Wednesday, 15 October 2014 20:00

Once in a Lifetime Trips

PolarExplorers' North Pole 10 K Ski Expedition selected as one "The World's 50 Most Extraordinary and Memorable Travel Experiences"

By Chris Santella

Few travelers are prepared to mush 475 miles through temperatures of -35 degrees Fahrenheit (and colder) to reach the North Pole as explorer Robert Peary and his partner Matthew Henson did in 1909 - and as Rick Sweitzer did in 1992. Thanks to Sweitzer and the adventure travel company PolarExplorers, you can participate in a miniature North Pole expedition that distills the thrill of reaching the top of the world in the course of a 5-day adventure via jet, helicopter and cross country skis.

Your expedition begins in Oslo, Norway, with a reception at the Fram Museum, which is devoted to the history of polar exploration. After a night at the Hotel Continental, you'll rise early for a two-and-a-half hour flight to Longyearbyen, a selltement on the island of Spitsbergen. Spitsbergen is 400 miles north of the northernost point in Europe. Though isolated by anyone's standards (the island has been chosen by the Nowegian government to house a doomsday seed bank), Longyearbyen is surprisingly well appointed with fine lodging and eateries, thanks to the cola mining operations that were established here in the early twentieth century, and to the town's more recent emergence as the gateway to Arctic adventure.


"I call Longyearbyen the Chamonix of the Arctic," polar explorer Rick Sweitzer says. "There are fjords, mountains, and glaciers - all very beautiful - plus a very happening scene. One restaurant - Huset - has the largest wine cellar in all of Norway." You'll stay the night at the Spitsbergen Hotel, built in the 1940's as a mining company headquarters. Dinner will be at the Funken Restaurant in the hotel, which looks out over the town and Longyear Glacier. Cuisine here has a French flair, though Arctic specialties such as seal, whale, reindeer, grouse, char, and occassionaly polar bear are available for the adventurous palate.

The following day you'll board a chartered Antanov 74 jet to venture farther off the grid to Barneo, a research camp at 89 degrees north latitude - about 600 miles from the Pole, or another two and a half hours from Longyearbyen. "Barneo is maintained as a basecamp by the Russian government for three or four weeks a year for researchers and adventurers heading to the Pole," Sweitzer explains. "Its exact location is always shifting - like that of the North Pole itself - as it's a spot on the ice, and the ice is moving. Each year a few people will investigate the general area to find ice that is thick enough to land a plane on - 1.65 meters is enough. They'll then parachute a tractor in to smooth out a runway on the ice that can accommodate a jet; it has to be at least a thousand meters in length. The pilots are exceedingly skillful; the landing is so smooth, you can't believe you're landing on a runway carved on ice."

The following morning you'll make your assault on the Pole. After breakfast you'll climb into a Russian  Mi-8 helicopter and be flown within striking distance - generally 10 kilometers away. The helicopter pilot will determine a landing point that will minimize any pressure ridges and open water that the group might have to pass. "We're usually on the ice by noon," Sweitzer says, "and we try to get moving as soon as possible so we can maintain warmth. Guests feel both anticipation and trepidation as we set off on our skis. I think this is because there's such a palpable sense of heading off into the unknown."

The geographic North Pole is a fixed point on the ocean floor, some 12,000 feet below the surface of the Arctic Ocean, but as mentioned before, the ice that covers the surface is constantly moving. Thus, explorers use GPS to locate the Pole, which is 90 degrees north latitude. "There's no straight line to reach the top of the world, as it is always shifting," Sweitzer explains. "Sometimes we'll have to zig east or west or even south to go around pressure ridges or stretches of open water, or to accommodation the drift of ice. When the GPS reads 89.59, we know we're getting very close and we'll usually unhitch the sleds we've been pulling. The group heads left, then right, trying to locate the magical 90 degrees. Finally we find it and click "Save" on the GPS. We have a good bottle of champagne along and a champagne flute for each guest, and we have a toast and snap a bunch of photos to celebrate. Everywhere you look is south. Everywhere the ice is drifting south. It's a tough concept to grasp."

That night you and your fellow explorers will pitch tents at the North Pole and enjoy a calorie-laden dinner like fettuccine carbonara; a heavy meal is essential, as your body is churning out heat twenty-four hours a day to maintain your core temperature and needs fuel. You'll sleep two or three to a tent, in a heavy-duty sleeping bag and bivy sack with two sleeping pads between you and the ice. Each tent has a camp stove ro supply a bit of extra heat.

"The next morning we'll wake up two to five miles from where we went to sleep, thanks to the drifting ice," Sweitzer says. "We'll have a little breakfast, and soon the Mi-8 will touch down to scoop us up. There will be time for some hot soup at Barneo before the Antanov 74 lands to bring us back to Longyearbyen, which looks pretty warm after the North Pole. Before the day is out, you'll be enjoying a hot shower at the Spitsbergen Hotel and a drink by the fireplace, while you review your pictures of the top of the world."

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