Adventure to the North Pole

The plane ascended to 49,000 feet as it crossed into the Arctic Circle, high enough that I could make out the blue-green curvature of the Earth stretched out below. Then, somewhere over Greenland, we spotted the fuzzy line of the solar terminator fast approaching. The dividing line between night and day whips around the world every 24 hours, though the speed of the line itself depends on your distance from the equator. This far north, our plane could keep pace with it—for a while—and for 40 minutes, it was almost as if time stood still as the pilot adjusted our speed to keep us, literally, in the twilight zone.

Civilization at the Edge of the World

It was a fitting welcome as we neared the Arctic settlement of Longyearbyen on Svalbard, a remote archipelago of granite mountains, inching glaciers and frozen tundra that glistens under the midnight sun during the summer, then plunges into the total darkness of polar night during the winter, thanks to its extreme northern latitude. I had come to explore the frigid reaches of the planet, a region of increasing geopolitical importance as melting sea ice opens new shipping lanes and oil fields. I also intended to plant my own feet, however fleetingly, at 90 degrees north, if conditions would allow it.

Svalbard is the staging ground for practically everyone who tries to reach the North Pole. The island group is officially part of Norway, though Russia has long had a presence there, and it’s strategically important because it has the world’s northernmost permanent human settlements. The main town of Longyearbyen has about 2,000 year-round residents, while the rest of Svalbard’s “villages” host mere handfuls of researchers or miners.

Svalbard is also home to about 3,000 polar bears, a fact made crystal clear by the rifles slung over resident’s shoulders in an otherwise peaceful place where people commute by snowmobile. The hotel I stayed in didn’t have room service, but there was a gun locker at check in. That’s because Local law mandates that anyone venturing outside the towns carry a firearm to deter the bears. Fortunately, it’s not a green light for hunting. The polar bears are highly protected, and the only time one can legally take a shot is when a bear poses an imminent threat.

I stopped in Longyearbyen as a layover en route to the Barneo Ice Camp, a seasonal base within helicopter range of the North Pole. But I took advantage of my time there to explore, including a visit to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Permafrost deep in the side of a mountain, 800 miles above the Arctic Circle, makes an ideal location for preserving seeds from the world’s vital food crops in case an apocalyptic event destroys the crops worldwide. This “doomsday” vault currently holds about 880,000 seed samples from almost every country in the world, with room for up to 4.5 million varieties in total.

Barneo: One Step Closer

To get from Longyearbyen to Barneo Ice Camp requires another 2.5 hours of flying aboard the Antonov AN-74 aircraft that shuttles visitors to and from the camp. The plane lands on a makeshift runway carved into thick sea ice. Each year, construction equipment and supplies are airlifted to a suitable location by the camp’s operators, Irina and Alexander Orlov, with oversight from the Russian Geographical Society.

There’s an air of comradery on the ground at Barneo. Only about 250 people make the trek here each year, bunking in temporary shelters that look like a moonbase from a science fiction story. Some visitors are adventurers, others are Arctic researchers or documentary film crews. I even met a group of Russian soldiers who were there doing military exercises, thinking to myself “who sends their military all the way up here?”

Of course, the Russians are relatively close, they have experience operating in these climates, and they have good reason to be there. A 2010 report in Quaternary Science Reviews predicts the Arctic Ocean could become seasonally ice-free by 2040, and the waterways around the North Pole could become navigable even sooner. If that happens, this will be a hotly contested area, both for shipping and oil and gas exploration. Russia seems poised to quietly dominate the Arctic before other global powers even take interest.

Notes from the North Pole

From Barneo, I boarded a military helicopter with the goal of landing at the North Pole. Knowing that ice and weather conditions could prevent us from landing, I brought along my skydiving gear and made a jump plan with the pilot. But eventually we found a spot where the ice was strong enough to hold the aircraft, about half a mile from the North Pole. We walked the rest of the way, navigating a gaping crevasse that stood between us.

It’s hard to describe the effect of visiting this bitterly cold place. Unlike the South Pole, where I traveled a couple years prior, no sign or landmark lets you know you’ve reached the North Pole. It’s simply a speck of ice among an ever-shifting ice floe, with nothing but a GPS to tell you that you’ve arrived. There were others there. Some brought their country’s flag. Some brought sentimental items or good luck charms. One couple brought a bottle of champagne (which quickly froze).

I took the opportunity to wander alone in that stark place, and to find beauty in the ice—the iridescent blues, the subtle shades of violet—and the otherworldly landscape. I also thought about how most people who venture out here are unsung scientific researchers. As the head of the Manzanita Foundation and a medical doctor, I’ve spent years supporting and participating in research programs, but being here gave me a whole new appreciation for the work they do under such extreme field conditions to better our understanding of the planet.

Last Flight to Svalbard

After we boarded the helicopter and returned to Barneo, I learned that the evening flight back to Svalbard would be the last one for nearly a week due to incoming weather, and there were only 10 seats available. I found the camp manager and felt a surge of pride for negotiating my way onto the plane. Then I boarded and realized everyone at the camp had greased the same wheels.

A least 30 people jostled for space on board, laying on the floor and taking up every square inch of space. When the final passenger climbed aboard, the people in the seats practically crowdsurfed him over their heads until he could scramble atop a pile of luggage.

It was a Wild West scene unlike anything I’d ever seen in my years of operating aircraft worldwide. But extreme circumstance sometimes call for extreme measures, and we were all mutually grateful not to be stranded on the ice for a week. Once we were in the air, amid the din of singing and excited conversation, someone broke out a bottle of vodka and passed it around, toasting our good fortune.

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