North Pole 2014: Blizzards and Polar Bears

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It was a difficult weekend in the arctic for the two remaining teams heading to the North Pole this spring. While they continue to battle bad surface conditions, things do seem to be improving a bit on that front. But the weather took a turn for the worse, leaving them tent bound for a day, while an encounter with polar bears also left one of the teams with a very close call.

Americans Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters have been struggling with the patch of rough ice almost since they were dropped off on Cape Discovery ten days ago. That has kept progress at a pace that has been much slower than they would like, mainly thanks to the fact that they have to cover each distance three times as they each haul one of their sleds through a tough section, then ski back to grab their second sleds, before proceeding forward again. As of this writing, the tracking section on Eric’s website says that they still have 466  miles to go to reach the North Pole. Considering the pace that they’re currently on, and the challenges that yet lie ahead, that is still an awful long way to go. But their latest dispatch indicates that the ice is starting to get better and they have hope that they can start to cover further distances soon.

This past Saturday, the boys got a real taste of what the Arctic can throw at them. High winds, blizzard conditions, and whiteouts kept them tent bound as they waited and watched for an opportunity to start skiing. That opportunity never came, and they ended up staying in the tent all day. This of course didn’t help their moods much, as they felt it was another day where progress was lacking. But trying to work through the rough ice, in conditions where you can only see a few feet ahead – at best – just wasn’t going to be safe. Hopefully they’ll be able to make up the time and distance in the days ahead.

A raging blizzard may have been the least of their worries, as Eric and Ryan also had a very close encounter with some polar bears. Last week while pulling their sleds, through a tough section, they stopped to take a break. When they turned around, they found two bears – a mother and her cub –  following closely behind. They immediately began shouting and waving their arms in an attempt to scare them away. Ryan even fired several flares at them, while Eric scrambled to retrieve their shotgun from the sled. Eventually they were able to convince the animals to leave them alone, with a few shots fired in the air to ensure that they didn’t come back.

According to their dispatch, the men then paced off the distance to where the bears finally turned and fled, and were surprised to find that the creatures had come within 15 feet of them. This story only underscores once again how traveling in the Arctic is so different than in the Antarctic. When skiing to the South Pole, there are no large, meat eating, predators that could potentially be stalking you. On a journey to the North Pole, it is a real possibility. Eric and Ryan were lucky that they spotted the bear and her cub when they did, or this story could have had a far different ending. Very scary!

Meanwhile, Japanese solo-skier Yasu Ogita also found himself tentbound over the weekend thanks to the same blizzard that prevented the Americans from making progress. Up until then, he has been feeling strong and focused, although struggling against the rough ice is taking its toll.

Yasu made the decision to carry a folding kayak with him on his journey as he felt that it would help him to more quickly cross some of the larger open leads of water that he’d come across. So far he hasn’t faced anything too large in that department, and he has been flirting with the idea of leaving the kayak behind in order to lighten his load and make better time. But, he fears he’ll still have some big leads to cross before he is done, and so far he has kept the kayak with him.

All of that said, Yasu has been covering solid distances. On Friday, the day before the blizzard hit, he managed to travel 8.3 km (5.1 miles). Unfortunately, he didn’t add any miles to that total on Saturday, and actually lost about 4 km (2.4 miles) due to negative drift. Thats another challenge of the Arctic – even when you’re standing still, you’re losing ground.

Thats the weekend update from the Arctic. It was a tough one, and the season will likely remain that way. Both squads still have a very long way to go, and while time isn’t a pressing factor just yet, it is starting to slip away quickly.

Kraig Becker