Never in a million years would I have ever thought that I would go to the geographic North Pole. Not this year, not next year, not ever.
Well, this actually happened on the 16th of July 2016!
This crazy adventure started from a crazy email I received from Poseidon Expeditions, a german/russian cruise operator specializing in polar expedition cruising. I had just come back to France after screwing up a very important job interview, and my moral was lower than low. But there it was, the golden ticket that Charlie never expected to find, in my mailbox. An invitation to join a cruise to the North Pole. It took a few pinches of my skins, and about 10 re-reads to realize that Jan, the Expedition Leader, wasn’t joking. I would actually go to the Pole.
How can we get to the North Pole in 2016 you ask? Well there are a few options.
In the winter/spring, the Russians build a little airstrip on the sea ice, called Barneo, and flights from Svalbard connect the base to the rest of the world. From Barneo, weather permitting, you can take a helicopter that will take you to the pole. The other B.A. option is of course to ski to the North Pole, fighting wind/cold/and drifting sea ice, not to mention the bears.
But this time, we won’t be skiing or flying, we will get there by sea. The only problem to reach the North Pole by sea is obviously sea ice. In the summer the sea ice shrink to an area of about 9 million km2 (the size of Canada), and can be up to a few meters thick. It takes a mighty beast of a ship to be able to plough through this sheet of ice, fortunately, we have the largest, and most powerful beast to take us there: the Russian nuclear powered icebreaker 50 years of Victory.
Image from http://www.motaen.com
After a few hiccups, the construction of the ship was finished in 2007 in St Petersburg. She is one of the few Arktika class nuclear powered icebreakers, and can generate 75000 horsepower and crush up to 3m of sea ice without even slowing down. Pretty amazing.
The 50 years of Victory carries a team of 140 crew, and can take up to 128 passengers. The ship is first and foremost an icebreaker design to break ice for other ships operating in the Arctic. Only recently has it started to carry passengers to the pole during the summer months. 6 cruises are organised every year.
The main characters of this adventure: MMK (Murmansk), FJL (Franz Josef Land) and of course, the Pole.
The trip started off from Murmansk, along the Kola fjord, right against the Norwegian border.
MMK from the Azimuth Hotel, the tallest building North of the Arctic Circle!
Murmansk is celebrating its 100 year anniversary this year! What a city. It was my first time in Russia, and I was mesmerized by its atmosphere, its soul. And on the 11th of July, we welcomed our first passengers aboard the 50 years of Victory, ready for the trip of a lifetime.
Top right: first sight of Franz Josef Land. Lower right: Fog bow in the Arctic Ocean.
It took a few days for all of us to find our bearings and get into the swing of things. The days are busy and exciting, even during the sea crossings! This is the opportunity for us the lecturers to give our fist talks, and to get to know our passengers.
After two days at sea we reached the mysterious russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land. Found East of Svalbard, I’ve always dreamt of visiting this remote and inaccessible place. And there we were! Mountains were drapped by a dancing sea of clouds, and the huge glaciers gracefully kissing the Arctic ocean. What a place!
The 50 years of Victory is unlike any other ship, and it never ceased to amazed us. Everyday brought its load of surprises, and having our first helicopter flight in Franz Josef Land was one of many, but not one we will quickly forget.
We continued sailing North of the archipelago, and finally met what is the 50 years of Victory’s natural environment: The Arctic Sea Ice. We awaited the first ice floes with trepidation, anxious and excited to see how the ship would react. And believe me, you don’t have to be a glaciologist to be fascinated by sea ice breaking under the 26250 tons of metal.
The first ice also brought its first inhabitants! I was amazed by how delicately the crew would maneuver the ship when bears were in the vicinity. The ship would become so quiet, stop, and almost become invisible.
This female bear sat in front of the ship, 2 m from the hull, and had decided that we would not move until she had decided so!
It wasn’t just the passing landscape that was rapidly changing, the atmosphere on board was full of excitement and every degree of latitude crossed meant the pole was only getting closer.
But sadly as we were ploughing through the 80th degrees, the weather turned particularly cloudy, foggy, and huge polynyas (areas of open water surrounded by sea ice) made a dent in our excitation. What will the Pole be like? will there be water there? There were a few worried faces among us.
But even more than ever, luck was on our side. We got awoken early, on the morning of the 16th of July. The word was that we were only a few minutes, then a few seconds from the Geographic North Pole. Almost there!! Never have I seen a happier group of people, preparing cameras, GPS’, flags, and looking forward over the horizon. Of course there’s no sign to expect at the North Pole. The sea ice continuously drifts across the ocean, and only a good GPS will tell you where the pole actually is, in this changing landscape. And the Arctic fought hard to prevent us from reaching it! We had to cross and break several pressure ridges to reach our ultimate destination. But at 6am, the ship’s alarm rang. We were at the North Pole! Hugs, kisses, prayers, and a million pictures later, we could still barely believe we had made it.
The gods of the Arctic had reserved the best weather for this exceptional day. After reaching the pole the ship was “parked” in a stronger ice floe about a kilometer away, and a plethora of activities were organised out on the sea ice. Among them, the most popular one: taking a picture pulling the ship with one of the guide ropes.
What an amazing day it was. One of my highlights of the day was when we made a heart, and held a minute of silence, all holding hands.
Photo from the amazing Anthony Smith
It was hard to leave the North Pole after such an incredible day. Will I ever get back to the Pole? What will it be like in a year? In ten years? I’m just so grateful to have had the chance to go there.
And there we were, sailing south with a lighter heart, and tons of new memories that we cannot wait to share with the rest of the world.
So long North Pole, hope to see you again!