We’re about to enter a bit of a lull in the world of exploration and adventure. The winter climbing season on Nanga Parbat is likely going to wrap up later this week, with success on the mountain still far from certain. We’re also a few weeks away from climbers departing for Nepal to begin the spring climbing season on Everest and other major peaks in the Himalaya. For those men and women, the remaining days of March will be the calm before the storm as they launch a two-month long odyssey to reach the top of the tallest peak on the planet. While that will certainly be a busy and interesting time as always, this year there is definitely something missing from my usual round-ups of adventurous pursuits, and it isn’t hard to identify exactly what that is. With no full-distance expeditions set to launch for the North Pole from the Canadian side of the Arctic this spring there is a real vacuum in terms of challenging undertakings, and it is unclear if that vacuum will be filled ever again.
Typically this time of year there are several teams in Resolute Bay, Canada waiting to be flown out to their starting points on the ice. Those intrepid adventurers generally have big dreams of skiing unsupported to the North Pole, covering roughly 700 km (435 miles) in the process. Most don’t make it. In fact, since 2010, only one team has actually been able to accomplish that feat, which I believe is the most challenging journey in the world today. Climate change has altered the Arctic in undeniable ways, and as a result, those skiing north now face impossible thin ice, massive rubble fields, open leads of water, and numerous other obstacles. It is a difficult, punishing experience that has simply become increasingly difficult as the years have passed. So much so that it now seems nearly impossible for anyone to travel on foot all the way to 90ºN.
I’m not the only one who thinks that a full-distance North Pole expedition is now almost entirely out of reach. Earlier this year, Kenn Borek Air, the charter airline that has supported Arctic explorers in the past, announced that it was ceasing operations in the region. With the increasing dangers of flying into the Arctic, it simply was no longer economically viable for the adventurous airline to continue supporting explorers in the area, and as a result the company made the surprise move to pullout. This has left a few expeditions in the lurch however and has meant that there will be no skiers attempting to reach the North Pole from the Canadian side of the ice this year.
As someone who enjoys following the intricacies of an expedition, particularly a very challenging one, the lack of North Pole skiers this year has left me disappointed, although not surprised. I’ve been saying for several years now that an expedition to the top of the world would only continue to get more difficult until it was simply impossible to complete. I didn’t expect that to happen so soon, but it is the reality that Arctic explorers now face. Climate change was going to put an end to these kinds of journeys sooner, rather than later, but it seems that economics killed off these expeditions first.
That isn’t to say that the North Pole will go completely unvisited this year. The Russians will once again build the Barneo Ice Camp on their side of the Arctic, and there will be any number of “last degree” expeditions that launch from that temporary base. Typically, Barneo opens in late March and stays active for about three weeks, granting well-heeled travelers an opportunity to scratch another destination off their bucket lists. I imagine that the camp will only see increased traffic this season with more people funneling through on their way to 90ºN.
While Barneo, and its visitors, will provide some sources of adventure news in the days ahead, it simply won’t be the same as following a small team of adventurers as they spend days out on the ice struggling to ski to the North Pole. I’ll miss reading daily updates on their progress while cheering them on from afar. I’ll miss hearing about their struggles to cover even just a few kilometers in a day, as the weather, surface conditions, and other challenges conspire to make the journey harder than anyone ever imagined. It is an end of an era in the Arctic and in exploration in general, and I’m not sure we’ll ever see anyone make this journey again in our lifetime. It is sad to see this come about, but it only makes me respect the explorers who have gone that way before all the more.
So, while we’ll dutifully turn our attention to the Himalaya – and rightfully so – that doesn’t mean that I won’t be lamenting the fact that the North Pole is now out of reach, and that another chapter in the age of exploration has closed for good.
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