Posts Tagged ‘Adventure’

‘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 extreme photographer Gordon Wiltsie in Outdoor Photography magazine

October 15, 2009

The Call of the Wild

Dangling off a craggy cliff face in the name of work is not a daunting prospect for adventure photographer Gordon Wiltsie. Nick Smith hears his story…

After more than three decades as a professional photographer, Gordon Wiltsie is known as one of the best adventure and expedition photographers out there. Brought up among the wide-open spaces he started off as a keen mountaineer studying chemistry, before a chance meeting with Galen Rowell lead him to his true vocation. He quickly switched his academic interest to the creative fields, but before long realised that he simply wanted to be in the mountains with his camera.

After a ‘long hold-out to film’ Gordon switched to digital two years ago and says he’ll never go back. But it’s not as though he’s a newcomer to digital because he’s been scanning his old transparencies for a decade now, in order to supply them to magazines, and to build up his photographic library – Alpenimage – a famous resource for art directors on the lookout for unusual adventure images.

Gordon has ‘done a lot of work for National Geographic and Geo’ as well as broader cultural photography, and has recently won the 2008 Lowell Thomas Award for best Magazine Travel Photography for his piece in National Geographic Adventure on Russian reindeer nomads called ‘Vanishing Breed’. He has contributed to many books, and his most recent is To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Gordon Wiltsie: When I was 17 I met a guy called Galen Rowell. He wasn’t even a famous photographer at that time, but he’d had stuff printed in various magazines, and I thought: ‘wow, if this guy can do it then so can I…’ To make that kind of assumption was a bit ridiculous.

NS: What was your first camera?

GW: I got a Brownie when I was 8 and I had some ancient Kodak bellows camera from the 1920s. But finally my parents bought me a Pentax Spotmatic and I’d say that was my first real camera which I had until I accidentally backed my car over it.

NS: What formal training do you have?

GW: I started off as a political science major and then I became a chemistry major and then I wanted to go to Nepal, which was a life dream. So I changed my major to creative writing and photography. But I’d say I’m largely self-taught.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

GW: It’s important to be known for something. For a long time I was known for ski, mountain and adventure photography. Going to really wild places that no one had ever really been before was my niche. If it was cold, miserable and dangerous, editors would send me.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

GW: There are two actually. My assignment to Queen Maud Land in Antarctica was probably the best adventure because it worked so well for me as an expedition leader as well as photographer – it was my first cover story for National Geographic. The other one was a story I did of a migration in Mongolia. It was an unbelievable human story experience.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

GW: Uncertainty. Because I’m freelance my employer is me. Also, with the advent of digital photography and easy-to-use cameras the supply of photography outstrips the demand and as a result quality falls off as some magazines realise they don’t have to pay so much for photographs.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

GW: I used to always shoot film because I thought that it gave a better image in the long run. I do a lot of lecturing and I thought slide shows using real film looked better than digital. Bt the latitude you can get out of digital compared with film is astonishing.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?

GW: I went on to assist Galen Rowell and he became a bit of a mentor. I learned a lot from him, but the most important thing was always ‘be ready with your camera set to go’. Other photographers who really inspire me are Steve McCurry, Reza, Bill Allard. They’re all trying to capture a moment in time with their own different way of seeing things.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

GW: For me it is a means of communicating a human relationship with a natural world that is beyond description in words. People sometimes call me a landscape photographer, but I’m not. I’m a people photographer.

NS: What makes a great travel photograph?

GW: Two things here: one is a travel story where there are ten different pictures that add up to something. But a single great photo needs a human element, it has to make you want to me there – or not want to be there – and it has to have some emotional component to it.

Gordon’s FIVE golden rules

1 Use the simplest lightest gear

2 Be prepared and ready for action

3 Simplify things – home in on what is important

4 Patience is important – wait for the shot

5 Build trust rust is important in cultural photography

Gordon’s gear:

Cameras: Nikon FM-2, Nikon D200

Lenses: Nikkor 12-24mm f/4, 35-70mm f/2.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 400mm

Accessories: remote switch, monopod, polarising filter, split ND filter, flash


To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer by Gordon Wiltsie is available on Amazon

Arctic adventurer Tom Avery discusses his controversial 2005 North Pole expedition with Nick Smith in the Explorers Journal

July 9, 2009

Following in Peary’s frozen footsteps

One of the greatest controversies in polar exploration is that surrounding Robert Peary’s disputed attainment of the North Pole on 6th April 1909. On this centenary, Explorers Journal contributing editor Nick Smith talked to British explorer Tom Avery, who in 2005 set off to prove that the Commander just might have done it…

One of a new generation of young British explorers, Tom Avery is a high achiever in the field of polar adventure. He was the youngest Briton to walk to both the south and north geographic poles – a feat that has only ever been achieved by 41 people. The Guinness Book of Records recognises the second leg of this achievement as ‘the fastest surface journey to the North Pole’. But this was no ordinary sprint. Avery’s 2005 Barclays Capital Ultimate North Expedition set out to retrace Robert Peary’s polar epic of 1909 in an attempt to ground-truth the American’s often disputed claim to have reached the pole in 37 days. In beating the US Naval Commander with merely hours to spare, it was a trip that was to propel Avery – then in his twenties – into the media limelight as one of an exciting new breed of ice adventurer.

But his achievements were met with a frosty reception from the British exploration ‘establishment’, who in a storm of controversy closed ranks around Sir Wally Herbert, the man usually recognised as the first to (undisputedly) walk to the North Pole. Herbert, whose British Trans-Arctic Expedition reached the North Pole on 6th April 1969 (sixty years to the day after Peary) wrote letters criticising Avery’s expedition, accusing Avery of being a ‘glory-seeker’, claiming that the ‘inexperienced’ young Briton had proved nothing. Herbert was understandably defending his widely accepted claim to the Pole as he had done in 1989. This was when he published The Noose of Laurels, in which he analysed Peary’s expedition before concluding that it had no validity. In the absence of any other plausible claim, Avery says, ‘he was effectively crowning himself as the conqueror of the North Pole by default… he acted as both judge and jury.’

Tom Avery’s To the End of the Earth is his account of his controversial expedition as well as an analysis of the historical record that means the names Peary, Herbert and now Avery will always be linked to the place veteran UK polar explorer Pen Hadow called a ‘pinprick of nothingness in the middle of nowhere’. Its publication coincides with the centenary of Robert Peary’s ‘discovery’ of the North Pole on 6th April 1909.

Explorers Journal: What were the objectives of your Ultimate North expedition?

Tom Avery: The plan was to recreate Peary’s journey as closely as possible. You can never do it exactly – that’s impossible. But we said: ‘let’s do it – let’s go from Cape Columbia to the Pole in 37 days.’ It seemed to me that the controversy over whether Peary had got to the pole centered around his travel speeds. There were questions about his navigation and omissions in his journal, but the main crux of the argument was his speed. He’d started off at a fairly moderate pace and rapidly increased towards the end. In his book The Noose of Laurels Wally Herbert said that these daily distances were physically impossible on the polar pack. That was something I was very keen to test.

EJ: How is that possible, with the ice conditions as they are today?

TA: The Arctic Ocean of 2005 and of 1909 are two completely different playing fields. There is far more open water now and the ice pack is thinner, so when pressure ridges form they are actually smaller than in Peary’s day. But they are more numerous and less stable. So in some respects it’s harder to make the journey today. We said that if we could do this then we would demonstrate to Peary’s detractors that his speeds were in fact reasonable.

EJ: You weren’t trying to prove the Peary had got to the pole?

TA: No. It is impossible to prove whether Peary and Henson and the Inuit men reached the pole. When Amundsen reached the South Pole and left his tent there, so when Scott arrived 35 days later, it was all too obvious he’d been beaten. But if you look at Amundsen’s travel speed, had Scott not seen the evidence of Amundsen’s success, it wouldn’t surprise me if some would now doubt the Norwegian’s claim. Even if you could find the glass bottle that Peary left at the Pole you could always argue that it had been left a hundred miles away and it had simply drifted there on the ice.

EJ: Do you think Peary got to the North Pole on 6th April 1909?

TA: All you can do is look at the available evidence and make your own decision. But I believe, having travelled in the same style in slightly faster time, that he got there. Without GPS you can only be certain to a point, of course. When Wally Herbert got to the Pole in 1969 he got to within a mile using the instrumentation he had, set up camp and then boxed it. If Peary got within a couple of miles, then that’s good enough for me.

EJ: What about the trip itself? What’s it like travelling with dogs?

TA: It’s the most exciting, bonding experience I’ve ever experienced on an expedition – we got so close to those animals. We started off a team of 5 people and 16 dogs, but we very quickly became a unit of 21. I probably talked to the dogs far more than my fellow teammates. What they are capable of is awesome. Those animals are at their happiest when they are pulling a 50 stone sled across ice and snow. You wake up in the mornings and they are jumping and barking and wagging their tails and that is all they want to do. Sure towards the end of the day they get pretty grouchy when they’ve had enough. I formed a very close bond with one dog called Ootah named after one of Peary’s Inuit, who was the strongest dog on the team, but for some reason wasn’t very popular with the other dogs.

EJ: What happened to Ootah?

TA: He fell ill and couldn’t pull his weight along with the others. This actually caused the biggest disagreement we had as a team. Some of us were saying ‘he’s not going to make it, let’s replace him’, but I felt very strongly that we should finish the expedition with the same dogs we started off with if possible, and I wanted to nurse him through it if we could. Peary didn’t have the benefit of being able to fly in extra dogs and so why should we? Anyway, Ootah pulled through and he made it to the pole.

EJ: When you returned from the Pole you walked into a media controversy…

TA: The storm blew up pretty quickly and it came about through Wally Herbert –probably the UK’s greatest ice traveller since the days of Scott and Shackleton – who tried to pour cold water on our expedition. I said that based on what we’d achieved Peary’s travel speeds seemed reasonable to me, and that I though that Peary had reached the pole. You’ll never be able to prove it, and some people may disagree, but this is what I think. Sir Wally took this very personally and launched a campaign within the exploration community in the UK to discredit my team’s expedition.

EJ: Do you think Herbert was simply mistaken in claiming he was the first there?

TA: In The Noose of Laurels Sir Wally says some nice things about Peary and how much admiration he has for him. He then analyses Peary’s expedition in minute detail and completely discredits him. He doesn’t actually say the words ‘Peary cheated’, but that is the conclusion the reader draws. We were a bit hurt and insulted about some of the allegations Sir Wally came up with – for example he said that because we’d only spent 37 days on the ice compared with his 400-plus, we were in no position to comment on Peary’s expedition, which is nonsense.

EJ: What do you think Sir Wally would have made of your new book?

TA: I think it’s incredibly sad that Sir Wally is no longer with us, but if he were I think he’d go through this book with a fine-toothed comb and come up with all sorts of arguments about what we had and hadn’t done on the 2005 expedition. That would have been not bad thing because it would have been nice to have an argument about the facts as opposed to my motives, as was the case three years ago.

EJ: What next for Tom Avery?

TA: For me, 2009 is all about telling the world about Peary and Henson’s remarkable journey a century ago. I’m going to be spending a lot of the time in the US, lecturing around the country, including at the Explorers Club. The highlight of the North Pole centenary celebrations takes place on the morning of April 6th at Arlington National Cemetery where I have been working closely with the US Navy to organise a big military ceremony in Peary and Henson’s honour at their gravesites. The presidents of both the Explorers Club and the National Geographic Society will be there, along with members of Peary and Henson’s families, my North Pole team, plus a host of other dignitaries. It’s going to be a very special, emotional, goose-bumper of an occasion.

Published in the Explorers Journal, Nick Smith, Spring 2009]