A trip to the North Pole: plannable, but close to the limit

Minus 32 degrees Celsius with wind force 7: this is what  seven students and their expedition leaders are greeted by on the start of their trip to the North Pole. The wind immediately bites into any piece of exposed skin, seemingly able to find the tiniest openings in one’s clothing. But things were about to get a lot worse.


A journey to the North Pole is considered one of the world’s greatest adventures. In April 2014, a group of Russian students set out to reach the northernmost part of our planet; "On snow skis to the North Pole" was the motto of the expedition led by the Arctic researchers Matvey Shparo and Boris Smolin. They had gathered around them a small group of seven youngsters who were prepared to discover their limits on this journey.


The children came mainly from disadvantaged families, group homes or orphanages. They had to demonstrate their suitability for such a strenuous trip by undergoing exhaustive selection tests.


Shparo explains: “To be able to take part in the expedition, the candidates had to qualify via different stages. They trained under the supervision of psychologists and physiologists in our Big Adventure children's camp. We selected seven youths from a large number of applicants. Mental stamina was considered to be the most important criterion."


Not earlier, not later: only in April


The month of April is the only one that offers the opportunity to travel to the North Pole on foot, and the Russian group’s journey started off from the Barneo ice camp, located in the middle of the ocean on a two to three meter thick layer of ice. Underneath, the water reaches a depth of 4000 meters.


As the ice begins melting in May, the Barneo camp was then disbanded, and from there the group floated on drifting ice floes in a northerly direction.


The relentless cold of the Arctic


The Arctic welcomed the travel group with a merciless grip of cold: temperatures down to -32 degrees Celsius and wind which at times hit them so hard that they had to lean against it in order to make any headway.


Most tourists book a helicopter flight to the Pole, fly there in 40 minutes, stretch their legs for two hours or so and then fly back again. But Shparo's group decided to do it the hard way: they wanted to master the 110 kilometers on their skis – and on top of drifting ice floes with the North Pole Sea constantly beneath them.


"The trip can be planned for, but it does provide for certain adrenalin kicks," explains Shparo.


Indeed, the initial windstorm was not the only obstacle on the journey: time and again, the ice floes brought them off course. On some cold Arctic nights, the group’s tents on the ice floes drifted away from their destination. Valuable kilometers were continually lost. In fact, these unintended detours forced the group to cover an extra 70 kilometers.

The adventures on the North Pole were intended to convey values like friendship, empathy and team spirit to the youth.
The adventures on the North Pole were intended to convey values like friendship, empathy and team spirit to the youth.

The ice breaks …


A particular danger was that in some places the ice was so thin that it creaked and crackled when the group carefully floated over it with their skis. While in some situations we can simply talk ourselves into believing things, the reality was that the group had to cross places where the ice could break at any time – a fact of which they were painfully aware.


Caution was paramount. The members of the group moved across the thin connecting path individually, each thinking how they might be the one to fall into the icy water, alone. The group was equipped with specially designed outfits to prevent them from freezing to death if they fell into the water – a  comforting thought, but it never completely dispelled the fear of the cold water beneath their feet. And their fear was justified.


The ice broke. A few members of the team were plunged into the water. Following a few seconds of shock, the others reacted and heaved their companions out of the water as quickly as they could, all the while hoping that the ice beneath them would not give way and that they, too, would have to call for help.


If you get frostbite once, you are bound to get it again


Calling for help was of course always an option for the entire expedition, with a helicopter always on hand to bring the members of the expedition back to the camp. But no one wanted this. Not even when Akhuramazd nearly froze off his fingers.


"Akhuramazd had frostbite on both hands, because it was so extremely cold outside,” said expedition leader Shparo. “The first finger joint of all five fingers had turned white. At that moment I really got scared.”


But obviously the youngster from the Russian city of Khanti-Mansiysk didn’t even think about giving up. If the deaf boy had asked Shparo to set off the emergency alarm, the leader would have done so.


"I took one hand, Pavel Astakhov took the other one, and we massaged them until blood flowed through the fingertips again. Then we tucked our hands under our armpits, the warmest area of the human body."


Doing up his shoe laces, closing his jacket – the boy could do none of these things


But that was not the end of the suffering by a long shot. Among those who research the cold there is an unwritten law: "If you get frostbite once, you are bound to get it again". Once a part of the body has been affected, it remains particularly susceptible. It only takes minor imprudence for a renewed frostbite.


Thus Akhuramazd had to wear three pairs of gloves, with someone else performing  the work of his hands: closing zippers, doing up shoe laces, packing sleds.


"All this was being done for him by Nikita, a boy from Kemerovo. For a period of three days." According to Shparo, it’s in situations like these that you learn what the really important things are: "friendship, empathy and team spirit – in essence, everything that modern youth are lacking. One of the purposes of our trips is that participants convey these values to their families and friends upon coming home.“


The expedition leader knows what he’s talking about. Together with his father Dimitry, Shparo was the first to cross the Bering Strait on skis, thus securing himself an entry into the Guinness Book of Records.


The Arctic expedition was organized by the Adventure Club headed by Dmitry and Matvey Shparo under the auspices of the Sports Ministry of the Russian Federation. All expedition members – 7 students aged 16-17, expedition leaders and an accompanying TV crew – were insured by Allianz Life against personal accident.

Text: Andreas Klein

Windstorms were not the only obstacle on the journey, time and again, the ice floes brought them off course.
Windstorms were not the only obstacle on the journey, time and again, the ice floes brought them off course.

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Petra Brandes
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