Ten Years On - My Last Crusade to the North Pole
For me there could be only one place I could venture to in order to celebrate the anniversary of my life-saving bone marrow transplant to cure my leukaemia. The North Pole!
I was never really tempted by the option of staying at home and putting my feet up, going on holiday to a comfortable holiday resort or any other such luxury. I had decided to visit the same climate that had given me an incredibly torrid time to the extent that I still find it easier to talk about my fight against leukaemia than my expedition in Antarctica
This for me was going to be unfinished business. Having at least now had some experience in extremely cold climates, I was determined not to make similar mistakes. The first I had to get right was the distance I wanted to travel. One hundred miles seemed to be about my limits A much shorter distance than my South Pole Challenge and as a result I would not have to be pulling a sledge that weighed nearly 300 pounds. The next was to arrange to travel with experienced guides as part of a party. A telephone call to my friend Neill Williams revealed all this would be possible from the Russian side of the Arctic, making the budget also far more realistic.
I flew from Heathrow meeting for the first time a guy called Mark Foster - Williams, whom would be my room and tent mate for the next two weeks. Fortunately we clicked and on arrival in Moscow were met by or guides who then subjected to a five-hour tour of the city. Moscow not helped by the fact that every comment by the tourist guide on every topic and building was laced with her political views and comments disappointed me. The rest the rest of the expedition party included two Dutch, three Italians and two Russian guides, both called Victor, but known as Big Victor and Little Victor respectively for obvious reasons. An evening meal with the party overlooking Red Square had me wandering if the Kremlin had been open on our tour, would I have had the nerve to knock on the door and ask, "Is Len in?"
Two further flights, including a ten-hour wait in a Siberian airport finally saw us in our hostel accommodation in northern Siberia at a place called Khatanga. The following day was spent packing and re-packing our equipment and sledges. Food and fuel were distributed and I decided Mark and I should practice putting up the Khyam quick erect tent I had brought with me for the expedition. It was also an opportunity to show off to our fellow travellers that we had a very useful piece of equipment. The tent was erected in a little over a minute as it opens up rather like an umbrella. Feeling extremely proud of myself, the wind was completely taken out of my sails when one of the Dutch boys had a look inside and pulled out a Bugs Bunny fluffy toy! I had practised putting the tent up at home and the kids had been playing in it and had obviously not taken out all their belongings.
A day was further lost to apparent bad weather a trip to the Khatanga museum did little to fill the day and there was nothing else to do but to sit and wait something I was coming to be used to in Polar Regions. Eventually we received the call to fly and as we were leaving the hotel, somebody asked about the possibility of encountering Polar Bears. "No chance!" exclaimed little Victor, as he brought his shotgun out of his room and placed it in his sledge. Either he was perhaps not telling the whole truth or trying to allay any fears we might have. We then duly set out on a six-hour flight, with a stop for refuelling at Severnaya, to a Russian ice camp called 'Borneo'.
We had been informed the temperature would actually be similar near the Pole to where we had stayed in Khatanga, due to the fact the Pole is on an ice cap and the sea is warmer than the land, however that did not seem to be the case. The temperature was measured between -30ºC and 35ºC where it remained for most of our stay on the ice. The next stage was to be flown into position, using a huge Russian Military helicopter and after a 40-minute flight we were positioned on the ice. That evening an air of expectation settled over the half dozen tents camped out on a floating mass of ice, surely the world's most northerly campsite.
Travelling in the North is as different as one can get from the South. Instead of mile after mile of terrain where the terrain never changes, the Arctic is a constant mass of moving ice and as a consequence the scenery and terrain can change by the hour. I actually quite enjoyed the challenge of the ever-changing features, which had to be negotiated; however it did cause me one particular problem. The ski bindings I had used in Antarctica had been fine once I had strapped them on, as I was likely to spend a considerable amount of time once in them. Due to the terrain, I had to constantly put on and take off my skis. This I obviously couldn't do wearing my large outer mitts and had to revert to whipping my hands out of them and doing my best with my wind stopper gloves. I am not the most dextrous person in the world and the extreme cold has a habit of slowing all the bodily functions down and making actions a lot slower.
The outcome of a typical hard day on the ice was that the party may have travelled about ten kilometres on the ice due north but in reality had probably covered nearly twice that distance. Tent life was good, and a healthy relationship developed between Mark and myself, with me initially doing a lot of the outside work when we camped with Mark being the inside man. It was wonderful to eventually get settled in ones bag for the night even if it was something close to a military procedure.
As we neared our destination it was calculated on the GPS we only had about six or seven miles to go to reach the Pole. Just ten minutes after setting off it was skis off to negotiate pressure. This was extremely frustrating for me as I hated having to fiddle around with my ski bindings, as my fingers were becoming increasingly susceptible to the cold. Having negotiated the pressure and put them back on again it was pointed out to me that one of the skins that was glued to the bottom of my skins to help grip the ice had come off. At this stage there wasn't much I could do but when it became apparent the party would have to cross a frozen lead which was slowly drifting apart with open water, I realised I was facing my worse Polar nightmare of going through the ice and into the Arctic Ocean.
Trying to compose myself and seeing how the others negotiated the lead, I found myself last but one to cross. Having unharnessed from the sledge in case I did go through the ice, I ventured towards the centre of the 50 foot wide lead I could see the water bubbling up through a crack that ran along its' centre. Pardon the pun, but as I approached the centre I just froze. Transfixed by the sight of the water I realised the ice was moving apart before my eyes.
Conscious I did not want to get my leading ski caught under the ice and as I lifted my left leg and moved forward I slipped and crashed onto the ice. With my heart in my mouth I prayed the ice would hold and the next thing I felt was my sledge hitting my up the rear as I lay in an undignified heap on the far side of the ice. There were lots of things people said but by far the best was Mark's comment as he quipped,” Well you weren't exactly born on skis were you!
A further mass of ice rubble was negotiated before; we broke for lunch only five nautical miles from the Pole. At this stage I decided to dispense with my skis and judged with only this distance to travel, the extra work involved in walking would be overridden by not having to have to keep on messing around with my ski bindings and further subjecting my hands to the cold. No sooner had we finished our lunch, and walked for another 20 minutes than Big Victor called out for us to stop and to set up camp whilst he further examined more pressure ice. After a further 10 minute he returned and informed us we would be staying here for the duration as a massive lead had opened up for as far as the eye could see and made any further advancement an impossibility. We had travelled for about four hours and had only covered about two miles. On Victor's next scouting mission he informed us that if things had not improved by tomorrow, the Army helicopter would pick us up, drop us at the North Pole to enable us to say we had been there, before returning us to Borneo.
I was distraught at this news. The hopes of walking top the Pole now lay in tatters. All the reasons for coming North to celebrate my 'ten years' now looked as if they were about to be ruined. I spoke to one of the Dutch guys and explained my situation and how desperate I was to walk to the Pole and what it meant to me. To fly to the Pole would have no significance to me at all; I may have well booked a place on a cruise on icebreaker.
As I stood on my own looking across the ice with the tears freezing to my skin I wondered if this was all part of a game being played by the great Polar God. Big Victor approached me and explained he hoped, the water would freeze overnight and with a bit of drift the lead would close and enable us to continue the following day.
That night as I lay in my bag, it did seem to be extremely cold, which in a way was a good thing. I then reflected, if I did get to the Pole on the following day it would be exactly eleven years to the day when I was informed that I had been found a bone marrow donor. I then reminded myself this was real life and being situated where nature is at it's rawest, it was not the place for dreaming.
The following morning Mark and myself waited in anticipation, as Big Victor announced he was off, together with Geoff Somers to have a recce at the condition of the ice. After an interminable wait of an hour and an half, during which our GPS indicated we had drifter half a mile to the North, we were told our Fate.
Victor announced the open water had frozen, but together with the drift had caused an awful lot of pressure. As a consequence we would proceed to the Pole, but abandon our skis, (no problem there!), sledges and tents and that we would make a dash for the Pole on foot! I was asked if I would carry my tent in my rucksack, in the event of an emergency. At 12.45 we set off for the Pole a mere three nautical miles away. The ice was indeed an awful mess and required a great deal of vigilance and effort clambering through and over, ensuring one only stepped on the larger blocks of ice, as these were less likely to disappear under the water. The depth of the snow was also misleading and several times I plunged through the surface up to my thigh in the snow.
On coming to the edge of a lead I stepped to near the edge, the snow gave way and I fell and jarred my back quite badly on the ice. I was walking a couple of hundred yards behind the leading group. Every now and then I would see them stop in the distance and wonder if they had reached the Pole, only for them to then move on. Eventually after an hour and three quarters I saw they did not move on, just walked around in circles, obviously with a GPS trying to pin point the exact location of the Pole. Through my heavily iced balaclava and eyelids I could se them shaking hands and patting each other's backs. At that stage I realised I too would at last make it to the North Pole. A couple of minutes later I saw a circle of ski Poles, stuck into the ground representing a very temporary North Pole. By the time I had reached it the Pole would have already moved, as the ice had drifted due to the currents swirling under the ice cap.
I reflected to myself, as I added my ski pole to the collection, just how lucky I was to be here ten years on and a series of events flashed through my mind. I then paced around the area with my GPS to ensure I had actually reached the Pole before being offered the opportunity of phoning home on a satellite telephone one of the Italians had brought with him
The idea was that the Russian Military helicopter was due to pick us up from the Pole, in case the ice had opened up again. I thought after the problems and delays with the transport so far this seemed incredibly well planned and thought out. However it became clear after two hours at the Pole the scheduled flight was not going to arrive. This surprised no one and after we had run out of things to do at the Pole in the two hours spent there we started our return. I had to break all the ice that had encrusted my balaclava making it stand up on it's own accord and eventually managed to pull it over my head.
On the return the temperature seemed to rise and there were murmuring how we would find the leads on our return. Sea ice melts at –22ºC and I thought the temperature must have risen to around this mark. To our great relief although the top of the ice was a little slushy it was still fairly safe if one trod on the larger blocks of ice and on our return to camp the weather started to close in, with a thick mist blotting out the sun. We had just made our trip to the Pole and back in time. Had the weather been like this earlier in the day we definitely would not have set off.
Eventually, six hours after it was due to meet us at the Pole we heard the welcome sound of the military machine. Camp was made up and the 40-minute flight back to the Russian ice camp Borneo was made The long journey home then began. This included a stop over and a tour of St Petersburg. I was as impressed with this city as I had been disappointed with Moscow.
The morning after arriving back in the UK I had to go to the London Marathon reception for Leukaemia CARE. I reflected it was the London Marathon where it had started for me ten years ago, determined to show others that despite having a life-threatening illness, one could make the most of any situation.
As it stands at the moment although there are other things I would like to achieve, I would not be undertaking them as a driven man and if they don't happen then never mind. The problem I have is convincing everybody this really is the case and when I have done that I will have to convince myself!