Trip report 1 step down North Pole section 1

Thursday, 14 April 2011 23:07
Irish North Pole Team on Baffin Island 2011 Irish North Pole Team on Baffin Island 2011 Clare O'Leary & Pat Falvey - Irish North Pole Expedition 2011

Below is the first of three parts on step down of Irish North Pole Expedition.

Read through the ups and downs for the team during February and March when the challenging weather required the team to abort their North Pole bid after waiting for 10 days to fly out to the ice from Resolute. A tough decision certainly but with another 4-5 wait before they could fly it was too much gone out of their reserve days to contend with. Four teams out of four pulled out of North Pole attempts this year.  Following their decision the team went on to complete the first Irish ski/trek of the remote Akshayuk pass, traversing a peninsula of Baffin Island. Here is the 1st of three reports.

Report compiled by Dr Clare O'Leary and Pat Falvey. Further Images from the expedition to follow.

Listen to Podcast Part  1 - Step Down North Pole 2011 - by Pat Falvey

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North Pole step down 2011 Trip Report Part 1. Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

It's hard to put into words how frustrated and devastated Clare and I were to step down our 2011 Irish North Pole expedition. It was hard to credit that this year due to unprecedented bad weather in the Arctic; we would not even get to the starting point. Never in my 68 high-expedition adventures have I ever encountered conditions like this before. Mother Nature had dealt us a cruel blow because of climate change and global warming throughout the world; it caused a devastating effect on the arctic weather patterns and ice movement for 2011 season, causing more then a million extra hectares of ice in the Arctic sea to evaporate and cause unpredictable bad weather in the region which blocked us from starting.

Disappointed but Acceptant : 3 years of serious commitment in planning, training, learning and preparing ourselves for our North Pole challenge of walking, skiing and swimming from the land mass on the northern shores of Canada - all ‘down the tube’ without even the chance to give it an attempt.

Pinned Down: We were pinned down by unrelenting bad weather for 20 days stuck in our transit base camp on Resolute Bay, a small barren remote Inuit community of only two hundred people situated on the North Eastern shores of the North West Passage.  Frustrated, we waited and waited in windy sub zero conditions for a break in the weather to afford us an opportunity to board our privately chartered plane that sat on the apron of a wind swept runway of the airport that serves the region, to fly us to our final destination at Cape Discovery to the start of our challenge.

The Waiting Game: Day after day in our holding position we had to re-assess our diminishing time-window which we had estimated for reaching the North Pole.  Discussions and meetings were held on a daily basis with our pilots, base manager Rick from our aircraft charter company "Borek" and the Canadian High Arctic Metrological Department until finally we were forced to concede that successfully reaching the North Pole for 2011 would be impossible for us.  Mother Nature had played us a devastating blow as unprecedented bad weather eroded our time to succeed.

The Plan: We had put huge thought and research into the planning and preparation of this expedition. We had looked at all successful and failed attempts throughout the history of North Pole expeditions and we realistically estimated our ability based on our polar experience and concluded what was both the maximum and minimum period of days that we required to successfully achieve our objective.

Our Weather Window: We had given ourselves a maximum of 60 days to complete our challenge from Cape Discovery; with an estimate of 55 days as a reasonably realistic time for us to reach the North Pole from Cape Discovery. Anything under this would be a risky and increase our chances of failure.

We set out milestones and targets for our plan, and we knew that to deviate from them raised the risk of failure. We were willing to take calculated risks to succeed but not foolhardy risks that would guarantee failure. We also had to watch that we would not ‘let our heart rule our head’ over factual information; a prudent business strategy I had learnt from my business background.

Adventure Grand Slam: If successful, this expedition for Clare and I would be the ‘grand slam’ of adventure. To climb all the highest points on each of the seven continents including trekking to the South and North Pole. We had completed all but the latter. The pressure personally and emotionally on both of us was enormous.

For me it would be a personal satisfaction to exit extreme adventure at 54 years of age and to continue into less extreme expeditions after what has been an amazing series of adventures over 25 years travelling around the world.

We knew that no matter how confident or prepared in doing this, that we would always have to deal with the unknown elephant of polar travel, Mother Nature. We were confident of our ability to succeed but not complacent. We knew there were circumstances and events that were not in our control to predict or influence.

The Russian Time Bomb: To reach the pole we were confined to a window of time that was crucial to achieve; the date of the 26th of April etched on our expedition calendar. Like a primed time-bomb the clock was ticking to reach our target, we would have to be there before 09:00 am 26th February. If we delayed in getting there, a severe penalty for evacuation from the Canadian side could cost up to $120,000 extra and we would still have to arrive at the pole no later then the 30th of April, just three days later.

The decision for us to step this down was one of the hardest Clare and I have made in our expedition careers, but by that stage, the facts put before us guaranteed failure.

As you can imagine having put so much effort into this expedition we didn't want to go home and Clare and I switched our attention from the North Pole and continued on to do another expedition to cross a section of Baffin Island.

Trip Report: I will conclude by finalising this year’s expeditions with the following trip report.

After years of planning, training and research throughout the world, our journey to Canada for the 2011 Irish North Pole expedition truly began in the final days of January 2011.

General Diary of North Pole section: On the 29th of January we arrived into the harsh environment of our base camp acclimatisation Arctic location in Iqaluit for our three weeks’ preparation to do a mini expedition on Frobisher bay to test all our gear and to do final packing of food and equipment for the pole challenge also it would give us a chance to find out more about the Inuit and the attempted dismantlement and destruction of their culture by what was then a colonizing force; how the Canadians used the Inuit to stake land claims in remote and desolate regions of the Arctic to protect mineral rights. Another important element of learning on all our expeditions.

Iqaluit is the Inuit capital of the Nunavut region a new territory formed in 1999 and given it own autonomy under the lands act ...see information on (Nunavut/ Iqaluit).

While in Iqaluit we trained with local polar adventurer Matty McNaire for a few days to hone our polar skills, and to listen and learn from a master of Arctic survival. It was an amazing opportunity for fine tuning both our technique and logistics from one of the top arctic polar adventures in the world.

As late comers to polar disciplines and our quest to be self sufficient on all our expeditions, we have had the fortune to train and learn from some of the best polar people in the world. Borge Osland and Rolf Bae from Norway, Richard Webber and Matty McMaire from Canada aslo Victor Boyarsky, Russian. All are passionate, all have different takes on gear and equipment, but all are in agreement that the Arctic is the harshest environment in the world. Their accumulative advise would not go astray on Clare and I.

Iqaluit had given us what we needed, temperatures averaging -35 degrees Celsius, the time to train and to sort all our gear and food.

The three weeks went fast and we moved forward to the next leg of the expedition on the 21st of February excited and confident that we were ready to pull off our journey to the pole, not realising what lay ahead.

We moved to our next location in Resolute Bay which is situated on the northern banks of the North west Passage.  Here we would do further training for a few days as we waited for conditions to land at our starting point at Cape Discovery at the top of Canada and the start of our trek.


Weather Frustration: Our departure date of the 25th of February was put back due to a late coming of the sun rising at our landing point at Cape Discovery by three days. The pilots needed at least one hour of sunlight to determine contrast between the grey sky and snow/ice covered Fjord. The sun in the Arctic was playing games with our departure. We had agreed to push out our date for departure back by 3 days to the 28th February to allow a safety margin for pilots.

Weather Bad: We were all packed and ready to go on the 28th and were stepped down just 12 hours before departure. The weather had worsened due to high wind and cloud cover at Cape Discovery which was shown in an updated Satellite forecast.  The new forecast did not look good and we knew that we would at least have to wait another few days. The Arctic weather was flexing its muscle. Still Clare and I did not have too much of concern and it looked like a high pressure zone was winning out, to the low pressure at our starting point, it really looked promising so we sat out a further 2 days still thinking all would be ok, but our safety risk margin was being eroded down to 55 days and the clock was ticking.

Once again on the 2nd of March we received a call from Rick, base manager for Borek to sadly tell us the low pressure coming in from the north west had won out over the high pressure from the south east and that the weather didn't look good for at least another three days.

Now alarm bells were ringing for us, this new set back was at least pushing us back to the 5th March and down to our minimum risk threshold of just 52 days beyond our comfort zone; but our feeling was that the mission was still achievable. If all went well we would have a race to the pole to get there on time and we were willing to take the risk. We knew any further erosion due to weather would mean a whole new plan.

The pressure over the following days was enormous as we waited every day and checked the forecast.  We went to see a professional forecaster that was based at the weather station at Resolute and he felt that the whole winter season had been the worst since records began and that our chances of success were slim, due the huge loss of ice in the Arctic.

As the days rolled by we didn't see any improvement on the satellite pictures and prepared ourselves for the worst, to be stepped down once more. We were even trying to ignore the fact that we now needed to make a serious decision. We needed further clarity on what was now becoming a huge worry. We contacted Matty McNaire down in Iqaluit for her take on what was happening and sought independent experienced advice. In a returned email she spelt out the facts, which brought us back to reality. We were still choosing to push the dates back and were leaving our hearts rule our head, we didn’t want to give the expedition up, even if were stepped down again.

Matty’s email refocused us on our plan. Matty in turn contacted a friend that was an expert on Arctic Polar weather and on receiving this latest input, it made our decision very easy. The forecast showed that improvements would not occur until at least the 10th March.

Shocked by this prediction we sat down and re-calculated all our logistics and if the forecast was right we were now guaranteed to fail. For many hours we mulled over the forecast, we contacted the other two teams that had intended to go this year and presented them with the facts on the new forecast. All agreed if this was the case none of us would reach the pole in time. Facing the facts a decision had to be made and we we even approached Borek to know if they would extend their time in coming in to collect us from the pole for a week or two. The answer was no, the dangers of losing a plane were too great for them. In 2010 they had attempted an evacuation on the 4th of May and lost a Twin Otter plane to the icy sea, so therefore they would not take the risk to collect us later then the 30th of April.

The Death Knell: All adventurers know that you cannot pit yourself against the power of nature; we have learnt from the experience of the Inuit, the hunters and people of the high Arctic, you blend with nature and change your plans with natures’ changing moods. This year sadly we accepted that the nature of the weather in the Arctic had closed it's doors to our polar challenge and all teams stepped down the challenge on the North Pole from Canada.

A New Focus: Once we accepted this and made the decision we moved on and planned to make the most of our time in the Arctic. A new expedition unfolded that allowed us to mix our interest in Inuit culture and traditions, our love of mountains and our need to complete an Arctic Polar expedition before returning to Ireland.

If you wish to continue to see what happen on our new Adventure on Baffin please continue to our trip report 2 and 3 on our news items shortly.

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