earthdayphotocontest.com."
Day 42: Lucky 13... Kind of
We are tired and sore but still moving forward — and a crazy amount east for that matter. The winds have been brutal for nearly two days now. It's weird to have this constant wind now when previously we could count on things changing fairly quickly (I hope that makes sense).
Today was not a total carbon copy of yesterday, but it was definitely close. We skied in and around drifts and even hit some bigger flat areas as well With the gusting winds, we skied most of the through a ground blizzard — beautiful to look at, but not so fun to ski in. For starters, spindrift got into everything — hats, mittens, sled bags. Anything with an open zipper was fair game. A fine layer of snow covered all of our gear. Breaks were especially troublesome. Behind ice blocks or out in the open, it didn't matter spindrift seemed to be searching us out. Seeping into our souls? I think so.
I enjoyed being outside today even if it was cold, windy and really hard work. Mostly, I liked the warmth associated with activity. One of the best things, in my opinion, is to be out in the really cold and be really warm. They say there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad base layers. Thanks Terramar!
I'm back to thinking about layers today... And oceans — we are on top of an ocean of water and at the bottom of an ocean of air. Today, I spent several hours watching blowing snow wind, bend and eddy. It is interesting to watch how the wind works — the same fluid dynamics I see in a river. As for turbulence, I am simply in awe.
We were treated to some beautiful snow sculptures similar to the sastrugi I've seen in Antarctica but on a smaller scale. Arched diving shapes reminded me of dolphins or salmon jumping up a rapids during the spawn. Darcy thought of planes or sharks. AJ saw little waves and then, a big wave.
We stopped for a while so AJ could get his algae net out and take a sample. It was one of the few open water spots we of the whole day. The researchers from the University of Plymouth sent a message to collect ice shards with the algae frozen inside. However, we are seeing newer and newer ice and less evidence of algae. One theory we kicked around was that the ice has formed after an algae bloom. Regardless, AJ had his net in, used and put away in 15 minutes - a new record.
I'm not sure if it was the right move or not but I did a short cut across and back track to avoid an open water lead. It was to my right but appeared to potentially cut west toward the horizon. Hard to say, but I could see a safe crossing point 200 meters away so I veered. We skied through blowing ice fog for nearly 30 minutes afterwards an indication, at least partly of good judgement.
Day 41: Two More Degrees
For a while, I thought I was at the beach. To my right, an open expanse of water. To my left drifts that could easily be mistaken for sand dunes. Underneath my madshus skis, a gently sloping swath of snow - the actual beach.
And then my sled caught on an ice chunk, tipped over and I was rudely shoved back into reality: my left hand was freezing to the point of being numb, windchills dipping past 45 below, an icicle hanging off my Optic Nerve goggle nose beak and a huge open water lead blocking my way to the North Pole.
An hour earlier I had commented that we were making good progress and the ice seemed to be improving. It had been a tough morning for sure - we seemed to be endlessly weaving around drifts, but all the leads were small and passable and there were no big pressure ridges. It was very cold and windy; however, visibility was decent - not great but decent. And then...
Skiing in lead I saw the tell tale black line in the distance and later climbed some blocks to have a better look. For as far as I could see to the northwest and southeast, there was a 50-75 meter 'river' of open water. Insert expletive of your choice here. On either side was another 20 meters of thin newly formed ice.
With yesterday and today's wind, we have been drifting quite a bit. Last night, we moved 3.5 miles - one mile north and the rest east. The east part is worrisome as there is a chance we could get pushed too far and not make the pole. Our drifting is directly related to the wind which is part normal and part unusual. The wind affects ice movement , but it seems to be overpowering the normal drift patterns. My theory: with less sea ice there is now less land fast ice; therefore, the ice we are on is able to move more.
After an hour of skiing, we found a spot to cross but it was just to an ice Island. Insert second expletive here.
Physically, we feel pretty good, but the constant stress of changing conditions have taken their toll. Each of us has gotten frustrated over simple things. While the pole is looming close, we deal with each day as it comes.
We found two opposing peninsulas that spanned the length of our tow rope (luckily). Then another swim (for me) while AJ and Darcy rigged the sleds for a catamaran.
"I hate doing that," said Darcy. "But it feels good to be on this side now."
Also, Bing is helping students become aware of their environment through an Earth Day Photo Contest. If you know of teachers and students that are interested in photography and want to take part in a great cause, have them enter at www.earthdayphotocontest.com."
Day 40: On Thin Ice
Every once in a while, AJ will ask my opinion on the safety of a certain section of ice. I have two basic answers. "Yes, but go out there and see." Or, "No, but go out there and see." Determining the crossibilty of an unstable piece of ice is part science, part art and part witch craft. Actually getting across is all the above plus a lot trail hardened nerve, luck, some grisel and the big mo (momentum).
A cold and windy day on the Arctic Ocean had us adding an extra layer of Terramar. Brrrr. We had gotten used to the warmish -20s. Luckily, the wind was from the south southwest and wasn't blowing all that cold in our faces. We had hoped that the low temperature and wind would freeze some of the open and thin ice leads, but it is obvious we are fighting a loosing battle. With summer on its way and 24 hours of sunlight, any water is absorbing heat As an aside, this is one of the feedback loops that is accelerating sea ice melt. We had high hopes for the day after crossing a 30 meter wide lead that was 'safe'.
That sinking feeling... That's one of us on a piece of ice. Going across sections of brash ice, open seams and overlapping thin slabs is tricky business. The ice is generally very rubbery and once fractured is completely impassible. The bigger chunks are nice because they at least float - it might be under water with your weight on it, but its still floating. Of course, that's just one person crossing. We have to get three across and our heavy sleds.
Darcy stepped gingerly out at one section gave the ice a poke with his pole, then took another step at which point things started collapsing underneath. For a split second he hesitated (a very dangerous thing) then lunged forward to safety (relative). However, there was now an open gap of water where he had just crossed. Just to the left, there was a pier of rafted two inch slabs where AJ and I might cross. We positioned the sleds for a 'long line' maneuver - where we unhook one side of our tug line from our Granite Gear harness and attach it to the sleds effectively doubling the length of the rope.
I made it across but barely. I probably shouldn't have crossed but without another visible option my motivation to be on the other side increased substantially. Now AJ's turn.
Later he said it would have made a good cartoon. Darcy with his skis off had a foot go through. Me standing on ice that was sinking and water rushing over my skis. Both of us imploring to, 'cross... it's safe.'
Unfortunately, the ice was too soft and AJ had to find another spot to cross. Just one of our many daily adventures.
Day 38: Rubbery Ice
We continue to take more and more risks as we travel. I'm not sure how many leads we crossed today but most were on rubbery ice while stepping over open sections of water. We got through one section hop scotching from one small block to the next. The second we were all safely across, the ice started moving and the chunks we had just been standing on, submerged.
Yesterday Darcy had commented, "I got so nervous my Optic Nerve goggles steamed." We all laughed because we were all nervous.
"Ski across with your feet wide apart and think of helium balloons," I always suggest.
One of the ways in which we determine the strength and safety of the ice is by looking at the ice crystals "flowers" on top. If the crystals are bigger than a couple of inches and they are mostly covering the ice, it's safe. Smaller crystals, visible black ice, and a more sparse distribution requires further investigations.
I had the ultimate lucky break during one of my shifts today. Skiing on a 97 degree bearing toward an ice chunk in the distance, I miraculously found the only connecting point of two pans separated by an open water lead. It saved at least 45 minutes of swimming or detours. As I stepped onto the northern pan, I smiled (humbly as to not upset the ice gods) then laughed.
There are less big pressure ridges now than a week ago. In their place, open water leads have become our arch nemesis. We also continue to be surprised at the ice and weather on almost an hourly basis. Today, Darcy asked, "was the ice like this in 2006? I just want to manage my expectations."
Psyching ourselves up and not out is key. As hard as this trip is physically, the mental aspect is probably more difficult. We deal with fear regularly but that is definite and somewhat easy to control. More difficult is not knowing what is ahead and how it might affect our ability to reach the pole Uncertainty. We want to stay positive and avoid negativity but all within the context of realism. Too much hope for improvement and we'll be let down. Too little and we'll want to give up. It's a delicate balance and the ultimate reason behind Darcy's question.
Day 37: Happy Birthday
"Best Birthday ever" was how AJ described today. It was a special day on the Arctic Ocean as AJ turned 29 today. Lacking cake, candles, wrapping paper, cards, ribbon and pretty much every other Birthday accouterment, we made do as best as possible. Darcy wrapped up six oreo cookies and I presented a tin of sardines I had been saving for today. Happy Birthday AJ!
We have settled into this life and routine. How do you determine what is important in life? Remove everything. Besides an extra Clif bar, there is little that I personally want — at least foodwise. Tent, skis, clothes... our needs are relatively simple here. Perhaps our goal should be to take some of this simplicity home with us. However, we'll most likely change underwear when we get off the ice. We've been wearing the same Terramar base layers for over five weeks now. We all have been pleased with the amazing performance of such a few thin layers in this extreme environment. And if they smell, we can't tell.
We have stopped talking much of other places, people and things — although we keep friends and family close to our hearts. Still, thoughts creep in. My latest fantasies: sitting on a couch with Maria watching a movie and a hiking trip with my nephew Tyler.
It was another ping pong day with the wind. Northerly in the morning (we drifted south during the night) and overcast then whiteout. There was a distinct lack of rush to leave the Big Kev (Sierra Designs tent) and start the day. Around four in the afternoon, the wind died completely then switched to the south. For a half hour, it was calm and quite warm. I got a little careless relieving myself at one break until Darcy said, 'your peeing all over your leg.' I looked down. So I was. Normally, my Madshus skis face the brunt of the wind and my desire to be 'finished'. Adventures come in all different shapes and sizes out here.
We seemed to be pushing the margin of acceptable risk today more than usual We crossed several leads through increasingly dangerous methods. The first, a short catamaran of sleds. Next, an unstable ice jam. Third, semi frozen blocks and a relay. Fourth, a small very wobbly raft of ice and make shift ferry. Another on very, very, very rubbery ice and a last crossing that found us running to span a series of small gaps before they opened too far.
There is a lot of improvisation that goes on during these manuevers. To successfully cross these hazards, we have to come up with clear and concise plans. I am pleased with how are team has been working together and communicating and under all this stress and fatigue.
Day 36: A Close Call
We are a tiny cork floating on an ocean of ice subject to the mercy (or wrath) of the wind. When it blows from the east or east southeast, we drift north and a bit west. When it blows from the north west, we drift south. We are beginning to feel like we are caught in the middle of some epic battle that has been waging for centuries.
Yesterday was by far the windiest day of the expedition. Luckily, it was a southern wind and we drifted 3.1 miles while we slept. During dinner, Darcy called out our mileage every 15 minutes — we were moving THAT fast.
In yesterday's whiteout, I was also nervous about choosing a tent site. We had been traveling on an older lead for over two hours, and while it was safe enough for travel, it was also a weak point in colliding ice pans. Finally, a step up a two foot ice ledge, deeper snow and some large chunks of older ice completely drifted over and I marked out a spot for the tent. In the morning, I would see the results of my decision.
"I could feel the reverberations from the cracks in my Ridge Rest sleeping pad and hear the squealing and whining of ice pressuring — did you guys not here it?" asked AJ. We didn't. We were sound asleep.
Turns out that only 20 meters away the ice had cracked, folded and heaved. A huge block five feet thick was sloping into the air. The clear path that I had skied in on was now a fractured mess. All around us new pressure ridges were formed, but we were safe. I guess I picked the right campsite. A very close call.
After breakfast, we dug out and stared in amazement — not only at all the new ice formations, but the fact that it was totally sunny and we could see.
"Even though it became overcast in the afternoon, it was very nice to have the sun out — everything felt pleasant," Darcy commented. "It was equally nice making camp in only a slight wind and not have spindrift fill everything."
For the rest of the day, we paid the price for our rapid resting progress. We snaked our way through small sections connecting corners and spanning gaps with skis. There were definitely more leads today, but they seemed to be different — erratically shaped (versus the long gaps spanning toward the horizons) and we also found a decent path through them all. We did one relay across some floating ice chunks held somewhat stable by the two opposite pans and a few other somewhat sketchy maneuvers but overall an uneventful day — the best kind out here.
Day 35: The Joy of Nothing
The wind of last night mysteriously died early this morning and at six am when we take our Sierra Designs sleeping bags out of the tent and start melting snow (we never have the bags in the tent when the MSR stove is going). Blue skies and sun. In the distance, a dark line of clouds. "Away or toward?" I wondered. I couldn't tell.
By the time we were all out of the tent, it was obvious. The clouds had blown toward us leaving more whiteout. Bummer.
I spent a big part of today thinking about the whole one picture per day thing. I'm not really sure if I can sum up all the things we see and emotions we feel in just one picture — or blog post for that matter. There are millions of subtle (and not so subtle) changes in the ice. We waiver back and forth between highs and lows with roller coaster regularity. Can anything be just one thing? Will this trip define who I am? Will one mistake define me? We are all so complicated — strange mixes of hope, desire, ambition, love...
"When the sun broke through for 10 minutes, it was like being on a different planet," AJ said. "Then it was gone and everything was just white again." It was a surprising respite in a taxing day. We stood awestruck at the speed at which the clear swath of sky approached and then passed.
Sometime in the morning the wind switched abruptly and one type of whiteout was replaced with a worse one. Blowing snow, wet mist from open leads, fog and ground blizzard. We stumbled for most of the day in winds that topped 30 miles per hour.
We had to switch navigation styles as the leader could not see. (Imagine walking around your house with a white piece of paper two inches from your face.) During several shifts, the second in line navigated shouting out left or right to the person in front — the only visible reference point.
Of course, there were other adventures along the way. We used a six foot wide piece of ice as a raft. Darcy had a near miss as several loose blocks of ice shifted while he leapt off. Weirdly flat ice at the end of the day, a broken ski (we have a spare — thanks Madshus), ice bridges, falling in cracks, stumbling and falling over.
Funniest from today was when I tried to get AJ to look at the two ice blocks that were floating by. I thought they were in a distant lead — my eyes were playing tricks on me.
Day 34: Picture Perfect
Sometime during each day as I'm taking pictures, I'll think, 'that's the image that sums up the day — that's the picture for today's web update.'
Snowing and whiteout this morning. Ugh! Its going to be one of those days. Within the first hour, I had taken several nice shots but the best was a distant picture of AJ and Darcy in a mostly white back drop (because of the whiteout) and a solitary blue slab of ice. I was pretty sure that image would be going on the web site as a summation of our day.
I couldn't have been more wrong — except for the whiteout part — that would last all day.
We covered seven miles today, but most of that was in the afternoon. After three, hour and a half shifts, we had only progressed one mile north. Double ugh! We spent our morning crossing two open leads, scouting around a third and veering way west around a fourth.
It takes us about 45 minutes to cross an open water lead. Catamaraning the sleds, rigging the haul lines (front and back), getting on drysuits. As my suit is the only one that doesn't leak, I am now the designated swimmer. Breaking thin ice, swimming to the other side and then hauling the first passenger across. Its tiring. At one lead there was about 20 feet of swimming and pulling the sleds. Finally, at the opposite 'shore' I struggled to haul myself out of the water onto the ice two feet above. I was exhausted.
Floating in the Arctic Ocean while Darcy and AJ finished rigging the sleds, I tried to listen to all the different sounds. Mostly, it was quiet, but if I listened carefully, I could hear many different sounds. Icey snow falling hard on the top of my drysuit, wind, the squeak of snow under AJ's feet and the distant whine of two ice pans colliding. I closed my eyes and listened to the soft splash of my hand through the water.
'I could be anywhere right now,' I thought. I also wondered if the seal AJ had just seen would take an interest in me. I hoped not. I also hoped there weren't any polar bears nearby - they're excellent swimmers and in my orange gumby like drysuit, I'm a far cry from Michael Phelps.
We skied blindly in whiteout the entire afternoon. I took pictures of a crazy snowstorm with big flakes, a large ravine of chunky blue blocks, skiing across small slabs and cracks, another jumbled mess that made us all laugh because we didn't know what else to do as we lowered our sleds backwards down a five foot ledge.
Day 33: Almost 87
Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny must be having a territory dispute because when we woke up, there were no Easter eggs waiting for us. Or peeps. Or Cadbury chocolate eggs. Still, we all celebrated a bit by calling home on the Iridium Satellite Phone. AJ was especially pleased as he hadn't talked to his family in a while.
I'm not sure where I was last Easter, but I do know that it has been a long time since I've been home for a holiday. The last two Thanksgivings, Christmases and New Years I've been in Antarctica. Last fourth of July on Denali The thought occurred to me that I miss that time right after a holiday meal, everyone still at the table and relaxed, plates pushed back, casual conversations about nothing in particular...
We lost a mile due to yesterday's bitter north wind while we slept and anticipated losing more today traveling - the whole walking on a conveyor belt the wrong direction thing. Surprisingly, the wind died, then switched in the three hours between wake up and first shift. Now with the sun out too, it was actually quite pleasant.
Until the wall of pressure. There has been an ongoing debate as to the best navigation styles. Darcy likes to stop, unhook from his sled, climb up on some ice and scout the route ahead. For my part, I rarely if ever scout any more. Instead, I ski head up, scanning the horizon and seize clear route opportunities as they arise. AJ's style is halfway between Darcy and I.
To make a long story short, there has to be a pretty big obstacle for me to unhook and scout - which I did twice today. Up high, I could see the route through but it wouldn't be easy. Traveling through the ice is a lot like rock climbing. The exception here, however, is that we are trying to string together a series of easier moves versus more difficult.
To get through this 100 meter section of pressure, we had to follow a smooth swath of snow to the west, dog leg north through some bigger blocks, make a hair pin turn to the south east, then a sharp left northward turn for the real work. The first move: lifting the front of the sled three feet to rest it in an ice block. Next, reposition feet, lean back and pull the sled up to a balance point a few feet higher. Third, step down the other side of the ridge leaning into our Granite Gear harness and pull the sled over and down to a sloping smooth area. Next, a two person lift... For two more ridges.
Our reward would come later in the afternoon when we skied on an older flat lead for almost two hours. The sun was out and we were moving at a nice pace. I was warm (a big plus). For a long while, all the stress of this trip, the preparations, fundraising (still ongoing), the two months skiing the South Pole leg and years of planning and preparations just dissolved away. I skied awestruck by my surroundings. Small blue slabs, long snow covered cracks, intricate patterns of wind blown snow, a rich light from a low sun that created long shadows even by the tiny ice flowers.
Yes we miss being home, but we wouldn't trade this experience for anything.
In another hour, we skied up to an open water lead stretching as far as we could see to the east and west. Ahh the Arctic, always full of surprises. In short order, we catamaraned the sleds and donned drysuits. As my suit is the only one that doesn't leak, I got to swim while we ferried AJ and Darcy across.
Day 32: Paying for Nice
Yesterday's nice? That'll be... Four hours back breaking work, six Clif bars, three cold fingers, one bruised knee, aching muscles and three tired polar travelers. Nothing is free here. Not a bad deal, though, considering how great yesterday was and we even finished on a nice flat lead. We might have been able to put a little in the bank, too. Who knows? A little over halfway into my second North Pole expedition and I still haven't gotten this place figured out.
I do know that there is a strong northerly wind blowing right now and we will most likely loose at least one mile of our hard won seven while we sleep. Oh well, at least we will be starting from the same campsite (it's definitely one of those walk in sites), even if the whole campground has moved.
We were planning on sleeping in tomorrow, Easter for two hours, but when the alarm went off this morning and AJ's voice called out, "six o'clock." I offered a quick reply. "Do you guys want to switch the sleep in to today?" With the alarm already gone off the damage was done; however, we all quickly agreed: back to sleep.
I had a fitful night sleep and was haunted by some disturbing dreams long into the morning ski. My legs were tired and I felt lethargic. On a positive note, I had managed to adjust my pants and Terramar base layers so my shirt was tucked in just how I like. Stopping to let Darcy scout, I found out AJ had some crazy dreams as well.
We struggled for most of the morning trying to find a good rhythm. During the first shift, we skied through an older cracked lead. Small ridges of eight inch thick slabs were easily passed. Everything was covered in older ice flowers (that look more like cauliflower) and snow. AJ thought it looked like a cracked egg shell. Darcy had the most difficult shift and had to wind in, around and over some pretty nasty sections of ice. The sun came out for a while today and brightened our spirits — and the ice. Late in the afternoon a half sun dog formed creating two short arcs of rainbow streaking up from the distant ice.
I've been waiting for a sunny day to set out my Goal0 solar panel. Today, like nearly every day, the sky mysteriously clouds as the tent goes up. With the nearly 24 hour daylight, we should get some free energy soon.
There is the person I am, the person I want to be and the person I sometimes present myself as. Are these all the same person? I hope so. Still, its a difficult balance out here to share these experiences in an honest way. There are many personal and group struggles that we don't share. My hope is that you find this story and this place, the Arctic Ocean, interesting and ultimately worth protecting.
It's a special day today besides the fact we got two extra hours sleep. Darcy is celebrating his 11th wedding anniversary with us. Sorry Carol, we wish he could be with you, too. Unfortunately, we need him for just a few more weeks. He has already told us numerous ways in which he will repay your kindness and love.
Day 31: Navigating Toward Nice
The needle on our Suunto compass now points 90 degrees to the west as we head toward the pole. Each day we check our declination (the difference between magnetic north and true north) on our GPS and adjust accordingly. We are now positioned at a right angle between both poles. Funny to have our dial reading east but know we are still traveling north.
You may wonder why we use a compass over GPS. First of all, a compass doesn't generally freeze. Using a compass, for us, is faster and saves on battery power, too. In truth, we use both. We check our bearing and position with a GPS and navigate with a compass.
Our basic philosophies: steer to the clear and navigate toward nice paid off with some pretty big rewards today. We spent nearly the whole day in skis and traveled across the biggest and flattest ice pans we've seen by far. Honestly, it was a relief after the struggles of yesterday. Of course, the Arctic doesn't want us to have it too easy and we spent much of the day in nearly whiteout squinting toward the horizon to find some chunk of ice to use as a reference point.
"It's my least favorite weather condition," AJ said. "It's like being in the dark, only it's white," Darcy added.
The tricky part is staying focused on a distant point while also being aware of what is immediately in front of you. More than once we stumbled into a snow drift right in front of us.
Today was a banner day for my pulk (sled). It only tipped over 17 times. Each time, I have to turn around, go back, right it, turn forward and start skiing. The best is when it tips right away after I just righted it. Normally, it happens fairly regularly. Carrying the tent makes it a bit top heavy and any time we go through pressure or rubble, I have to be extra careful. Darcy and AJ have taken considerable pity on me and help out if they are behind me.
I heard a quote somewhere that, "It's dangerous to love something that death can take away." We've all been thinking about friends and family, at least in measured doses, and at some point, that quote seeped into my brain. I thought about it for quite a while — my own family, my two nephews Tyler and Luke and my relationship with Maria...
It is dangerous, I concluded. But so are a lot of other things.
Day 30: Halfway
Leaving the tent this morning, I said to AJ and Darcy, "well see you back here in 12 hours." Like we were just going out to run a days worth of errands. Our day couldn't have been any more the opposite.
If you haven't noticed, we've been enjoying our time more in the Big Kev — our SD tent. It's the only time when we get to relax a bit. Well, kind of. One person is cook and that means melting snow blocks for meals and drinking water. It's an all consuming job. The other two actually get to relax. One more than the other as the MSR stove takes up some leg room. The third person, with his legs and feet comfortably stretched, gets a night in the Hilton as it has now been dubbed.
There are always a few repair projects to work on as well. Yesterday, I had to mend a ripped seem in my pants. Today, Darcy is putting the finishing touches on a nose beak for his Optic Nerve goggles. AJ, who hadn't done much sewing prior to the expedition, has finished several projects — most recently a modification of his balaclava.
Dinner is another favorite of tent time. Both AJ and Darcy like Mountain House's beef stew best. I prefer the lasagna. After all, I never met a noodle I didn't like.
Unforgiving and unrelenting, my words for today. We found some flat spots but seemed to get bogged down in pressure ridges, big fractured slabs (puzzle piece navigation) and even a few open water leads. We were all surprised that we made 10 miles today.
Despite all that, we also found today unusually serene. The wind switched, coming from the south, then almost completely died. It was sunny for an hour or so too. The sky was a deep blue that, when combined with the southerly wind, made us think of spring. Even the early morning whiteout was aesthetically pleasing, all we could see was the turquoise blue of thick pressured ice chunks. Skiing along an open water lead, we all stopped, mesmerized, by ice chunks colliding, grinding and squeaking as they slowly rammed into one another.
The good news is that we have hit the halfway mark. 210 nautical miles to the pole. I can't tell you how much of a relief it is for us to be counting down instead of up. Plus it's April and we finish in April, hopefully. We know that temperatures will warm slightly and ice conditions will improve a bit. However, while we are optimistic, we are also realistic: what we realize most at the end of this day is that we still have a long way to go.
Day 29: Arctic Paybacks
On walking up to a lead, AJ turned around and asked me if I thought it was safe. I responded, "Maybe, take a few steps out there and see what happens." AJ thought it should be nominated for the quote of the day (not that we have one yet — quote of the day that is).
AJ's hesitation is not unfounded. After a scary dunk a couple days ago, he is taking all the right precautions to be safe. Still, it's a delicate balance. Part of what we do every day is inherently unsafe. Also, we are traveling under finite time constraints. We have to be at the pole by April 26th. Therefore, we need to factor efficiency and our forward progress.
My comment to AJ was simply acknowledging all these factors. A quick visual assessment of the ice — whitish in color with one inch diameter ice flowers — indicated it was passable. A winding seam down the middle of the two sides suggested some instability. Other clues: no open water anywhere near and some frozen over flow pieces.
"You can't think about these things too much," my old dog sledding boss Arleigh Jorgenson used to say. Loading up his dog truck with 34 sled dogs, gear and a month's supply of food for a three day drive to Yellowknife and an expedition north of Great Slave Lake, we were an accident waiting to happen Yet, we were successful.
"Well, no one died," Arleigh concluded at the end of our trip.
Another polar potpourri on the Arctic Ocean today. We found a long arch like the Darcy saw collapse and joked about standing on top of it, then skied over and climbed up on top - a long 30-foot curving fold that looked like a tunnel. During the second shift, we skied on a relatively flat pan for more than an hour.
We thought it might be a gift from the polar gods, but everything costs on the Arctic Ocean. Darcy inherited the brunt of whoever's wrath and we struggled through small pans and big blocks for quite some time.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, one being getting your tooth pulled with no pain killers," Darcy added wryly after one particularly brutal section. "That was a minus five." We would pay for another flat section with whiteout conditions.
Later in the day AJ was thrilled to find a large pressure ridge filled with dirty looking ice blocks. "We've struck gold," he blurted skiing back from collecting a few shards of algae encrusted. His enthusiasm for collecting algae samples is unparalleled. But his is only one step in a process that will eventually yield clues to understanding our changing climate.
Day 28: Polar Bear Tracks
On my weekly Iridium Satellite phone call with Elisabeth Harincar at Webexpeditions.net headquarters last night, she instructed me, "see a polar bear. People like polar bear stories." I kindly replied I would prefer not and it wasn't like polar bears are waiting behind every corner to pose for pictures.
While I think polar bears are beautiful and amazing animals, I would prefer NOT to see one. To a hungry polar bear potentially stalking us while we sleep, we're the all beef patties and our Sierra Designs tent is a Big Mac wrapper. Don't laugh, I've had more than enough close calls with bears. In 2005, one jumped on our tent vestibule while we were sleeping, another was stalking me one evening while I was sorting gear in my sled. In 2006, we had a bear come into camp the morning we reached the pole.
I hung up the phone and didn't think another thing about it.
Within five minutes of starting the day, we came to a newly frozen lead and along the southern edge, was a meandering line of really big polar bear tracks. (I am always impressed by the size of their feet.) They were relatively new — within the last couple days and heading east in no particular hurry.
"Where are you going Mr. Bear?" wondered. "lease don't mind us we're only passing through."
What is it about polar bears that captures people's imagination? For me, I am impressed by their ability to live in such a harsh environment. For us to cross a lead requires over an hour of catamaraning sleds, putting on dry suits, breaking ice... A polar bear simply slides and is across in a matter of minutes. They are perfectly adapted for life on the ice, which is why they are now listed as a Threatened species under the Endangered Species Act If sea ice melts according to scientists' predictions, polar bears will be global warming's first victim.
Sobering thoughts for day 28 — the end of our fourth week on the trail. We've come a long way (passed the 86th parallel today) but we still have 230 miles left assuming we walk in a straight line (we don't) and we won't loose mileage due to southerly drift (we will).
Predictability. That word seemed to kick around in my head for quite some time today. Partly because I continue to be surprised at the course each day takes — the type of ice and obstacles, open water, condition of the snow and much more. There are few givens on any day here. Today was no exception. At one point, we were lowering our sleds down an eight foot wall of ice.
"e were slowed down by some pretty big pressure ridges,"commented Darcy at the end of the day. "everal times we had to unhook from our sleds an heave sleds through section of pressure choked with five foot diameter ice blocks."
In my old life, I used tried to slough off the routine and regularness of every day living. Now so many years later, with uncertainty laying ambush at every step, a little normalcy sounds pretty nice after all. I guess tomorrow I should spend some time on irony.
Day 27: 2 for 2 ... In the Bad Way
Do you want the good news or bad news first? We drifted two and a half miles last night. Fortunately, nearly a quarter of that was north. Yipee! That's good news. Unfortunately, we had another cold water submersion today. AJ fell in up to his waist.
Side note: he was not able to collect an algae sample during his dunk. Side note number two: he had just collected a sample from a previous lead.
Growing up near a small creek, I spent much of my winters on the ice — skating, skiing or just poking around. Sometimes, friends and I would accidentally find thin spots and fall through. Over time, we learned how to judge the strength and integrity quickly — a few stout stomps with our boots.
Here our methodology isn't much different. We usually give three or four hard pokes with our ski pole and if the tip doesn't go through, it's safe. Well ... not always. Sea ice behaves differently than freshwater ice. Chunks of ice frozen together can quickly break apart under pressure as can thin ice. It's a subtle difference but an important one for us to recognize.
More changes in the ice today, most likely because of the strong wind and full moon (tides). Cresting a small ridge, we could see a newer crack in the ice and an eight foot gap of open water. Later we would see a maze of zig zagging cracks. It felt like we were in some polar version of an Indiana Jones movie, but instead of a bridge collapsing, it was ice.
AJ went in at one of those spots — newly covered with spindrift, Darcy and I already crossing, degrading the quality of the ice.
After wrestling himself out, with Darcy's help, we got moving again (this is almost becoming a routine now). While AJ's feet were relatively warm because he was wearing vapor barrier socks and had positioned his pants over his boots, his legs were soaked. We decided to set up the tent and get him into dry clothes.
The rest day was difficult but without incident. OK, maybe a couple. Darcy's sled slipped and slid part way in the water crossing an ice bridge. AJ's sled pulled him backwards down a pressure ridge after a miscommunication, the wind was up and brutally cold, an cool arch of slabbed ice that Darcy was taking a picture of collapsed right as he turned his back ... Every day is an adventure. You never know what you're going to get.
I continue to be surprised by the varying ice. The minute you have it all figured out, it changes. Today, we were in what I call "canyonlands" (older pans with lots of drifted in ice chunks) for about two hours, then it changed to bigger flat pans, then some big blocks and newer walls of pressured ice, then a few frozen leads and small four to 10 foot wide cracks.
I watched Darcy in lead hop up and down several times as he navigated through the cracks and small leads. I was amazed to see narrow threads of thin ice juxtaposed with thicker multiyear ice.
Yesterday, AJ accidentally fried my iPod charger. With no real distractions now thoughts come and go as they please. Some take hold. Others don't. Thin ice covered with spindrift didn't have much staying power for some reason. Besides, Darcy was out of ear shot and didn't need me telling him what he already knows.
Next time I looked up, I saw Darcy fumble, fall, and slowly get up. Ice was blocking most of my view, but I could tell he was struggling to get upright. Finally, he stood up and crossed his ski poles above his head (a sign we use to stop, or for danger).
Out in front head down pushing forward, he didn't see the thin ice. It was mostly covered with freshly blown snow and at a quick glance looked safe. It wasn't. To make matters worse, it was very windy so we knew we had to get him moving fast.
In third position and missing most of the action, AJ asked if Darcy had managed to collect an algae sample for the University of Plymouth. It was well timed humor.
We raced to a sheltered spot and proceeded to pry frozen boots and socks off, rub snow on Darcy's went pants and change his mittens. It was all handled quickly and effectively; however, you can't help but think about how quickly things can devolve.
"I was looking forward to a relaxing night in the Big Kev (our Sierra Designs tent)," Darcy added. "Now I'm spending my whole night drying my boot liners and pants."
Day 25: Layers
For a brief moment today, we were the fulcrum between the rising moon and setting sun — our narrow north-bound ski trail slicing the two halves of the sky.
I'm not sure why, but for some reason layers have been on my mind lately. From a practical stand point, it was windier today, so we all added another layer of Terramar. Ocean, ice, air, space, we occupy such a small layer of life on this planet. Layers of an onion, layers of an issue, layers of affection. The ice was layered today too, formed, broken, reformed, cracked, drifted and refrozen one last time.
We are in big ice country. In many places five foot thick slabs are pressured high into the air. In others, deep cracks gaped menacingly under our Madshus skis and Atlas snow shoes. Darcy found a narrow lead running between two big slabs. "It looked like a hallway," he said. "Unfortunately, it turned into a jumbled mess."
The wind is also mysteriously increasing near our day's end. "The main thing about today was that it was really cold during our last shift," Darcy added. "I was glad I wasn't in front navigating." I was and he's right, it was cold.
We are into the rhythm of trail life now. Ski, eat, ski, eat, ski, eat sleep. We talk about warmth and couches every so often but mostly we keep thoughts of friends and family close to ourselves... Another layer of warmth I guess.
Day 24: The Sun and the Moon
Mornings seem to be coming earlier and earlier now. Our six o'clock alarm is unpleasant to say the least. We have been putting in long days and every second of sleep is needed.
I've changed the order of how I eat my Clif bars — not that it really matters much to you, but out here with only a limited supply of energy every little detail is important. I've started eating my Clif C on the trail, Clif bar at first break (before it freezes solid), Builders bar is next. Lunch is soup (now with six pieces of bacon in it). I save my Cliff MOJO and Shot Bloks for the next and last breaks. They're sooo good.
I take my rest break eating protocol pretty seriously. This is an important component of my energy throughout the day. It also has to be easily accessible, eaten with big mitts on and be small enough to shove through the small frozen hole of my face mask.
It was sunny for the first time in I'm not sure how long. There is some heat broadcast in our direction as well — at least when the bitter north east wind wasn't blowing it away from us. Huddled behind a large wall of slabbed pressure during an early break was somewhat comfortable, although I hesitate to use the term too freely.
"It was incredible to see the power of the sun," said AJ. "Under one slab of ice we saw icicles with melting drops."
Overall, we had good luck with the ice. No leads but new conditions — big thick (4-5 feet) slabs of ice rammed high into the air. At one point, a five foot diameter ice boulder was perched precariously on top of a slab. How it got there so perfectly balanced, we have no idea.
The moon is waxing larger and lager. Low on the horizon, it now provides a reference point to the track across the sky. Setting up the our Sierra Designs tent this evening both loomed large at opposite sides of the sky.
Day 23: The Longest Lead
I spent a few minutes after our soup break trying to brush a frozen noodle off of my parka ruff. It had fallen out of my Stanley flask and was now solidly embedded in my parka. With growing frustration, I finally pushed the ruff to my mouth and ate the noodle out. It's come to that. I suppose I shouldn't mention that it tasted surprisingly good.
I'm not sure karma was giving us pay back from yesterday or were simply on the up side of something very bad. Maybe, it was the positive omen of only drifting 27 feet. Either way, we'll take the successes of today.
After a late night melting and drying boot liners, we were up and off early The snow was decent but we were caught up in a few pressure ridges that slowed us down a bit - nothing major, just the thin (12 inches) slabs of ice. When a bit of sun poked through, the corners and folds of long winding ridges reflected a pale blue unlike any color I have seen before.
Eventually, we made our way onto a lead and had to veer east to avoid open water. We finally managed to get around the water and some bigger ice rubble and then back on multi year ice. Looking down at my Suunto compass, I couldn't believe what I saw next. My bearing, slightly west of true north was aimed down one of the biggest leads I have ever seen. Not only that, but it looked like safe flat ice as well.
For three hours (no lie), we skied effortlessly. "It was like going into warp speed compared to our normal pace," commented Darcy. Along the way, we passed over a bit of rubbery ice, had to span a few gaps, and at one point, had to make a small raft out of ice.
"I'm going to trust you that this is safe," AJ said to me as I pushed him floating on a thin ice chunk toward Darcy on the other side. It worked. About the same time we were wrapping up our Huck Finn-style adventures, a seal popped its head up and gave us a quizzical examination.
What was it doing HERE, we all wondered. Does this mean more open water tomorrow? One thing is for sure, where there are seals, polar bears are not too far behind.
Day 22: A Salty Swim
You have to love the Arctic Ocean — its never boring. The minute you think things are one way, they change and become something else. The rapidly varying conditions keep us on our toes if nothing else.
The good news: we did NOT drift south of 85 last night. Camped securely (?) at 85 degrees 11 minutes, we are 12 statue miles north of that thorn in our polar sides. Yipee! Unfortunately, we did still drift south, but this time only a half of a mile. Still, we were pleased were with our progress considering...
We went swimming in the Arctic Ocean for nearly an hour!?! It all started simply enough, I was navigating and managed to find a diagonal slab of ice. (Imagine some gigantic puzzle with about 30% of the pieces missing — you just try to connect touching corners.) Right about the same time I was congratulating myself on my ice spotting skills, the slab dead-ended with 50 meters of thin ice separating AJ, Darcy and I and North. We scouted to the west but nothing looked promising. To the east, thin ice as far as we could see.
"Drysuits?" Darcy asked, although it really wasn't a question.
As Darcy and AJ catamaraned the sleds, I got in my drysuit and started the ice breaking process — physically breaking ice with my hands, arms, legs and body. Once across, the open water path needed to be widened, so we all set about the task of breaking a three sled width path. Next, gently lower the sleds into the water. So far so good. About one-third the distance across, a small solid piece of ice offered a stable point to pull the sleds with a long 100 foot rope we brought specially for this purpose.
Getting the sleds the rest of the way across — well, that's another story. We struggled for 40 minutes in the water pulling, pushing away small slabs of ice, grabbing and clawing our way across. It was physically exhausting. Worse, Darcy and AJ's Brenig suits sprung leaks and both had icy Arctic Ocean water seeping into their boots.
Finally, Darcy managed to climb out safely on the other side and pull everything relatively easy. But we still had wet feet and pants to deal with - a potentially deadly situation. AJ was worse off and already chilled extensively, so we got his drysuit off, his SD down jacket on and set him off running around to warm up. Darcy, although wet too, was warmer from his extreme efforts getting the sleds through the last 30' of the lead.
Finally, with everything sorted and stowed, we started off again — the best option to keep Darcy and AJ warm at this point. All told, we worked for nearly two hours to cross one simple lead.
We hope tomorrow brings sun, dry boots and flat ice!
Day 21: 85 take 5
Generally defined, a resource is something that you use. Some like wind and solar are renewable and exist in nearly unlimited (or can be replenished in our lifetime) quantities. Others like coal or oil are nonrenewable and once they are used they're gone forever.
There is no question that our endeavors here are fairly resource intensive. While we lead a very meager life on the trail, the carbon footprint supporting our efforts is substantial. It is something we wrestle with every day. Yes, we buy carbon offsets, but our main hope is that our efforts will do more good than harm.
While we slept, our small ice pan drifted south past 85 degrees — crossing number four. In the morning, we made our way north crossing 85 for the fifth and final (this I swear) time.
"Chaucey," was how AJ described today's conditions. "Frozen foaming waves of powder," he clarified. Later navigating in a growing white-out, AJ observed, "there was no depth of field; therefore, something as simple as placing your foot on an incline can be very difficult."
Overall we have worked well as a team; however, since our resupply our negative drift and heavy sleds have created some tension in our dynamics. We are worried about our ability to make the pole. One possibility is to try to get another resupply — not our initial plan and using more resources. We are all motivated individuals with different perspectives. Our styles are different as well. Coming to a consensus has not been easy and has added another layer of stress to all this mess.
Yet, this process has allowed us to come together closer as a team. We have all vowed to move forward, together, from this point now. We are a stronger, more understanding, group because of these challenges.
And hopefully, we'll wake up on the north side of 85.
Day 20: Back on the Trail
Snow? There must be an open lead somewhere close. In 2006, during my summer North Pole, Lonnie and I called this type of snow "lake effect". Big compound flakes floating slowly down from an overcast sky. With AJ scouting the route, I stop and tilt my head back and watch big conglomerate flakes falling toward me. I try to catch one in my mouth. How many times have I done this same simple act as a kid?
On the trail again after a day off — well not really a day off. We spent most of the day repacking gear and food as well as fixing and modifying equipment. Still, we enjoyed not hooking our Granite Gear harnesses to our sleds and enjoying a bit of extra tent time. All told, we lost six miles while we camped.
Happy Spring! Here we are in relative light nearly 24 hours a day. However, we still use our Princeton Tec headlights to write in the evenings.
It was a tough day. Our sleds are heavy again. Luckily, there was relatively flat ice with a few bigger leads and we were able to get back to the same latitude we were (actually, a little farther north) two nights ago. We have now crossed the 85th parallel three times. OK, cross your fingers, please. We don't want to do this again.
We have been out here for 20 days now and the Arctic Ocean has become our life.
Day 18: No rest for the weary
The nice thing about hitting the bottom is that there is only one way to go. That is unless you've hit a false bottom, then there is still a possibility of going further down. I should know I've been both places many times
Two days ago I was at my lowest physically — I had pulled a three-in-a-row navigation shift just to give AJ and Darcy a break and paid the price. That night my body felt weary all over. I was dehydrated and felt like I had the flu. The next day was the bottom. After my first few steps, I wondered how I would finish the day. Luckily, I've been that tired before and know that with an extra Clif bar, steady pace and good technique I can recover — slowly.
This morning I had to hide my face in my big blue mittens for several silent sobs. The stress of backwards drift, a miscommunication on resupply dates, AJ's sporadic knee problems (and consequent frustration), the overall scale of what we're doing, missing Maria, ice conditions, unforgiving cold... was starting to feel like a bit too much to bear. Luckily, I've been that overwhelmed before and know that with a small start, just one step, you can begiin whittling away at all that impossibility.
Unfortunately, I also know that these are false bottoms and there are many more to come in the weeks ahead.
Our rest day turned into a travel day as our resupply was rescheduled for tomorrow. Darcy had hoped for one more day of travel with light sleds so his wish came true. As a side note, we asked him to wish for other things too now that he was so lucky (flat ice forever, a hut tub dropped to us in our resupply...)
We were also glad to travel because we lost another two miles while we slept. As another side note, just 100 meters from our campsite a pan of ice rafted into another building six foot slabs of ice into a 10 foot tall wall. We could hear the grinding and moaning, but it mysteriously stopped a few minutes after we got up. Looking and our newly landscaped back porch, it was easy to see we had chosen our campsite wisely — on stable multi-year ice.
Today's camp is a bit more precarious. Shoveling snow, I noticed a small crack right by the vestibule of our Sierra Designs tent (the Big kV). Fingers crossed for tonight.
We worked well together today navigating efficiently through the relatively open ice. Our breaks were quiet with each deep in his thoughts mustering the necessary physical and emotional energy to move forward and away from the bottom.
Day 17: Polar tread mill
Talking on the Iridium satellite phone, Darcy's wife Carol asked, "are you having fun?" To which he responded, "fun is a pretty big word."
The piece of ice that we camped on was pushed two miles south while we slept. It was obvious now why we hadn't covered more miles yesterday: the ice was moving south as we were skiing north. Yesterday, we were exhausted.
Today, we were on the trail for over ten hours and only covered a little over seven nautical miles. Right now I can see the latitude on my GPS scrolling backwards. Unfortunately, we are scheduled to receive a resupply tomorrow as well so it is more than likely that we will loose all the hard-won north of today. It is something better not thought about too much.
The sun and rich light continue to be a source of amazement and wonder although the wind sucks every ounce of heat away. Another Jupiter-like sun set slowly over our left shoulders for over an hour.
The wind was especially brutal today. So much in fact that we all added another Terramar base layer. Still we wear relatively little and our short breaks every hour and a half are painful. It takes us another 15 minutes of skiing to warm up again. Our hands suffer the worst.
There are those times however... You've been skiing for an hour, the ice is flat, warmth radiates from inside your toes to your finger tips. The sun hits a slab of ice in a unique way. Another sun dog.... And then the moment is gone.
Was it fun?
We scooted across a few leads today that were rubbery and thin. Darcy skied up behind me and I could feel the ripple of ice rolling forward with him. Another piece of ice disintegrated as AJ jumped across soaking his boot and Atlas snowshoe in salt water. A few minutes later we watched mesmerized as one thin ice pan collided with another at an alarmingly fast rate - a new sound, this time, like someone playing long out-of-tune notes on a cello.
Day 16: Trying
What are we doing out here? Of what use is this journey?
It is easy to see the role the atmosphere plays in regulating world climate While all our energy comes from the sun, it is our atmosphere that protects and insulates. The sunlight that shone on us today was very diffuse compared with the light in Colorado or Mexico - making for a cold polar day. A stiff breeze didn't improve conditions much either. Nor did the ice fog we skied through several different times.
Still, the cold of the earth's poles are important components of regulating climate. While we may complain about the temperature, we are glad it is so Perhaps we are here to vouch for cold and snow - to show the value (and beauty) of this place.
We travel covered in face masks, hoods, anoraks... Some days, I look back at Darcy and AJ and think I'm on another planet. Never was this more true than today as the sun, big and orange, low on the horizon with bands of clouds across its face looked like Jupiter. It was so beautiful. An hour later the tangerine wedge of the sun finally disappeared below the horizon leaving a rainbow of reds and pinks dissolving into the dark blue arch of the sky above - a sliver of moon now visible.
The winner of the unlucky lottery this morning was Darcy. That meant he had to lead the first shift. A bum deal for sure, but he soldiered on - at one point almost falling through some thin ice. With AJ's knee still not quite 100% Darcy and I switched off navigating. In the late afternoon, we found a big flat pan and pushed hard, but at what cost?
Day 15: The sound of ice
For a while I thought I was loosing my vision as everything was going so blurry, but then I realized it was only because my eye lashes were so coated with ice that it was obscuring my eye sight . Not that it mattered much, I didn't really want to see up ahead anyway. Pressure, leads, rubble... Knowledge may be power, but ignorance is polar bliss.
For the past few days, the sun and clear skies have disappeared. Replaced by clouds, icy fogs and a biting wind, conditions have been somewhat unpleasant as of late. You know it's bad when you have to huddle behind ice blocks for warmth and to block the wind. The wind got to be intense enough that I had to put on my Terramar geofleece.
"My fingers usually get the coldest," said AJ. "Which can be potentially dangerous because in an emergency situation, I need to be able use my hands. If my fingers are numb that limits my ability to function. Therefore, I'll put on mittens or put my hood up, if its down. It may take a while, but they eventually warm up."
We stopped at another lead to listen and watch the ice for a few minutes. One pan about six inches thick was ramming into another. The noise it what surprised us the most - a long whine at one spot, the train-like chug, chug, chug at another and a low pulsing in one more spot. It was eerily beautiful.
"That's why we keep drifting south every night," Darcy observed as he watched the ice moving.
Overall, it was a good day. We had three really difficult hours mid day. Then, we got lucky with some good ice in the afternoon. Another Arctic Ocean day under our belts. It feels good to have made it this far.
Day 14: Swimming — Polar Style
We are haunted by ice in our dreams now. Last night, AJ dreamt of being trapped by colliding ice pans. I had a very vivid dream of being stuck on Ellesmere Island because of brash ice and open water. Then, I had another recurring dream (I have it every time I'm on an expedition): getting to the pole but not remembering it afterward.
Darcy had the unfavorable task of starting out in lead first shift. Cold and a bit groggy he steered us along a narrow winding lead (a crack in the ice — usually open water) for nearly a quarter of a mile until crossing a slabbed pressure ridge into some rolling terrain. Noting the infinite variety of conditions we face, Darcy commented, "you definitely don't get bored out here."
A few minutes into AJ's shift, he tweaked his knee in some weird way that created, from his description afterward, very intense pain. He could barely walk. Hundreds of miles from even the most remote outpost, in a section of ice where clearly no plane could land, reinforced the tenuous grip we have on safety at any given moment.
"I didn't think much of it at first," AJ observed. "But within five minutes I knew it was a serious situation."
With AJ limping severely, we worried that he could easily aggravate the injury by continuing to pull a sled. So, after a quick discussion, Darcy and I divided up his gear (and attached his sled to the back of mine) and started skiing. We hoped that an hour or so of rest would allow whatever was out of whack to get back in (whack). And in an hour he was better, a bit shaken, but nearly 100 percent.
Of course, the drama couldn't just end there. This is, after all, an ocean we're traveling on. We all stood staring at a newly frozen lead running as far as we could see to the east and west. In the middle, a 20-foot swath of open water. There was absolutely no way around and it was still too early to camp and let the lead solidify overnight.
Luckily, we came prepared for this and after a quick discussion on protocol and procedure to make sure we all knew what our roles would be, we catamaraned the sleds together, donned our dry suits and swam the lead pulling our floating sleds across afterwards.
Safely across, we also made a quick stop to collect an algae sample for the University of Plymouth.
Another day on the ice (and in the water). If we don't like it out here, not to worry — conditions will change and we'll get something else.
Day 13: A Million Tiny Struggles
The sled tips over, we trip, stumble or fall; cold feet, cold hands, cold nose, navigating in low visibility, setting up the Big Kev (our Sierra Designs tent), taking down the Big Kev, melting snow for meals and drinking, waking up ... Each day we each face a million tiny struggles in our efforts to get to the pole.
Struggle #1. An open lead somewhere creates a low hanging fog and decreases visibility considerably.
Struggle #2. The slider on AJ's inner sleeping bag breaks.
Struggle #3. A large pressure ridge blocks our path. We find a somewhat passable route. (This is also struggle 13, 15, 16-34 and 50-60).
Struggle #4. Thin ice. Need to detour.
Struggle #5. We have to lift all three sleds up and over a five foot wall of ice.
Struggle #6. Rubble ice.
Struggle #7. Thoughts of friends and family (especially Maria) and the distance between us.
Struggle #8. AJ's bad jokes.
Struggle #9. Frozen Clif bars
Struggle #10. Open water prevents us from skiing. We have to camp early.
Most times we face these struggles alone. Still, we are out here as a team — offering an extra hand, a word of encouragement, or the simple acknowledgement of a struggle.
The Save the Poles expedition is sponsored by Bing with major support from the University of Plymouth, Terramar, Seventh Generation, Goal0, Atlas, Sierra Designs and Optic Nerve.
Remember, it's cool to be cold. Save the Poles. Save the planet.
Day 12 (March 14): Skis on flat ice
The wind cut knife-like through our anoraks as we started out the day, for the first time since day two, on skis. An apparently openish piece of multi-year ice instigated the discussion.
"We may not be faster on Madshus skis than our Atlas snowshoes, but we'll definitely save energy," suggested Darcy. It was an easy decision. Every day is about saving as much energy as we possibly can in hopes that we'll have enough to eventually make it to the pole.
We were able to make decent steady progress for over three hours — hard work to be sure, but the ice had opened up just enough to at least minimize the stress of navigating. Then, only 15 minutes into my turn in front, we stepped gingerly on to the very flat ice of a newly frozen lead. We could tell by the size of the ice crystals (1-2") on top that it was safe enough for travel. A quick sighting from my Suunto compass revealed a straight shot to far corner. Beyond that, more flat ice seemed to unfold. Polar pay dirt.
It's hard to describe the emotion that you get after catching such a lucky break after 12 very hard days. It was the biggest lead I have ever seen and we skied effortlessly for nearly an hour and a half — all the while marveling at small cracks, seams, folds and places where one sheet of ice buckled against another.
At one distinct line, we saw where the ice took on a darker hue and the crystals on the surface of the ice were less than an inch. Borderline. We gave the ice four good pokes with a ski pole and it held fast. Still, our first steps sent ripples across the ice. Amend previous statement: very borderline. In the end, we skied hurriedly across the 50 meter span feet wide, harnesses unbuckled and thinking about helium balloons. Near the opposite side a small section of open water made for a bit more sketchiness but we all crossed safely.
We stopped for a while to collect another algae sample and hearing the sound of the ice moving. "It sounded like a train being shunted," AJ suggested. Darcy observed, "it's like a pulse... of the ocean." Then added, "or the scary part of a horror film."
I have a saying that keeps me honest and humble here, "wherever there's good ice, bad ice follows."
We soon switched back to snowshoes, floundering for a bit through more pressure, then slowly finding a rhythm.
Day 11: 84
Skiing today, I started thinking about the myriad choices that we must make while navigating. Scouting a route, veering to the east or west, when to use skis versus snowshoes, a lead that is safe to cross...
Out here, we can't afford to make bad decisions. It's very stressful and adds another layer of complexity to the expedition. Despite all this, I had to laugh today at the predicament — if only there was a polar version of Bing to help me out here.
At home, I need more than a search engine, I need a tool that gives me fast access to information that helps me make better decisions. That's why I use Bing. Bing helps me with other decisions too, but more on that later.
The day started in a cold fog (the weather not our minds) and a tough terrain that quickly sapped our optimism about making the seven miles to reach our goal of getting to the 84th parallel. Darcy pulled the first navigation shift and was able to pick his way nicely through an hour and a half worth of pretty bad ice.
Nearing the end of the second shift, we all worked together to maneuver the sleds through a slot of pressure ridge choked with ice blocks up to six feet across. Next, AJ managed to find the clearing and got us to a nice frozen lead then a relatively flat pan.
We pushed hard throughout the afternoon hoping that we would cross the 84th parallel. In the end, we had our best mileage — 9.5 nautical miles. We'd celebrate more but after such a big effort, we're tired.
At some point today, face mask frozen, my left hand weirdly icy and my parka ruff covered in frost, I had a funny thought and turned around to share it with AJ:
"It's like a beach, only colder."
Day 10: A Casual Morning
The ice opened up just enough to improve our polar weary spirits which made even the taciturn Darcy smile. Coupled with our a morning rest, it was an all around good day.
We decided to take the morning off after nine difficult days. We stayed in our sleeping bags until 8:30. It was so nice to have a couple hours of extra sleep. Our trail weary bodies definitely needed it.
We spent the morning luxuriating in the warmth of two MSR stoves burning at full tilt. We ate our soup, still in Stanley insulated flasks, but in a noticeably more civilized manner — not having to wolf down bacon, soup and cheese in minutes at 40 below (it's not a pretty site, believe me).
There were also a few sewing projects to attend to. AJ and I sewed pockets into out Terramar geofleece pants to keep the fuel pumps warm (we have to keep them close to our bodies 24/7 otherwise they leak fuel). I also sewed a a pocket onto my Terramar Thermawool base layer just to keep my Clif bars warm.
"It was really nice to have the extra rest," commented AJ. "More impressive to me today, however, was the incredible silence of the Arctic Ocean. Stopping at one point, I couldn't believe how absolutely quiet it was. It makes me feel so insignificant."
The silence is also due in large part to the fact that we don't really talk that much. During the day, we ski in single file and it takes substantial effort to shout ahead. During breaks, we are often focused on eating and staying warm. We save most conversations for nights in the Big Kev, our Sierra Designs tent.
Day 9: Bad Ice
The bad omen of camping near really big pressure ridges carried through for most the morning. We seemed to be caught in a quagmire of massive ridges and small drifted pans. We all took turns leading trying to string together one flatish section of ice with the next.
"I thought it was very hard today," observed Darcy. "To make time pass a bit more easily, I hummed Farewell to Nova Scotia." All told we managed to cover almost seven and a half nautical miles.
We each take turns navigating and breaking trail during the day. We've found that hour and a half shifts are optimal — any longer and we get cold and tired. Leading is definitely the most difficult task during our travel day. However, the other positions are important too. The second in line verifies the correct bearing, smoothes out the trail and is a vital safety check keeping tabs on all the team. The last person's role is simply to rest and relax — seemingly insignificant but an important factor in conserving energy to be used the next time in lead.
We are now one-fifth completed with our expedition — although that is only a function of time. Even though we have been traveling for 9 days now, we still have 375 nautical miles — a figure that is both pleasing and worrisome. We are pleased with our progress to date and have expected rough travel early on. Unfortunately our time line is finite as we have to be picked up by April 26th.
If you haven't already, you might want to add your thoughts to the ongoing climate conversation on Newsvine.
That's all from us. Freeze dried dinner, butter and Clif bars are calling.
The Save the Poles expedition is sponsored by Bing with major support from the University of Plymouth, Terramar, Seventh Generation, Goal0, Atlas, Sierra Designs and Optic Nerve.
Remember, it's cool to be cold. Save the Poles. Save the planet.
Day 8: Frozen Leads
Is the ice more beautiful because, for us here, it is dangerous and potentially deadly? Or is it beautiful because so few people have seen this place? Perhaps, it's the fact that we are looking at something that may be gone in the future. Or does beauty lie just by existing?
We continue to be astounded by the forms and variety of ice here. Each day has seen a slight change in conditions. Today, we were pleased to find harder patches of snow as well as fewer pressure ridges; however, we are presently camped among some of the biggest pressure we've seen yet.
One surprise was finding a nearly kilometer wide lead in the early afternoon. While we regularly encounter leads, this was the first that was relatively new. Stepping gingerly, we watched as the ice bowed underneath our Atlas snowshoes and sent ripples forward. We decided to skirt the thinnest sections.
This is a good example of our of our biggest dilemmas: Go North or not. The shortest distance between here and the North Pole is a straight line (obviously). But it isn't always the direct path that is the quickest. There are so many obstacles — big and small — that we are constantly balancing effort, efficiency, distance, and most importantly, safety.
We extended one of our rest breaks so AJ could collect his first algae sample for the University of Plymouth. The algae has a unique chemical signature which scientists can use to 'ground truth' present day patterns — ice coverage and climate — with fossil records. (Check out AJ's web site for more information.)
"It felt weird standing on a thin piece of ice staring at the black abyss of the Arctic Ocean," commented AJ. "It was surprisingly difficult to manage the procedure at 40 below."
Day 7: Eight Beautiful Miles
There is nothing about this place that wants us here. Another day on the Arctic Ocean and another day at odds with ice, cold and snow. The snow conditions were a bit more favorable today, but a biting wind kept us focused on two tasks: moving north and staying warm.
Our short rest breaks have been hell (apologies) — if you can describe something so cold as that. We stand or crouch trying to find whatever warmth in our Sierra Designs parkas and Terramar base layers. Clif bars, bacon, butter and chocolate are all eaten with minimum chews. Pulling our face masks down to put in food releases heat. After 10 minutes, we start snowshoeing and may not be warm again for another 30 minutes. It is only in the tent that we get warmth from other than our own bodies. Our little MSR stoves are lifesavers.
In describing today, Darcy summarized all our thoughts by stating, "I'm just happy to be here no matter what the conditions." He continued, "and we had our best mileage to date — over eight miles."
We are seeing the sun more and more which has definitely warmed our spirits. The rich yellow light transforms the ice as it highlights here and cast shadows there. Even the smallest of flakes seem to project a larger presence... our own shadows stretched half way to the pole.
Day 6: Here Comes the Sun
The drifts of last night continued through most of the day. We seemed mired in a continued random assortment of ice and snow. Still we managed to string together enough passable pans to make progress north.
It was slow going for most of the day until the ice transformed into 1-2' thick slabs and eventually a flat lead. It was a welcome relief after several hours of very hard work. The stroke of luck was not lost on us. We appreciate small successes more and more.
The sunsets have been incredible. The sun is so low on the horizon that we can see the sun's final crimson sliver for nearly 15 minutes. After that, sunset lingers so long that we are hesitant to look away for fear of missing some bit of amazingness. Red fades into orange, yellow, then blue.
Day 5: Bacon Saved our Bacon
Scrambling up a 15-foot-tall block of ice changes my perspective just enough to help with navigation. Yesterday AJ described the ice as a puzzle, but looking at the wide panorama below, I think maze.
For as far as I can see there are large, 20-30 foot ice blocks scattered sporadically. In between, snow drifts roll, taper, begin and end with equal randomness. Some are rock hard. Others are soft.
Massive winding jumbles of ice slabs diagonal forming the only recognizable pattern. Somewhere in all that a few flat pans exist even though I can't seem to see them right now. I wish there were more. A couple of frozen flat leads means the difference between two hours struggle versus 30 minutes of leisurely travel.
We've had to remind ourselves several times that we are choosing to be here.
We lost only 350 feet due to southward drift last night. After the usual freezing wake up and frost management chores, we were off — Darcy's feet being unbearably cold for only an hour. We spent much of the day meandering (if you can call back-breaking work that) back and forth, up and over drifts and ridges. Despite coming face to face with numerous ridges, we always seem to find some way through.
We spent most of the day deep in our own thoughts. Breaks are few and short as our margin of safety is unnervingly thin.
"When we first started, it was 90 percent survival and 10 percent travel," commented Darcy. "We are slowly pushing the odds in our favor."
Because of our desire to stay warm, we lengthened our travel shift to two hours. Nearing the last few minutes, we were dangerously cold and tired. Luckily, it was our "soup" break, complete with three pieces of bacon. We all benefited from the additional energy. Our best mileage to date and bacon saved our bacon.
Remember, it's cool to be cold. Save the Poles. Save the planet.
Day 4: A Good Day
We seem to be slowly finding our rhythm. It has not been easy. The extreme cold is unforgiving and small mistakes have big consequences. We have learned to cope and modify because we have no other choice.
Despite a chilly morning, the calm air made traveling manageable — if not a little too warm. At -40 C any moisture leaving your body quickly turns to a thick coating of frost. So much in fact that we have to brush the ice off the inside of our parkas and pants at each day's end.
AJ described the day like, "figuring out a puzzle. There are so many different ice conditions to contend with that we are constantly reassessing our route."
We managed to wiggle our way through several tight jams. Scouting our route in the afternoon, we stood where three enormous ice pans collided and ground up against one another. Car-sized blocks of ice seemingly blocked our path. Luckily, we found a narrow rift to the west that eventually (after 30 minutes of hard work) led us to another pan. By all accounts, it was a good day.
Day 3: Not Easy
One half mile of hard won forward progress was effortlessly erased while we slept. A stiff wind pushed the very small pan of ice we were camped on 2.5 nautical miles from where we went to sleep — mostly west but also a bit south.
Still our spirits our high. After all, we are choosing to be here — a fact which we also question routinely. Darcy says, "getting out of the sleeping bag is the worst." AJ and I can't really blame him. We feel the same way. -40, everything covered in frost crystals, it is the epitome of "not fun."
The ice was somewhat kind to us today. We managed to find several newly frozen leads that made for nice travel. Of course, we also pulled our small sleds through an assortment of rubble, slabs, drifts, ridges, drops, inclines, soft snow and more. Today was not easy.
On a positive note, we saw the sun poke above the horizon for nearly 20 minutes. It was chillingly beautiful.
Day 1: Get set ... go
Well, what can we say. We're officially on our way. I'd try to describe some of the emotions that we've been having over the past few weeks, but I don't think any of us (on the team) has that kind of time.
I first conceived the Save the Poles expedition nearly three years ago. It's hard to believe his moment has arrived. Stretching even the most creative fibers of my mind forward, I couldn't have imagined this situation. We are excited about the journey ahead, but the physical part of our trek is only one small part of this endeavor.
Ultimately, my goal is to connect people to what I call the 'last great frozen places' left on the planet. I encourage you to use these next two months to learn more about the issues and debate surrounding climate change.
You can find more relevant information on my Web site www.ericlarsenexplore.com on what you can do on an individual and local level to reduce your carbon foot print. To comment more freely, please join the ongoing conversation on Newsvine.
Most importantly, I hope that you actively take a role in being a force for positive change. Never has the need for action on climate legislation been greater. Still, mine is a soft sell. I am not so much an explorer as a story teller. I want to tell you the story of a unique place, the Arctic Ocean.
Thank you for being part of our adventure. I look forward to our expedition to the pole!
Departure Day minus 1: Good to Go?
I have an Inuit friend who once, when witnessing a bit of waffling and last minute decision changes commented, "make up your mind now so you can change it later." For our part, we really haven't been changing our minds all that much. We've always wanted to get to the pole. It's more that all these last minute variables cause us to continuously amend our plans.
Just when we thought we had this whole mess figured out, we received news that we either had to fly tomorrow or wait several more days.
With time slipping quickly away and the worst ice conditions witnessed for quite a while, we were hardly in the position to sit tight — cheese or no cheese.
Nothing like a bit of "no other choice" to get a group motivated. The casual sewing circles of last night and this morning (to put logos on parkas) were put on hold as we moved on to packing our resupply and doing final gear checks. We managed to find a bit of freeze dried cheese, buy 5 kilos of bacon from Ozzie (at last hotel they stayed at), dice up some extra salami that we had packed with our Terramar base layers.
Now, as my team member from the South Pole, Dongsheng, recently emailed, we are GTG. Good to go. Well, almost. There are still few last minute tasks, but those are minor. We are looking forward to being on the ice, and if you can believe it, relaxing. Of course, we are really just trading one struggle for another.
Still, the prospect of flying to Cape Discovery tomorrow morning has left with an optimistic outlook. We are pleased with our gear and preparation. While we have joked that our team is more like the Bad News Bears, we are strong, smart and experienced. Our chances of success are good. But we are also pragmatic. There is a large distance between now and the pole and anything can happen. For now, we are setting the short term goal of getting our gear on the ice and setting up our first camp.
On a sad note, I wanted to offer my condolences to a good friend Scott Bishop. You are in my thoughts and I will be thinking of Noah throughout my journey.
I am lucky to have the support of Darcy and AJ — two stalwart companions. Each has assumed leadership roles as well as following roles at times during our recent chaos. We have had some fairly frank discussions but overall I am pleased at how cohesive our small group has become. There have been many others who have helped along the way.
AJ is especially grateful to all of folks at the University of Plymouth. Darcy wanted to send out a special hello and "thanks" to his son, Aden, who is his biggest inspiration. For me, I have been lucky to receive the support of Bing and Terramar as well as many other sponsors. Tim and Elisabeth are amazing as is my incredible mom. Most importantly, I want to say thanks to my girlfriend, Maria. I wouldn't be here without your support.