The Trip: The Arctic

To stand at the North Pole is to look south in every direction, to have a foot in every time zone and reflect on what it’s like to be hundreds of miles from the nearest person. The nuclear icebreaker just adds to the fun…

I’ve often heard my mountaineer friends say that there’s no feeling better than standing on the summit of Mount Everest. They tell me that when looking down from the roof of the world, it’s strange to think that everything you can see is beneath you. Some say it’s humbling. Others say that it is a spiritual moment. And this is how I thought I would feel when I finally stood at the Geographic North Pole. Ninety degrees north. Where the Earth’s rotation meets its surface. What the poet TS Eliot was moved to call ‘the still point of the turning world’.

Of course, TS Eliot had never set foot anywhere near the pole. Otherwise, he might not have been so lyrical about it. Sitting in the editorial offices of Faber & Faber, he could hardly know the North Pole isn’t really a place at all. It’s just one of two points on the globe where the imaginary lines of longitude meet and there’s no land there. In fact, the Arctic is sometimes described as a frozen ocean surrounded by continents (while Antarctica is the opposite, a frozen continent surrounded by oceans). There is no permanent marker to say, ‘You are here’. There might be pack ice you can walk on, but increasingly there will only be inky black water. You’ll rarely see any land mammals such as polar bears that far north, and there are few birds. In a nutshell, it is bleak, cold and boring.

If you believe that last bit, you’re probably a bit bleak, cold and boring yourself. This is because the North Pole is one of the most extraordinary “places” on earth. When I arrived, the crew of my ship – 50 Years of Victory – made a circle around the Pole with a kilometre-long red rope to show that we were here. They hoisted the flag of every nationality listed on its passenger manifest. They set up a gigantic red paddle in the ice at the exact point where all the lines meet. Stand there for a moment and then look around you in every direction. South. 

That’s right. Every direction is south. Walk around the paddle. You will now have gone through every time zone in seconds, crossing the dateline. Look up and there is nothing above you other than Polaris, the North Star. Look down and beneath your feet, after a few metres of sea ice, there are 4,000 metres of water. Then, after 13,000km of planetary mass, you will reach sea level at the South Pole, after which there are another few hundred metres of rock, followed by 2,835 metres of permanent ice. If you’ve kept a straight line you will emerge in the geodesic dome of the Scott-Amundsen research base at the South Pole. Only don’t expect much of a welcome. The people who work there are scientists and are notoriously hostile to curious visitors who are merely exploring.

The significance of this intersection of lines of longitude depends as much on how you got there and what you’re up to as anything else. I’d boarded Victory as a stowaway (actually an “embedded” photojournalist), having flown from London to Helsinki to Murmansk. This was where I met the Soviet twin nuclear reactor-powered icebreaker of the Rosatomflot (‘Russian atomic fleet’) that was to bludgeon my way north. Victory is a marvellous old ship that was designed in the Communist era to keep the northern shipping trade lanes open in the winter months, and with 75,000 horsepower under the bonnet and a gigantic ‘ice-tooth’ prow beneath the water line, she simply blasted her way to the pole. 

Of course, it was a bit more refined than that. Chief man on the bridge Captain Dmitri Lubotsov told me that while there was nothing that could stop our progress, the task was made easier if you could avoid expanses of rock-hard pack ice, some of which is a million years old. To do this, he sent a helicopter ahead to scan for open water and lines of weakness that we could follow. Propellant, it turned out, wasn’t the problem. These icebreakers can get from the coast of Russia to the Pole and back on a few ounces of nuclear fuel (‘less than the weight of an apple’). The issue was getting the passengers there in one piece. 

Forging through the Arctic ice is like a deadlocked arm-wrestling match. When the ice finally breaks under the pressure, the ship lurches forward and anything that isn’t bolted down – including humans – goes flying. The most common injuries in Victory’s infirmary were bone fractures. I know this because I spent a miserable morning in the sick bay being treated for a mosquito bite I’d picked up in Murmansk that was threatening to go septic. The doctor drew a line on my arm in marker pen. ‘If the swelling goes beyond here, we’ll have to send you back to Russia by helicopter,’ said the medic. ‘What shall I do?’ I asked. ‘Make sure it doesn’t go beyond here,’ he replied, grimly pointing to the line.

For centuries, people have wanted to visit the North Pole, and while the record books present a cut-and-dried outcome for who was first at its southern counterpart – it was the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who pitched up there on 14 December, 1911 – the situation up north is far from clear. American naval officer Rear Admiral Robert Peary said he got there with dogs as far back as 6 April 1909. His claim is still widely disputed, apart from in the United States, where he is idolised. Here in the UK, we think that Peary could have been off by as much as 150km, so no record. We prefer to think it was British explorer, Wally Herbert who undisputedly arrived there 60 years to the day after Peary claims he did, on 6 April, 1969. The issue still raises the blood pressure of both the Royal Geographical Society in London and the Explorers Club in New York.

If only it were that simple. Russian expedition leader Alexandr Kuznetsov and his team landed three Lisunov Li-2 aeroplanes at 90 North on 23 April 23, 1946. So he’s the first person to set foot at the pole? Maybe. Maybe not. The annals of exploration tend to have selective amnesia when it comes to both Russians and aeroplanes. Also, we can’t rule out the strong possibility of there being military submarine missions to the pole during the 20th century. For the record, I was the 22,500th officially recorded human to set foot on the North Pole. I was surprised that there had been so many. But when you think about it, there have been plenty of scientific and military expeditions up there, as well as a recent increase in super-wealthy bucket-listers indulging in a spot of nuclear-powered tourism.

If arriving at the pole is one of those unforgettable moments in life, then the journey there and back again ranks alongside it. On departing Murmansk, we sailed for a week to Franz Josef Land, the northernmost of the Russian archipelagos, making landfall at Cape Tegetthoff, where I photographed the wind-blasted remains of explorers’ huts. Then to Cape Fligely on Rudolf Island, from where my namesake Kuznetsov (the Russian word for “smith”) departed on his successful flight to the Pole. Heading ever north, we saw polar bears, kittiwakes, ivory gulls and memorials to dead explorers, before eventually arriving at what polar explorer Pen Hadow described to me as ‘a pinprick of nothingness in the middle of nowhere’. After our celebrations at the 90 North, we realised that we’d drifted five miles and so set up a “ceremonial pole” – there are lots of different types of pole – where we listened to ’70s disco music and ate barbecue on the ice. My grilled chicken was the first bird I’d seen for days. 

Returning to Russia, sailing “downhill” back through the wake of our own broken ice, we put in at Rubini Rock on Hooker Island. It’s said that there are 30,000 pairs of sea birds colonising this basalt monolith. On seeing so many in the air at the same time, my first reaction was to gaze upward, open-mouthed in awe. My second reaction was to close my mouth. Within minutes of our arrival, Victory’s pristine deck was coated with a thick white sheet of guano. The noise of the birds at Rubini Rock was deafening, but it soon receded into eerie silence at the ghost town of nearby scientific research station at Tikhaya Bay, abandoned back in the early 1960s. It was here that I photographed an abandoned fishing boat, whose paint had been whipped clean off by the wind. I thought I’d taken a masterpiece, but I was told by one of the guides that every photographer ever to have ventured north of the Watford Gap has shot this boat. As I stood at Hooker Bay, contemplating my cliché in the wilderness, I realised the full extent of its isolation. Being a meteorologist here must have been a hard gig. Being a meteorologist’s dog must have been even harder. The empty sled-dog kennels are still there, facing out over the bergy sea, miles away from anywhere.

This is the point of most travel stories where writers wrap up by saying that there is nothing left to report other than it was all plain sailing home. It would be nice to do that, only we were buzzed repeatedly by Norwegian jet fighters trying to get us to change course once we’d cleared Franz Josef Land. Captain Lubotsov was having none of it, and with jaw squarely set he continued, scrutinising a telex from the Russian authorities informing him that there was missile testing in the area that day. He swore in Russian, and when I went to his cabin for vodka later in the evening, he told me that nothing would intimidate Victory. She was his pride and joy, and the good name of Russia was at stake. I hadn’t expected that. For a place that is literally nowhere, there seemed to be plenty going on.

Nick Smith is UK Bureau Chief of the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York. Formerly editor of Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society, he is also a contributing editor on Black + White Photography and Outdoor Photography magazines. His new book Travelling Light – from which this article is extracted – will be published in Autumn 2023.

Photos by Nick Smith

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