April 26th, 2009 Longyearbyen, Svalbard (Norway) N77º 47.400 E 014º53.856
What happened immediately following the pole, I’ll admit is a little hazy in memory. There was a touch of hysteria and excitement coming from a motley crew of characters worthy of an adventure-themed Fellini movie. Due, at least in part, to the Peary Centennial, there were multiple teams who accomplished various degrees of travel on the ice this year, most of whom scrambled, as we did, to make their exit with the last plane out of Barneo. Two of those, Huston and Fish’s (whom had we ran into two weeks back), and Lonnie’s shared the same glazed look we had on our faces. The other teams were on the ice anywhere from a few days to two weeks; some with and without dogs. Many gave us various thumbs up and good ‘ol taps on the back. I am sure we would have exchanged notes and shared battles stories, and perhaps we did. But by then, I was so engrossed in the box of cookies that the combined sugar rush and culture shock made for a messy, disorienting blur. That blur was in fact not just figurative: on that final day of travel, my eyes were watery, and as the wind froze the tears on and around my eyes, my vision was impaired for much of that day. It also worsened a cold injury on one eye, and developed one on the other, making me look as if I’d gone a round in the ring—or a few seconds—with Tyson!
In all we were perhaps 15 people on the pole that day. But because of the drift and the staggered arrivals, camps were scattered by as much as a mile apart. This gave us all our private, albeit brief, moment on the actual pole. There is only one, relatively narrow spot that has legitimate claims to be the top of the world; one of two points around which the rest of the world rotates. For whatever reason, and there is no denying it: it feels good to stand on it! When the helicopter finally got all the teams together, I know that some were keen on taking group shots and downing a symbolic swig of alcohol. But my focus was on two things: making sure not to forget any sponsor flag shots, and keeping track of those aforementioned cookies! Seriously, it was so chaotic that it would have been easy to forget what I had thought so long and hard I would do when I got there. Keith helped me focus and took the snaps. I had a moment to acknowledge my friends and associates at HP, Napapijri, Global Green USA, MySpace, Climate Partner, Lawrence Benenson and Lexar for their critical and varied support through the course of this mission. I also got to fly the Union Jack and the French at the pole, representing both my cultures. A friend had asked me to leave a small satchel containing a photo of their recently perished sibling. That, too, was done. As well, I got to take some personal moments; and make a couple of rapid and frigid phone calls from the last battery leg of our satellite phone. The people who mean the most to me got a call each: my parents. One went to my friend and business partner who put so much heart and hard work to develop and maintain this site: Mikhail Lapushner. Thank you, brother!
Soon we were rushed into the MI8, piled up on top of the dog sleds, the dogs, the long trip sledges, the short trip sledges and one another. The circus that had descended on the pole on April 26th, 2009 was leaving town. The timing was probably right because even though the game was up, and in spite of all the excitement, the temperature was still very cold! I stared out of the port hole of the helicopter as we lifted off to Barneo, feeling real fondness and nostalgia for this tough and unforgiving environment.
Barneo was a forty five-minute flight. Most of the base had already been dismantled. What was left were two forty people tents, with heating stoves, and more importantly: some bread, cheese and sausage! We waited there for half an hour while the Antonov 74 was being loaded. And in no time, it’s powerful engines roared across the smoothed-out makeshift ice runway and shot this heavy military-style cargo plane—and us with it—into the Arctic sky. This time, it was final. We were leaving the pack ice, its ridges, rubble fields and open leads; its frigid humidity and freezing winds; its cloud cover and zero visibility; and its canvas to challenge the human spirit and push the limits of its physical potential. And the thought troubled me as it slowly sank in that I would likely not be back here. At least not like that…
Intense and epic, the North Pole is one tough, tough mission. People a lot more qualified than I claim this to be the toughest expedition on Earth. The legendary Reinhold Messner said:”Everest is very dangerous, but crossing the North Pole, which I attempted to do… is ten times more dangerous.” Maxime Chaya, with whom I sympathized and who was on Lonnie’s team, laughed when I asked him how this compared to Everest. He said that any one day here is tougher than all of Everest! Whether that is fair or not (and whether it even matters), I knew flying away that what I brought back with me was an experience that has marked me, and perhaps changed me for life. But the days following my re-entry would be met with a wild gamut of emotions…
(End of Part I)