The North Pole sucks

Awful moments from a dream trip to hell

“The North Pole sucks” is a bit of a strong statement, but I guess I had to sound overly dramatic to get your attention.

Stay with me until the end and I guarantee you will be laughing at my expense, in fashionable Travellingscrittori spirit.

reflection of the landscape on a pair of ski goggles, the North Pole
Greenpeace North Pole 2013 – A picture of the author, taken by Gavin Newman

As I’ve touched upon in my Bio, I once travelled to the North Pole on skis. Although it was one of the defining moments in my career as a communication engineer, it left me with some bittersweet memories and a number of awkward experiences it may be worth narrating.

I’m usually more of a tropical jungle guy. I perform at my best covered in sweat and mosquitos, however, once Greenpeace offered me to participate in an expedition on skies to the North Pole, I thought a change of landscape and technical challenge could be something to sink my teeth into.

Picture of the Polar Riggen hotel in Svalbard
Polar Riggen Hotel – Svalbard

It was 2013 and after three intense months of training, testing equipment in my refrigerator and quitting smoking, off I went, to Svalbard, for a final week of preparation and acclimatisation, before a big Russian cargo plane delivered me and the rest of the expedition to Barneo Ice camp, 1 degree away from the North Pole.

A Russian Cargo aircraft landing at the North Pole
An Antonov cargo plane, landing at Barneo ice camp

Looking cool at -45, welcome to the North Pole

After a sweet landing on the ice, I prepared to get out of the plane and nervously went through all my equipment, making sure I had everything I needed on hand. I was all covered and decided to wear my Oakley sunglasses, to look slick for the pictures.

As the door opened, I was overwhelmed by the thermal shock of polar spring temperatures (below -45) and my sunnies became unusable in a nanosecond.

I could not see a thing and my eyes were also freezing, I went for the ski goggles instead, but I couldn’t reach in my pocket with my mittens on…so, had to also freeze my hands to get the goggles on… what a noob!

The view was amazing, but I spent the next twenty minutes trying to get some blood back in my fingertips.

and…nah they don’t serve champagne and canapés as you land at Barneo.

Chewing stuff is a bad habit, especially at the North Pole.

Before beginning two weeks of cross-country ski to the pole, I wanted to test the satellite equipment, just to insure communications were flowing and all the gear was 100% ready.

After putting together the tripod, the time came to secure the antenna on top of it, which required 4 steel bolts…

photo of two red tents over the pack ice, few kilometres from the North Pole
My tent at the North Pole, the Satellite antenna is visible in the background.

To do the job quicker as, just for a change I was freezing, I did the worst thing you could possibly imagine…I rested one of the bolts in my mouth. It instantly became attached to my lips and my tongue, hurting pretty badly. It took quite a bit of hot tea to “loosen” that bolt and save my tongue.

Ski, work, sleep repeat!

Once again, leaving aside the beauty of the landscape, the daily routine was comparable to an ultra-endurance sport event.

You were likely to go through 5000 calories a day, skiing for a minimum of eight hours, while pulling a sledge which was roughly 120Kg in weight.

The Skiing ain’t on a prepared Alpine resort, but on a wild landscape made of ice rubble, pressure ridges and powdery snow…when you’re lucky.

I was often snacking on solid cubes of butter to keep the body going!

My work day would however only begin after we were done skiing.

inside the tent, with all the equipment to send photo and video
My polar office

After pitching the tent, using ice screws (pretty tough shit to penetrate the ice with), I was often sending pictures and videos via satellite until 2am, charging batteries and maintaining the generators…which I’d dragged along all day in my sledge.

a tired me pitching a tent
Me pitching a tent, courtesy of Christian Aslund

Luckily the tent inner temperature would be of a “tropical” -5 after the stove had burned for a few hours!!

The Polar gourmet

While lunch was a 30 minutes break consisting of: 10 minutes to eat some hot noodles and 20 minutes to “reactivate” my fingertips and hope not to lose them due to frost-bite, dinner was a more civilised experience.

I would often scoop up some snow and melt it on the stove, then boil the yummy stew contained in one of the rations I had with me.

I really loved the chicken curry with rice, I would trade beef stew or moose any day for some chicken curry.

a polar selfie of me inside the red tent
The chicken curry grin

Ah, you don’t have to worry about the salt, the snow already comes with it! 

Survive your vices at the North Pole

While I did not smoke at the North Pole, as it could have cost me few fingers, we were all recommended to bring along some comfort drinks, to have a night cap with and celebrate a solid day of work.

Some gentle soul sent me to Svalbard a bottle of Grappa and, fear not, only the empty bottle returned from the mission!

Beer and wine are not an option, as they will freeze in a matter of minutes, however, with its 50% Alcohol content, Grappa will remain liquid even on Uranus.

As you need a bit of courage before entering your sleeping bag and turn off the stove, I’ve found Grappa extremely comforting and so did my tent buddy. We both highly recommend it ;-)

After an intense daily effort, it will take just a swig from the flask to give you a pretty good buzz…

I once spotted the Russians at Barneo camp having some liquid from a jerry can….and then playing football in short sleeves…mmm.

A joyful trip to the toilet

And indeed I’ve left the best for last, how-to poo poo on a ski journey to the North Pole! Well, this truly sucks.

As a novice of polar travel, I did my best to hold on to my number 2, as much as I possibly could, however, the call of nature will eventually come and you might need to…drink a bit of Grappa before you go.

So, here is the technique:

Make sure your tent is already up and the stove is going…

Find yourself a nice pressure ridge, to give you a bit of privacy and shelter you from the Blizzard.

Carry with you the ski poles, a spade and a roll of white gold, also known as toilet paper.

Once you are in position, undo the zippers and fast as a lightning give it your best push!

While there’s no magazine reading out there, you’ll soon notice a certain loss of sensitivity, which will make it pretty hard to judge if you’re completely done… However, time to go, let’s save some for tomorrow!

A Polar bear could be anywhere ready to get you in your most vulnerable moment.

Somewhere near the North Pole, April 2013. Photo by Gavin Newman

Don’t try this at home

As I’ve been going back to all those moments of extreme discomfort, I might book a therapy session now :-)

Jokes apart, there is some undeniable magic in a trip to the North Pole, but there is also quite some discomfort associated with it.

The North Pole is not for DYI tourists, it takes the right preparations, logistics and knowledge to get there.

Ulvar, my tent buddy

A shout out to those whom enabled an average twat like me to stay alive in such extreme environment. Thanks Eric Philips: expedition leader and excellent guitar player and thanks Ulvar: my tent buddy and outdoor expert!

13 thoughts on “The North Pole sucks

  1. Why did we not have your writing this stuff for the Greenpeace website back in the day? Fantastic. And when you mentioned smoking, my first reaction was “you smoked?” But then remembered sharing (more probably scarfing) your roll-up tobacco in the Tok’eltje. What were we thinking?

    1. Hey Brian, thanks! I guess I’ve developed a better eloquence (not always) few years down the line. This ain’t my first language and it takes quite some work.
      Anyway, yes, the Tok’eltje! I will never forget my early days in GP!

  2. It’s an amazing story about your great experience of skiing to the North Pole. I can only dream about it but I would not dare to venture that far to the north. Not many Arctic explorers had the endurance and courage to ski to the North Pole. As far as I know Nansen tried and almost reached it but stopped short and turned back.

    1. Thanks Natalia, just to clarify, I’ve done this in 2013 and the major thing separating my experience from the real explorers of the past is technology. They didn’t have gore tex, communication equipment, termorest mats, an helicopter or a plane in stand by and a number of items which allowed a very average human (like me) to survive polar travel.
      So, trust me, there is nothing special about my stint to the North Pole.

  3. My hubby has always dreamed about doing something, volunteering, working for 6 months etc in the North Pole, South Pole, Antartica – this story is AMAZING and I am going to share it with him as I think he would appreciate it! So interesting to see this extreme behind-the-scenes.

  4. I tried skiing once in my life and that is enough for me. Days spent in the cold skiing and trying not to freeze to death sounds super not relaxing, so kudos for finishing the journey!

  5. I laughed my way through this post. Wonderful way of writing! & I wouldn’t even want to travel to the North Pole even in my dreams. I’ve done about -1 or -2 degrees Celsius & I realized I wasn’t cut out for that kind of cold.

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