Polar Traverse, in Reverse

Two ski away from the North Pole in Nansen’s footsteps
Staff Writer

Polar adventurers Audun Tholfsen and Timo Palo are skiing and kayaking, unassisted and unsupported, nearly 900 miles from the North Pole to Svalbard.

The Arctic season is, by most measures, over. Every ski expedition from land—concluding with Norwegians Mads Agerup and Rune Midtgaard—has been aborted.  April 22 was the cut-off day for ski expeditions to the North Pole, and Ice Camp Barneo, the annual ice floe-based Russian installation, was evacuated and dismantled Sunday and Monday. It’s a lonely place up there.

But two skiers, Norwegian Audun Tholfsen and Estonian Timo Palo, remain on the ice. While Barneo’s resident scientists and temporary tourists were boarding flights south for Svalbard, the pair hopped a helicopter bound due north. On April 22, the two set out on skis from the North Pole, bound for Svalbard.

They will ski and kayak the 870 mile distance, unassisted and unsupported, in an effort to recreate (in a sense, anyway) Fridtjof Nansen’s legendary failed 1893-6 Arctic expedition.

Nansen, you'll recall, set off for the North Pole with a dozen men aboard the Fram. The plan was to lodge the ship in the Arctic ice, and drift north with the ice to the Pole. The first part worked splendidly. The ship—which had been constructed with an extraordinarily strong hull—became lodged in the ice and drifted northward at a glacial pace. When it was apparent Fram was going to miss the top of the world, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen made a dash for the North Pole on dogsleds laden with kayaks. Three weeks of rough going over south-drifting iceblocks showed Nansen that the way was impossible. He recorded the latitude of the last camp, 86°13.6′N, which was three degrees farther north than the previous most northerly mark. Then they retreated.

This is where Tholfsen and Palo hope to pick up the expedition. Had Nansen reached the North Pole, he intended to retreat to Svalbard. Instead, he and Johansen made land in Franz Josef Land, north of Russia. They were rescued 12 months later by a British explorer, having survived loss of navigation (their chronometers stopped), walrus attack and a more-than-fair-share of boredom.

With modern navigation aids, Tholfsen and Palo should fare better. Their biggest concerns are sea ice drifts (“Even if we expect to have positive drift, it can turn to negative and take us back in some point.”), pressure ridges where ice floes crash together (“Probably even more than huge open water areas, we find rubble ice to be challenging—the chaotic mess of pressurized ice. This can be very time consuming to cross.”), polar bears (“Sea ice is their home and they might wandering everywhere around there.”) and weather (“Polar weather is characterized by its unpredictability.”).

Follow the journey on their expedition website, as they pull their huge kits (including 10 pounds of butter) south.

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