'If it's explorer season, why can't we shoot them?'
Hogan Beernaert would cry, but when tears well up in his eyes, his lashes become coated in a furry mascara of ice. “So cold,” he mumbles, steam puffing from his frost-fringed lips.
When Beernaert was growing up in Belgium, he fantasized about this sort of trip. He read books by Sir Edmund Hillary and attended talks by visiting adventurers. At 16, he started training by climbing in Nepal, Tibet and South America; later, he skied on Ellesmere Island, Greenland and frozen Lake Baikal. Finally, in February 2012, he hugged his anxious wife and two grown girls and headed here, to Resolute Bay, Nunavut, Canada’s second-northernmost community. His goal was to ski 650 kilometres to the Magnetic North Pole and back, celebrating his 53rd birthday on the sea ice.
Before he set out, his enthusiasm was charmingly childlike, the kind of passion you’d expect from a polar dreamer. He spent a week in Resolute, sifting through a mountain of food and gear and happily introducing himself to everyone he met, clearly tickled to finally be here. Then, on a desperately cold morning, he stepped into his ski bindings and shuffled away from town, toward an infinite horizon of ice. Almost immediately, he knew his 135-kilogram sled was too heavy and his sleeping bag too light. In the near-darkness of the polar winter, at minus-50 degrees, the sled wouldn’t slide and he couldn’t stay warm. He wandered forward aimlessly for a while, then made the only right decision, and gave up.
Clearly heartbroken, Beernaert now trudges back up the icy road to “Res,” where he set off less than 36 hours ago. He slumps into the South Camp Inn, where he’s met by others still readying for their own expeditions. As they shake his hand and mutter condolences, his frozen lashes thaw, trickling water down his face like tears. He’s the first adventurer of the 2012 season to watch his polar dreams melt into failure.
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For two centuries, the High Arctic has been an adventurer’s holy grail. It’s attracted luminaries like Fridtjof Nansen, who skied across Greenland in 1888, and Roald Amundsen, who threaded his way through the Northwest Passage in 1906, and of course those polar antagonists, Cook and Peary. More recently, the Far North has been traversed by submarines and amphibious vehicles, parasails and airships. In 1949, two Soviet scientists became the first to parachute onto the North Pole; in 1968 Jean Luc Bombardier successfully snowmobiled there. The year 1987 was particularly entertaining: Australian Dick Smith reached the pole by helicopter, two Frenchmen in ultra-lights glided there, and a Japanese man rode there aboard a specially-rigged $100,000 motorcycle.
In recent decades, as often as not, polar expeditions like these have kicked off in Resolute. In this hamlet of 230 people, latitude 74° north, locals call it the “silly season” – the brief month in late winter when this remote outpost becomes the launchpad for another crop of wild-eyed adventurers, each seeking glory or transcendence at the top of the world. For those few weeks, what takes place here is, without doubt, the highest-latitude circus in the world.
Unsurprisingly, most of these adventurers will fail. A few might even die. But each winter more of them come, speaking a babble of languages, armed with an arsenal of high-tech gear, their parkas bearing the flags of a dozen different homelands.
Most have spent years wooing sponsors; many have cashed their savings and mortgaged their homes. They’ve dreamt about this for decades: Finally, here in Resolute, they’re on the doorstep, about to enter the pantheon of Arctic heroes.
Or not. Deborah Iqaluk, Resolute’s bylaw officer, watches the parade come and go each year and shares the opinion of many of her fellow townsfolk. She recalls when her husband flew north in 2001 to help chisel a dead Japanese adventurer out of the ice. “I think it’s crazy,” she says. “Aren’t we far enough north already?”
It’s February 26, 2012, the very beginning of silly season, and a dozen adventurers are making frantic preparations at Resolute’s South Camp Inn, so named because it’s the de facto base camp for the North Pole. In a corner of the hotel’s vast, sunny “packing-out” room, demure Clare O’Leary, a petite physician from County Cork, is examining a pile of supplies. She’s vying to become the first Irish woman on the top of the world, after having conquered the “seven summits” and made a successful ski-trek to the South Pole. Reaching the North Pole would land her in the elite “grand slam club,” but she knows it won’t be easy: This is her third attempt, after two previous failed visits to Resolute.
Joining her this time is towering Mike O’Shea, a jolly, chatty Irishman who’s seen the view from atop K2 and spends his days designing safety logistics for dangerous jobs like movie stunts. In a few days, the pair will board a six-hour charter flight to the top of Ellesmere Island, then embark on 780 kilometres of brutal hauling over mountainous pressure ridges, shattered ice and fissures of open water. In preparation, they’re hurriedly sorting through two months’ worth of food and equipment. The other teams are doing the same: The room looks like an outdoor-gear store that’s exploded, the floor littered with skis, boots, sleeping bags, tents, stoves and mounds of freeze-dried food.
Serenely plunked in the middle of the chaos is Yasunaga “Yasu” Ogita, from Hokkaido, Japan, for whom Resolute has been a jumping off point for many Arctic expeditions, often alone. He’s trekked to Grise Fiord and Baker Lake, twice skied to the Magnetic North Pole, and dogsledded the 2,000-kilometre length of the Greenland ice cap. On a trip to Cambridge Bay, several polar bears tripped his alarm-fence and then, 25 days out, his stove exploded, igniting his tent and burning his face and hands. Just as another bear showed up, a rescue plane landed in pitch darkness and pulled him off the ice. Now, Ogita is juggling pounds and calories, making calculations on his laptop, readying to strike out solo for the geographic North Pole, unsupported and unsupplied – a feat that, if he succeeds, would be a first for Japan.
Ogita’s Zen-like demeanour stands in counterpoint to the frenzy of seven sergeants and privates from the Indian Army. Fresh off the plane from Delhi, they occupy the entire rear of the room, where they’ve formed an assembly line to chop, measure and package their 800 kilos of food. They’ve got goji berries, freeze-dried Cheesy Palak Paneer, barrels of nuts, bales of chocolate and tubs of soya oil – enough to provide each of them with 6,000 calories per day for eight weeks. Strutting among them is their cocky colonel, Anand Swaroop, who aims to fulfill a long-time dream of putting the first Indians on the Pole.
To ensure success, Swaroop has hired two Norwegian guides: tall, lanky Ivan Hoel, who makes his living working on North Sea oil rigs where he does tricky repair work, often dangling from a rope, and quiet Bjorn Moa, who runs a popular outdoor gear store in Oslo and continually slips pinches of snuff into his cheek. And they aren’t the only Norwegians who’ll be heading north this year. Still to arrive in Resolute are Mads Agerup and Rune Midtgaard; they’ll get here in mid-March, when they’ll be attempting an unassisted, unsupported North Pole speed-skiing record. They’ll bring to 15 the number of contenders lined up for Resolute’s 2012 “silly season.”
* * * *
“They come in waves – some years it’s solo attempts, other years dogsledders or mechanized vehicles,” says Aziz “Ozzie” Kheraj. He’s the maestro who presides over the mayhem of the South Camp Inn – the man who makes silly season happen. An Arctic legend, he arrived in Canada from Tanzania in 1974, a 20-year-old with $50 in his wallet. Drawn North by tales of lucrative jobs, he went on to become Resolute’s magnate, owning the South Camp and most of the rest of the town. Phone in hand, he darts through his hotel, past kayaks, canoes, skis and “pulks” – polar sleds – left by previous expeditions. He’s renowned for his bottomless memory and nimble logistical skills: invaluable resources for guests overwhelmed by the North’s often-convoluted ways of doing business. According to one famous polar explorer, “If Ozzie were to disappear tomorrow, they would have to call in the army to run Resolute.”
Now, Kheraj is herding adventurers toward his van, where they’ll drive to the airport to talk charter and resupply logistics with Kenn Borek Airlines. O’Leary, O’Shea and Ogita will be the first to take off, leaving March 1 on a $35,000 flight to Cape Discovery at the north tip of Ellesmere. Ogita is travelling un-resupplied, but the Irish and Indians must negotiate more charters for two food drops en route, the second so far north that the resupply plane will be accompanied by a second plane crammed with fuel barrels so that both have enough gas to get back.
Meanwhile, the Indian Army team’s Norwegian guides, Hoel and Moa, are over at First Air’s hangar, searching for 180 kilos of missing expedition food. They learn that it’s stuck in a massive cargo backlog 1,500 kilometres south of here in Iqaluit. They’re also seeking the whereabouts of the Indians’ 10 pulks, which went AWOL somewhere between Oslo and Ottawa. With the Indians scheduled to depart in under a week, the Norwegians are growing tense.
Amplifying the stress is the news that six days have been lopped off everyone’s trekking time: Barneo, the ice station set up every year on the Russian side of the pole, will be closing early due to warm weather and thin ice. To avoid Kenn Borek’s $140,000 North Pole pick-up fee, most adventurers sign up for a $17,000 helicopter flight from the pole to Barneo, heading home from there on commercial flights to Europe.
* * * *
Back at the hotel, the Indians pull on their parkas and toques and head out for a ski behind their Norwegian guides, taking advantage of the few golden hours of light. They’ve skied to the South Pole and across the Greenland ice cap, but the North Pole will be unlike anything they’ve experienced. It can only be done in late winter, in horrific cold and almost total darkness. Snowstorms rake the landscape; ocean currents break up the ice, piling it into ramparts and opening chasms of black water, 10,000 feet deep. According to Richard Weber, perhaps the world’s most famous North Pole guide, “Travelling from the top of Canada to the North Pole is the most difficult land expedition on earth.” Legendary Austrian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who twice summited Everest without oxygen, failed several North Pole attempts, claiming it 10 times more difficult than Everest. But nothing, it seems, can shake the expeditioners’ confidence. On a visit to Wayne Davidson, who mans Resolute’s weather station, they’re undaunted by his doomsday warnings of unprecedented open water and thin ice. They’re similarly unperturbed when the hotel door is thrown open and, through a cloud of frost, Japanese polar scientist Tetsu Yamasaki staggers in, his fingers and gaunt cheeks speckled black with frostbite after having turned back from a dogsled expedition to Cambridge Bay. They’re even nonchalant when an RCMP corporal insists that Hogan Beernaert take a locator beacon and “rent a gun from Ozzie. After all, you’re travelling across a place called Polar Bear Island.”
Finally, March 1 arrives. O’Leary, O’Shea and Ogita are up at 5 a.m., ready to head to the airport. As they fill their thermoses with coffee, they await the call from Kenn Borek’s pilot: Will the weather be clear enough to land at Cape Discovery during the one-hour window of faint noontime light? The phone rings and Kheraj gives a thumbs-down. As everyone trudges back to bed, O’Leary mutters, “I just want to get this over with.”
The next morning, March 2, is a thumbs- up. O’Leary’s eyes now sparkle as she, O’Shea and Ogita board the Twin Otter and fly into the early-morning darkness. At 9 a.m., Beernaert, too, departs, skiing down the road toward the Magnetic North Pole. When the Norwegian guides learn their 180 kilograms of dinner rations have finally arrived from Iqaluit, it seems it’s going to be a great day all around.
But then word comes that the pulks have only now left Oslo, just three days before the Indians’ planned departure. The colonel doesn’t take the news well. “I will stand on the North Pole if it’s the last thing I do before I die!” he shrieks during their closed-door meeting. The Norwegians remind him it was the Indian government’s late payment of the $1.3-million expedition fee that led to the pulks’ delay. They suggest Plan B: being dropped further north so the Indian flag can still be planted at the pole. But the colonel will not be consoled and stomps out of the room.
That evening, a Resolute resident mentions that she just saw Beernaert, 12 hours into his trek. “He was just past the town dump,” she says, sighing. And over the next few days, there’s nothing but bad news from the ice. In their first five days, the three expeditioners have been hit by continual blizzards. Though Ogita is said to be moving steadily, the Irish duo are struggling in deep snow in temperatures dipping to 50 below.
* * * *
The Indians are all fired up when their pulks finally arrive on March 10, but since they’ve conceded to the backup plan – being dropped 170 kilometres north of Cape Discovery – they’ll wait until March 15 for a DC-3 to arrive from Antarctica, a cheaper option than flying north in two smaller planes. But the next day the news from the Irish team worsens. The ice around them is disintegrating; they’ve been hop-scotching across bobbing chunks. That evening they make the heart-rending decision to abandon their mission. Yet even then, they’re in danger: A fourth blizzard ransacks their camp.
After a brief dash of hope, the colonel sees his trip falling apart again. With O’Leary and O’Shea out of the game, there will be no one with whom to share resupply charters. On March 13 he sends out a press release, cancelling the Indian expedition. Now Ogita is the only man left on the ice. With no planes in the region in case of an emergency, and unable to afford Kenn Borek’s pricey pick-up should he miss Barneo’s closing date, he too abandons his trek.
With the first groups off the Arctic Ocean, the stage is now wide open for the final pair of adventurers, Norwegians Agerup and Midtgaard. Dropped on March 19 at Cape Discovery, the pair are travelling light, expecting to cover 20 kilometres a day to reach the Pole in world-record time. They make good progress for 11 days, but then Agerup develops severe frostbite on his thumbs. They call for a pick-up on March 31; shortly afterwards, Agerup’s thumbs are amputated.
Another North Pole season sputters to a close: For the second year in a row, not a single adventurer reaches their goal. They’re not discouraged. Already, almost all of the 2012 groups are re-filling their coffers and lining up, along with a crop of newcomers, for yet another silly season in 2013. At the South Camp Inn, Ozzie Kheraj just shrugs: “They come, they go.”