In 1995, Richard Weber made waves when he and Russian Mikhail Malakhov skied to the North Pole and back without dogs or external support; a feat that has never been repeated. In fact, Richard has skied seven times from the coast to the GNP and kicking off the 2011 season, ExWebs Correne Coetzer caught up with him asking why so many expeditions to the North Pole fail. Here go his top 5 reasons for Arctic failure with a note about the most common blame for failure and -- reasons for success.
A trek from land to the North Pole is the toughest, hardest trek on the planet; so it is not surprising that the success rate is not high, says Richard. The success rate on a typical year is low, maybe less than one expedition in three. Recently, with more available information, more experienced adventurers and easier conditions (thanks to climate change), the success rate has risen. But for most people, success is far from assured.
According to Richard, here's why:
1. Lack of preparation
The most common cause for failure is lack of preparation. People tend to use their past experiences, particularly in mountaineering, as a basis to plan their journey to the North Pole. But the Arctic Ocean is a completely different environment from anywhere else on the planet, especially mountains and even really different from Antarctica; one is land, the other ocean.
Unlike the mountains or Antarctica there is nowhere to train that is the similar as the Arctic Ocean. And there is nowhere to go to experience the raw, penetrating cold of -60째C.
2. Inadequate energy equation
A journey to the North Pole, especially an unsupported expedition can be viewed as an energy equation.
You start with a given amount of energy stored in your body and in the food in your sled. You are faced with a given amount of work required to reach the North Pole. This work requires the energy that is stored in your sled and in your body when you start. How you use that energy determines the outcome of your trek.
Most people start with sub-optimal equipment and food. Actually this is not surprising as most outdoor gear in stores is designed by mountaineers for mountaineering. This is no true polar gear. For example, there are no tents designed only for winter, they are all multi-season.
Sure, you can make this equipment work. I have traveled with Soviets dressed in wool and leather, they made it work but at what cost? The cost is more energy. More energy surviving and less energy spent moving forward towards the goal. The more energy spent surviving, the less energy is available to move forward and progress diminishes.
3. Unexpected cold
Failure usually comes in the first week or even the first few days.
A departure from the Ward Hunt in early March or at the end of February has approximately a two-thirds chance of experiencing temperatures below -60째C
For planet earth, -60째C is rare. So it is almost impossible to go somewhere else to experience these temperatures in training. No matter how much you train, no matter how much you read, even if you have experience with -40째C, nothing can prepare you for the brutal shock at Ward Hunt Island when you step out from the warmth of the plane into -60째C.
4. The weight of the sled
The next shock experienced by the traveler is when he or she takes their first few steps and realizes that the sled that was not so heavy in training requires all the power the body can muster just to move it. In some cases the adventurer is not able to move their sled at all!
The reason? The extra 30 degrees of cold have significantly increased the friction on the sled.
Normally a sled slides across the snow on a microscopic thin layer of water particles caused by the downward pressure of the weight of the sled. At Ward Hunt Island, sharp ice crystals stick upwards into the base of the sled, there is no melting. It is like dragging your sled across a sandy beach.
Here we should mention that all the extra last minute things that were added to the sled really take their toll.
5. The pack ice
The final shock comes when the traveler crosses the ice shelf and reaches the pack ice. Broken, jumbled ice filled with soft snow goes all the way to the horizon. By now many people are done. In my take, a few days, even longer, to come to terms with it.
Blame for failure and reasons for success
Some people experience real cold injury in the first couple of days and abandon. Or they experience equipment failure and stop. Some expeditions blame ice conditions, saying this has been the worst ice in 20 years . Blah blah blah.
They fail to realize that the northern coast of Ellesmere is by definition an area of broken ice. It is never flat. Always broken and busted.
People who plan expeditions to the North Pole must realize that the cold will be shocking, the ice will be never flat and their equipment will fail. When these three factors are considered and accounted for, then the expedition has a good chance for success.
Richard Weber has skied seven times from the coast to the Geographic North Pole; among various other Arctic expeditions. He skied to 90째N for the first time in 1986 with the Will Steger expedition. Richards most outstanding expedition was in 1995 with Russian Mikhail Malakhov. They skied to the North Pole and back without dogs or external support; using only caches they placed out enroute for the return; a feat that has never been repeated.
In the 2008-09 Antarctic season Richard and two ultra-marathon runners, Ray Zahab and Kevin Vallely, skied unassisted and unsupported from Hercules Inlet to the Geographic South Pole (1130 km) in a team speed record time of 33 days, 23 hours and 55 minutes. During the 2010 Arctic season, he guided his 20-year old son, Tessum, and Howard Fairbank and David Pierce-Jones in a very fast trek from Cape Discovery (Canada) to the North Pole (780 km). The team received one resupply. Tessum became the youngest to ski All the Way from land to the North Pole.
Richard and his wife Jos챕e Auclair offer a comprehensive polar training course in Alcove, Quebec (50 km from Ottawa) for anyone who has an interest in learning more about Arctic and North Pole travel. They are also consultants for Polar expeditions. They have developed and tested unique polar equipment, including the Weber Polar Mukluks.
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