North Geographic Pole expedition – Plan D (old post)

This is a post I wrote in May 2016 about the complications of trying to launch an expedition to the North Pole – as a new audience of students and teachers I thought you might like to read the Post Expedition Report. M.Wood

The following might not be for everybody – however, after coming back from a recent expedition to the Geographic North Pole and after 3 years of extensive planning and preparation I felt it necessary to outlined what actually happened. Most of the content is about logistics involving environmental and political influences.
Always prepare for plan D…

Post Expedition Report;

“The success of this British expedition will be based on the team’s stubborn persistence, endurance and their deep understanding of the environment”

“Traversing across what has got to be one of the most fragile, barren and unforgiving landscapes on our planet; it will take every ounce of determination that they possess. Very few people through history have stepped off the Arctic coastline to venture to the pole and I wish them every success.” 

Sir Ranulph Fiennes

British Pole Explorer and Patron to the North Pole Expedition 2016.
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10th May 2016 : This report is to first assess the expedition for the purposes of a documentary directly related to the climate issues and politics involved in running the expedition to the North Pole. We have also asked our patrons from exploration and climate science to put forward their views and we are preparing a detailed account of the buildup logistically to the journey, which in the end was governed by decisions on the state of the ice on the Arctic Ocean.
Expedition Documentary Proposal
“As a team that has been through the process of setting up a cutting edge expedition in a moment of history that is experiencing rapid environmental change – we feel there is a story to be told”

Mark Wood  – Expedition team member
The idea for the documentary has now become more about how exploration has taken on a new form with the constrictions and regulations that surround it. It is still necessary for modern day Explorers on the ground to not only verify satellite images but also to add a human impact to the issues that affect our planet. In the same way as astronauts bring the story alive in space we have an important roll to play in major issues on earth.
How do you communicate climate change? If you mention the words terrorist attack – people automatically listen as this has a human impact. For the average person climate change just doesn’t translate on the same level. The large majority of people around the world feel that climate issues are not affecting their daily lives. There is no immediate human impact – but in reality global warming has an effect on the planet as a whole – we are all connected.
But how do we translate this to the average person? Our team is built up of explorers with military backgrounds, but we are not sensationalist TV/Film personalities, we are just three ordinary people from ordinary families that live within the UK. Through our honest portrayal of what we see and feel once we are on the ice in the most environmentally hostile areas of the planet we are able to connect directly with the audience. For the viewer it then becomes easier to understand the ‘human impact’. Once the connection is made we then become the platform that supports the work of Climate Scientists and together we communicate the truth of global warming.

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The objective for our team was to film the unstable broken ice on the Arctic Ocean in a year when scientists are reporting the hottest season ever; see Dr Stephan Harrison’s report below. This is a proposal for a documentary film about how modern day exploration is being affected not only by climate change but also politics and a responsibility to rescue teams who potentially could put their own lives at risk.
The film footage we have is a combination of the team crossing the ocean over ice rubble, open water and moving sea ice, along with the changing dynamics living together in the confined area of a tent and getting to know each during our time on ice. We have shot daily ‘a piece to camera’ created blog updates along with explaining situations like navigation. This is combined with the pre-expedition training film and interviews. Some great drone footage from the area where we trained on a glacier, along with post expedition interviews explaining our equipment and extensive footage of the Arctic Ocean.
There is also past footage of other expeditions the team has done to build up an idea of who we are and the experience we have. Due to the nature of the politics and environmental issues we can set up interviews with climate scientists, other explorers and educators to enhance the issues.
In addition we can take further film by visiting the proposed end point to the expedition in Resolute Bay – high arctic Canada to talk to the local Inuit people about how climate change is affecting their lives and culture.

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Climate Patron’s Observation; Dr Stephan Harrison  – Associate Professor in Quaternary Science  – College of Life and Environmental Sciences  –  University of Exeter
North Pole Expedition 2016. We have just lived through the warmest year since records began. This warming in response to increased emissions of greenhouse gases has long been predicted by climate scientists and the effects are now seen everywhere with rising sea levels, worldwide glacier recession and the disruption of ecosystems. For many years the Arctic has been seen as a place where the effects of global climate change will be magnified and has been called the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for climate change.
Because of the strength of climate feedbacks in the far north climate scientists have expected the Arctic to warm up more, and more quickly, than other parts of the globe. We can now see the effects of this.
The Arctic has warmed around 4°C above the 1968-96 reference period (compared with an average warming of less than 1°C for the globe) and, in response to this, the Greenland Ice Sheet has been losing ice mass at increasing rates over the past few decades; Arctic glaciers are in recession and permafrost is melting all across the Arctic region. The majority of climate model projections have also predicted these global and regional temperature trends, and helped develop the notion of ‘Arctic Amplification’ of warming. However, global climate models have also largely underestimated the rate of warming in the Arctic and, especially, the rate of melting of Arctic sea ice.

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In April Mark and his colleagues completed their walk to the North Pole during an extraordinary winter season for the Arctic. They have just experienced the lowest maximum winter sea ice extent on record and this, combined with the lowest Northern Hemisphere April snow cover on record shows that the region is undergoing rapid and perhaps irreversible change.
A few years ago some scientists were criticised for being alarmist for predicting that summer sea ice might effectively disappear in the next few years. Predicting the behaviour of something as dynamic as Arctic sea ice is clearly very difficult, but we may quickly be moving to a situation in the Arctic which has not been experienced on earth for hundreds of thousands of years.
Perhaps one of the most worrying aspects of this is that none of our sophisticated numerical global climate model projections produced such a rapid drop in Arctic sea ice; this means that they may not also be able to predict other rapid changes in the earth’s climate system and as a result we may not be prepared for the consequences.
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Race Against Time Expedition Mission Statement; In 2014 we outlined our plans to run an expedition to the North Geographic Pole – the original mission statement for this was as follows;
“To film the harsh honest reality of how global warming has affected the Arctic Ocean through the eyes of modern day polar explorers”
Over the past two years we have liaised with logistics teams from the Canadian and Russian Arctic to find a suitable start point along the edge of the Arctic Ocean. This has been proven to be extremely difficult.

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The following report is based on the original mission statement of the expedition and is a detailed breakdown of events leading up to the expedition. The reason for this detailed analysis is to show how modern day exploration is determined not only by sponsorship and the skill of the team but also by the commitment of support teams that pledge their lives to this environmentally dangerous area of our planet. It is a direct reflection on how global warming is now affecting polar travel.
The change has begun…

Post expedition analysis by Mark Wood
plan A / Canada – first approach
After years of inserting and extracting teams on the ocean in 2015 the Canadian logistic operators Ken Borak Air (KBA) stopped all flights for the 2015/16 seasons. This was mainly down to two reasons which parallel each other. The first was the unpredictability of the ice making it difficult for their Twin Otter planes to judge a strong landing point. The second reason was that some of their new pilots had very little experience landing on sea ice – especially after 87 degrees north. This is roughly 180 Nautical miles from the North Pole and over 300 NM from the Canadian coast line. Once a team passes 87 degrees heading North to the pole KBA would require 2 planes to support each other just in case one fails.
Each member of team has had military and rescue experience so we understood KBA concerns and respected their decision. In this modern era of exploration we have a responsibility to rescue and logistic teams to outline our expedition objectives and to work with them so as not to put their lives at risk.

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plan B / Russia – second approach
We then took the expedition to the Russian logistic team VICAAR – historically the main problem with starting from their coast line was that satellite images would show up to 40 NM of open water. This would mean a drop off on ice and if possible we wanted to avoid this. It is generally recognised that within the polar world a coastal start point to the North or South poles or even areas such as Greenland would be recognised within the historical stats.

We are not glory hunters or flag wavers but if we were to commit to a tough long range journey across the Arctic Ocean this would be our preferred option. The good news was 8 months prior to the expedition we sanctioned a drop off of aviation fuel along the coast line to support our own insertion when it happens.

During this flight the pilots reported the ice was solid and safe to land on – which meant a coastal start was possible, but we would need to set off at the end of winter to ensure solid ice operating in temperatures below -40. The ice status was verified by VICAAR just weeks before our due departure date.

During our pre-expedition planning with VICAAR we had many hours of emails and phone calls re-arranging contracts and trying to deal with a lot of red tape. One was the Russian visa, so we recruited a private company in London to support our team members in processing them quickly. This was achieved and up to 4 weeks before departure the expedition had a green light.

I then received an email from VICAAR informing me that the group visa had been refused and as it was a government decision we didn’t receive a reason and we were not able to contest it – even though we tried, twice!

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We can only speculate about British and Russian political issues at the time but in reality we were left in the dark. As this report will outline there was a mass military exercise with over 100 armed Russian paratroopers at the North Pole when we eventually headed out. The timing of this is too coincidental to not rule it out as one of the reasons they didn’t want a British team skiing through the middle of the operation. However, this is just speculation.

plan C / North Pole reversed
Our motto for the expedition was “Always a Little Further” and our mission statement as stated above outlined our belief in the journey. We spoke to the VICAAR to see if they would support a drop off via helicopter at the Geographic North Pole to attempt a reversed expedition to the coast line of Canada. They agreed to do this and also stated that their rescue support would only extend to 87 degrees north from the North Pole.
Our next obstacle was to go back to the Canadian logistic team, Ken Borek Air to request support for a possible rescue from 87 degrees North to the coast line. To do this I felt we needed someone in the exploration world to vouch for our experience and professionalism.

At the time that we were evaluating how best to persuade the Canadians that we needed their support we received some devastating news. Our expedition Patron Lieutenant Colonel Henry Worsley MBE had died on the 24th January 2016 while attempting to complete the first solo and unaided crossing of the Antarctic.

Henry was British Army officer and a friend of the team. In fact two of our team walked with Henry to the South Pole in 2010. A century after the race to the South Pole that gripped the world, to retrace the steps of Scott and Amundsen.

The day his death was announced I was invited to appear on BBC Newsnight to talk about Henry and the dangers of exploration. The following day I was contacted by Steve Jones who was the Antarctic Logistics Base camp manager and had been supporting Henry.

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I shared our challenge with Steve and he also knew of our expeditions over the years in both the Arctic and Antarctica circles. Steve knew the team at KBA and immediately agreed to help and put forward our request. KBA agreed which was remarkable in a year they had closed their doors on a lot of expeditions. As their commitment was below 87 degrees this would mean they would only have to use one plane to pick up. So, in short the expedition was back on…

Svalbard – Longyearbyen.
We left London Heathrow with 6 sledges and 29 pieces of luggage on the 23rd March 2016. The team trained from a small town called Longyearbyen on the island of Svalbard – archipelago in northern Norway. Constituting the westernmost bulk of the archipelago, it borders the Arctic Ocean, the Norwegian Sea, and the Greenland Sea.

We had arrived early in the season to be inserted into the North Pole which would give us valuable time we needed to cross the Arctic Ocean. After a week of preparation which consisted of testing equipment and going over routines on the nearby glacier – we awaited confirmation of our departure to a temporary Russian ice station called Camp Barneo. Our agreement was that we would be dropped off on the first technical flight – the first flight sets up the 800 metre runway on the ocean and the second flight (potentially our flight) brings in the rest of the ground crew.

The drop off date we were given by the Russian’s was the 1st April and the Canadians made it abundantly clear that their last pick up on sea ice would be the 5th of May with some leeway if we were progressing well to the coast. So, we had 35 to 40 days to cover the distance which was going to be tough but doable with the training, experience and mindset of the team.

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A Waiting Game… Unfortunately, our wait for the flight was delayed 3 or 4 times due to the report of the runway cracking under the unusual movement of the ice. Extensive cracks appeared in the area which is situated 30 miles from the North Pole. In previous years there had been signs of cracks and open water but not to this extent. This was unprecedented and we had no choice but to sit and wait.

It came to the 8th April and we then needed to speak with the Canadian team KBA to discuss our shortened expedition which now been reduced to 20 to 25 days. KBA had been monitoring our progress and were becoming increasingly worried by our delay, especially as they had seen that for 180 NM off their coast line there was extensive ice rubble fields – this is extremely difficult to cross. Even experienced polar teams would have to move slowly through this area probably covering 6NM per day. At this point of the expedition we would hope to be covering over 10 to 15 NM per day.

The more serious issue was now that if we encountered any difficulty in this extensive area it would be almost impossible for a plane to land – so their concerns were real. As a team we made the tough decision to abort the attempt from the North Pole to Canada – the reality of climate change was truly affecting the expedition long before we had even had the chance to set foot on ice.

As mentioned before in this document this is the point when we learnt that the Russian government had lunched a military exercise with their Parachute regiment and over 100 soldiers were based at Camp Barneo. Aside from the Visa issues we had encountered there was also speculation that the expedition was delayed from our insertion date of the 1st April due to the military activity on ice and the cracked runway was only part of the story.

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plan D  / The Mission statement revisited

Throughout this whole procedure and outlined in this document we were determined not to defer away from the original Mission statement;

“To film the harsh honest reality of how global warming has affected the Arctic Ocean through the eyes of modern day polar explorers”

We approached VICAAR with a request to be inserted on to the ocean via helicopter 88 degrees north to cover 150 NM to the North Pole. We received a negative response from VICAAR who wanted to drop us closer to the pole as the ice was extremely unstable at 88D. Their helicopter crew had reported seeing mass open water and fast moving ice. We held strong on our request because we had all of the flotation equipment and training necessary to deal with this and our main objective was to capture this unusual activity anyway.

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A Green Light – at last! We finally received the OK from VICAAR that our expedition could commence but with the condition that if we couldn’t reach the North Pole due to problems crossing the ice then they would pick us up on the 26th April where ever we were. We agreed but didn’t go into the expedition with this same attitude – we were determined to reach the pole and document after all this was our entire reason for being there.

Within 24 hours we touched down on the ocean ice having viewed the devastation of the ice from the helicopter window for over an hour. As the helicopter disappeared from our position we were now acting as the most remote team in the world – 3 dots in a white void. The one memory I have at that point was the silence, which was deafening. I then became aware of the creaking of the ocean below, followed by the shifting surreal movement of the ice around us. This had just got real.

Over the following 2 weeks we operated in an average of -30. We progressed well but from the outset we drifted west taking us of course and we also needed to head east and west to cross large open water areas and rubble fields. The reports from the pilots were correct but it created some incredible film and photographs along with visual blogs to explain the moments.

We ran an educational program with Skype in the Classroom and Microsoft for hundreds of students around the world and daily updates to Twitter, Facebook and the official website http://www.northpole16.com bought in a new audience directly onto the Arctic Ocean with us. This is the incredible side to modern day exploration.

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Arrival at the North Pole; We had arrived and completed our mission. We hadn’t required VICAAR to pick us up midpoint of the journey – we had covered the 150 miles as a team and through routine, focus and persistence we were able to capture the moment. For me the key to a successful expedition is to first of all come back alive – but when possible – if you fulfil the mission statement it is only then that you have earnt the right to feel you have properly delivered and achieved your objectives.

However, failure would have been to give up when the odds were stacked against us and not to have attempted the expedition in the first place…

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Sponsorship recognition
None of this would have been possible without the generous commitment and belief from our sponsors. We are extremely grateful to them all for their patience and steadfast support.

The legacy of this expedition is to create a documentary that helps to educate others on the hostilities of this dangerous and ever changing part of our planet that only few will ever have the opportunity to explore. If our planet continues to change at such an alarming rate expeditions such as this will soon become a thing of the past – sadly this is highly likely to happen in our lifetime.

Written by: Mark Wood  / Explorer  – May 2016
For further information visit: http://www.northpole16.com  / http://www.markwoodexplorer.com / Contact details: mark@markwoodexplorer.com suki@sukigallagher.com

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Author: Mark Wood

An established polar explorer and adventurer who operates within the extremes of our planet. His next expedition to Mount Everest will involve students from around the globe - this journal was set up to link directly with the teachers, students and the scouts who are involved in the journey.

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