(Correne Coetzer) Alex Hibbert announced a two-phase winter Arctic ski sledge-haul with team mate Justin Miles. This winter (Mid-December 2012 – Mid-March 2013) they will ski up the Nares Strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, leaving caches for next winter to do it again and continue to the North Pole.
How will the conditions be in the Nares Strait? Will there be fractured ice or will it consolidate? What rescue service is in place for that time of the year? Polar insurance is quite difficult to get lately; will they get insurance for winter trips? Alex talks to ExWeb about these issues and more.
ExplorersWeb: Where did the idea for this come from?
Alex: The expedition was first conceived as a method for making an attempt on the North Pole in a difficult time for the sponsorship market. The limited funds now available in the UK for sports and adventure sponsorship are often being directed to more celebrity and reality-TV-style projects.
This means that highly demanding polar expeditions (and of course expeditions of other types) have a number of options. You can either decide to roll over and give up, you can try the same outdated strategy to gain funding each year, or you can make it happen the hard way!
I’ve always been a ‘modern purist’ polar expedition leader and so I’m particularly keen to make such a demanding expedition become a reality.
In place of an insertion flight by Kenn Borek or Norland Air is 450 miles of turbulent sea ice and this is before we can even start our Pole attempt. In place of a North Pole pickup is a potential return journey.
We have a number of strategies for varying sea ice conditions; for example the time of the year the ice breaks up and also whether the Nares Strait ice arch forms or not.
Why unsupported? Why winter? Why a return? Because it’s harder that way. Plus, the ice is better then.
ExplorersWeb: You are very dependent on the sea ice conditions in the Nares Strait. What research have you done about it? What do you know about the conditions between December and March? Which sea ice specialists are you working with to assist you with the predictions and patterns, as well as conditions while you are on the ice?
Alex: I’ve done months of endless research regarding the changes in ice thickness and composition in the region since 2000, as well as movement patterns and the trends regarding the behavior of the ice arches, which can block the straits.
Very little is known about the straits in winter as a place to travel – that’s part of the attraction of the expedition. I’ve spoken to those with experience in late winter and early spring and who understand the unique ice there.
Local hunters get out on the ice as soon as the sea ice builds up and so we’ll be listening intently to them before leaving Qaanaaq.
ExplorersWeb: Have you been in contact with winter polar skiers Ousland/Horn/Shparo/Smolin? If yes, what have you learned from them?
Alex: I have been in contact with various polar veterans but mostly those with knowledge of the straits (for example Jerry Kobalenko and Lonnie Dupre) as they are the greatest unknowns. I’ve had contact with Børge [Ousland] on and off over the years.
ExplorersWeb: The Arctic Ice is infamous for its drift. How is the drift in the Nares Strait?
Alex: It’s a little more predictable since the currents flow north to south. The actual ice movement is dependent on the arch formation. If they form at either end of the strait, the ice becomes stationary and compressed with rapidly moving water beneath. There will be leads, but fewer than are found on the ocean itself.
ExplorersWeb: How do you get info about the ice that time of year?
Alex: There are still ice condition reports in the winter from various services from Canada, Norway and others.
ExplorersWeb: What sea ice expedition experience do you have?
Alex: Most of my experience is on permanent icecaps and heavily crevassed glaciers/melt zones. I have sea ice experience from coastal travel, from which I’ve learned the subtle and not so subtle differences!
ExplorersWeb: Will you be skiing on land or sea ice most of the time? Will it be easy to go from land to ice and ice to land along this part of the coast (in the dark…)
Alex: Due to restrictions from the authorities in Greenland, travel is not permitted in the winter north of Inglefieldland. From that point, we’ll not be able to come within 3 nautical miles of land for more than 24hrs per 7 day period.
On the Canadian side the rules are less strict. As it’s a dynamic system, we won’t know until we’re there which side of the strait will be best.
The land on the Greenlandic side is in fact fairly low and shallow, with an ice foot, and so transition shouldn’t be enormously difficult. There are of course glacial cliffs and mountains that will need to be avoided.
ExplorersWeb: You will leave depots. Where will you leave them – surely on land? What about hungry polar bears – how will you secure your caches against them? Is there a way to make sure that your caches are still intact when you start off next year with the NP attempt, or will it be a surprise?
Alex: Yes, these will be laid on solid ground and marked both by flags and GPS locations. Bears are a concern and the best advice I have is not to make them bear-proof (as there is no such thing) but to make them hard to locate.
They will be sealed to stop odor (the Blackfriars flapjacks and meals are individually sealed anyhow) and then buried under rocks. There will be no way to know whether the depots have survived the long wait before Phase Two.
ExplorersWeb: How did it come that you two teamed up? Alex, why Justin? Justin, why Alex?
Justin: Alex is extremely driven and focused to achieve success in this expedition, which is totally his brainchild. When Alex and I first met he presented with me an abundance of intricate research on the expedition and I admired his determination to make it a success. Alex has an unquestionable ability to perform, we get along well and we have very similar outlooks.
Alex: I needed someone who was skilled, keen, available for a long expedition, physically capable and easy to get on with. These are the attributes which Justin shares with all the team-mates I’ve worked with!
ExplorersWeb: If you think of what you are going to do and you visualize yourself there in the dark on the ice, what comes up in your mind?
Justin: There’s a certain ‘fear factor’, which is connected to the scale of what we are about to begin. It’s a strange mix of apprehension and excitement, but I really can’t wait to be out there, making it happen.
Alex: The concept of this expedition conjures up two very distinct emotions. The first is an excitement with exceeds that which I’d had for any past journey – due to the sheer scale and ambition. The other is a deep and genuine fear for what we’ll encounter and have to survive. The first is to be enjoyed and the second is to be controlled.
ExplorersWeb: A winter Arctic ski is a total different ball game. It is much more than preparing food and getting clothes together. How do you prepare yourself for this?
Justin: We’ve both been preparing physically for the trip for some time and we’re about to enter another phase of training as we build towards the start date. The expedition itself will pitch us through many elements of fitness, which we’re replicating through our training programs.
Alex: The preparations have been going on for many months. You’re right that winter expeditions require a performance well in excess of even the most demanding spring or summer expeditions. This is the case with respect to equipment choice, scheduling, route-finding, self-preservation and keeping healthy.
ExplorersWeb: Hands and feet tend to freeze first. What are you going to wear? What about sleeping bags?
Alex: Hands and feet are always at risk but it’s the body as a whole that needs to be kept warm and effective. We’ve almost entirely rejected down-filled clothing and have synthetic sleeping systems and even synthetic-filled tent boots. This weighs a bit more but is worth it. Our sleeping system consists of a VBL, fleece liner, Mammut Denali 5 bag and a custom overbag. Our clothing will be supplied solely by our sponsors: Montane and Bridgedale.
ExplorersWeb: What rescue service is available?
Justin: We are doing all that we can to ensure that we don’t end up in a position where we have to call in support. Accidents may happen which are beyond our control, but we’re reducing the likelihood of the need for rescue with careful and meticulous planning and preparation.
Alex: Rescue will be available but is limited and in the event of a major injury there might be a wait before an airlift can arrive. The straits will contain too much jumbled ice to make a Twin Otter landing feasible and any landing strip would need to be illuminated. The most likely option would be a helicopter feeding off air-dropped fuel depots from either Canada or Thule airbase.
For Phase Two there would be air cover from Canada or Barneo until the end of April. It’s our job to ensure this is not needed.
ExplorersWeb: Polar insurance are quite difficult to get lately. Have you got an insurance company that gives you S&R;/evacuation insurance for these winter expeditions?
Alex: I’ve written extensively on the issue of modern polar insurance, particularly relating to SAR. I don’t blame insurance companies for being reluctant to provide cover given the behavior of some over the past few years.
We have spoken at length to a specialist underwriter who understands our expedition and has provided the level of cover necessary. Without them the expedition could not occur. Authorities in Greenland and Canada have also been enormously understanding and helpful.
ExplorersWeb: Anything else?
Alex: I think, or at least it’s my hope, that this expedition can beckon a change in the current perception of polar travel. I’m uneasy about the commercialization and celebrity-driven popularization of these incredible places.
I hope that this journey will show those inside and outside of the community that the classic values of hard work and trying new things are still alive and well – also, that true expeditions are here to stay – they’re not easy nor ‘watered down’.
The expedition is being done for its own sake and I’m not ashamed of that. We don’t know what the outcome will be or how much we’ll need to change strategy – just how it used to be and how it should be now. The only way to guarantee success is to do something easy. That’s not our style.
Justin Miles grew up around the beaches and moorland of the South Devon where he began his career in the sports and fitness industry. Starting out as a trainer, Justin went on to develop a career as a writer, lecturer and management consultant to sports and fitness organizations.
A car accident in 1999 resulted in brain injuries, leaving him unable to walk or talk properly. A virtual prisoner in his own body with very little to distract him from the situation he found himself in, Justin dreamed of turning his childhood dream of becoming an explorer, which had featured in his life as a hobby so far, and making it into a full time profession.
As his self-designed and administered recovery plan dragged on he turned his dream in to a tangible objective, set goals, and then set about turning his dream in to a reality. He has worked in various regions of the Arctic, including Svalbard.
Now, thirteen years on, Justin embarks on expeditions and challenges all over the globe and uses his experiences to support a charity working with brain-injured children and to fuel an education initiative for primary schools.
Alex Hibbert grew up in Hampshire, was educated in Dorset and read Biology at the University of Oxford. In 2002, aged fifteen, Alex was one of the youngest people to complete the 125-mile Devizes to Westminster kayak ultra-marathon. At university he competed at the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity Triathlon, won his rowing ‘blade’ and began competitively running long-distance races. He also reached the summit of Mont Blanc and other peaks in the French Alps. In 2007 Alex led a Greenlandic climbing and sledge-hauling expedition whilst hosting a film-crew on location. Alex is an accomplished photographer.
In 2008 Alex lead a 1347 miles Greenland expedition. In the spring of 2010 Alex guided an international team 350 miles across the Greenland icecap. In 2011 he, with team-mate Andrew Wilkinson, covered 330 miles in eleven and a half days across the Greenland icecap from the Nagtivit Glacier to the Russell Glacier.
His first book, “The Long Haul”, was released in March 2010 In the winter of 2012, Alex presented a documentary from the Inuit communities of Eastern Greenland and attempted a winter crossing of the notorious Icelandic Vatnajökull icecap. His second book, a photographic account of his various travels in Arctic Greenland, was published in May 2012.
The Two Phase Arctic Winter Expedition:
Between mid-December 2012 and mid-March 2013, Justin Miles and Alex Hibbert will each haul pulks weighing over 250kg the length of the Nares Strait between Greenland and Canada, and then return unsupported. The purpose of North 2012 is to lay and prepare supply depots for a subsequent phase which is the ultimate goal of reaching the North Pole unsupported in winter. This has never been achieved. The Pole has also never been reached from Greenland – the final main route as yet untravelled.
The route for the first phase will cover up to 900 miles over fractured and mobile sea ice between the cliffs and glaciers of Ellesmere Island and North-West Greenland. The pair will set out from the Greenlandic Inuit village of Qaanaaq and travel north to the edge of the Arctic Ocean, before returning.
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