Halfway into a ski journey to one of the most remote places on the planet, Matty McNair watched helplessly as fellow expedition team member Sue Riches slowly sank into the slushy Arctic Ocean water.
It was April 1997 and McNair and Denise Martin were leading the first all-women expedition to the North Pole. On Day 39, the team approached an open lead of black water they couldn’t go around. Facing unsteady ice, McNair found a solid section to cross, which was covered in hard, slippery chunks. She hesitated, but told herself they had been over worse ice than that. She tested it and found it manageable—at first.
Telling the crew to follow her tracks, she crossed the steady ice and then took off her skis to jump over a small crack and onto a high bank, where the ice was more secure. But after McNair pulled herself up the bank and turned to help Martin up, the crack split ever further. Part of the team tried to go north around the crack, but that was when Riches slipped backwards and fell chest-deep into the slushy water, while two other members began to sink slowly.
As the ice in the lead continued to slowly drift apart, the other women did what they could to wrest themselves back onto solid ice. They lost skis, poles and their pulks along the way. With one boot gone, Riches cradled her foot from the frigid winds to save it from frostbite, while Martin faced the waters yet again to retrieve the crew’s equipment. With a rope attaching her to solid ground, Martin ventured back out into the slushy waters to grab the pulks, which included essentials like their radio and tent. Luckily, all—including Riches’ boot—was saved.
McNair documented the harrowing journey in her book On Thin Ice, sharing details of how she co-led the expedition to the Geographic North Pole. Over 80 days and 670 kilometres, she and Martin led five separate teams of four “ordinary British women,” as McNair wrote, from the northern tip of Ellesmere Island to the top of the world. Each group spent 15 days skiing across an Arctic expanse before a Twin Otter landed where it could on the ice, taking one team which would then pass the baton on to the next team.
McNair and Martin were constants throughout the entire trek. When they reached their destination, McNair described the North Star directly above her and the constellations and planets whirling around it. “I am on top of the world—both literally and figuratively! Reaching the Geographic North Pole is my Everest,” she wrote.
Ever since Wally Herbert and his team stood at the Geographic North Pole in 1969, venturing by foot from Alaska and overwintering on drifting sea ice, tourists’ eyes have opened to the possibility of reaching a place that had previously been visited only by explorers and scientists. In the years that followed, expeditions by ski, dogsled, and icebreaker would soon be achieved, along with failed schemes to bring visitors to the pole. The advent of tourism to the North Pole for the average (albeit rich) person began in 1991, when Quark Expeditions offered the first cruise for commercial travellers aboard the nuclear-powered icebreaker, Sovetskiy Soyuz.
Trips to the North Pole have always been precarious, but the drifting and thinning ice today have made the journey even more dramatic. The thick multi-year ice is melting in the summer when it previously stayed strong year-round. Arctic ice cover is now five to seven times thinner than it was in the 1980s and the extent is half of what it was. Summers are seeing less and less ice.
Resolute Bay (Qausuittuq) used to be an international gateway to the North Pole, but most companies rarely offer such trips these days. “The main reason that the trips going from Northern Canada to the North Pole aren't happening is because of the cost that's gone way up and because Kenn Borek Air, as I understand, are no longer interested in going up on the ice and doing those trips,” McNair explains. (Kenn Borek technically offers these trips, but hasn’t made one in a decade.) “The ice is a lot thinner, which means… the time window you have to do it in is shorter and the cost is way higher.”
These days, there are about five trips made to the North Pole each year, usually by icebreaker or helicopter. The last full ski expedition happened in 2014 and covered the last degree (from 89°N to 90°N). Some are worried even that distance may soon be impossible.
Still, Felicity Aston and her team of seven women are determined to set their skis on the ice and reach the pole.
Before It’s Gone (B.I.G) North Pole expedition will fly from Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway to a floating base camp on the sea ice in April 2023. From there, a helicopter will transport the group to 89°N, and the eight women will ski 110 kilometres to the pole, carrying along sledges packed with food and supplies.
It isn’t a journey the B.I.G team is doing simply for the adventure. Along the way, the team will collect samples of black carbon and microplastics in the snow. They will also observe and photograph Arctic clouds to help better understand the Earth’s atmosphere. That data will be sent to scientists working on several critical research studies, led by the University of Colorado.
“The only analysis of the Arctic polar caps is from satellite modelling,” explains one of the expeditioners, Andrea Fawell. “The hypothesis is that the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else because of the presence of black carbon,” she says. “One thing we will be looking at is testing the black carbon in the ice to see if it’s causing ice to melt at an increasing rate.”
Fawell is inspired to travel to the North Pole to better understand how climate change is affecting the Arctic. It’s also called to her personally. “I’ve always wanted to go to the North Pole since I was a kid,” she says. “I’ve done a number of Arctic sled races and had planned to go as a commercial tourist in 2020.” Her previous skiing expeditions, including participating in the Yukon Arctic Ultra, has prepared her for the adventure.
The trip will be a dream come true for Fawell, but she understands it will also be a challenge. “The problem with the ice is it’s never still. It’s either pulling apart so you have open water… or you get ice plates that push together and cause huge pressure ridges the size of double-decker buses. It’s not like you get up in the morning and go skiing. You spend just as much time off the skis as on to get around obstacles,” she says, adding they will also have to watch out for polar bears.
Thirteen years after McNair stood at the North Pole, her daughter Sarah McNair-Landry made the same journey. Then just 23 years old, she became one of the youngest people to ever lead an expedition to the Geographic North Pole, after guiding an Australian couple on skis from the northern tip of Ellesmere Island over 60 days. It wasn’t McNair-Landry’s first trip to the North Pole: previous to that 2010 expedition, the Iqaluit-raised adventurer traversed another route in 2006.
The two trips are incomparable, but some aspects stayed the same, McNair-Landry says. Both times, she faced extreme temperatures and navigated ice that was constantly drifting and causing pressure ridges of rough ice that left cracks of open water. Yet at the end of each journey, the destination left her in awe.
“The Arctic Ocean is an amazing landscape to spend time in. It's very dynamic, always moving, shifting, changing constantly.’
McNair-Landry led the 2010 trip for NorthWinds Expeditions, which her parents started in 1991. Although the Iqaluit-based tourism company previously helped organise trips to the North Pole, McNair-Landry said there are no expeditions coming up anytime soon. “Because of costly logistics, and more and more open water around the North Pole, it is no longer a popular expedition,” she says.
If the days of skiing 1,100 kilometres to the North Pole are over, other tourism companies are not calling it quits yet. U.K-based Natural World Safari is planning to offer a first hybrid airship expedition. Over 36 hours, passengers will leave Svalbard and travel above the Arctic by airship, viewing the sights through a glass floor. The airship will land, allowing guests to spend an afternoon (up to six hours) at the pole, before returning home the next day. The company hopes to offer the package by 2025, with a price tag of nearly $140,000 per person for the trip.
Meanwhile, Ponant Cruises is offering trips aboard Le Commandant Charcot—a new ice-breaking cruise ship that reached 90°N this past July. With 123 suites, a spa and two restaurants, it’s the first luxury hybrid electric ship to head that far north.
Others have attempted less glamorous routes up the Arctic Ocean. Back in 2008, Lewis Gordon Pugh kayaked within 1,000 kilometres of the North Pole to highlight how quickly Arctic ice is shrinking. Fifteen years later, it’s likely the ice has thinned out enough that a closer expedition could be possible.
The Arctic landscape is forever changing, McNair-Landry says, offering each explorer a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Most who reach the Geographic North Pole don’t make the journey again—it’s expensive and risky, which makes the pole seem even more special.
As McNair puts it On Thin Ice: “How will I ever explain the magic of pastel arctic light on the sculptured waves of sastruga, the pressure ridges of blue ice rocks and the fragile beauty of the ice crystals growing on new ice?”