To say the past few years have been tumultuous for the organizers of the Barneo Ice Camp would be an understatement. The remote base had served as a launching point for numerous arctic adventures over the years, including polar marathons, last-degree ski expeditions, and scientific research stations. But politics and the pandemic prevented Barneo from operating over the past three years, shutting off the “Gateway to the North Pole” for all travelers.
This past week, the organizers of the Barneo Ice Camp unsurprisingly announced that it would stay closed once again this year. The war in Ukraine is creating unexpected logistical challenges, particularly as Russia has always played an important role in establishing and maintaining the base. The question at this point is—after so much time away—is there a future for this once-prominent adventure outpost?
History of the Barneo Ice Station
For those who aren’t unfamiliar with Barneo, it is a temporary camp established each year on the surface of an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean. The base was first built by a Russian entrepreneur named Alexander Orlov back in 2002 to serve as a launching point for Arctic expeditions. Orlov continued to fund the camp’s annual operation until his death in 2017, at which time it was sold to Swedish billionaire Frederick Paulsen.
Since he took over, Paulsen hasn’t had much luck in operating the ice camp. In 2018, it was business as usual, but a year later, a dispute broke out between the Russians who run the station and a team of Ukrainian soldiers who had hoped to train in the Arctic. The Russians wouldn’t allow the plane transporting the soldiers to land, creating a political rift that overshadowed the entire season. It also left 200 other people stranded without any way to reach their goal.
The 2020 and 2021 seasons were also a wash, thanks to the COVID pandemic. Typically the camp opens in April each year, but the arrival of the coronavirus two years ago shut things down quickly. There were high expectations that some semblance of normalcy would return this year, but the outbreak of war in Eastern Europe has dashed those hopes.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Barneo Ice Camp is how it is built each year. The base is meant to be temporary, lasting just long enough for adventurous individuals and teams to visit the Arctic each April. But before any of those visitors can arrive, there is an awful lot of prep work that needs to be done.
The first step in creating the camp is locating an iceberg that is large enough to support the camp facilities themselves and a runway that can accommodate the large Russian Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft that ferry people and supplies to and from the location. Identifying such an ice floe has become increasingly challenging over the years, as climate change has caused the icebergs to shrink in size and become less stable. One year, the camp even had to be relocated as the runway started to crack as the planes started to arrive.
Once an iceberg is selected, a team of Russian paratroopers drops onto the ice to begin the prep work. They are provided with enough supplies and tools to establish the camp itself and begin to build the runway. Once the landing strip is completed, the first aircraft arrive with all of the gear and supplies needed to operate the camp for several weeks. The team then builds the base itself, including constructing tents for the visitors, a mess hall, and a logistics and communications center.
Usually, the process of creating the ice camp begins at the end of March, with the station typically opening in early April. The station then remains open from three to four weeks, depending on the weather conditions and the amount of traffic passing through.
Gateway to the North Pole
For nearly two decades, the Barneo Ice Camp has served as the Gateway to the North Pole for many adventurers. Because it is usually established somewhere around the 89ºN latitude region, it provides access for skiers, dogsledders, and even well-heeled travelers hopping a helicopter flight to the top of the world. Unfortunately, that gateway has been closed for the past four years and its future currently looks in doubt.
The war in Ukraine looks like it could go on for some time and strict sanctions against Russia could prevent Barneo from reopening again in the future. The camp has always operated on the Russian side of the ice in the Arctic Ocean and for now, they aren’t particularly getting along well with the rest of the world. How long this current state of affairs last remains to be seen, but it certainly doesn’t bode well for adventure travelers, researchers, and explorers who were hoping to use ice camp as a launching place to the North Pole.
Hopefully, diplomacy can prevail and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine will be over soon. Considering what is taking place between those two nations right now, the fate of the Barneo Ice Camp seems rather trivial. Still, for those of us who have eagerly anticipated the opening of the base each year, it is disappointing to have it closed for yet another year.
Here’s hoping for a better world in 2023.
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