Eric Phillips looking for a safe way down off a large block of ice, it looks solid enough… But is it???
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.
An ice report from Trudy Wohlleben at the Canadian Ice Service indicates a massive open lead spanning west longitudes 76 to 80. 5km wide in places, we will try and outflank it, aiming for the termination of it’s northwesterly branch. Another day of flat and murky light with waves of frozen leads pressure ridges, the latter will increase as we approach Canada. Slow yes, but we also paused to film and admire the destruction. Fractured, blocky, angular, and glowing cyan in the eerie light, we were mesmerised by the brutal beauty if it all. Ten km only but hard fought and in awe.
Pic of Bernice crossing a crack.
Another day spent ‘living in a glass of milk’. No shortage of ‘interest’. Perhaps more than was fun to deal with.
By now I am used to the biting wind in my face, the cracks in my lips, the itching frostbite on my cheek, the bruises on my legs from falling on ice blocks and the nasty blister that won’t go away under my toe. The physical hardship has its own routine. Rarely am I ready to get up when the alarm goes off. My body yearns for another hour of sleep, or two. After a strong cup of coffee and porridge, It is time to go outside, face the wind expose your cheeks and do your business, fast. Two weeks ago, I actually got frostbite on my right thigh as I was too slow unrolling the toilet paper in a blizzard. One hour into the day, my hand hurts from the thousands of pole plants I have done so far, the repetition of the same motion, over and over again. After each break the blood flows back to my core and stomach to digest the food. I press my fingers around my thumbs that are frostbitten to get the blood pumping into my extremities, that can last a long painful hour. The physical hardship is temporarily forgotten when all attention is needed for a lead crossing or pressure ridge scramble but when we slog our sledges forward, the sensation and pains are right back. Hardship belongs on expeditions, it is not the same without it, the driving force of it all is suffering and no where to go for relief. How you deal with hardship is a purely up to the individual. Martin and I made a pact to check each other for frostbite on our noses and cheeks. We tend to push further and harder on expeditions because there is so much at stake and the reward so great if we reach Canada. Occasionally thoughts of doubt enter the mind, even now getting close to one month on the ice, after another hard day you wonder how much you still have left and if are strong, tough and resilient to complete this trip. If you let it, the mental hardship rules the physical one. What if, one morning, you can’t bear the cold anymore, the lack of stimulus, the remoteness, you simply had enough of it all? What if break down from bad news back home, or recover from a fight with teammates? Mental toughness gets you through everything on harsh expeditions like this, and you take the injuries and pains for granted. How do we get through? The more dire the situation, the more jokes we crack. Perhaps not the smartest but the best for us to get to Canada.
Try as we may to get our sleds to follow a good line, today just wasn’t the day for it – they seemed to find every piece of wayward ice on our route. Contrast and definition were dismal which made route finding through the pressure ridges and sastrugi like navigating a boulder-strewn maze with a blindfold. I went by intuition today, using 12 years of memory mapping to predict what might lie ahead of that I felt beneath my skis. Mostly it worked but not without battle scars. The strain of 10km of working my sled through the mess, and occasionally those of Martin and Bernice as I would unclip and return to help, left me with claw hands, swollen knuckles, bloodied toes (from a renegade toenail), a twisted knee and strained eyes. To boot I swam a lead just before lunch. The Arctic Ocean is a place like no other that so perfectly blends everything required in a day of high adventure.
Pic of our camp under a bleak sky.