(By Correne Coetzer) A few days ago we saw veteran Russian explorer and artist, Fedor Konyukhov, arriving in his row boat in Australia, completing another extreme expedition. Living in Australia, is veteran polar explorer, musician and innovator/designer (artist in his own right), Eric Philips. He loves doing Polar trips, says Philips to ExplorersWeb, "because I have a direct insight into what works and what doesn't and my penchant for design couldn't be more nourished than when I'm on the ice."
At home Down South after guiding Bernice Notenboom and Martin Hartley in a ski/swim/raft attempt from the Geographic North Pole to Canada (which ended in an evacuation on Day 40), Eric talks about his equipment design, exciting times for the innovative North Pole adventurer, the ice conditions, this year's extreme eastward drift, and his strategy for swimming across leads (open water).
ExplorersWeb: You have done the Geographic North Pole to Canada route in 2011. How did the conditions this year compare to 2011?
Eric Philips: Interestingly the conditions on the first half of this latest ”rip were astonishingly good. Almost all first year ice with very little pressure, meaning flat and Antarctic-like going. In the early days we also had some southerly drift which was to our advantage.
It was the incessant westerly wind that created havoc with our route, we drifted around 100km to the east before resupply and another 75 thereafter. We contemplated the option of skiing to Alert on Ellesmere's northeast coast, or even Greenland which was due south of us but the approach conditions were too much of an unknown so continued out battle towards Cape Discovery or Ward Hunt.
After resupply we initially made some decent mileage but then the weather turned again and we had 11 consecutive days of poor visibility and continued strong westerly wind. This opened the ice up and we had to contend with large areas of water. Thankfully Trudy Wohlleben from the Canadian Ice Service was able to inform us of the worst areas and gave us very precise data that we could use to avoid the worst of it.
When I did this trip in 2011 we had a bit of everything - drift, pressure, water - which is usual, but it was all manageable and in the same time frame - 40 days - we were able to ski almost 300km more and reach the coast.
The eastward drift as marked on your map was depressing to look at. How did that effect the spirit of the team?
Eric: Our team - Bernice Notenboom, Martin Hartley and me - was on the whole pretty positive and we laughed a lot despite our misfortunes. The drift was of course a big part of our daily conversation. Had it have been northerly drift, away from our goal, it would have been a real bummer, because the wind was relentless, and sometimes very strong.
I remember one time trying to paddle a lead and could only get a meter from the bank as the wind kept pushing me back. Such strong and incessant winds are relatively rare in those parts and I wonder if it's all part of this trend of crazy climatic conditions we are seeing around the world in the past decade.
Seems you did quite a lot of swimming across leads and then helped the other two across on the sleds. What was you strategy?
Eric: Yes, I swam quite a few leads but not everyone likes doing it, or should be trusted doing it.
There are a lot of technicalities - finding good entry and exit banks, not getting water into the drysuit, getting out of the suit on the other side and rigging a ferry system. I have done it many times but my first crossing on this trip was a debacle as I was a bit rusty with setting up the ferry system.
In a nutshell my strategy is - find a suitable crossing, raft two sleds together, clip the first of two ferry lines (50m of 1mm spectra on a reel) into the back of the third sled, get into the drysuit then slide with the sled it into the water/slush taking the second ferry line with me, swim across pushing the sled in front of me as someone behind lets out the line, climb out on the far bank, remove the dry suit, join the two ends of the ferry lines, person on the other side pulls both lines back and then attaches them to the raft fore and aft, now we have a functioning ferry which can be hauled back and forth with merry passengers on board!!
One of my swims was done with moving banks, which adds the complication of not knowing what your landscape will look like when you're done.
Getting a message that you are going to be picked up is not pleasant and surely difficult to accept after all the hard work you have already put in. But Candadian Ice Service’s Trudy Wohlleben has sent through several updates of the ice conditions after you have left the ice. What were you in for if you had stayed on the ice?
Eric: I made a lot of calculations - our average daily distance, our average over the last week, our remaining food and fuel, the last date Borek would land on the sea ice, ice and weather conditions and prognoses, consequences of not making it to land - and no matter how I jigged it, the answer was the same. We had no option but to abort.
And with the benefit of hindsight it was clearly the right call. The Borek pilot, Troy, landed in pretty ordinary conditions to pick us, and Bengt Rotmo, up. Shortly thereafter another storm swept over the Arctic.
The latest ice image from Trudy showed huge leads, both wide and long, extending from our point of pickup to right up against the coast of Ellesmere. I predict that in the future teams will prepare for traversing large tracts of open water and use techniques that haven't been dreamed up yet. Times ahead are bleak for the environment but exciting for the innovative North Pole adventurer.
Being a guide in those ultra extreme conditions cannot be easy. What advice would you give to someone who says he/she wants to guide a North Pole expedition?
Eric: Without significant personal experience on the Arctic Ocean - doing long and demanding trips that really test perseverance, savvy and mettle - I wouldn't recommend anyone going into that brutal environment in charge of a team's progress and welfare.
The problems are very challenging, confronting and complex and the chance of severe injury and even death is very real. IPGA (International Polar Guides Association) recommends that only endorsed Master Guides or people with equivalent experience guide full-length North Pole expeditions.
Polar travel and the North Pole in particular are hard on the body. How do you still keep up?
Eric: I turned 52 on the ice and I am amazed at my energy and strength. But if you love something dearly it comes more easily.
On a long trip such as this one my body becomes completely and absolutely tuned. All recurring niggles of life and ageing go away and, given the right diet, you are left with a machine with form and function not unlike that of an Olympic athlete. Not surprising given you are hauling a heavy sled across what resembles building ruins for eight hours daily weeks on end.
Will you consider a full route, either way, again?
Eric: This was my third full-length trip (almost!) and I've had another 10 years of guiding last degree trips. Before leaving for this expedition I said it would be my last long one on the Arctic Ocean but I'm not entirely convinced. There is something perversely intoxicating about being immersed in such an exacting and brutal environment where the formula for success is so specific and so intolerant. I'll be back on the ice next year, that's a certainty, but doing what? Dunno, ask me next year!!
Eric: My time between expeditions is now more focussed on polar equipment design. I love doing these trips because I have a direct insight into what works and what doesn't and my penchant for design couldn't be more nourished than when I'm on the ice. I used my new Nilas sled this year and it was an amazing success. My Flexi bindings are now a mature and reliable product and so too my sled harnesses.
But I have a swag of other designs I'd like to get out there - face masks, clothing, boots, cooking gear... It's a tiny market but I've never been driven by profit, I just have a passion for making things that work, pure and simple.
The team started skiing from the Geographic North Pole on April 4 and was evacuated on May 13 due to deteriorating Ice conditions, which made possible future air rescue impossible.
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