Archive for the ‘Exploration’ Category

‘Ninety degrees north – the easy way’

October 15, 2012

A century ago no one had been to the North Pole for certain. Today you can sail to 90° North as a tourist on a Russian nuclear icebreaker. Fellow of the Explorers Club Nick Smith did just that…

Nick Smith visits the North Pole

Russian nuclear icebreaker ’50 Years of Victory’ heads north from Murmansk bound for the North Pole

For more than a decade I’ve been writing about North Polar affairs, the history of the region’s exploration, its climate, ice cover and biodiversity. And although I’ve interviewed climatologists, photographers, conservationists and sea captains, the people associated with the Pole that I’ve enjoyed listening to most are those explorers who have travelled in the region on foot. These are the people who seem to instinctively understand the big picture, the people with ice in their blood. I’ve learned much about the Arctic from classic explorers such as the late great Wally Herbert, as well as from today’s most notable expedition leaders such as Pen Hadow. Over the years I’ve become fascinated by what draws human beings to this desolate frozen desert at the end of the earth. But never once did I imagine I’d get the chance to go there myself.

Prior to the 20th century no one had even seen the North Pole, much less set foot on it. We know that a little over a century ago – in 1909 – U.S. naval Commander Robert E Peary might have got there on foot with a team of dogs. He certainly believed he’d achieved his goal, but some commentators think he may have fallen short by as much as 100km. Richard Byrd may or may not have reached ninety degrees north in an aeroplane in 1926. In 1948, Russian Alexandr Kuznetsov set off under the instructions of Joseph Stalin to fly north for scientific and strategic purposes, and in so doing became the first person to undisputedly set foot on the Pole. In 1968 Ralph Plaisted reached it from Canada by combination of snow scooter and air. In 1969 Briton Wally Herbert broke new ground, and his arrival at the North Pole by dog-sledge was the crowning moment of one of the greatest ice journeys of the century.

Nick Smith visits the North Pole

Male polar bear in the aftermath of catching a ring seal

Since these landmark expeditions there have been many successful arrivals at the Pole by fixed-wing aircraft, helicopter and even parachute; by surface traverse, whether complete, one way or partial; by submarine (USS Skate was the first in 1959) or surface vessel. Of these, the first was the Soviet icebreaker Arktika, which reached the Pole on 17th August 1977. Since then there have been 65 Soviet or Russian voyages to the Pole, of which 64 have been in nuclear powered ships. Twelve other icebreakers from five other nations have made token expeditions to the top of the world, but the Russians are the experts.

The reason for this, according to Captain Dmitry Lobusov of the Russian nuclear powered icebreaker 50 Years of Victory, is simply that there is a need. Of those countries with extensive Arctic Ocean shorelines, only Russia relies on the commercial transportation of goods through the sea ice. ‘We have very vast country from west to east and there is need to carry cargo by sea and so we need an ice fleet.’ Captain Lobusov explained how the development of nuclear technology has led to icebreakers of increasing power and range, with the ability to remain at sea for long periods without refueling. In the Arctic summer, when the atomic fleet is less in demand for keeping open commercial seaways, the 50 Years of Victory – or the ‘50 лет Победы’ – becomes available to adventure tourism companies such as Quark Expeditions, who commission the ship in order to make the armchair explorer’s dream of going to the North Pole a reality.

I joined the Victory at Murmansk on the extreme northwest of Russia, on the Kola Bay. Way inside the Arctic Circle, the world’s northernmost city consists almost entirely of glum communist tenements hastily thrown up after the Second World War. After near annihilation by the Germans, who had an airbase only eight minutes away, Murmansk was designated one of only 12 ‘Hero cities’ in Russia. In 1943, Harper’s published an article about Murmansk by Dave Marlow called ‘How it Looked to a Merchant Seaman’, in which he quotes a Scots-Canadian mess-man: ‘they’ve took a beating here.’ The mosquitoes are like flying fortresses and the only dabs of colour are the buttercups and dandelions that seem to grow everywhere in Murmansk.

We sailed for a week via Franz Josef Land, the northernmost Russian archipelago, and landed at Cape Tegetthof, where we saw the wind-blasted remains of explorers’ huts. Then to Cape Fligley on Rudolf Island from which Kuznetsov departed on his successful flight to the Pole. We saw polar bears, kittywakes, walruses, ivory gulls and memorials to dead explorers. As we reached the higher latitudes we navigated through the last of the open water before crunching our way through the pack that got denser and denser as we approached the Pole. Were there any ice conditions that the Victory couldn’t negotiate, I asked the captain through his interpreter Irena. ‘No’ was the reply.

nick smith visits the North Pole. Nicksmithphoto

Ninety degree north. Of course there’s nothing there apart from the intersection of some imaginary lines. So you have to take your own pole with you. Photo: Nick Smith

When I set foot on the ice at the North Pole I was the 22,500th person to do so, give or take a small margin for error created by the possibility of unrecorded military expeditions reaching ninety degrees North. The Pole is, of course, an imaginary place; a point on a grid of invented geometry, that in reality is no more or less impressive than a thin membrane of ice floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The ice that is here today is not the ice that was here yesterday or will be here tomorrow. There is no marker other than one you may bring yourself, and the sapphire blue pools of water that lie on the surface of the multiyear ice here are just as beautiful here as they are at 89°N.

T.S.Eliot wrote in his poem ‘Burnt Norton’ of what he called ‘the still point of the turning world’. At the earth’s ‘axle-tree’ he imagined the past and future to coalesce, a place where the spiritual and terrestrial worlds meet. And although it may be too fanciful to say that to stand at the Pole is to stand with one foot in another world, if you look directly upwards along the earth’s axis you will come to Polaris, the North Star, the so-called celestial pole. Look down and beneath your feet after a couple of metres of sea ice, there are 4,000 metres of sea. Then, after 14,000km of planet, you will reach sea level at the South Pole, after which there are then another few hundred metres of rock, followed by 2,835 metres of ice. If you have managed to maintain a straight line down through the globe you will end up almost in the middle of the geodesic dome of the Amundsen-Scott science research base at the South Pole.

The significance of the intersection of all lines of longitude depends as much on who you are and how you got there as anything else. I arrived at 11:57pm 15th July 2009 sitting in the bridge bar of the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker with a glass of ice-cold Russian vodka in my hand. Something like a hundred passengers from 24 countries had gathered below me in the bright midnight sun to wander around with their global positioning systems, anxious to be the first to claim that theirs read ‘90°N’ exactly. Of course, any such claims were irrelevant because the icebreaker was only at the Pole when the Captain said so, and his GPS on the bridge was the only one that mattered.

nick smith visits the North Pole

1. The Geographic North Pole. Flags of the nations of every passenger on the icebreaker are flown in celebration, while a red rope is laid down on the ice to encircle the precise point of 90 degrees north. Photo: Nick Smith

As champagne corks popped we cheered and congratulated each other on our passive achievement, as if we’d arrived on skis after weeks of doing battle with pressure ridges, half-starved, frostbitten and with exhausted dogs. A ringed seal popped its head out of a channel of inky black water to see what the commotion was about, to find out what was breaking the rhythm of the creaking ice. There were no birds and despite the razzamatazz that goes with this extraordinary adventure tourism, it was possible to detect something of the deep primal spirituality that has lured the great explorers of the past to this pinprick of nothingness in the middle of nowhere.

Accounts by explorers who arrive on foot after weeks of man-hauling sledges over pressure ridges vary wildly on how time at the Pole is spent. Some scrape together the last of their tobacco and alcohol for an all too brief party, while others become stranded while waiting for the twin otter to get in to pick them up. Tom Avery describes how in 2005 he arrived at the Pole with 4 other humans and 16 dogs only to see an immaculately dressed woman step off a helicopter with a bottle of champagne. She was leading a small group of tourists who had flown to the Pole (presumably from an icebreaker) on a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ ultimate tourist experience, as marketed by top end adventure travel companies.

The jury will probably remain out forever on whether tourists should be allowed to travel to ecologically sensitive destinations such as the higher latitudes of the Polar Regions. But the prevailing sentiment on the 50 Years of Victory was that, provided the operator transacted its business responsibly, that the environment came first and that we didn’t cause any unnecessary stress to the wildlife, then not only did we have a right to enter this pristine world, but we would come home as ambassadors, to write articles and tell our friends exactly what it is we’re supposed to be protecting.

Nick Smith visits the North Pole

Homeward bound. Sailing ‘downhill’ back to Russia, we passed Rubini Rock, home to 60,000 pairs of breeding sea birds. Photo: Nick Smith

As we returned from the Pole the sense of anticlimax was inevitable, but on the 20th July I reminded some of my fellow travellers that we should celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing. After all, we had more in common with one of the astronauts than most of us might have suspected. In 1998 Buzz Aldrin travelled to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear icebreaker. Aldrin’s experiences were remarkably similar to mine aboard the Victory, and indeed, ‘except for comments about the cold, I never heard a negative word.’ While at sea Buzz spent much of his time skipping lectures and designing a new rocket on the ship’s stationery, and like me he kept a journal. ‘There’s something about being at the top of the world that’s exhilarating,’ said Buzz. ‘We set up a baseball diamond and played a game of softball at the North Pole, and a group of younger passengers even took an extremely brief swim. The adventure was priceless.’

Nick Smith interviews Pangaea Expedition leader Mike Horn in the Explorers Journal, Summer 2011

October 3, 2011

Pangaea’s Progress

Explorer Mike Horn is now at the mid-point of his epic Pangaea expedition, a four-year enterprise that will cross all seven continents without using motorised transport. Explorers Journal contributing editor Nick Smith caught up with Mike in the Gobi Desert. If it’s Mongolia it must be camels…

Leader of the Pangaea expedition, explorer Mike Horn. Photo: Nick Smith

Leader of the Pangaea Expedition, global explorer Mike Horn, in Mongolia. Photo: Nick Smith

Sitting in a tent in the Gobi Desert Mike Horn describes what he does as ‘normal. It’s just normal.’ At the mid-point of his four-year Pangaea expedition he’s taking a well-earned breather from weeks of camel trekking in the blazing sun. We’re planning our route for the day on a map spread out before us on a makeshift table strewn with coffee cups. The idea is to meet the camel wranglers, saddle up and trek westward through the Mongolian Steppe. It feels anything but normal.

I’ve flown in from London to join Horn on part of his Asia leg of his expedition, changing planes at Paris, Moscow and finally Ulan Bator, where I hop onto an old Soviet military helicopter and fly a further four hours west into the desert. As we make our descent into the fabled Singing Dunes I reckon I’ve been in the air for 24 hours and so it’s nice to be greeted by a woman in a red jacket offering me a chilled glass of champagne. Horn’s sponsor – the house of G.H.Mumm ­– is holding a press conference to update the world’s press on Pangaea’s progress.

Mumm Champagne makes its mark on Mongolia's Gobi Desert as sponsor of Mike Horn's Pangaea Expedition. Photo: Nick Smith

Mumm Champagne makes its mark in Mongolia as sponsor of the Pangaea Expedition. Photo: Nick Smith

Horn is one of the world’s highest profile adventure-style explorers and his exploits are legendary. One of the reasons for his visibility is that he embraces the triangular relationship between exploration, sponsorship and media, regarding it as healthy and symbiotic. He’s all about the message, telling me that exploration may once have been about discovering new lands and mapping the world, but now it’s about communicating environmental issues. To do that you need a financial means of propulsion and a media conduit to the wider public.

But before we can get down to the interviews and photo shoots there’s some real work to do, because Mike Horn likes to share his experiences rather than just talk about them. ‘How can you understand what I do unless you share part of that experience with me.’ An opportunity too good to miss, I make the token gesture of swatting a few flies off me, take a swig of water and with the early morning sun on our backs we wander through the Singing Dunes.

Local camel wranglers preparing to set off in the morning, Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo: Nick Smith

Local camel wranglers preparing to set off in the morning, Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo: Nick Smith

Nick Smith: How did the Pangaea project come about?

Mike Horn: When I walked around the Arctic Circle I had a lot of time to think. That’s when I developed the project. Without noise pollution or visual pollution your mind is your own and you can pull projects together very quickly without being disturbed. After 20 years of exploration I’ve seen a lot of changes in the environment: polar bears being killed by grizzly bears, birds migrating in the Arctic that shouldn’t be there. I’ve seen brown polar bears, and the changes in Antarctica with the ice shelves breaking up.

It bothered me a little bit that I wasn’t doing anything and that my playground was being destroyed. That’s when I thought I’d like to reunite the world through a project called Pangaea, referring back to a time 250 million years ago when there was this one pristine supercontinent. I thought it’s impossible to put the continents back together, but you can put people together. And they can be used to channel data about the state of the environment.

NS: What resources did you need at the beginning of the project?

MH: The biggest untapped source of energy today is our youth. I am from an age of consumerism, but my two daughters are young enough to change the way their generation thinks. We are consuming, but they can conserve. As a boy I dreamed that I could go on a boat with Jean Cousteau. But I was never given the opportunity. I am now giving that opportunity to young people around the world who would like to experience the beauty of nature. I wrote down three key words: Explore, learn and act. The exploration is to go out and find the beauty of the planet. The learning part is to find out how to conserve that beauty for future generations. And the action is to work backwards to erase the human footprint on that beauty. And that’s what the project is about.

NS: Who can take part in the Pangaea expedition?

MH: Any kid between 15 and 20 years old can apply. Our team in the office goes through all the thousands of applications. It’s like American Idol: there are interviews, they have to post videos online and so on. I’m aiming to work with influential kids that will be the leaders of tomorrow. People who can change industry, politics, the world. We select 24 and they get put through a strenuous further selection process of communications training and then wilderness survival in the Alps. At the end of this process we filter out 12 – two from each inhabited continent – to join me on my expedition. Having these people with me gives me the chance to communicate with the whole world from the Gobi Desert.

Early morning start rounding up the camels in the Gobi desert in preparation for trekking with global explorer Mike Horn. Photo: Nick Smith

Rounding up the camels in the Gobi desert in preparation for trekking with global explorer Mike Horn. Photo: Nick Smith

NS: How does the expedition translate into tangible scientific fieldwork?

MH: When the young explorers get home, they get posted out and start on the ‘act’ programme where we reconstruct coral, clear the garbage out of the ocean, plant trees and so on. We have three pillars: biodiversity, social community services and water. All the projects based on these pillars are sustainable. We don’t just go in there once. These are five to ten year projects, and we are giving the youth a starting point to rebuild the world.

NS: What effect will Pangaea have on the Gobi Desert?

MH: We’ve taken soil samples to give us an indication of the fertility of the region. We’ve looked at water here, which is one of the biggest problems. Then we looked at the desert people who are living here, vegetation dispersal and over-grazing. We’ll give all that information to the university of Munich in Germany, which will examine how we can scientifically work with the youth in Mongolia to save the ground water and to prevent overgrazing. Then our young explorers come back to help to implement the project.

NS: Why do you put such an emphasis on media coverage for Pangaea?

MH: We don’t get our money from governments. My personal sponsors fund this expedition and so we want to give something back to them. But more important is the idea that we can somehow tell our stories to guys in the bars back home. If you walk into a bar the one thing you can guarantee is most people will be speaking about what’s in the newspapers, on TV or on the internet. The platform is there for us, and we need to create a buzz. And this is basically to what explorers do today. We go out, find knowledge and share that knowledge.

For further information on the Pangaea Expedition 2008-12 visit Mike Horn’s official site

Explorer Mike Horn toasting the Pangaea Expedition in Mongolia with a glass of Mumm Champagne. Photo: Nick Smith

Mike Horn toasting the Pangaea Expedition in Mongolia with a glass of Mumm Champagne. Photo: Nick Smith

A small toast to a century of exploration…

When Captain Jean-Baptiste Charcot became the first Frenchman to set foot on Antarctica, he celebrated in true style with a bottle of champagne, a newspaper and his trusty pipe. The year was 1904 and the bottle was a gift from his friend Georges Mumm, head of the Champagne house that sponsored the explorer’s Français expedition. The famous toast on the ice shelf lent Charcot’s expedition was immortalised in one of the great expedition photographs from the Heroic Age. For Charcot there was a synergy between his fine wine of choice and the pioneering values of his adventures.

A century later the association lives on. In May 2008 Mike Horn set sail from Monaco under the watchful eye of Prince Albert, on one of the most ambitious journeys of discovery undertaken in recent years. Spanning four years, Pangaea will – if all goes well – take him through the North and South poles, far-flung desert islands and the oceans of the world, as a celebration of ‘the beauty of planet Earth.’

Horn teamed up with Mumm Champagne to help spread an environmental message through a co-ordinated press offensive that would use every type of media available to him. Ever mindful of the significance of Charcot’s iconic toast in Antarctica, Horn and Mumm prepared to celebrate each successful leg of the trip with an exceptional ‘Explorer Experience’ – a champagne-paired dinner where press photographers would be able to reinterpret digitally the classic photo taken a century ago.

Author Nick Smith acknowledges the role Mumm Champagne played in getting him to Mongolia to report on the Pangaea Expedition

Author Nick Smith acknowledges the role Mumm Champagne played in getting him to Mongolia to report on the Pangaea Expedition

Horn’s ‘Explorer Experience’ in the Gobi Desert was the exact midpoint of the expedition. So far he has hosted dinners on an ice shelf in Greenland, a sand bar on the Great Barrier Reef and in Antarctica. Next up, he will head for the top of the world when his next field press conference will be held as close to the geographic North Pole as logistics will allow. This will be followed by expeditions into the Amazonian rainforest and the wilderness of Siberia. He says: ‘we’re all explorers today. There is no message other than we must take positive action to save the planet. And we must do it today.’

This article first appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York.