A third year and no North Pole for anyone
It has been widely reported that the 2012 summer heralded the lowest sea ice extent the Arctic Ocean has seen since records began. Aside from the implications this has for polar wildlife, the native people of the northern latitudes and the world's health in general, this will obviously affect the few who ply their trade on that sea ice.
2011, 2012 and now 2013 will most likely result in zero successful attempts on the North Pole. The reasons for this are many and I thought I'd outline some of them here. Perhaps there might be a discussion about where professional polar travellers go from here and what can be done. Perhaps the low number of expeditions is a good thing; perhaps the post millennium polar-craze was an aberration.
1. There is less ice than there used to be.
The ice on the Arctic Ocean and critically, the waterways, bays and sounds is breaking up earlier in the season than in the past and it is not forming as early as normal. Hundreds of miles from the North Pole, hunters in the Thule region told me they used to hunt seals on the sea ice with dogs as early as November. Now, they cannot do so reliably until January. The Russian-led Barneo Ice Base which many rely on for extraction flights now closes on 22nd April. A few years ago it closed eight days later into the season than that. The reason - consolidated sea ice cracking and moving under the makeshift runway.
2. Charter aircraft companies are playing their hand.
The days of competition and options for air travel in the far north is not what it used to be. Now, the options are few. An insertion flight to the Russian Cape will cost over a quarter of a million pounds and beyond February there is no ice there - far before most are willing to set foot on the ice due to the cold and dark. The only current-day Canadian logistics are run by Kenn Borek Air and they apply whatever restrictions they see fit. Apparently in 2013 they will not fly until 4th March despite sufficient light and the fact Ward Hunt Island (a normal start location) has a flat landing strip irrelevant to ice conditions. This would not be a problem, except for the early 'final flights' they now offer for North Pole extractions and the ever-creeping Russian deadlines. There are Icelandic and Greenlandic options for insertions but few bother to investigate these since they can't be bought off a website. In short, the monopolies of these companies give them every card in terms of dates and prices.
3. Many expedition leaders are inflexible.
As polar travel has changed since a decade ago, less and less impetus has been placed on experience and research and more on the ability to generate corporate interest and funding. Naturally, it is not possible to spend all your time in a boardroom AND on the ice or studying ice charts and trends. So, only one group is likely to win this race for ever more limited funding and it means one thing for expeditions. Most expeditions are now almost indistinguishable from each other, copying past trips ski for ski and route for route. This lack of creativity means that the challenges above are not thought around or solved. Expeditions simply don't get anywhere this way. They are announced seemingly endlessly - a website costs nothing after all. But as someone said to me recently - it is so easy to talk and another thing to actually walk into the cold. One non-starter even managed to gain a sponsor despite having zero sea ice experience and deciding to go without a tent or skis!
I think it is really sad that no-one is going for the Pole yet again. There are some good quality people around the world who would perform well on the ice. But, the fault does not lie with the ice. Let's be clear about that. The ice is the ice and we must work around it.
When I was starting off a month or so ago in Qaanaaq (in the Greenlandic High Arctic) the sea ice was challenging, broken offshore and with leads. But it was do-able. Nothing about our return to the UK had anything to do with the ice. If someone wants the Pole, and chooses to avoid the circus which is the last-degree or Champagne flight club, there are ways. Start early, ski further, talk to pilots, use your imagination. Just like the pioneers did. Let's reclaim this magical northern wilderness for those who love it and will spend every waking hour thinking their way around the endless hurdles. And occasionally, for those who are happy to knock those hurdles flat on the floor.