British explorers train in Yellowknife area for winter expedition to North Pole

A trio of British explorers is setting out next fall to reach the North Pole during winter, which would be a North Pole exploration first.

Next year's expedition aims to hit the North Pole during winter, without resupply along the way

The team will traverse, by ski, from their boat in the ice to the North Pole. They have been training near Yellowknife. (Alex Hibbert/Twitter)

Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen set off in 1893 for the North Pole, intending for his custom-designed ship to be frozen into the drifting ice and carried across the pole.

Though he set a record for latitude, Nansen didn't quite make it, leaving a gap in an otherwise well-travelled polar exploration history: to this day, there is no record of anyone reaching the North Pole under their own power, without resupply, in winter. 

Explorers Borge Ousland and Mike Horn came close in 2006, but arrived at the pole days after the start of spring. 

English explorers Alex Hibbert, George Bullard, and James Wheeldon want to meet the challenge, and have been preparing for the journey in the Yellowknife area. They're hoping to set out for the North Pole this fall.

All are veteran explorers — Hibbert and Bullard set a world record for the longest unsupported traverse of Greenland in 2008, while Wheeldon and Hibbert spent a winter together in northern Greenland. But they have never worked together as a trio.

From left, George Bullard, James Wheeldon and Alex Hibbert. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

Overcoming sweaty hands and feet 

The team has used Yellowknife as base camp to winter field test their equipment and routines before heading into the much higher-stakes stage on the polar ice. They've made multi-day treks up the Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road, as well as forays out onto Great Slave Lake.

"It was nice to get some really cold days in, because obviously everything in the tent, outside the tent, becomes much harder if you wake up in –42 C, which was our coldest morning," says Hibbert. 

The testing has already borne (sweaty) fruit.

"We came up here with a view to find a whole lot of problems and things we need to correct," says Bullard. "To name one of them, we certainly found that it was important to keep our gloves dry, and our feet dry as possible.

"So we now are in the process of developing vapour barriers which we simply live inside whilst ... walking."

The high-tech solution they have adopted to that particular problem? Dish gloves.

The gloves prevent sweat from ruining the insulation in their gloves as the explorers exert themselves on the ice.

Trio plans to drift toward North Pole on ice

The journey will take the trio from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., to Barrow, Alaska, in a boat they plan to adapt from an "unsinkable" self-righting lifeboat like those normally seen on larger ships.

After Barrow, the journey will head straight up to the ice edge north of Alaska, and from there, the team hopes to freeze the boat into the ice. 

Like Nansen, they will let the ice carry them as it drifts toward the pole while they use it as a temporary base camp. Finally, they will leave the boat behind and set off on skis to make the final push for the pole. 

Along the way, they plan to make scientific observations that could help ground-truth satellite measurements taken from space.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the snow depth data out there is from satellites," says Wheeldon. "Getting on-the-ground examples to calibrate those measurements is really important, especially in winter." 

They also aim to collect data on sea ice and ocean noise. 

"That data is really in demand," he says, adding that universities in the United States and Canada, as well as the Scott Polar Research Institute, have been expressing interest in their expedition. 

The expedition is still seeking some of its funding — and a name for the boat. Fortunately for the British team, Boaty McBoatface is not yet taken


Jimmy Thomson is a former reporter for CBC North.

With files from Walter Strong


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