(Correne Coetzer) In Part 1 Timo and Audun tell ExplorersWeb about the times they thought they would not be able to finish they human-powered expedition while they were traveling in the melt season from the Geographic North Pole to Svalbard..
Today the Estonian and Norwegian friends talk about the “nightmare of the whole trip”, their best chosen equipment, kayaks compared to Arctic sledges, heavily broken-up small floes where they couldn’t paddle or walk, unavoidable cold Arctic swims, how they slept less and less though their bodies were tired and needed every minute to recover.
ExplorersWeb: How did your gear hold; withstand the Arctic climate and conditions?
Audun: Except from the mentioned kayak we had some trouble with the tent poles. Otherwise the equipment was good.
Timo: In conditions like on the Arctic Ocean I find it to be quite normal that some things still break despite how well you have prepared. We were well provided with a best gear but still there came times for fixing and replacing.
Sometimes you have to improvise to be able work with the limited resources you have in your hands. You cannot bring along everything you need in your repair kit. The selection has to be done with a greatest care, and variation is important.
There were some minor things but also a couple major break downs. Little things like all our three spoons which broke. Normally it would be easy to fix them if you happen to have the right material with you. We carved new ones out of the wood.
But major things like our tent for instance can easily turn out to be the nightmare of the whole trip. We had something totally wrong with our tent poles’ material, which just kept breaking down during the entire trip. After all possible fixing, putting lots of energy and effort into it, we finally gave up and used one wooden stick as the center pole.
On a trip like this even minor setbacks, if there are many of them, can sometimes be exhaustive. You are working on limited energy resources, so much so that finding additional energy becomes hard. Details became important.
On the other hand you could also enjoy the best gear and innovations in your hand because you know that any other choice would have been gone already. That’s how we felt with our skies for instance. They were for sure the best ones we could get. What these skies went through is incredible when I look back now. And this is very much encouraging when you are out there.
Damaging one of the major things can be very scary and put the serious threat on the whole trip. For us this kind of thing happened already on the fifth day when the front tip of my kayak got a crack. With the available material we were able to fix it and make it watertight enough.
ExplorersWeb: How were the ice conditions? Were there times that you thought you would not have solid ice to camp on?
Audun: Half the way it did not look good for the last 2 degrees. Southerly winds made up for that. With one or two exceptions we felt very confident with the ice we camped on.
Timo: In the beginning we met rather old and pressurized pack ice. With the heavy loads these rubble zones where hard to cross and often needed a two-man job for the careful handling of the kayaks.
We used a lot of energy and strength to pull kayaks there as they are not really working so well as proper Arctic sledges. When counting the trip trajectory I would say the mid-latitudes were the best ones. At the end when the melt started we got thinner ice floes and more open water. Open water itself was not a problem as we had kayaks. But the hard part was the work in the mixed ice and water zones, where it is like an ice soup.
Between these heavily broken-up small floes you really can neither paddle nor walk. You somehow have to push yourself through these places. The good thing to think here is that, as the good floes finish so do bad ones once we get over them. We got a few of these zones but on average I would say we had rather fine conditions and weather.
Perhaps mentally the most exhaustive was to walk on these rotten ice floes at the end. This was seasonal ice that was relatively thin and now in the melting season, was running. It melted very fast and in many places melt pools made it through into the ocean. These floes also got some fresh snow and then in overcast conditions it was very hard to read the surface and predict where you have solid ice and where not.
From time to time we went through the ice with one or another leg and were barely able to avoid a cold swim. On that ice we felt that nothing can be really sure. But in the pressurized zones we still found higher places dry enough to put up the camp.
Yet we didn’t feel as safe as on the thicker multiyear ice. Once we were forced to camp on a fresh floe in an active area because of the weather. We noticed it but couldn’t continue in poor visibility; and then it happened that after getting into tent the ice floe started to break up next to the tent.
ExplorersWeb: What was the longest distance you have kayaked non-stop?
Audun: 25 km, about 6 hours.
Timo: There were days we did more than 50 kilometers but as in non-stop we didn’t have really long stretches. Longest one was the strait between Seven Islands and North East Land. That made around 25km.
ExplorersWeb: How did your typical daily routine look like?
Timo: We got up in the morning. We didn’t really have a fixed time for that as you usually would do. That’s because of the variation and changing conditions of the sea ice and weather. It’s not the same to walk here as on solid ground. Here you need to be flexible and adapt yourself according to the ice conditions, weather forecast, reliable camping spot and the drift.
So there were long days when we needed to push more and therefore had to drift in time. We tried to keep just fixed sleeping time which in the beginning was 8 hours and afterwards became 7, 6 and even less hours.
After getting up we tried to prepare the breakfast as fast as possible and get out on our way. That’s why we melted water in the evening and kept it in sleeping bags. Snacks in our pockets kept us on the move until lunch time, which was mid-day, and from then on to dinner in the evening.
In the evening we put up camp together and then I had a small scientific program to do (including snow pits, temperature measurements and observations). Audun meanwhile was taking care of the trip wire fence around the camp. That allowed us to be in the tent more or less the same time to prepare the dinner. After dinner there was little time for fixing things that broke during the day or for writing the diary.
As days were long and hard, many times we half slept already after dinner. Our bodies were tired and every minute became valuable to recover. On days like these you get a routine to live from breakfast to lunch and from lunch to dinner. That’s how you follow time.
[Ed note: Check in for the final part where they talk about multiple polar bear encounters and what they have learned from the expedition.]
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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