North Pole travel advisory: Check ice before leaving
Tips for your trip to the top of the world: Early April is high season, May is too late
The North Pole is hard to get to, but the back door is easy.
Canada has long been the gateway to the North Pole for an excruciatingly demanding journey that can take weeks. But the number of expeditions has been in decline for years, at least for those starting in Canada.
If you want to tell your friends you’ve been there, there’s an easier way: Head to Russia.
The journey begins in Moscow but ends, on a chartered plane, at an ice base just a few kilometres from the top of the world. From there, it’s a day’s ski.
From Canada, most expeditions ski in for many days, sometimes a month, depending on where the planes drop you to start.
Russia, simply put, makes it easier. You get your bragging rights for much less effort.
Either way, here are some important elements to the trip.
The flights alone can cost $100,000. Then, if you get in trouble and the military comes to get you, expect a bill for much more.
The charter aircraft begin flying to the pole well before an expedition. They have to — first to find a suitable airstrip but also to drop fuel along the route. Once the whole expedition is on board, the plane will need all that fuel.
You also pay for two planes, in case one crashes. It’s happened. The wreckage of one is believed to be near the pole itself, under water.
Those making the trek are often going for the grand slam — the seven tallest summits in the world plus the North and South Poles. It's a huge accomplishment, but they’ll never be the first.
"It has been done," Marc Cornelissen, an ice scientist and North Pole adventurer, explains, "so it’s more difficult to get funding."
This is a big factor. The sea ice, where the water freezes and thaws, is getting thinner every year.
The first person to claim he reached the pole was Robert Peary in 1909. Exactly where he ended up is still being debated.
Peary reported the ice was 12 feet thick, and now it can be as little as four.
That’s fine if you’re on skis, but not if you’re waiting for a plane to land and pick you up at the pole. As the weather warms through the spring, the ice gets thinner and those planes won’t come.
Go any earlier than the typical April start, and it’ll be too dark, cold and windy. "The window of opportunity is more challenging," Cornelissen says. "So the chance of you making it is smaller. People, if they go, are more likely to fail. And I think that scares people off a bit."
Running out of food
Matty McNair now lives in Iqaluit, after making twin visits to the pole.
The first took 75 days. At the end, a blizzard prevented planes from picking her up for seven days.
Her group ran out of food, leaving McNair with only a tea bag for sustenance.
The weather finally cleared on June 7. That was in 1997.
Less than two decades later, the ice is considered too thin by early May for a plane to land.