We never thought it could come to this but we are forced to leave the expedition whenever an airplane from Kenn Borek can get to us. We are currently 194 km from the coast of Canada and have been given a May 12 deadline for an ice pick up. We have tried to get an extension but the answer is no. Where ice pick ups possible in the past few years as late as June 13 now due to unpredictable weather in combination with arctic ice conditions, this date has been set much earlier since it is too risky to land on ice much later in the season. We are currently dealing with challenging conditions, many leads of open water, problematic pressure ridges and add to that a cocktail of zero visibility, accumulative snow, easterly drift again and strong winds as a series of storms have been nailing us during the last 11 days.
The road ahead is too unpredictable to risk without a safety net of a pick up in case of an emergency, an uncrossable lead or pressure ridge. Through the Canadian Ice Survey we have been given updates and know that some more difficult terrain is ahead of us as the ice collides and stacks up vertically against the coast. The storms and relentless southwest winds has mobilized the ice and it is breaking up. You can tally the distances from our last 10 days, and you will see we can’t stick to progress despite committing to long and hard days in adverse weather and ice conditions. We have given it our best effort.
This sadly leaves us to only one conclusion, the hardest one to make, and to take the last flight before Kenn Borek shuts down for the season.
This expedition has never been about a new route, a record or any kind of polar laurels but our aim has always been to simply show and tell how treacherous and spectacular the Arctic is and what is at stake. In these 40 days here, I believe we have given the world the best of our impressions in words and image and soon in film. The Arctic is incredible yet fragile and we desperately need to protect and preserve what remains left of it and I feel we have been successful in this. We are very fortunate to have been part of this expedition and for Plant for the Planet to commit and support to this experience. We dealt with adverse conditions that hindered us in a brutal way but also gave us an opportunity to witness and document what is at stake as we have crossed the various latitudes on our way south. We drifted 175 km to the east, 40 km to the North, had 3 major long lasting blizzards but we still manage to ski over 500 km. We continue skiing and documenting until the airplane lands which at this point is still uncertain because, yes once again, the visibility is zero. I will keep updating this blog until we are in Resolute Bay in Canada. Thank you all for your incredible support, this has meant and still means a lot to us..
We have entered the dramatic zone that the Canadian Arctic Survey calls “trouble”.
Did only 2 km today through wicked yet spectacular ice fields and frozen leads that will last 10 km. We are camped in the middle of it now and spend the rest of the day filming pulling sleds in the pressure ridges. The sky cleared, wind stopped and the sun poked through.We climbed on top of an iceberg and saw for the first time the incredible anarchy of ice blocks all around us. The horizon is filled with blue ice and black reflections of leads. Incredible to see, scary to have to go through.
Today was a real mood buster. Again a day with the same. Dim, gloomy and zero visibility. We also got into areas of pressure ridges again, ice blocks now covered with snow for the extra challenge. Between the ice blocks is slushy half frozen water of a brilliant blue colour and easily mistaken for sturdy ice until you step on it. Since the 84th latitude the pressure ridges have increased in size and in frequency. The flat pans are getting smaller and that is where you usually can speed up to get some distance. But not today. The predominant Southwest winds have formed frozen sand dunes perpendicular to our ski direction which means you have to negotiate many bumps in flat light. Good news about today is we didn’t have to swim or raft a lead in this nasty weather that doesn’t know when to stop. We all feel frustrated. We make no progress, the mixture of pressure ridges and the many leads in flat light makes not only challenging but dangerous. The Arctic is a grim place when it is like this and offer no solace for the mind or soul. It loses all its attractiveness and turns hostile if you let it get to you. No wonder early explorers suffered from bouts of depression when they had to deal with conditions like these. I wonder if a doses of prozac will make it better out here if you need to get rid of the polar blues for a day.
Then in the midst of a pressure ridge you find an amazing piece of multiyear ice, with different bands of colour, algae and icicles. This piece is at least a few years old and hopefully will survive this summer melt. The block of ice reminds me of a humpback whale when it emerges from the water, and you see the baleen hanging of it. That was all I needed today, a reminder how precious The Arctic really is.
The feverish temperature rise in the Arctic has puzzled scientists: The most up-to-date climate models, such as those in the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fail to reproduce the rapid warming seen in the Arctic.
Researchers see a link between tropical sea-surface temperatures and the North Atlantic Oscillation, a climate pattern that dominates Arctic weather. Since the 1990s, warm sea-surface temperatures in the western Pacific and cool waters in the eastern Pacific have pushed the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) into a pattern that allows high pressure above Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. (High atmospheric pressure leads to warmer temperatures.) The NAO was in a negative fase in march and april hence the violent storm and cold weather we were experiencing in April and we are now again since the last 12 days in another cycle of west winds (drifting again to the east) and lots of snowfall. With predominant high pressure systems in the Arctic, storms usually come and go but we notice that they linger and come with lots of wind and moisture.
Definitely a better day although we skied in zero visibility all day. Not sure if you get used to it or we have forgotten what sunshine was all about. Goggles, face masks, hats, and many layers in the frigid blasting winds today, a classic north pole day. Hit the 200 km mark – if we are not drifting back tonight (4 km to the east last night).
We were forewarned by the Canadian Ice Survey that there would be many leads developing due to this relentless storm we are having. Day 8 now of no visibility, extreme winds, and snow. It is rare to snow this much in the Arctic as well as these incredible length of storm cycles. At the end of the day, we got stopped once again by a lead. To our north we saw a dark cloud hanging over the horizon, indicating open water and to our south, one big lake. The new leads that are developing are running east- west so on our way south we cross many of those new leads.The last one of today around 6 pm provided us with a real challenge. It was under pressure and just like plate tectonics through friction, ice blocks and rubble will start to move, collide and crumble or pile up. In awe we stood on top of this ridge and watched the other side go by, or was it our side? This movement is all caused by the strong southwest winds we are experiencing for the last week. In the lead itself emerged a massive ice block that rotated when it came in contact with water. Because there was no snow attached to it it must have come from the deep abyss of the ocean. What a spectacle it was. Now we could see hoe tons of ice ends on top of a ridge.by it simply getting pushed up there by power and with the next pressure, it may fall in the lead and disappear in the arctic. It was also our only chance to cross to the other side and we have to be very quick to operate on moving ice. We dragged the sleds across first and then we jumped from the moving ice to another shore that was slowly moving. It felt like jumping from a moving train to another.
Perhaps not the safest we bave done so far but it was our only choice. “And then there is tea” Martin said as we skied away to find a place to camp.
We were going so well this morning. A lead right at camp that Eric swam after breakfast, a quick ferry across with the sleds and then endless pans of virgin white snow, flat and infinite.The pressure ridges were all manageable and at around 11 am the sun even came out briefly. We are hoping to really make some miles today after losing so much time negotiating pressure ridges and crossing leads the past five days. I almost took out the GPS to see our progress at lunch but enjoyed the sunshine and being out of the wind instead. We found an sheltering block of ice that looked like a oyster shell, spectacular. Not even 15 minutes after lunch we got stopped by a yet another lead. This one was too wide to swim across (400 meters) and we had no choice to ski the shoreline to search for a way to the other side, even if you have to ski for kilometres. Martin spotted tracks of arctic foxes, and got nervous about polar bears because foxes travel with bears and eat leftover seal. There was only one option to cross and this part of the lead was moving, as there is pressure moving the mobile ice. When you watch it, you don’t know which part is moving, you or the shore. Eric swam through shuga, blender ice, tough slushy ice to get through and hard to pull himself to shore. Martin and I connected the sleds to be rafted with our bodies and skis. While putting them in the water, we stepped through the ice and got our boots wet. Luckily we got out in time because it only takes 4 minutes with full submersion into these arctic waters to die of hypothermia. The other side turns out to be an island and we had no way back. An ice block miraculously lined up with the island, and was just the perfect bridge to get across to yet another block of ice, another lead and eventually the real shoreline. We floated our sleds across while we clamber over the ice cubes. It took all of 5 hours to do this lead, so out the window goes our mileage for the day: 5 kilometres and negative drift to the north. Forecast for the next days: more storm!
Right out of camp we got to deal with a giant pressure ridge crossing, the biggest one yet. Blocks of ice pressed together and tumbled over each other, thousands of tons of beautiful blue ice covered in a fresh white coating of snow. At first you look at it and wonder how you are going to attack this. Think of an ice cube tray in the freezer that spills on the floor and all the cubes pile on top of each other, refreeze and then sprinkle snow on top of it all. And you are a midget with a sled going through it . It took us all morning to find a safe route over the pressure ridge and it took the three of us to pull the sleds across a mountain of ice and slide it of to the other side. We got discouraged to see more of this on the horizon and wonder if we have the strength to do this all day long. It was exhausting but truly exciting to make the unthinkable possible. It has snowed a couple of centimetres now which makes it difficult to see the cracks between and it makes the ice blocks very slippery, another hazard to add to our long list of unfriendly characteristics of the arctic. On the other side we saw the first evidence of multiyear ice, algae on the bottom of the block and it was at least 5 meters high. We don’t really know how many years the ice is, it doesn’t have rings like trees but it does have bands, each has a significant colour, from blue to light green to white. Underneath the block hang icicles that taste like salt. In the block itself you see streaks, the salt expelling from the ice in vertical columns inside the ice. The most fascinating thing is the size of them. They are humongous, like a small house and I am excited to see a few of these at 85 degrees of latitude. how long will it take for this piece of ice to melt? We all know that it eventually does, especially when it comes in touch with water even multiyear ice will someday melt and be part of the ocean. Crossed may leads again, Martin fell in the water with his right leg (luckily not bis camera) and the visibility went down again in the afternoon. We only did 3 km, our lowest record yet. New storm has moved in with big winds from the south that will drift the mobile ice to the North. Finished the day sith a phone call to the Canadian ice survey in Ottawa. More wind and low visibility on our way, snow and drift to the north. We are in the weather now for a week and can’t make any progress if we can’t see!
We are on top of the world, looking down on creation it is the only explanation I can find, Eric sings after The Carpenters, somewhere in the middle of a pressure ridge with no end to which Martin respond with his hindi imitation: “if it was god’s creation, there would only be daisy fields here..”. And so go our edays, finding humour in dire situations. We often belly ache from laughing, feeding on each others wit and corky sense of humour. We create songs with lines we say, and each morning when the alarm goes of, Eric serenades us with random lines from songs on the top of his longs.
Speaking of top of the world. I was quizzing the boys about the 5 poles in the Arctic, something we never think about if we speak about the North Pole. When we say North Pole, we are thinking of the geographical north pole, the absolute fixed cap on the globe but there is the north magnetic pole to which our compass points and which is not stationary but rambles at present northwest of Ellesmere island, the geomagnetic pole, which centres the earth’s magnetic field and sits today over northwest Greenland; the northern pole of inaccessibility, a magnificently named spot in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska, which represents the point farthest in all directions from land, currently 1100 km from the nearest coast and there is even a pole in the sky, the north celestial pole, the astronomical extension of a line drawn through the earth’s axis which hits Polaris. Some people have the fantasy to visit those 4 poles but the reality to pull this of is difficult, perhaps that is why it is still not done.
We have gone far enough West now to avoid this giant lead which we expect to see tomorrow (I hope not) And we will cross the 85th degree of latitude, two more to go! Yippie!
The fortune in my cookie this morning reads: resist a temptation to take shortcuts of any kind. How appropriate for today, rubble, leads and pressure ridges as far as the eye could see. We were dying to find a shortcut in this chaos because it will be a time consuming and exhausting day. All favours of the Arctic have once turned against us, negative drift to the north, low visibility, soft snow, and endless vista’s of blocks of ice that want to melt and give way to summer. To add salt to injury, we got a text message from the Canadian Ice Survey reporting a massive lead at the 85 degree of latitude and W078 and guess what?, it is directly in our path south. It is 2 to 5 km wide and 10 km long, an expedition stopper because you can’t swim or float 2 km long. We are trying to get to W080 to skirt around it but the wind drift us back east, what is new! It is strenuous to push and pull your sleds over every single ice block, at awkward angles and if you don’t give it all you got, it slides down the hill and you start all over again. At then after a two hour session we are nagged and ready for a break, food and water. After 6 hours of this, including a swim across a lead, we only logged 5.85 km. How demoralizing and frustrating, every polar traveler done this route will agree.. Luckily for the last two hours of the day, we had some flatter terrain and where able to finish the day off with 8.5 km. After supper, we are turning in early and hope for a more cooperative Arctic tomorrow.
On March 14 1895, Nansen’s ship Fram of Norway sat very close to the same latitude we are right now, the highest a ship has ever drifted north in the trans polar current. Nansen and Johanssen left the ship for their attempt to reach the ‘North Pole. Nansen was the first one to use skis for his attempt. The ice was good then. In the first week they made 35 km a day and by March 29 they reached a new record at 85.09’N, only 450 km to the pole remained. On April 1 Johanssen’s chronometer stopped and their luck turned against them as the ice was getting rotten, leads were opening up and pressure ridges so high, it stopped the dogs. They were fighting the southerly drift (75 km to to the south) that Nansen wrote in his dairy ‘we seem to toil all we can, but without much progress’. Nansen skied ahead bur reported just leads and ice blocks stretching as far as the horizon. They had reached 86.13’06″N a record by three degrees. They turned around and headed for Franz Joseph land where they were hoping to be picked up by boat
> This very terrain is also troubling us like it did Nansen. Did we cross perfect plains further north, now we only cross pressure ridges and leads, interspersed with wretched snow, uneven ice and hardly any visibility. The Arctic has started to melt: not only because it is May but we are getting closer to the coast. We only did 10 km today, battling the flat light and dozens of pressure ridges that are formed like hedges around a lead and are painfully slow and holding us back.