Homeward bound from the ice
It was the morning of Mar 6th, our fifth day on the ice. We had just woken and were about to struggle out of our frosty, cold, damp sleeping bags for another days pulling to the North Pole. We were 15 minutes late in rising and I said “come on lads were running late,” when an answer from John replied ‘Pat, I want to get out of here, my fingers have been throbbing all night and I’m worried about them.
I though I was hearing this wrong, “are you serious” I asked, thinking to myself, its not as if we could get a bus out of here. This was a serious request and one that could take out the expedition. I knew from John’s voice that he was serious. It was a shock and didn’t really sink in immediately for Clare and me.
John had developed frostbite on the second day of the expedition, he had persisted on but now his fingers were getting worst. I asked Clare to look at John’s fingers and what she felt, as a doctor about his condition. His fingers were at this stage very badly swollen, blistered and black. It did not look good.
After looking at them again, she said ‘well, the real risk to John now is if his fingers re-freeze. John can’t feel whether his fingers are cold or not when we’re on the move because of the numbness he has developed with the frostbite. If his fingers refreeze, it’s likely the frostbite will involve deeper tissues and result in the loss of part of one or more of his fingers. In this environment, it’s hard to avoid re-freezing, and if they were my fingers, I don’t think I would carry on. They don’t look good’
Over the years Clare, John and I have lost many friends to expedition life on the big mountains and a lot more who developed severe frost bite that have lost fingers and toes. And we believe no expedition is worth a finger or toe, especially if these dangers can be avoided. John needed evacuation. Expedition life is about making decisions whether right or wrong and today we were faced with a predicament of choice as a team.
Our options were now limited in where we were. The pressures ridges were still tightly packed against the land mass and the ground was still like an earthquake zone cover in ice ridges and rubble fields. We had worked hard to gain our present position over the previous days and felt good about the ice pack and that the pressure ridges were easing a little as we made our way north from the Canadian land mass and were looking forward to easier going and increasing our mileage.
But there was now no question in any one of our minds that John needed to be evacuated from this cold, harsh and hostile environment to save his fingers. After reflection and the shock of John’s request, came the time for action. After accepting our dilemma, I made contact with Kenn Borek, the flight company that operates the twin otter serving the high Arctic and who had dropped us off for our journey to the North Pole. I explained our situation to Beverley who was manning the base at Resolute that morning that we required a rescue for John to ensure his fingers would not be lost. After a brief discussion with her she informed me she would make contact with Troy the chief pilot who had flown us in and check with him on rescue requirement for him to land. We also discussed contacting the rescue control centre as well as informing John’s insurance company of the situation. Over the next few hours we were busy organising an evacuation.
I contacted the rescue control centre informing them of our situation and requested the possibility of a helicopter rescue but was informed that a helicopter rescue would be out of the question for an immediate evacuation and if we really required it, then it could take two to four days. Our best option would be to find a flat pan of ice that a plane rescue could be attempted. We discussed our alternatives on the ice. We had three options, to continue, to stay or to retreat:
To find a pan for a plane to land near our present camp site. This would be our best option, but after much searching we could not find one. To have a helicopter rescue from our current position which would take days and then no guarantee. This was not good enough just to sit and do nothing.
To continue North bound in hope that we would find a pan, but as we did not know what lay ahead, very quickly we dismissed that one in fear that we would not and Johns fingers would get worst. After discussion on this with rescue centre we felt this would be wrong to do even though we were tempted to continue. Our third option was the only one open to us after discussing our situation with Rescue control centre and taking into consideration their advice.
Their advice was that we should make our way back towards Ward Hunt Island. They also told us that the weather was due to turn in 48 hrs, so if we weren’t rescued the following day, it would take 3-4 days after that before they could get to us according to the forecast. They recommended we look for a runway on our return route– the requirements were an area 200m x 50 m with no hard packed ridges; undulations were allowed, but none greater than 20cm. We knew the chances of finding such a spot were slim.
The decision to evacuate the whole team was based on the narrow time window we did have to reach the North Pole. Vicar the Russian company that was to pick us up at the North Pole had set a final cut off date for the 26th April. There reason was that due to climate change that the ice would be getting thin and too dangerous for them to hold their base Barneo on the ice any longer then that. We had allowed ourselves 55 days with a back up food supply of 5 days in the event of problems. Now, with all days needed to find a place to land the plane for the evacuation and to redo our trek to our initial position, then successfully getting to the North Pole was not a possibility in the time we required for to be picked up by the Russians.
This now really focused our minds on what best to do as a team. John was willing to go out alone but the fact that we were a team we had to stick together until a rescue. We had lost 2 days at the start because of bad weather in resolute. And we believed that we would not have a rescue until we reached Ward Hunt which would add a further 8 days to our expedition. Leaving us reaching the Pole in what we estimated would be our best situation if we had to retrace our steps again from the start from Ward Hunt we would not arrive at the North Pole until between the 2nd and 6th of May. Therefore 51 to 55 days minimum from there would bring us into May 2010. Our window for success would be too tight.
Decision made - Homeward bound
Our decision to turn was frustrating and depressing for us all. This was the furthest thought from our minds when we started, but our situation now was critical for the safe outcome. We all had spent a year and a half of training, massive sacrifices were made, we had put in months hard work in preparation and learning new skills for arctic survival, so as you can imagine the feeling were emotional and intense, but the decision was right to head back even if we didn’t want to.
We calculated that we would need 7 days food, fuel and all our camping equipment for security giving our present situation. Gutted
It was gutting to have to turn; we dumped and buried most of our food so our sleds would be lighter and easier to manage as we began our return journey. We had just spent 4 days crossing very difficult terrain where the pack ice meets the land mass the ice here resembles the rubble you would see in a populated earthquake zone, with ridges up to several metres high. Dragging an 80-90kg sled through here is tough work, but somehow enjoyable and exciting at the start of a North Pole Expedition. The thought of facing that again, but now on our way out, was hard. We also knew that even if we did navigate back to where we had buried our food, its position may have shifted with the constant ocean drift.
The day passed slowly as we made our way out, on route we kept looking for areas for a plane to land and just as the evening light was fading and we were looking for a place to camp we came to an area which looked pretty flat. We paced it out and it seemed just within their requirements. We decided to set up camp there and make further contact with Borek Air. They agreed to come in the following day to try.
The following morning
The rescue flight was flown by Troy and Braden. Troy had dropped us in a few days earlier and we knew he was highly thought of and one of the most experienced pilots in the high arctic. Before midday we could hear the engines. We had packed up apart from the tent and stoves in anticipation of a successful rescue, though I had my reservations.
Troy and Braden spent over 1.5hrs attempting to land on the runway we had prepared. I couldn’t believe their persistence and was thankful for it. Slowly it became clear it wasn’t going to be successful and the plane left. I contacted Beverly, at Borek Air’s base, just to confirm and to see what our next move should be. She explained they were on the ice! We were very surprised but relieved until we checked their position and fount they were 3.8 nautical miles away and we were given 3 hours to get there! It felt hopeless given the terrain we had to cross, (we had just spent 5 days travelling 8 miles!) but nevertheless we packed up and began to move as quickly as possible.
It was a tough afternoon. The pressure of time and knowing that we would be stuck here for a further 3-4 days if we didn’t make it to the plane was playing on our minds. We pushed on hard all day there was no stopping for food or drink. Finally, we could hear the engines. At this stage we had been going for 5 hours. John climbed onto a big chunk of ice and shouted at the pilots. They replied, so at least they knew we were close. We still couldn’t see the plane.
As the sun disappeared, we grew more concerned that the pilots wouldn’t be able to wait for us. Suddenly the engines went silent. We were sure they had been forced to leave. For them it was a big risk staying for that long, in those cold temperatures and now with night falling. John was ahead. Clare struggled to pull and haul her sled as quickly. I stayed at the back. I was worried that we were becoming spread out across an area of big pressure ridges in diminishing light. I called to both John and the pilots and was met with only silence. The situation felt foreboding.
We pushed on, when suddenly, like a mirage, Troy and Braden arrived onto the pressure ridge and helped us through the last few minutes. It was an incredible show of their bravery, decency and courage. Not only had these two guys spent an hour and a half attempting to land and rescue us, but had then successfully landed some miles away on very difficult terrain, waited for us for over 6 hours in temperatures of -43C, and had then come to assist us with our sleds in the final few minutes. Without further delay we loaded the plane and were in the air. It was a great relief to have made it; once the decision was made that we would evacuate, we just wanted to get off the ice. The ordeal of being rescued in such an environment was really brought home to us.
Reflection on decisions
Even though as a team, we are disappointed, we now must reflect on, did we make the right decisions under the circumstances. I reflect now on the facts of our situation as an Irish team on route to the North Pole and I ponder on my father’s advice who is my greatest mentor.
“Success in ones life is not just about achieving ones goals, its about trying to achieve your dreams and sometimes failure, for what ever reason is a part of success if you learn from them. “ (Tim Falvey)
Of course for us, our families and supporters it is incredibly disappointing that our expedition came to such a premature end, but on the upside, John’s fingers are improving slowly and will almost certainly return to normal over time. The Arctic Ocean will always be there and with a bit of luck we will get the opportunity to return very soon. Special Thanks
I must pay special thanks to all of those involved in the evacuation; To Troy and Braden two amazing pilots that went far above and beyond what we could have ever expected. To Beverley, Steve and all the Borek Air team in Resolute. To Rescue headquarters for their advice and co-ordination. To IHI Denmark for their professionalism and concern in dealing with John’s Evacuation. To all the management at Eureka Weather station for putting us up for the night on our return. To all of those that gave professional help in our preparation, thank you. It has been an amazing experience and the lessons learnt shall not be forgotten.
And especially to all of our fans and followers throughout the world who have been with us through thick and thin over the last 24 years of adventure all around the world thank you for your loyal support and concerns.
Back to reality and Ireland
Now lets look on the bright side of life, I’ll be back in Ireland for Saint Patricks day, for to see the budding flowers of spring and instead of the forty shades of white, I’ll see 40 shades of Green. Were going home to the place I love, but my thoughts are of the ice, the arctic ocean and of the North Pole.
Thank you all for participating in our adventures to make our dreams a reality.
To the future and a great life