Beards, Boots and Balaclavas. North Pole

MAgnetic North Pole expedition by Mike Laird

Chances are that (if you’re reading this from the temperate north), you’ve been worrying about your central heating bills.

Just turning it down by a single degree will, the narrative promises, save us cash, reduce global warming and help reduce the rise of the oceans. But in mid-January, tuning the heat down doesn’t exactly appeal.

So imagine what -40c in a tent feels like:

Above your head gloves, balaclavas and mitts all trying to defrost and dry. Droplets of water drip onto your clothes and sleeping bag. This freezes and adds to your daily torment.

Pull on your toastiest onesie, huddle a little closer around the candle, and pop your warm laptop onto your knees. Mike Laird (who on other occasions shoots photographs with the Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, cycles solo across Australia or makes films with the Scientific Exploration Society in the Bolivian jungles) shares some experiences of the North Pole.


I had always wondered what the north pole might be like.

Having read various accounts written by gnarled explorers of bygone eras and those of more recent adventurers and celebrities I felt that I needed to go see for myself. I spent two years building on existing skills and filling gaps where the required skills did not exist.

-40C has a nasty habit

of damaging the human

body no matter how good

the kit or how hardy you

believe you are

First Aid, gun handling and navigation were easy and just the beginning. Satellite Communications, polar bear psychology and frost bite treatments all added to the arsenal of skills needed to keep me and those with me in one piece and ensure our safe return.

Flying onwards from Ottawa the terrain became more rugged, temperatures dropped ever colder and the planes that transported us grew smaller as the flights landed and took off from Iqaluit, Iglulik, Arctic Bay and finally Resolute Bay.MAgnetic North Pole expedition by Mike Laird

Stepping off the last plane at Resolute the temperature was below -30C and the biting arctic air gave us its first taste of the torments that lay ahead. Down jackets were put on over fleeces and everyone was suddenly coming to terms with the fact their nostrils were frozen.

Four days were spent at ‘Base’ where we tested kit, finalised logistics, used the pump-action shotguns and bagged up food rations for the weeks ahead. Base had offered simple comforts but they were comforts nonetheless. Soon we would miss not just the warmth, but beds, clean clothes, toilets, showers and privacy. Despite having visited 73 countries and taken part in countless expeditions, this was a trip that would test me further than any other had so far done.

The day that we left Resolute and set out across the ice was deceptive. The sun shone, wind abated, we unzipped our wind suits and wore only one layer of gloves. It seemed like a dream but was short lived and brutally broken only two days later. Plummeting temperatures, fierce winds and swirling snow soon followed.

Blue-skied days were magnificent and sunny, yet others were harsh and soul destroying in the way that they attacked us. There were in fact three days that we decided to stay under ‘canvas’. In themselves these were difficult days because staying in the tent was boring, stressful and cold.MAgnetic North Pole expedition by Mike Laird

Imagine existing on top of a double bed with two other men with roll mats, snow covered boots, wet sleeping bags and all your kit. You sleep there, cook and eat there, wee into bottles in front of each other and forego all privacy. Above your heads gloves, balaclavas and mitts all trying to defrost and dry. Droplets of water drip onto your clothes and sleeping bag. This freezes and adds to your daily torment.MAgnetic North Pole expedition by Mike Laird

Over the coming weeks the accumulated wetness mounts yet you work out how best to exist with it, each other, cook, and to do all you can to keep your clothes and sleeping bag as comfortable as possible.

-40C has a nasty habit of damaging the human body no matter how good the kit or how hardy you believe you are. A diet of well over 5,000 calories seemed fine initially but I lost 20 pounds. Pulling a 50-60 kg sledge for 10-12 hours per day and existing in the Arctic is a very real challenge.

The Magnetic North Pole is a place that will continue to lure many an explorer for decades to come. To have enjoyed it makes me feel very privileged yet leaves me with an outstanding question no doubt also faced by those who reached it before me:

‘What next?’

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