At the Geographic North Pole at 90 degrees Northern Latitude (looking south, of course)
The North Pole
Altitude: Sea Level (plus 5' of ice above the ocean surface)
Tidbits: The lines of time converge at the pole, so time is anything you want it to be. More people make it to the top of Everest than make it to the North pole.
Pole Achieved, April 10, 2009
Time Zone: All of them
When to go:
Due to the incredibly difficult logistics, there is a very narrow window to get to the pole on foot, usually from the first week through the third week in April. I timed my arrival at the pole as close as possible to the 100th anniversary of the first conquest of the pole by Admiral Perry (who reached the pole on April 6, 1909).
Where do I start...The trip to the pole involved 10 flights, 2 helicopter shuttles, 18,000 miles of (roundtrip) air travel, and a short walk (or long ski) starting from my home in San Francisco, connecting in Newark, flying to Oslo, then a flight to Tromso (the northernmost city in mainland Norway), then a flight to Longyearbyen (the northernmost inhabited town in the world located on Spitsbergen Island in Norway, about 1,000 miles NORTH of Iceland), followed by a flight on a Russian AN-74 cargo plane supplying the Barneo Arctic floating research station, then a flight on a Russian MI-8 military helicopter to the vicinity of the actual pole, then a hike to the actual pole itself.
Hotel and Climb Reservation:
The pole can only be achieved with massive logistical support. I used the services of the famed Russian Arctic Explorer Victor Boyarsky who runs the Barneo Floating Research Station. Arrangements should generally be made at least 5 months in advance, but many people make arrangements one year in advance since only a limited number of people can be transported to the pole at a given time due to logistical limitations. In Longyearbyen there are a limited number of hotels and guest houses that are expensive and fill up quickly. Book early. I stayed at the SAS Radisson Hotel (the northernmost hotel in the world, but then again, everything in Longyearbyen is the "northernmost"). The cost for a room was about $275 (US) per night. Another hotel that I recommend in "Basecamp" located about 300 yards from the Radisson and is completely decorated in a trapper's theme with wood, furs, etc. (the restaurant at Basecamp was exceptional, especially considering where you are).
The weather during my trip was a little colder than usual (-40). My gear consisted of a wicking underwear layer, a flannel shirt/pants, a wool sweater, and a Thinsulate-insulated pants and coat, thermal socks (worn over thin nylon socks), waterproof boots, an insulated wind-stopper hat, balaclava (in addition to the insulated hood on my jacket), and a pair of insulated gloves. I was told that Gore-Tex jackets are not really necessary due to the lack of precipitation and I found I was quite warm with all of this equipment. I also carried a small backpack with an insulated water bottle (which began to freeze in less than 2 hours) and a GPS to find the actual pole. You should note that high-power rifles are absolutely required at all times due to the risk of Polar Bear attacks. Some groups choose to take a large-caliber pistol, but the stopping power of this type of weapon against a hungry attacking bear is questionable.
There is only one option to get to Longyearbyen, which is to fly SAS Airways. The cost from Oslo is about $500 roundtrip. Nearly all flights stop in Tromso. If your schedule permits, you may want to stop over for a night an enjoy this picturesque city which bills itself as "The Paris of the North". It also claims to have the world's best vantage point for viewing the Northern Lights. Getting from Longyearbyen to the Barneo research station and then to the pole must be coordinated through Dr. Boyarsky's company, VICAAR, based in St. Petersburg Russia. Roundtrip arrangements including flights from Longyearbyen cost between $15,000 and $20,000. You can book through other companies, but they will ALL use Vicaar's services and you'll end up paying more.
So, as I entered the next phase of my midlife crisis I was tempted to buy a sports car but opted to try something different and head to the North Pole on the 100th anniversary of Admiral Perry's trip. I started making plans in October of 2008 for a April 2009 trip. The logistics of getting to the pole and maintaining equipment is extremely expensive and there is only one company in the world right now that maintains logistical support during the hiking season. The company is VICAAR located in St. Petersburg, Russia and run by Arctic Explorer Victor Boyarsky. The research station is setup and dismantled every year during a very narrow time window. Polar night ends on March 21st, and VICAAR scopes out suitable locations (e.g. floating icebergs of suitable depth with flat tops within 100 miles of the pole) a year earlier. The iceberg will get frozen in the icecap and they parachute fuel and a bulldozer in late March. A crew will helicopter in and prepare an ice runway. The station is then constructed and equipt with generators, about 8 tents, and the only "out-house" within 1500 miles. Once the runway is constructed, supplies and personnel arrive and the station is maintained by a crew of about 18 people. They also fly in two massive MI-8 helicopters. They need to abandon the facility my late April since the ice begins melting and the surface water poses a threat to the aircraft. A video of the construction of the Barneo camp can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kX-T-PEZHdM
The launching point for the trips to Barneo is Longyearbyen, then northernmost town in the world located in Norway about 1,000 miles NORTH of Iceland. Longyearbyen is serviced by SAS Airways and is a remarkable community of about 1000 people located on Spitsbergen Island. I arrived via Oslo and Tromso (about a 4+ hour trip in total from Oslo). There were two things I immediately noticed. First, EVERYTHING is covered in snow...the mountains, the sea, the streets, and the runway. Secondly, due to the angle that the sun hits the Earth's atmosphere in the high latitudes, the sun appears as a fiery glob that takes up a HUGE portion of the sky. This distortion effect would become more pronounced as I continued my trip north and can be viewed in some of the photos.
Arriving at Longyearbyen airport (note sun in background)
A view of the Longyearbyen countryside and inlet
I was met at the airport by a guide from VICAAR and was immediately impressed with how well they handle logistics. They have their own cargo facility at the airport itself and I could see the gear being laid out for the next day's flights. I attended a safety briefing and met some people who would be accompanying me on the flight. One thing that made me feel a bit "safer" (remember, it is a RUSSIAN plane...) was that the US Navy and The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration were both sending cargo and personnel on the flight. Vicaar also arranged for polar gear to be distributed to each participant. Although you are welcome to use your own equipment, they felt it would be better to use equipment and clothing that they knew was proven at the pole. I was pleased with the quality of the clothing and decided to use most of it (it is yours to keep after the trip).
I checked in to the Radisson hotel, which was comfortable, especially considering where you were. I decided to explore the town a bit (which doesn't take long...it's not that big). The Norwegians celebrate Easter a few days before and after Easter Sunday so most stores were closed. I visited a restaurant and local bar and was impressed with how much the people enjoyed the weather and lifestyle there. The town is located at 78 degrees north latitude and it was rather strange walking around at midnight in the bright sunshine. Another interesting aspect of the area is that there are lots of polar bears on the island and during the winter they will not hesitate to attack (e.g. eat) you. So you are required to carry a firearm with you if you leave town (just ask for one at the hotel lobby). It is a bit strange seeing people driving around on their snow mobiles with high power rifles slung over their shoulders. I saw an amusing sign (below) when I entered one of the hotels.
I also had a chance to drive up to see the global seed vault, also known as "the Ark". This is a massive storage facility built into the mountains and intended to preserve the world's seeds and their unique genetic material. Longyearbyen was selected since the mountain is permanently frozen (e.g. seeds can be preserved in the event of power outages following nuclear war, meteor strike, new diseases, etc.).
Outside the Global seed Vault (aka "The Ark")
The next morning I headed to the airport to board the flight to the research station. The flight did not disappoint in that it was loaded just as I thought it would be...stacked to the brim with supplies.
Neatness doesn't count on the cargo planes making supply runs
One interesting aspect of the flight is that we had to go through security at the airport before boarding. The standard rules applied...no weapons, no liquids in excess of 3 ounces, etc. After getting airborne and out of Norwegian airspace, they walked through the aisles passing out weapons, knives, ammunition, etc....you realize that you're not in Kansas anymore! After about 2 1/2 hours we could see the Barneo ice camp and we landed without incident.
Barneo Ice Camp seen from the air
At Barneo Ice Camp...24 miles to the pole
It was -30 at the camp, but the tents were heated and comfortable. At camp you had a feeling of incredible isolation and clearly, people had no business being up in this part of the world. There were a few safety rules...the biggest danger was falling through the ice, so you had to stay in the marked camp area which was checked earlier in the day for ice cracks. It is a bit odd to realize that you are standing on MOVING ice and the seawater is just a few feet below you. A day or two earlier two skiers stepped on some snow (outside of camp near the pole) and fell through to the open sea. They quickly extricated themselves and changed their clothes and started a stove before they froze.
On the flight to the pole you can actually see open water within a few miles of the pole, a tell-tale sign of global warming. Shortly after arriving and unloading the cargo, the AN-74 flew back to Norway to pickup some supplies for the Navy. It was a very unsettling feeling seeing your ride fly away knowing that if the plane breaks you're stuck there.
-30 at camp
Sorting out supplies at camp
Ice melting a few miles from the pole
Dr. Boyarsky and I before leaving for the pole
After settling into camp we took advantage of the good weather window (a bright blue sky and no wind) and headed out to the pole itself. Because of the direction of the icepack flow, we were only 24 miles from the pole and made the trip on the heavily laden helicopter in about 15 minutes. When approaching the landing site, the helicopter hovered and a crewman jumped out with a probing pole to make sure the ice was stable enough to hold the helicopter and that there was no open water (the pilot joked that the crewman is expendable, but the helicopter is not). After arriving, we had to get "the pole" itself for picture purposes. I had to walk a bit to get to the true pole with the help of my GPS. I called my dad on a satellite phone and he asked me what time it was. I told him "any time I want it to be" (I waited a long time to actually be able to use that sentence). Here is a video of me at the exact North Pole: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMVDcos7iq8
At the landing site close to the pole
Walking back from the actual pole looking at my ride home...Let's hope the damn helicopter starts
For those of you who have young children and are looking at the website with them, yes, Santa's castle was located at the North Pole and had a huge snow wall around it. I snuck in by wearing a hat I stole from one of the elves when they were not looking and took a picture (below).
At Santa's house at the North Pole
After two hours we returned to the research camp and then I headed back to Longyearbyen on the next transport plane. All-in-all a wonderful and unique experience.
Longyearbyen offers a lot of outdoor activities and it is situated at the base of the third largest glacier in the world. The following day I took a snowmobile trip to a Russian mining colony (about 80 miles roundtrip) and we hit some really bad weather with snow falling at a rate of several inches an hour and hurricane force winds.. One snowmobile driver couldn't see in the poor conditions and drove his machine into a river. Another person flipped and was injured.
Right-siding a down snow mobile
As soon as you stop, the rifles come out
Why ride a snow mobile when you can walk
On my last day, I learned that there is a unique phenomenon that exists with the glacier. Each summer water melts inside and forms a single tunnel that extends several miles with incredible ice formations.
Ice cave entrance...not for the claustrophobic
Ice cave pathway within the glacier
A tight fit in the glacier
Some beautiful ice formations along the tunnel