North Pole Journal

June 3, 2004

In April 2004, alumnus Stuart Smith, BBA '82, made a journey most heat-loving Texans couldn't imagine -- spending more than a week on cross-country skis and in frigid temperatures -- just to be able to ski the "last degree" to the North Pole.

When Smith and the eight members of his group weren't traversing the ice and snow, he took time to journal some thoughts and details about his arctic adventure for Baylor Magazine readers.

Monday, April 12

After three days of travel, we descended through a layer of broken clouds over the Norwegian Sea to survey the icy whiteness of Svalbard, a group of islands well north of mainland Norway. We flew along the bay, which was clogged with ice, and landed at Longyearbyen, a small settlement at 78 degrees north. After exiting the plane, we walked carefully across the ice-covered apron to the small terminal building. Two other members of our North Pole trip, Lars and Thomas, were on the plane, and we met Stig-Tore, our assistant leader, at the airport for the quick trip into town. Longyearbyen (population 1,500) was developed as a coal mining town in the 1800s and now is mainly an Arctic tourist destination. At supper, we met two more members of the group, Max and Torstein, who had arrived earlier in the week and spent the day dogsledding. The remaining three members of the group should arrive tomorrow, and, weather permitting, we should fly to 89 degrees north the following day to start the weeklong trek to the North Pole.

Tuesday, April 13

Despite the 24 hours of daylight, I managed to get my first full night's sleep since Friday. The temperature is between 10 degrees Fahrenheit and 20 degrees F, which is fairly pleasant when the sun peeks through the clouds. We are based at Guesthouse 102, located about a mile south of the town center. Although there are a few cars on the road, most of the locals zip around town on snowmobiles with rifles slung across their backs. Polar bears are taken very seriously here and several had wandered into town during February.

We spent the morning repacking 200 pounds of food into individual daily food bags. We hope to ski to the Pole in seven days, but we are taking 10 days of food to cover contingencies. Each day's bag contains 6,000 calories.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Longyearbyen and gathering supplies. During a late lunch, the final three members of the group arrived -- our leader B'rge Ousland, Leif and Fredrik. We had an organizational meeting at 6 p.m. and then worked on tents, stoves and sleds until 10 p.m. Following a late supper, we called it a day a little after midnight. The latest word is that the plane may arrive tomorrow morning for a flight to the ice that afternoon.

Wednesday, April 14

The morning was spent packing the sleds and hauling everything outside for the ride to the airport. We left shortly after noon. Forty passengers and lots of luggage were packed into the Russian Antonov AN-74, a short takeoff and landing jet, for the 2 1/2-hour flight to Barneo, the tropical name jokingly given to the drifting station that is established by a Russian outfit each April around 89 degrees north. About half of the passengers are on what is known as a "champagne flight." After we land at Barneo, they will helicopter half an hour to the North Pole, have a glass of champagne, snap some photos and then head back to Barneo and Longyearbyen. The round-trip from Longyearbyen to the Pole will be about eight hours. Some of the passengers started from Moscow this morning and are making a 20-hour round-trip to the Pole.

We departed at 2 p.m. and arrived promptly at 4:30 p.m. The runway is only 2,300 feet long and has a curve in it, so the pilots brought the plane to a rapid stop with maximum reverse thrust when we hit the ice. We piled out and unloaded the sleds from the plane while the rest of the passengers headed for the huge orange Russian MI-8 helicopter. Barneo has drifted from 89 degrees to 89 degrees 20 minutes so we will take the helicopter back to 89 degrees when it returns from the champagne flight in a few hours. The temperature was a relatively balmy minus 5 degrees F, but it did not take us long to decide to wait for the return of the helicopter from the comfort of the dining tent.

We departed Barneo at 8:15 p.m. for the 15-minute trip to 89 degrees. The helicopter, which could easily hold 20 passengers, flew 100 feet above the ice and deposited us just slightly south of 89 degrees. We had the skis on and were skiing by 8:45 p.m. We are towing our gear in sleds weighing 75 pounds. We skied for an hour and a half just to get a feel for it and then set up camp. The three foreigners -- Lars, Max and I -- are tenting together. While we cooked supper, I checked the Global Positioning System (GPS) -- we are 89 degrees 1.55 minutes. This means that we traveled approximately 1 3/4 miles, which is a respectable pace. We turned in at 1 a.m., while the sun hovered 20 degrees above the horizon.

Thursday, April 15

At breakfast, the GPS showed that we had drifted backward 100 yards, which is not bad. Some nights you can lose a mile or two. We started skiing a few minutes after 10 a.m. and stayed at it until almost 7 p.m. B'rge was determined to make it to 89 degrees 10 minutes, and we did it. During the day, we crossed a few pressure ridges that required us to take off our skis to climb over the ridges, but most were just a few feet high in the low spots so we could clamber over them with our skis on. After a few hours, we crossed our first frozen lead -- an area where the ice pack has drifted apart -- and it was about 40 feet wide. In this case, new ice had formed, which enabled us to cross. I asked B'rge how thick the ice was and he said 10 centimeters. Four inches of ice separated us from the Arctic Ocean. He also said that a week ago the lead was open.

During the afternoon it clouded over, and setting up the tent was a chilling affair. We melted snow for a couple of hours, ate supper and called it a night at 10 p.m. Stig-Tore said that the temperature was down to about minus 25 degrees F. A check of the GPS showed that we were at 89 degrees 10.2 minutes. During the day, we had covered 9.8 miles as the crow flies, which is a very respectable first day.

Our team consists of five Norwegians, one Dane, one Swiss, one Lebanese and one American.

B'rge Ousland is a 42-year-old full-time adventurer with an extensive polar résumé. He has skied solo to the North and South Poles, and a few years ago he made an 82-day, unsupported trip across the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada towing a sled that weighed 375 pounds at the start of the trip.

Stig-Tore is our assistant leader. He is a school teacher from the far northern part of Norway near the border with Russia at 70 degrees north. Only in his mid-30s, he is our youngest member.

Thomas Ulrich is a full-time mountaineer and photographer from Switzerland. He is a friend of B'rge's who is along to gain some Arctic travel experience. In fall 2003, B'rge and Thomas spent two months crossing the Patagonian ice cap, an adventure that will be featured in an upcoming issue of National Geographic magazine.

Lars is retired from the construction business in Denmark and operates a restaurant in Copenhagen. He has sailed across the Atlantic Ocean several times and is an avid downhill skier.

Fredrik owns and runs a conglomerate of businesses out of Oslo. He is by far the best cross-country skier in our group.

Leif owns an electrical contracting business in Oslo. He, Lars and Fredrik are all in their early 50s.

Max is from Lebanon and also holds French and Canadian citizenship. He runs a sporting goods and bicycle shop in Beruit. He has recently gotten into mountain climbing and plans to climb the highest mountain on each continent and ski to both Poles. His expenses are covered by sponsors.

Torstein is from Bergen, Norway. Like Max, he is only in his early 40s. He is semi-retired from the apartment construction business and spends much of his time following the stock market.

Friday, April 16

I forgot to check the GPS at breakfast, but Leif reported that we drifted 200 yards in the right direction overnight. Our goal was to start at 9 a.m. and we got away by 9:30 a.m. It was cloudy when we started but the sun shone through the thin cloud layer after a couple of hours. The pressure ridges were small enough that we were able to ski all day without taking off our skis, although there were plenty of challenging little bumps to cross. This was certainly the first time in my life that I have had skis on for 10 hours continuously.

After a few hours, we came across some ski tracks. Numerous jokes were made about it being al-Qaeda hiding out since nobody would bother to come looking here and nobody else in their right mind would be here. Then we decided maybe they were our tracks and we had just gone in a circle. Actually, it is probably a Canadian-American group that left two days before we did.

At times it was flat enough that we could ski side by side, and B'rge came up and initiated a conversation with me about Everest because he knew that I had been there. He had been on Everest last year with a British group and had been disappointed with the organization, leadership and level of service. He had to turn back an hour and a half from the summit when his assigned sherpa could go no farther and they ran out of time. We talked about all the pros and cons of the various ways of attempting the mountain.

Around midafternoon, B'rge indicated that he would like to shoot for 10 minutes, or 11 1/2 miles, of travel today. (Note: There are 60 minutes per degree of latitude. A minute is one nautical mile, which equates to 1.15 statute, or regular, miles.) He thought we could do that in about four more hours. We were doing great until we hit some open water a little after 7 p.m. We skied back and forth for half an hour and could not find a place to cross. We decided to camp and see if it would close by morning. We had just made our 89 degrees 20 minutes goal when we were stopped by the lead.

Thomas, who is contemplating a long solo Arctic trip in the next few years, decided to go for a swim. He put on B'rge's special flotation suit and headed out to the thin ice. After a few steps, it started to crack and then he dropped into the water like a trapdoor had opened. He bobbed around and swam until the ice became firm enough and he could climb out. He went out on the ice and fell in several more times. Lots of photos were taken. Thomas had so much fun that Stig-Tore gave it a try. B'rge offered to let me try it, but I decided that it might be a little much after a long day.

After supper, I checked the GPS and we were at 89 degrees 20.27 minutes. With all the skiing back and forth and the swimming, it was midnight by the time our tent got to bed. B'rge also offered to let me use his satellite phone and I checked in with Elizabeth for a few minutes. All is well at home, and she has been following along on a Web site that Leif is updating daily.

Saturday, April 17

The overnight drift was negligible, and we started off at 9:30 a.m. on a somewhat cloudy day. After 45 minutes, we spotted Barneo two miles to our west and soon thereafter a helicopter revved up and quickly disappeared into the light fog. During the morning, we went over and around a lot of pack ice. The conditions caused us to spend a lot of time going sideways rather than north. Toward the end of the day, the sun came through and burned off most of the clouds and the ice conditions were more manageable. We occasionally have some perfectly smooth snow, but most of the time it is like crossing a ski slope with moguls, albeit a flat slope. Even with the back and forth, we covered the requisite 10 degrees by 6:45 p.m. Since the conditions were nice, we spent some time outside the tents before piling in for the evening.

The GPS shows us at 89 degrees 30.17 minutes. We are now halfway to our goal, having covered today the 11.5 miles that are in 10 minutes of latitude.

Sunday, April 18

We moved 250 yards north during the night without picking up a ski. Over breakfast, we discussed how long it would take to drift to the Pole if we just stayed in the tent. As it would take a number of weeks, we decided we had better get moving.

We got away at 9:20 a.m., which seems to be our now-standard departure time. There was the usual thin cloud cover, but it was warm so I was down to two layers on top instead of the usual three or four.

The conditions were fairly similar to the previous days, and we made an average pace. We did have to search to find a way around a newly opened lead, which took some time. The weather was fairly nice so we spent a lot of time taking photos, resulting in a slower pace.

Our typical pattern is to ski for 1 1/2 hours and then take a 15-minute break or until one is so frozen he needs to ski to warm up, whichever comes first. Breaks are generally quiet affairs because we are busy eating, drinking or making clothing adjustments; however, several breaks have been livened up by Thomas firing off Stig-Tore's rifle without warning. Since Thomas is always falling behind due to his heavy load and his photography, he figures that he is the one most likely to meet a polar bear so he has taken the rifle. In addition to the rifle, B'rge has a .44-caliber Magnum revolver around his waist and Stig-Tore also has a flare gun.

Toward evening, we spotted another group in the distance. It turned out to be the "Poles to the Pole," which is probably not their official name. They were on the plane with us to Barneo and they started skiing from there. Their group of four includes two Polish polar veterans and a young man who lost a leg and an arm in an electrical accident.

We continued on until 8:45 p.m. and made camp at 89 degrees 40.16 minutes. We are a good way east of Norway so the local time is about five hours later than Norwegian time. We use Norwegian time just to keep to a schedule, but B'rge keeps up with local time because he uses it for navigational purposes.

Monday, April 19

We awoke to a sunny sky, but there was a brisk wind. We made good time at first but then ran into a series of significant pressure ridges. We had to take off our skis several times -- the first time we'd had to since our first full day of skiing. I knew that one of the pressure ridge crossings was going to be good when I stood on top of the ridge, looked to my right and saw B'rge waiting with his camera out. It was a 5-foot drop into soft snow with a 1-foot lip on the far side. I skied off, did not make it over the lip and the tips of my skis stuck in the snow like you'd see in a cartoon. I stopped the fall with my poles, but I was stuck suspended in the air until I could get the ski tips over the lip. Toward the end of the day, we ran into a real maze of ridges and barely made our 10-minute goal when we camped at 89 degrees 50.007 minutes at 8:15 p.m. We are now 11 1/2 miles from the North Pole. We were asleep by 11 p.m.

When I say that we slept, it might be more accurate to say that we rested. Lars is a world-class snorer -- so much so that his wife sent along earplugs for the rest of us. The Norwegians refer to snoring as "snorting," and on several mornings the members in the other tents have asked, "Who is snorting in your tent?" It sounds pretty funny when spoken in the lilting Norwegian cadence. I know that I got a little sleep one night because Thomas reported that he heard two people snorting in our tent.

Tuesday, April 20

The sky was dark and cloudy when we emerged from the tents. The wind was blowing about 20 mph so we knew that we were going to have our work cut out for us to reach the Pole. A check of the GPS revealed that we had drifted two miles south, which put us 13 1/2 miles away from the Pole and made it unlikely that we would reach the Pole today. Within the first half hour, we had our skis off to cross large pressure ridges. And then it started to snow.

By noon, it was snowing hard, the wind was blowing and it was a near whiteout. At our noon break, the GPS showed that we had barely made it back to 89 degrees 50 minutes. The GPS also showed that we were drifting backward 350 yards per hour, which would require us to ski a couple of more hours during the day just to hold our position. Shortly after noon, one of the member's bindings broke, and we stopped for 40 minutes while B'rge repaired it, wearing only half gloves. We skied on until 8 p.m. and quickly set up camp in a strong wind. We had reached only 89 degrees 55.07 minutes, just half the distance that we had covered in the previous days. We went to bed knowing that the Pole was only six miles away but that we would likely drift farther away overnight.

Wednesday, April 21

It snowed off and on through the night and it was snowing lightly when we left our campsite at 9:30 a.m. During the night we had drifted two miles away from the Pole so we now have eight miles to go. Although it was snowing, the temperature was mild (probably around 10 degrees F), and the skiing conditions were good. We had occasional pressure ridges, but they were easy to surmount and the terrain was fairly flat. We were cruising along until, at 12:30 p.m. and at 89 degrees 57.40 minutes, we hit an open lead -- 8 feet wide -- and could see another one not far beyond it. We skied back and forth for an hour looking for a place to cross and could not find one that would also offer a good crossing of the second lead.

B'rge then decided to bridge the lead with his and Thomas' sled. We threw our skis and poles over and then pushed the other sleds across. We crawled on our hands and knees and then found a place to cross the second lead. In all, we spent one hour and 45 minutes to travel 150 yards toward the Pole. It was then three hours of smooth sailing to reach the Pole at 5:05 p.m. As we got within 50 yards of the Pole, we lined up together, with GPSes in our hands, and proceeded to the Pole. The GPSes counted up from 89 degrees 59.993, then 89 degrees 59.999 and finally 90 degrees 00.000. We were there.

After lots of handshaking, we broke out various cakes brought by the members, which are a North Pole and European tradition. After consuming lots of cake, we proceeded to a nearby pressure ridge for many photos. Then B'rge got out his .44-caliber Magnum and put a few shots in a target drawn on the pressure ridge. A few of the other guys also gave it a try. Stig-Tore's rifle was then put to use. Next was a round of phone calls to home. By then, it was after 8 p.m. and time for supper. The plan is for the helicopter to come sometime tomorrow for the trip to Barneo and then hopefully the flight to Longyearbyen the next day.

Thursday, April 22

We learned at the midmorning telephone call to Barneo that the helicopter will not come today but that it should come tomorrow morning, weather permitting. The jet also is supposed to come tomorrow morning, so the idea is to make an immediate transfer to the Antonov without spending the night in Barneo.

It was quite windy all day so we just stayed in the tent resting, reading, writing and eating. We have lots of extra fuel so we kept the stove running in the tent most of the day to bring the temperature up to the near-freezing level. We had a few visitors from the other tents, but mainly we just waited for time to pass until the helicopter arrived.

B'rge will be doing a short trip after this one for participants who just want to ski a day to the Pole and then camp there a night or two. These participants will fly in on the helicopter that we will fly out on. At the rate that we are drifting, they will probably be able to start skiing from the pickup point without any additional flying. By 5 p.m., we had drifted almost three miles from the Pole in the 24 hours since we arrived there.

After supper we learned that the planned arrival time for the helicopter was now 2 p.m. with a departure from Barneo at 3 p.m. No longer needing to worry about getting up early, B'rge and Stig-Tore went off on a ski tour of the area at 10:30 p.m. Max and Thomas went out to film Max skiing around for his sponsors, but the light was too poor to provide good contrast. After Stig-Tore returned, he set out to find a large chunk of blue ice, which he plans to take home with him to sell to a businessman who wanted to display it at a party.

Friday, April 23

We slept in and then started packing up around noon. The helicopter arrived at 1:45 p.m. and deposited B'rge's four new clients. As we have now drifted six miles from the Pole, they will ski there from this location. We took off at 2:15 p.m. and were in Barneo 22 minutes later. The jet was waiting and the Russians hollered for us to get onboard. A lead was starting to form at the far end of the runway, and a decision had been made to dismantle Barneo by April 29. Much of the plane was crammed with gear from Barneo, and only the front 12 seats of the plane were left open. The only passengers were our group plus two famous polar travelers, Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen. They had come up on the same flight that we had for a week of training in preparation for a polar traverse in 2005. We were off the ground at 3 p.m. and back in Longyearbyen at 5:30 p.m. After hot showers, it was pizza time.