(Correne Coetzer) “All the hard work that you have done for this moment comes up into your memory when reaching the goal.” These could have been the words of an Olympic medalist, but are the words of Estonian Timo Palo, who, in the spirit of the 2012 Olympics, has won a North Pole gold medal together with team mate, Norwegian Audun Tholfsen.
This past North Pole season these guys were the only ones who completed a full North Pole expedition. They skied and kayaked, unassisted and unsupported , from the Geographic North Pole to Svalbard. ExplorersWeb caught up with them over email. In Part 1 they tell about the good and the bad days, how they had to focus on the now and how they thought they would not make it to Svalbard.
ExplorersWeb: Looking back at what you guys have done, how do you feel?
Audun: Great, it’s a good feeling to have done something unique.
Timo: The feeling is good – as good as it could be after the fulfillment of one of your lifetime dreams.
Being an athlete I feel it to be similar when crossing the finish line. All the hard work that you have done for this moment comes up into your memory when reaching the goal. Mentally it’s very relaxing, particularly because we were able to have done it in the full concept as was planned!
If you do a rather hard trip and go little bit beyond what is safe, known and expected, then at the end, when it all become something of the past and you can have a first look back, you feel such a relief and start to realize what you have done. It’s a very pleasant and relaxing feeling.
The Arctic Ocean is a place which you could still consider as rather unexpected and changing; therefore you do your preparations the best you can with all the knowledge available nowadays. You are walking on the unsure and moving surface. Your spirit will be tested well.
During the trip you are so focused on the place and the things what you are doing now. This is the way to survive there, live in the moment and do not try to think too much ahead. You are in the middle of the action and you don’t have an “eagle’s view”.
That’s why you don’t really realize the concept of the whole trip before it is completed and you can relax – get the tension off from your body and mind. I have thought, what is harder, the journey or action you have come through; that better feeling it gives later when it’s over. That’s probably the part of the addiction what brings adventurers back into action, to push the limits once again.
ExplorersWeb: Were there times that you felt that you were not going to make it to Svalbard?
Audun: Quite often when we got into rougher terrain, we thought if it continues like that we will run out of time. Then conditions change and we had our hope back.
I also remember the feeling in my gut on the fifth day when Timo was yelling that his kayak had broken. Then you think “what will the kayaks look like after 50 days when you start to see cracks already now?” We somehow mended it and we handled the kayaks with a little more care from then on.
Also fuel consumption during the first weeks where higher than expected, which also was a bit scary.
Timo: In fact we had very unsure feelings already before the trip. We had a rather unpromising outlook before the trip – everybody knew that.
After the record minimum sea ice in September 2011 and particularly warm winter in Barents Sea sector we faced the sea ice conditions where one have to be little bit “out of his mind” to still believe the possibility to make it safely all the way to Svalbard. Sea ice conditions from ice charts and satellite images looked rather poor and if you are clear in mind, you know what the decision is going to be.
But obviously I was not and I didn’t want give up yet. More and less close people around us thought this plan to be madness in conditions like that. In fact I don’t think I really got any encouraging word. But it had been my dream for many years. After last three years of postponing and planning I just didn’t want to let it go again so easily and kept the hope until the very last moment of deciding. That was about the week before the flight to Barneo.
Before that we were quite sure that we were not going to make it this year. Conditions didn’t look promising and the risk too high, so much that we were already more stuck in the alternative plan to cross the icecap of North East Land. I am a family man and cannot think only of myself; yet as planning a trip like this is already quite a selfish thing, I have to admit, it’s not easy for your relatives.
Well, then just days before the last chance to get a flight up to Barneo, I came up with a certain theory that still looked rather unsure and gave no confidence but raised the hope a little more - enough to make a decision. That finding was based on the small study of the statistics of ice charts, drifting buoys and putting them together with the seasonal change of air pressure fields.
It seemed to me that ice on the transpolar drift trajectory was getting pushed more East at the start of the summer season in the area lying north of North East Land, which was the most critical part of our trip. That gave me a thought, or rather say hope, that even in poor sea ice years this little more easterly drift can give us the necessary bridge to get to land from the packice.
But as we know the Arctic Ocean is lacking thick multiyear ice and after the season like we had lately I knew that it will be a matter of time when this thin ice will be gone with the first summer melt. The only hope was that some thicker ice from the central-east part of the ocean will be drifted in to give us a bridge to get on land. Based on that hope I was able to convince Audun and we decided to try.
There were times on the trip when we thought that it’s going to be hard to make it in time. It’s about the question of time; for how long you have provisions left and will you make it before the ice is gone.
In the beginning of the trip, in heavily pressurized rubble ice zones, our progress was poor. At the end of the trip our uncertainty was very much reflected in our decisions considering the destination point on land. We changed it several times trying to adjust better to a drift and ice conditions. We were rather unsure about it.
Eventually, initially planned Seven Islands worked out – it was a lucky moment. We saw what happened with the pack ice just after we had landed. It was all about the right timing and somehow it worked out.
Were we scared? For sure we were scared! We are human beings like every other.
There are good and bad days. All you need to do is to figure out how to get over the bad ones. During these moments the best you could do is to keep hope alive and somehow keep going. I feel there is spiritual strength in the movement itself. You realize that you yourself are the only way to get out of it. There is nobody to help you now. Focus on it and go on. Patience, stability of mood, and good timing is well paid in the Arctic.
As said, the Arctic Ocean has a lot of variation and is full of surprises. Just the fact that the surface where you are traveling change continuously all the time, is a bit scary. You can make a plan but still you need to adapt yourself based on the moment. Many things were different and flexibility is therefore important.
[Ed note: check here for part 2; they talk about their equipment, the ice conditions, their kayaking and their daily routine.]
After 72 days and around 1600 kilometers, on the July 3rd, 2012, Timo and Audun arrived back home in Longyearbyen from 90°N. They set off from the GNP on April 23rd and touched land on Svalbard 54 days and 1039km later. Their landing location was Trollodden N80° 42.3', E021° 0.96'. From there they continued across the archipelago to LYB. Timo and Audun were the first to complete this route on foot (human-powered, unassisted and unsupported ). They were the only skiers to complete a full distance North Pole ski during the 2012 season.
Audun Tholfsen is a Norwegian, born in 1972 in Lillehammer. Since teenager times he has immersed himself in the outdoors. He worked as a white water river guide and photographer for several years. After that Audun moved further north to Spitsbergen, Svalbard, where worked as snowmobile guide and dog musher. Previously he has done several ski trips in Svalbard and Norway.
Together with Timo, they crossed the Greenland icecap on skies. Audun spent ten months as a crewmember on French sailing vessel Tara. She froze into the Arctic pack ice close to New Siberian Islands and drifted across the entire Arctic Ocean. Currently, Audun works in Longyearbyen to provide logistic solutions and field support in Arctic regions. Audun is not married yet but has a Finnish girlfriend and they live in Longyearbyen.
Timo Palo (born 1979) is an Estonian. He has two boys named Nansen (7), who goes to school this year, and his younger brother, named Audun, is 3. Katre, whom we got to know during the expedition as she kept ExplorersWeb up to date with the team’s progress, is Timo’s wife. They live in a town called Tartu in Estonia. Timo tells ExplorersWeb he is originally from a small place called Võru, “in the hilly part of South-East Estonia where I started my career as biathlon athlete. That's how skiing became my lifestyle.”
After years of practicing biathlon and doing adventure sport, he is now fully concentrating on the polar regions. Working and studying in polar meteorology as a PhD student at University of Tartu, Timo has participated on several scientific cruises and in fieldwork campaigns in the Arctic and lately also in Antarctica.
Timo has previously done several ski trips in Svalbard, Norway and the Khibiny mountains. In 2008 he and Audun crossed the Greenland icecap. Previously Timo had crossed Estonia and the Hardangervidda mountain plateau in Norway. He also worked as a crewmember on board the schooner Tara during her transpolar drift. Seasonally Timo has been working in Spitsbergen on logistic and field support in the same company as Audun. For some years now Timo has a passion for outdoor photography, focusing on the polar world.
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