Breaking the Ice
Expedition leader Susan Adie made the announcement over the shipboard intercom just after midnight on Thursday: “We’ve sighted another polar bear off the bow. It’s about a quarter- to a half-mile away.”
Like many of the passengers aboard Yamal, the 11-year-old nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker that Quark Expeditions chartered to take travelers to the North Pole, I was asleep when Adie’s voice yanked me back to consciousness. This was the fourth ursine alert since the ship had departed eight days earlier from the waters near the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Adie, a chipper, vibrant woman in her mid-50s with straight, slightly graying hair that reached the small of her back, provided the voice of the ship. Several times a day, every day, she clicked on the intercom and told us what we needed to know in a slow, deliberate tone, carefully enunciating each word.
I tried to go back to sleep, but Adie’s voice intruded again: “Sorry to awaken you, but the bear is very close to the ship. You should really come down and see this.”
Against my better judgment, I pulled on my boots, convinced that this sighting, like the three previous ones, would prove disappointing. I was certain that as soon as any of us reached the deck, the beast would be nothing more than a speck in the distance. “May all your grandchildren be rugs!” I growled as I grabbed my camera bag and stomped out of the cabin.
My grumbling ceased when I approached the railing that rings the deck. On the ice surface roughly five stories below us stood the bear, a magnificent creature with huge paws, creamy yellow fur, and baleful black eyes that shone with curiosity as it surveyed this strange mountain of steel. If one of us had leaped over the railing to the ice below, the bear would not have hesitated to feast upon the victim. But from our vantage point, the bear seemed like a charming beast that arrived expressly to perform for our cameras. It lingered for nearly two hours, pacing the length of the ship, licking its paws clean, and enjoying a nap before departing sometime after 2 am. Even the most inept photographers returned to their cabins with fantastic images to show the folks back home.
The polar bear’s visit underscored the realities of adventure traveling: Often you must endure some chaos and discomfort in exchange for the sights, sounds, and memories that make unique destinations such as this worth visiting. No place on the planet compares to the North Pole, which Quark Expeditions visits—or at least makes every effort to visit—at the dawn of the Arctic melting season in July. This year’s journey took place aboard Yamal, one of the world’s most powerful icebreakers. A nuclear reactor turns its three propellers with 75,000 hp, a force necessary for the ship to batter its way through the Arctic ice. Yamal’s name itself further indicates the vessel’s fitness for the task at hand. In the language of the Nenets, a Russian Arctic tribe, it means “end of the Earth.”
If not luxury, Yamal at least offers its passengers authenticity. It is a working icebreaker, designed to keep the Russian Arctic shipping lanes open. The only modification made to accommodate the Quark passengers was the addition of extra lifeboats. As Adie warned the group when the journey began, “Be aware and take care of yourselves. This is not a cruise ship—but the typical cruise ship does not get to the North Pole.”
Yamal’s 105-passenger list was atypical, too. The travelers represented 16 countries and five continents. Most hailed from North America and Europe. One came from New Zealand and another from Papua New Guinea. The Quark itinerary called for Yamal to head north from the waters off of Svalbard on July 7 and reach the pole on or about July 11. There, the passengers would spend at least half a day on the ice, leaping into the frigid waters, taking photographs, feasting on barbecue, and savoring the knowledge that they had reached the top of the planet, a destination few others have visited, or ever will visit. Then Yamal would turn south, interrupting its return voyage on July 15 and 16 for a side trip to the remote Russian island group of Franz Josef Land, located north of Russia and east of Svalbard.
Although Yamal would not be confused with the QE2, passengers do stay in cabins with views and private bathrooms and avail themselves of amenities that include a sauna, pool, gym, library, bar, and lounge. They enjoy gourmet meals, hot chocolate on demand, and the freedom to roam almost anywhere on the vessel, anytime. On this trip, insomniacs could step onto the deck and view enormous slabs of ice buckling and breaking and then sliding along the sides of the ship as it forged forward under the night’s bright blue sunlit sky. (With the Arctic’s 24 hours of daylight, sleeplessness was a common malady among Yamal’s passengers.)
The ship carried two helicopters that were used primarily for ice reconnaissance—flying ahead to scout the best route—but they were also available for what the Quark folks termed “flight-seeing” trips. On board, a team of Quark experts entertained and edified the passengers with lectures on the history of the Arctic, its flora and fauna, and the delicate art of steering a ship through ice. A standout among the lecturers was Pat Toomey, a 69-year-old icebreaker expert who retired from the Canadian Coast Guard in 1991 with the rank of senior captain. “The major characteristic of an icebreaker captain is patience,” Toomey told his audience. “Never ask an icebreaker captain for an ETA. There are so many variables that it’s a great surprise if it all goes according to plan.”
While this may be so, Yamal could not stray too far from its plan. Quark’s passengers had to return to Oslo in time to make their flights home on July 19. Ultimately, this deadline would be the most challenging obstacle confronting Yamal and its passengers.
It required some time to become accustomed to traveling aboard Yamal. The ship constantly trembled, lurched, and groaned with the effort of pushing through the polar ice. It was reminiscent of a minor earthquake—one that never ceases. The waitstaff moistened the tablecloths to prevent them from sliding away during meals. Beverages jumped out of glasses, and hanging plants in the library swayed like metronomes.
The rough ride suggested that the ship was making slow progress. Yamal shuddered when it threw itself against the stubborn ice, and sometimes it was forced to back up and try again. When the vessel reversed, it ground the ice with its propellers, sending fierce vibrations throughout the interior. Viewing this process was instructive and discouraging. An imprint of the bow marked the snow at the ship’s point of retreat. Behind it was a wide, V-shaped swath of glittering rubble, tiny chunks of ice glinting like a rain-slicked cobblestone street. When the ship had pulled back far enough, it advanced again along the same path or turned toward a more promising patch of ice.
However, few such patches appeared. The navigators sought expanses of black—the color of open ocean—but on this trip, the sea was completely white. When Yamal climbed above the 82nd parallel on July 9, Toomey categorized the surroundings as nine/ten ice, meaning that 90 percent of the visible ocean surface was frozen.
On the morning of July 10, the day before Yamal was originally scheduled to arrive at the North Pole, the 90th parallel, the ship had not yet reached the 84th parallel. It was still more than 400 miles from its destination. A dinner party on the rear deck soothed nascent fears that we would not reach the pole. Neptune (actually, a member of the Russian crew dressed as the god of the sea), paid a visit to the merry gathering, blessed Yamal’s captain, Stanislav Rumyantsev, and Adie, and gave us his divine permission to continue north. As we enjoyed our meal, a snowbow materialized in the sky over the starboard side. The phenomenon occurs when sunlight reflects off of ice crystals in the air, rendering a rainbowlike arch in subtle shades of white. However, a darker omen lay behind the ship.
During the brief period that Yamal paused for the party, the ice chunks in its wake had frozen into a solid mass. The pressure created when water freezes is the force that splintered into kindling the wooden ships of polar explorers. The steel-hulled Yamal was in no such danger, but this was an ominous sign nonetheless. It was apparent that the ocean intended to make the ship fight for every inch of its northward advance. Perhaps Neptune was not our ally after all.
On July 11, the day we were supposed to arrive at the North Pole, Yamal was mired in ten/ten ice halfway between the 84th and 85th latitudes, some 380 nautical miles from its destination. “I know you have a million questions, and you want a million answers. I have a few,” Adie said at a morning briefing that she gave alongside Toomey and Capt. Rumyantsev. A passenger asked what the chances were of reaching both the pole and Franz Josef Land in the time remaining. “We’re going to do our best to reach both,” answered Rumyantsev, adding, “We must keep fighting to the last.”
Early that evening, as the ship crested the 85th parallel, I mentioned to Adie the snags that delayed the boarding of Yamal. Because it is a nuclear vessel, Norway bars the ship from its waters, and plans to helicopter passengers to the ship from the Svalbard town of Longyearbyen were scuttled when fog rolled in, making flights unsafe. After some scrambling, a fishing boat was found to ferry the group to the ship. When everyone was finally aboard, it was past 1 am, more than 20 hours after the travel day began in Oslo. Adie said she was prepared to respond to anyone who complained about these inconveniences. “If they come to the end of the Earth with less than an open mind and get cranky, that’s their problem,” she said. “We deal with world travelers, and they understand that we go to the end of the Earth. Those who don’t understand get an education, and if they get it in Longyearbyen, fine. When you travel, you take responsibility for yourself.”
Later, I realized that there was one question I had forgotten to ask Adie. I found her at the bar, a glass of red wine within reach. “Has Quark ever failed to make it to the pole?” I asked.
Anxiety stole the thin veil of cheer from her face. “No,” she replied. “And I’m nervous. I don’t want to be the first.”
With Yamal only halfway between the 85th and 86th parallels on the afternoon of July 12, Adie made another announcement. “We still have 72 hours we can use to try to get to the pole,” she said. “I know it’s not easy, but we do not want to give up yet. Patience and persistence, remember those words. Patience and persistence.”
Later that day, a group of passengers gathered in the lounge as a Quark staff member loaded the first episode of the Pole to Pole travel series into the VCR. The program chronicled host Michael Palin’s efforts to journey south after reaching the North Pole by plane. When a crucial ship connection was delayed, Palin commented, “There was nothing to do but wait. And waiting, they tell me, is what the Arctic is all about.” As he spoke, the lounge television trembled precariously on its pedestal.
Shortly after 10 pm, Adie made the announcement that she and everyone on board had been dreading but expecting. In a somber voice, she apologized for waking any sleepers and explained that the captain had gone on a long afternoon reconnaissance flight to survey the latitude ahead. “In his opinion, it would take five days to reach the pole, and as you know, we don’t have five days,” Adie told us. “This is the worst-case scenario. It is the worst information I have ever had to deliver to anyone. Adie thanked the helicopter pilots, thanked us, and signed off. Yamal was just shy of the 86th parallel, 280 miles from its goal.
The postmortem began immediately at the bar. “So much for global warming,” quipped one passenger. The atmosphere was charged with a mix of laughter, resignation, disappointment, and some anger peppered with murmurs of lawsuits. “Well, that’s it,” Toomey said, shrugging his shoulders as he entered the bar. Quark staffer Mike Murphy engaged in an intense discussion with an irritated Austrian passenger, while another passenger, a jolly retired racecar driver from Sweden, asked the bartender to play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on the bar’s boom box.
When Adie arrived on the navigation bridge just before midnight, more than a dozen passengers were waiting for her. Some were angry, others annoyed, and most were in support of turning around and heading for Franz Josef Land to achieve at least one of the goals listed on the itinerary. The warm sun streaming in the large windows belied the intensity of the scene. Adie maintained her composure while explaining what was possible, what was not, and why it did not make sense to turn around and head for Franz Josef Land. The crowd ran out of steam after about 20 minutes and dispersed.
Back at the bar, passengers drank, laughed, and commiserated, and Mick Jagger gave way to Bob Marley singing “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”
Yamal stopped the next day at parallel 86º 05’ N, eight miles from the northernmost point reached by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen in 1895. Flight-seeing trips around the ship took place throughout the morning, and passengers wandered onto the polar ice. The sun shone, the sky was blue, and the ground was flat and vast and white in every direction. A crane lowered catering supplies to the ice, and the ceremonial red oar with the words “North Pole 90N” painted in mustard yellow letters on its paddle emerged from hiding. A festive string of flags, one for each nation the passengers represented, fluttered overhead. Crew members set up a sound system near the catering station and carved a small swimming hole in the ice. Young Russian men, armed with rifles and dressed in clothes that made them look like Harlequin crossing guards, stood ready to defend the passengers against hungry polar bears.
By 2:30 pm, the party was over, and Murphy began shepherding the stragglers back to the ship. As enjoyable as the day was, the disappointment of not reaching the North Pole persisted. Yamal had failed, but it was Father Time, not Mother Nature, that had kept the ship from its destination. “I guess I didn’t believe we wouldn’t make it,” Adie said, and then repeated twice. “I didn’t believe we wouldn’t make it. I’ve gone on four trips, and four times we’ve made it. I didn’t believe we would not make it.”
If she was seeking solace, Adie could have found it in her own advice: You can’t come to the end of the Earth with less than an open mind.
Who Was First?
The North Pole remains a potent lure for aspiring explorers. In early 2003, 41-year-old Briton Pen Hadow became the first person to hike solo and unassisted by air-drops of supplies from northern Canada to the pole. His 480-mile odyssey ended in controversy when he was stranded at 90º N for eight days because weather conditions prevented rescue planes from landing. Steve Penikett, general manager of the airline company that eventually retrieved Hadow in late May, castigated him in The Scotsman and other British papers for his poor timing. “Going to the pole at this time of year is a bit stupid, and you put a lot of people’s lives at risk,” he said. “No one should expect to be picked up from there later than April 30.”
While people such as Hadow concoct novel variations on becoming a North Pole pioneer, the question of who was truly the first person to reach the pole remains a subject of fierce debate among polar scholars. Most reference books support American naval officer Robert Peary’s claim of reaching the North Pole on April 6, 1909, but his assertion was suspect from the moment he telegraphed the joyful news from Labrador on September 6. Four days earlier, Frederick Cook, who had accompanied Peary on an 1891 Arctic mission, had sent word from the Shetland Islands that he had reached the pole on April 21.
Clive Holland wrote in his 1994 book Farthest North: A History of North Polar Explorations in Eyewitness Accounts that “Even now, well over 80 years after the event, tempers are still simmering, and the arguments are still carried on with a vehemence that appears almost deranged.” Cook’s claim was easily challenged, but Peary’s story had its own problems. On March 31, when Peary was camped at parallel 87º 47’ N, 133 miles from the pole, he dismissed the only other member of his team who could calculate map positions. Soon after, Peary progressed to the pole at a breakneck pace that has never been matched. Holland noted that “In one eight-day period he claimed an average of over 38 miles per day; in a period of 21 days, he claimed over 30 miles per day. . . . Most travelers on comparable journeys could at best claim daily averages of well under 20 miles.” The National Geographic Society, which was among Peary’s 1909 sponsors, vigorously defends his North Pole legacy today.
But if neither Cook nor Peary deserves the laurels, then who does? Quark Expeditions references an April 1948 flight by four Soviets on a scientific/military mission, about which apparently little is known. If nothing less than military accuracy will suffice, then Ralph Plaisted is the winner. A U.S. Air Force plane flying over the Minnesotan and his team confirmed their arrival at 90º N on April 19, 1968. Some purists deride the accomplishment, however, because Plaisted relied on snowmobiles rather than dogsleds or man power.
Sir Wally Herbert’s 476-day trek, which began in February 1968 and ended 16 months later, displayed the romantic heroism and stiff-upper-lip endurance to which exploration fans are accustomed. He became the first to cross the surface of the Arctic Ocean by dogsled, pausing to savor the view from the top of the world on April 6, 1969, just three months before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Herbert later authored a book, The Noose of Laurels, in which he disputed Peary’s North Pole claims.
The only flaw in Herbert’s accomplishment, from a stickler’s perspective, was his reliance on supplies dropped from airplanes. Those who demand both proof of arrival and Peary-style agony might award American Will Steger the first-to-the-pole prize. His team of eight people and 49 dogs left from Canada’s Ellesmere Island on March 8, 1986, with all of the supplies for the journey—1,350 pounds’ worth—packed onto five sleds. The team reached their goal on the first of May. But Steger was not perfect, either: A plane bore him home from the pole. An utter purist would insist that he return by the same means that he arrived.
Critics contend that Peary probably finished nearly a full latitude shy of 90º North, but all polar historians agree that in venturing as far north as he did, sustained solely by the supplies he carried with him, Peary achieved a feat for the ages.
Quark Expeditions ultimately offered the passengers who traveled on the ill-fated voyage a choice between a 40 percent discount on a future North Pole trip and a 30 percent discount on any of its other trips within the Arctic or Antarctic. In a letter to passengers, Quark President and CEO Patrick Shaw wrote, “The extreme ice conditions experienced during the July 6–19, 2003, voyage were more difficult than ever encountered in our 11 years of operation and beyond our control.” More generous compensation was restricted by the fact that “Quark will not receive any refund from the vessel owners or insurance for ice conditions, therefore we cannot offer any refunds [to the passengers].” So far, seven passengers have taken advantage of the offer and booked discounted trips.
Quark is now accepting reservations for its 2004 North Pole trips (July 2 through 17 and July 15 through 30), both of which depart from Helsinki, Finland. Three classes of cabin are available: standard twin ($15,950), mini-suite ($18,950), and large suite ($20,950). All prices are per person, and do not include airfare to Oslo, gratuities, drinks, or certain taxes. A passenger traveling solo who wants a twin cabin of his own pays 1.7 times the twin-share price ($26,555). Reservations can be made by contacting Quark Expeditions at 203.656.0499 or www.quarkexpeditions.com.