For The Weekend Australian Magazine
North Pole ex mark day Oct 15 2005
As a destination the North Pole is a jaw dropper. Just mention to your friends you’ll be away a while, travelling, and they’ll inevitably ask: “Where are you going?” You answer with carefully rehearsed insouciance: “To the North Pole on a Russian nuclear-powered ice breaker.”
Neat, eh? At the very least this will elicit a response of “Wow!” Some interested souls might seek further and better particulars – Where do you sail from? How long does it take? Is it safe? – but only a few ask the deepest question of them all: Why?
That question was common currency among the 100 passengers on our trip. We came from 15 nations around the world, and we ranged in age from 14 to 91. Some went because it seemed to be a cool thing to do; some collected adventure travel destinations as avidly as others might collect teaspoons; some went looking for exotic birds and wildlife, and one couple made it their honeymoon voyage. I had my own reasons.
For 300 years men struggled, and died, trying to get to 90 deg North, or the geographical North Pole. They hauled sleds and walked thousands of kilometres over dangerous pack ice. We made it in six days aboard the most powerful icebreaker in the world, the Yamal.
He’s a big brute of a ship – yes, ice-breakers are masculine, not feminine like all other ships, because they’re such muscly, powerful things – but we travelled with all the mod cons of today’s world on a journey as safe as it was astounding.
We boarded the Yamal in Murmansk, Russia’s northern seaport. It is a sight to behold with its towering bright red superstructure on a black hull, an atomic symbol in yellow on the side, and giant ice-munching teeth painted on the bow. Whoever had the idea to do this showed two things often hard to find in Russia – a sense of humour and marketing savvy, for it is the grinning Jack Nicholson’s Joker teeth which brands the Yamal as the coolest dude ice-breaker of them all.
The Russian government’s icebreaker fleet works nine months of the year keeping the sea-lanes to the north of Russia open to commercial shipping. But in the summer when the ice recedes the Yamal is leased to commercial operators such as Poseidon Arctic Voyages, which has been making three trips a year to the pole since 2000.
More than half of our party were German, but there was a coterie of English-speaking passengers from Australia, New Zealand, US, UK and Switzerland. Cabins are sparse, but perfectly comfortable. The most important furnishings are curtains which can be drawn to keep out the 24 hour sun when it is time to sleep, but it is not unusual for the intercom to crackle at 3 am as the tour directors take advantage of fine weather and announce a sightseeing helicopter flight.
We were 36 hours out of Murmansk before we hit the ice. Literally. In what might have been a lucky coincidence, or perhaps a superbly timed piece of theatre, we were dining with the captain when there was a thud, followed by another, and a disconcerting growling noise as large chunks of ice thumped their way down the side of the double hull.
Captain Stanislav Rumyantsev, a great bear of a man with a face like the map of Russia, smiled as he watched his passengers react. Some looked shocked and fearful as if we had collided with, well, an iceberg. Others rushed for the portholes to cheer the moment we had so long anticipated. All soon realised that the noise and shudders of the bumping and grinding ice was a feeling, a state of being, which would be with us non-stop for the next 10 days.
It is mesmerising to watch the ship break through the ice, a crazy patchwork of chunks averaging 2m thick. Between the chunks are threads of black water, which turn to a soft, translucent blue when light catches the submerged ice below. As the Yamal pushes into the ice, giant fissures open up with a low-pitched cracking sound like snapping shut a hefty hardcover book. As the ice is pushed aside it crumbles and rises to form pressure ridges which make it look like the top of a vast meringue.
I had imagined horizon-to-horizon ice as a giant, flat expanse, but it is in reality a rugged, jumbled surface of ice hummocks and water pools. I puzzle at the presence of both ice and water, reasoning that if it’s cold enough to make ice out of some water, why does it not freeze the lot? The answer is in part that we are here in summer. The temperature is 2 deg, and the sun never sets. The ice is melting which creates the lovely light blue ponds of fresh water. They will disappear soon when the temperatures drop. It is like putting ice cubes in a glass of water – in an hour, perhaps, they will disappear – unless, of course, you put the glass into the freezer, when it will all solidify again. Here, that freezer is winter.
But even in winter gaps of black, open water remain as far north as the Pole, caused by swirling currents in the water below the ice. These gaps are called polnyas, and they attract polar bears which know seals, their favourite meals, will surface there for air.
Bashing our way through the ice sends bumps and grinds throughout the ship. In our cabin, two levels below the top lookout, we feel the shudders and vibrations, but it is no more discomforting than driving over a rough road, or flying through turbulent air. But in the lecture room which is forward and four levels below us on the waterline, the noise can be alarming. As the bow collides with thick ice, it sets off a resounding boom, followed by a grinding noise as the chunks of ice roll along the sides of the ship. At times the ship is stopped by heavy ice, and as it slows and strains, the whole superstructure rattles and vibrates.
The Yamal can be stopped by ice, but it won’t be beaten. Its two nuclear reactors produce heat to boil water to create steam which drives turbines which create electricity which drives three massive motors each turning a 50-tonne stainless steel screw which can together produce 1500 tonnes of forward thrust. When the Yamal rams the ice, something’s got to give, although on one occasion near the pole it took us 17 attempts to break our way through a 6m thick ridge of ice.
The day before we were due at the pole, the weather changed. The low clouds and fogs which had dogged us since Murmansk lifted, and we were treated to the finest summer weather our crew had seen in half a decade. The sun shone from an azure sky and the flat white of the horizon-to-horizon ice took on new shapes and depths as the sun cast blue shadows over the pressure ridges, while the ice sparkled like a sea of diamonds. Sunscreen was essential to avoid burned skin – and this at 88 deg North.
We took helicopter rides – 10 passengers at a time – circling the ship to see the Yamal as a bright red sore thumb sticking out of dappled blue and white horizon-to-horizon ice. We tried to imagine what it would have been like travelling here on foot, with dog sleds.
On the afternoon of our sixth day at sea, after a slow morning of battling thick ice, we neared the pole. There was nothing there – no flag, no stick in the snow, no cairn, no maker left by the Yamal on its previous visit two weeks before. There would be no point in that because the ice is constantly moving, and marker would also move from the pole.
The Yamal uses a highly sensitive global positioning system, able to pinpoint our position to one-thousandth of a nautical mile – 1.852 meters, or about six feet. To get the GPS screen to register 90 deg 00 minutes and 000 seconds North, Capt Rumyantsev had to park his 23,500 tonne ship on a figurative sixpence in the middle of nowhere: the GPS mast amidships had to fall within a 1.8m circle in an ice pack which was constantly moving.
This required extraordinary seamanship. An scrum gathered around the GPS screen counting down as it read 89 59 995 … 6… 7 … then slipped away. Again the captain barked his orders; “Forward; Stop! Stop!” and the 997 flicked to 998, then – take a deep breath – 999. But again we drifted off. After six tries, the screen hit the magic number 90 00 000 amid whoops of delight, the blaring of foghorns, glasses of champagne and crew members firing distress flares into the bright sky.
“Now,” said expedition leader Joe Razim, “Let’s have a party.”
And so we did. Capt Rumyantsev nudged the Yamal into a large ice floe and security guards, armed with Kalishnikov rifles, spread out across the ice to guard against incoming polar bears. We disembarked on to 3m of ice to celebrate and in unprecedented 4C temperatures we danced around the world, holding hands as we skipped around a pole under the flags of the 15 nations aboard. We paraded behind crew members holding smoking flares and consigned a time capsule containing our messages of goodwill to the ocean floor 4125 m below, and some brave souls went for a quick swim in the –1.4 C water, earning a shot of vodka to warm themselves as they returned to the ice.
The crew offloaded barbecues, bags of charcoal, and lashings of food, gluhwein and vodka. It was just like any old Aussie barbie really – the sun was shining, the sky was blue, the guests were frolicking in the pool, the barbecue was smoking, and the grog was on the ice – literally, cooling down in a puddle of melt water.
And this was at midnight. It was a surreal experience.
We gathered by a red pole painted with 90N and turned ourselves in 360deg circles, always facing south. We took pictures under a signpost which indicated Sydney was 13 778 km away. Other signs to Berlin, Tokyo, Murmansk, New York, Cape Town, Punta Arenas and London all pointed in different directions, but all pointed south.
And when we left, exhausted after a long day, the Yamal headed the only direction available to it – south.
Six days, and several polar bear encounters later, we were back in Murmansk, first stop in our re-entry to the real world of trees and grass and roads and buildings and night and day.
The experience had been great in an out-of-this-world sense. We had gone to the North Pole because it was there and because we could, and by so doing had joined an exclusive club of people who had stood on top of the world. To date, that’s about 4000 people.
But I had another reason for wanting to go. There are times when life’s equations just seem to add up and for me this was one of them: I am a writer approaching a time-rich superannuated life, where I aim to indulge my love for adventure travelling, discovering out-of-the-way places and interesting cultures.
This was a shake-down trip; an experiment to taste the future. I simply figured that if I am to be a traveller who writes about the world’s most interesting and obscure places, I might as well start at the top.
For inquiries about North Pole and other Arctic adventures, Poseidon Arctic Voyages, http://www.victory-cruises.com/
Mark Day’s North Pole experiences will be the basis for his next book. His last story for the magazine was Making Waves, which told of fears about religious broadcasters in Australia’s northwest.