The Journey … and the destination

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Imagine skiing over thin ice, pulling a 100+ lbs sled, dealing with freezing cold, ice breaking under your feet and tents, polar bear sightings. All these and more were challenges on this expedition.

1. It’s Great to be back! First off, it’s really great to be back in civilisation (Defined as any place with a flushing toilet). Sorry it’s been so long writing this post – getting back into the real world has been a big challenge, with classes, second year projects (thanks  Nik and Ben for being so patient while I was training and away on this trip!) and other school commitments. I arrived back at my apartment past midnight on a Sunday evening, and was sitting in the class-room seven hours later. Ouch.

2. Thanks for all the support – Yes, I made it, with all 21 digits intact! The biggest thanks to all the friends, classmates and family that supported me through this endeavour, gave me words of encouragement and pats on the back during my training and also supported my adopted charity.

(MENCAP donations hit the GBP$5000 mark, thanks!)

Big thanks especially to my brother BL, whose big donation helped us achieve the target of GBP$5000 for MENCAP. So for those of you that think that there is no future in hedge funds, think again.

Rachel from MENCAP also sends her thanks to everyone for the programs they’ll be able to fund with this!

The following are some of the main questions people were interested in:

3.      How did you get there?

The trip started from London to Oslo to Svalbard (780 North, where they have the seed vault that is a plant version of Noah’s Ark and more polar bears and snow-mobiles than people) to Barneo, which is a science station built by the Russians on Arctic ice that exists for only one month a year. Setting up the station is a whole military operation in itself! There are some amazing videos of how the specialists free-fall  in with the equipment and level the airfield. Next time you complain about a bumpy ride, think of these guys. See http://www.barneo.ru/2011.htm for details.

Image(Svalbard water-front property)

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(Big John in front of polar bear crossing sign – Svalbard more polar bears than people)

It is hard to imagine but the whole air-strip, and ice-station is built on top of moving ice that floats over the Arctic ocean. Underneath the few metres of ice is 4000m of icy-cold sea water down to the sea floor.

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(Keynesian construction stimulus package – Arctic style)

4. Flying in to Barneo 

Once we got into Barneo, there was immediately a high-stakes discussions on the route and plan of attack, as well as what time the helicopter to drop us off would fly. The three main factors in military operations are often Time, Terrain and Enemy Action.

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(Rick Sweitzer – Our intrepid leader and boss of Polar Explorers company)

a. Time – Given that the Barneo station had a hard dead-line of Apr 23 after which the whole science station would have to be dismantled and flown out because the warming weather posed a risk of the ice under the station melting. This gave us added pressure to arrive at the North Pole on time. One good thing was that with 24hours of daylight, if push came to shove, we could just log longer hours on our skis.

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 (Barneo ice-camp – An amazing example of great Russian hospitality and ingenuity. All this has to go by the 23rd of April)

b. Terrain – One of the key challenges in Arctic travel was that we were traveling over moving ice. This meant that when the ice-plates pulled apart, it could create huge stretches of open water that had to be swum around or skied around. When the ice pushed together, it created pressure-ridges of small hills that were incredibly tough to get around. The shifting ice could move as fast as we skied, so on bad days, we could be on a tread-mill, moving the whole day without getting any nearer to the North Pole.

Image(Michael crossing a small lead of open water)

(Me chopping a path through the rough ice – Note the flipped over sled)

There was one time as we were crossing thin ice that the whole ice piece I was on cracked and began to sink, with my right leg following it into the water. Talk about getting cold feet! Thankfully I managed to get out, and powder snow helped to soak up most of the water. But falling into a thin lead is one of the key areas of danger on a Polar expedition.

Another time, after we had just reached the pole and had our tents set up and were settling in to sleep, we were serenaded by the grinding of the ice plates moving. On checking, we found a crack had opened up right next to our tent, forcing us to get up from our sleeping bags, put on our clothes, pack up and move tents otherwise the tent could have gone into the water and sunk to the bottom of the ocean – literally falling property value or sinking prices.

c. Enemy Action – Ursa Maritimus (Polar Bear)

When people think of polar bears, this is the mental image that they have, courtesy of Coke’s media campaign over the years.

(What most people think when they think of polar bears)

However, the reality is that the undisputed top of the food chain around polar regions is Ursa Maritimus – reflecting its ability to swim and survive in these regions. Growing up to 650kg, with the largest recorded specimen topping 1 Ton, polar bears can sprint up to 40km/h and swim 4km/h, a good sight faster than humans.

The only advice when meeting a polar bear is to make sure you can run faster than your team-mates =0

Here is my good friend Big John posing – this bear weighed only 350kg when it died – imagine an animal three times the size!

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On our first day of the expedition, another team was being inserted by helicopter, and they spotted a polar bear mom and her cubs.

Image(Photo of mama bear and her two cubs, courtesy of Anastasia from the Norwegian team)

Not long after that, we came across a set of polar bear paw-prints. To see other signs of life in the Arctic wilderness was highly disconcerting – you can imagine that the shot-gun and pistols were at the ready after that!

5. The Team

Overall, there were 7 of us in the team, as well as 3 guides. Rick, Keith and Vern were our amazing guides from Polar Explores, while, Lu Xiaohua and Li Jianxiong were from China, Mike Stringfellow from Australia, Alex and Simon Hearn a father/son team from UK and Big John Dahlem, my buddy from Everest.

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There were so many funny stories to tell about the team, and way too much naked flesh for such a cold climate (what with frostbite risk and all) and tattoos being exposed but I guess what happens at the North Pole, stays at the North Pole so I’m not posting any of these incriminating photos.

The cultural diversity was also manifested in the kind of alcohol brought on the trip –

One of the exciting photos that didn’t pass censorship is of Simon and Alex, who stripped themselves completely naked when we finally reached the pole, covering up their man-bits with the Union Jack as well as their regiment flag (Royal Scots Dragoons).

6. Reaching the Pole

After a long journey, we finally reached the pole on April 18th at 430pm. The final going was incredibly tough, taking us more than an hour to cover the final few hundred metres. Once near there, we also had to wander around trying to track the exact spot on GPS.

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(GPS reading 90 degrees North. Longitude is where it gets confusing)

After such a long journey it was great to finally reach our destination! Within a few moments however, we had drifted on, and we were already starting to move away from the North Pole.

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7. The North Pole – What does it mean to you?

It is inevitable to make comparisons with Everest when I was on the polar expedition, and I guess there are two possible views that people can take of the world:

Life is like a mountain

Many people use mountain-climbing as a metaphor, that we have a target, a zenith, and once conquered, we descend. That’s why people like to talk about Everest to signify a big challenge in life. Make no mistake – the Everest summit day was one of the toughest days of my life, especially coming back down to Camp 2, which made it a 24hour day. (An estimated 20,000 or more calories expended on summit day – about 10 days worth of a normal person’s energy input). However, the days leading up to the summit are rather manageable.

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(One of the sights I will never forget – sunrise on summit day, illuminating the Himalayan vista all around)

Like is like polar travel

In polar travel on the other hand, EVERY DAY is tough and every day looks the same. It’s just that SOME DAYS are tougher. And when you get to the North Pole itself, you won’t even recognize it – we had to spend almost half an hour getting the GPS to track, and once there, we only spent a moment before it too started to drift.

That may be a more accurate description of life – that we chase an objective defined only in our minds, and we may not even recognize it even when we are there, and once we catch it it instantly slips away. Yet despite knowing all that, we still chase our dream, because to us, there is value in the adventure, journey and destination. Some days you drift forward, some days you drift backwards, despite your best efforts. You just have to keep going and never quit because you think the goal is worth it.

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(Solo in Baffin during my training trip)

8. So what’s next?

Buy me a coffee and we can discuss some ideas.

Thanks again to all my friends for following this, and if anyone wants to chat, get me to talk to their kids, school, work-place (tell their employees to be grateful for heating in the office), club etc, I’d be more than willing to oblige.

Many thanks again to all my friends.

Safe travels,

Lien

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