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Expedition to the North Pole

February 1, 2013

I recently attended an especially interesting Discovery Evening put on by Nature Manitoba.  The speaker was a search and rescue technician and one of a three-man team that crossed the sea ice to the north pole.  They started at the most northerly point of Canada, Cape Discovery on Ellesmere Island, and travelled on skiis and snowshoes while pulling sledges.

As I listened and watched the images from that trip, I was strongly reminded of another expedition, this one to the south pole in 1908.  I had recently read Sir Ernest Shackleton’s book The Heart of the Antarctic that told this story.  The south party of four men travelled on foot, coming within 100 miles of the pole before turning back.  They used ponies to pull the sledges.  When the ponies died, they ate the ponies and pulled the sledges themselves.  They left caches of food along the way for the return journey.  The party was cut off from the outside world as soon as they left their cabin, with no chance of rescue.  They only turned back when their food supplies were too low to carry on.  All of them returned safely to the coast.

The three men of the Canadian expedition had to cross many obstacles.  There were pressure ridges that they had to climb over, leads in the sea ice that they had to jump, and even stretches of open water where they had to swim across in waterproof suits.  It was clearly a difficult journey, one of extreme cold, constant exertion, and high winds.  Their clothing and sleeping bags grew heavier as ice accumulated in them.  Imagine trying to dry them in sub-zero weather.  They relied on naptha-fueled stoves to heat their tents and to melt snow for water.  They even had to deal with occasional food poisoning and injuries in the course of their trip.

They carried most of their supplies with them on sledges, although they were resupplied twice by air drops.  Even though they prepared everything they needed at home, and shipped all of it to the arctic, some of it never arrived.  Our speaker spent three weeks cooking bacon on the barbecue, but it vanished in transit.  They had to purchase some items in the arctic, just before they stepped onto the ice.  Stove fuel and food were essential; they couldn’t live without these.  They ate a high-fat diet, eating sticks of butter for snacks.  Unlike Shackleton’s expedition, they carried modern electronic equipment and could call for evacuation by air in an emergency.  Fortunately that was not necessary.  It would have been the end of their trip.

When this band of three finally reached the pole, after 50 days on the ice, they found it teeming with people.  Russian helicoptors were bringing fat tourists to the north pole where they drank champagne and ate caviar and then scrambled back on board.  Imagine the contrast with these three slim and fit men with bushy beards arriving on skiis and pulling sledges.  From there, they were airlifted by helicoptor to a Russian base, then flown to Svalbard, and finally home again.

Everybody at the Nature Manitoba meeting was impressed with this story.  Questions flew at the speaker from all over the audience:  what happened to the bacon, for example.  He had no idea where it went.  I was amazed at the privations they endured and the risks that they took on this journey, even with the electronic equipment that enabled them to be in constant contact with the outside world.  I don’t think many in the room would be able to do what they did.

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