1995 Weber Malakvhov Expedition
Unsupported Trek to the North Pole and Back
After participating in a couple of North Pole expeditions, I realize that I had an aptitude for this, I was a good skier, I did really well in the cold and planing a polar expedition matched my personality. I wanted to do something no one had ever done before, something significant. I realized that the greatest challenge would be to ski to the North Pole AND return unsupported.
The polar explorers of the 19th and early 20th centuries may or may not have reached the North Pole. However, in their plans were always to leave land (Ellesemere Island) to travel northward to the Pole and then to turn around and retrace their steps back to land. They never had the option to take a plane at the North Pole. No one climbs Everest and takes a helicopter off the top, they have to climb back down. I felt that to travel to the North Pole and take a plane home was a bit of a “cop out”/ A complete unsupported North Pole journey had to be to the Pole and back.
In 1992, Misha Malakhov and I attempted this feat. We were not successful. We reached 89 40 North and skied back to 88 30. We did learn that it was possible to do.
On February 12, 1995 First Air chief pilot Patty Doyle, flying a modified twin otter aircraft and using military lighting parachute flares landed at Ward Hunt Island in the dark. On Feb 14, Misha Malakhov and I left Ward Hunt pulling and carrying 55 days of food. We skied for 14 days. Then left a depot on the ice at about 83 50 and skied back to Ward Hunt Island in 3 days. At Ward Hunt, we rested for a few days, then started out again with another 50 days of supplies. Nine days later we reached our deep. Here we amalgamated our loads. When we left the deep, we were each pulling an unbelievable 170 kg (375 lbw). We travelled northward, at first making 3 miles per day, but always increasing the speed. On May X, after a full day, we were only 6 miles fro the North Pole/ Leaving our tent, sleds and supplies, we skied as fast as we could to the North Pole, turned on the Agros beacon (to prove that we had indeed reached the Pole, unlike that last guy who claimed to journey to the Pole and back), then skied back to our tent and supplies. As we reached the spot a storm was brewing. That night we drifted 6 miles back toward Ward Hunt Island, which was now “in the right direction!” The started a race against nature as the ice slowly became more and more broken. Some “days” we walked for 18 hours. Most “days” were 30 to 36 hours long. One day we shot and killed a seal to supplement our diet. That “day” was 48 hours long. We told josee and Patty Doyle to meet us at Ward Hunt Island at noon on June 15. The last days, in order to travel more, we stopped sleeping. During the last 8 days, we stopped only 6 time to naps for a couple of hours. In the morning of June 15, Patty, Josee and a small group of supporters left Resolute Bay to fly to Ward Hunt. They didn’t know our location, nor if we had arrived. The flight from Resolute to Ward Hunt takes about 5 to 6 hours. We reached Ward Hunt 3 1/3 hours before the plane. On the edge of the ice shelf, 3 miles from land, we paused to eat the last of our food. We had 200 ml of fuel remaining. It had taken 122 days.
The story is recounted in the book “Polar Attack” by Richard and Misha
Here are some sample diary entries from our trek between Feb 14 and June 15, 1995.
Day 1 – February 14, 1995
Left Ward Hunt about 9:45, took us about 1 hour to ski down across the ice shelf, it was quite cold. -42 when we left, we didn’t want to overheat so we stopped every once and a while. Even a 30 second stop cools you down and then we started in rough ice, it is actually very rough and very heavy going. The sleds are extremely heavy even in the flatter parts. You can hardly move them, it is like one step at time and I’d say only marginally lighter than what we had when Bob left us back in 1992, which means it is really too heavy. So over the next few days we are going to have to lighten them up somewhat. Back in Iqaluit, while training, I took 10kg off of my sled made a big difference, so we’ll have to try and do something. Only went a mile today, I’m not really disappointed but I’m a little bit concerned because the ice is rough, but yet, more so the sled are just too heavy. Too much time spent fiddling around. We wont get out anywhere in 14 days to make our depot, so we have to get moving. Got to get those sleds lighter. Also I’ve forgot my Dictaphone in Ward Hunt, so had to use this one, which is Misha’s. It’s -48 out this evening, actually cold. Took us 5 hours from camp time to bed time, far too long. In my vapor barrier in my sleeping bag, my elbows are pinned against my chest. I am just using one sleeping bag (layer) tonight to see what it is like, see if it is warm enough.
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Day 41 – March 26
This morning was a perfect morning, calm and clear for a change. We haven’t had a clear horizon and sun for a few days. It has always been a haze, this morning it was clear. I think the sleeping bags might actually be drying a little bit, but no wind -42C very nice.
Day 42 – March 27
Our first year ice holiday ended into the second march. We slipped quite easily back up onto old ice and then we had a lead to follow on the fourth march, it was basically old ice. Much harder, much bigger struggle, even though it was basically good old ice, even at times ideal old ice, the sleds are so heavy, that it was not fun. Even little tiny drifts would make me stop and turn side ways, definitely stop sleds, cause they are quite steep, even though they are not very high. The third march as usual, it was hard with more drifts, I worked hard and was really tired afterwards. Too much weight for me really, struggling to survive, Misha finds it much easier and on the 5th march I went fairly slowly. Misha actually got cold and took off on the 6th march. I didn’t even try to follow him, even though I could follow him. We were into a very rough, very rough old area, which means high, drifted, fairy hard packed, with our heavy sleds its just hell. Just a struggle, one foot after the other, what can I say, just unpleasant. Not Fun not fun at all, there is nothing fun about it. It has been a beautiful day. This morning it was kind of interesting, -40 in the shade and -22 in the sun. I think perhaps, it is the first time the sun is doing something to dry out my sleeping bag. By evening the temperature plummeted to -48 and recovered to slightly -45 by bed time. I can’t say this is a pleasant part of the expedition, it was the part I was dreading. I’m just waiting for the sleds to get a bit lighter. It seemed that on a first year ice this morning, it was the first time manageable and then we got back onto the old ice and it is unmanageably heavy. We are still in rough area so I am not looking forward to it tomorrow.
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Day 94 – 98 – May 29-30 and June 4-5 1995
Sometimes I wonder if you can still make it back. All the ice is so loose. We are just going slower and slower and the ice worse and worse. Sometime I think we are just in a broken area, where some cracks are opening and some are closing. But at the same time we are definitely being slowed considerably more by cracks than we were four or five days ago… so cross our fingers.
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One more addition, it is obviously very clear that any time you want a seal, just about, you can get one this time of year. You find a big piece of open water, you hang around there for a while, if there is a seal around, he is going to come up and look at you. Several occasions now I have to do a reconnaissance along a lead, you walk along a crack, out comes a seal. We have a break beside the crack; out comes a seal. Move around on the ice a bit, they can hear it; “what the heck is that?” Up they come to have a look. Obviously in this part of the world they are apparently curious! I wouldn’t say there is a seal in every crack, but if you spend the day checking every crack, if you spend ½ hour or 45 minutes or even an hour at each crack, within a day you could get a seal. Obviously getting it out of the water is another kind of problem depending on which way the wind is blowing. Is the seal going to float to the far side? Can you get to the far side? That sort of thing. Misha with no practice with a rifle except about 10 or 20 practice shots in Iqaluit and with the second shot he got our seal. That’s not bad!
Day 94 – May 29 1995
Morning very good meal of seal, beautiful sunny day, still a little breeze from the south. Walking around camp, felt so much better, than I have felt in a long time, I felt really positive told this to Misha, he was so happy, said “Oh good, you’re such an emotional man I’m glad to see when you’re happy”. So I felt really good, so we left camp we were still in a rough area of ice. First march made 2 miles, not so good, second march made 1.9 miles even worse. Or maybe it isn’t bad progress because maybe the ocean is completely broken? Third march, the ice was absolutely flat and one large pan for about an hour and 45minutes. We did 3.2 miles. Just walked straight in our direction, which is a record for us. And then we felt really good and after that it was back into broken ice for the remainder of the day. We struggled with broken ice, marches were about 2 hours each in length. Despite extra 100 grams of seal meat in our lunch which made a big difference, by the end of the day I was so hungry. I said, “Misha we have to stop, I’m simply too hungry and it is just tiring me out.” We actually skied for over 16 hours which is again is a record for us. So without the seal we wouldn’t have been able to do that. I was so hungry walking around camp with my two candies. Today was a two candy day and the hot milk … I just … and it was gone. And then we had a good portion of seal meat. Misha made a pot, the pot was almost full of extremely thick meaty… there wasn’t much rice and pemmican…it was seal meat …. it was extremely thick and rich… it was extremely good. It is amazing what a hunk of fresh meat can do. But yesterday the ice was basically young ice and old ice mixed, rough areas and the rough areas were badly broken. Even some of the big flat pans had cracks running right across them so even when you hit a pan you couldn’t ski directly across it. Back and fourth, left to right, not so much in our direction, quite discouraging. And for 16 hours we made 14 ½ miles so we came up 1 ½ miles short of the average we need to reach Ward Hunt Island in 12 days. Misha figures we could have made it in another march, but I was past it, I needed more food I was feeling a little depressed, so ah…. that was the end of the day. Thinking maybe the ice is totally broken, well no… I can’t believe it is broken like this all the way to Ward Hunt Island.
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May 31 – June 1 Day 95
Encouraging. We looked in my diary that I’ve been keeping and exactly over this period, on the way north, we had extremely rough ice and our speed dropped. We’d just started with one sled, we had a couple of really good days and the ice got really bad and the speed dropped exactly in this area. It should finish in about another 10 miles. So perhaps there is some better ice to come of course it will be broken, but we are prepared for another march now. We’ve taken the coffee out the Nalgene jar, we have extra ATP (sprts drink), so I put in a liter of water and ½ ATP. Our Black bag program; which is to hang a black bag, filled with snow from the top of the tent during the “night”, yielded about 8 liters of water, so we have enough to drink. We don’t use so much in the evening, we use it in the morning so it doesn’t cost us fuel. All we have to do is warm it up if we want to. The Nalgene jar we won’t stay warm. We’ll drink it cold, which means we can drink it every rest break. With this hot sun we are definitely getting dehydrated at the end of the day, we hardly peed last night, so definitely we need a bit more water. So again I’m felling positive, we had kind of a short sleep. We woke up after 8 ½ hours which is a bit unusual for us. I’m definitely now to 1 ½ sleeping pills per night. In the cracks we saw several seal holes, so we can get another seal, there’s no question about that, they’re around. Off course the breeze from the south is not helping us. It’s been quite weak but very slowly opening up cracks, we need a north east wind to close everything again. Really badly it has been blowing now for 5 or 6 calendar days and this morning it is almost a dead calm. Maybe tomorrow a new wind will come and hopefully it will be from the north. The wind tends to usually switch from north to south, north to south but sometimes it goes north north or south. So we really need a north east wind to close up the cracks. Yesterday I also did something that I haven’t done during the whole expedition, I ate all of my chocolate during the marchs. Our marches were all 2 hours long, I was getting too hungry so the last couple of breaks I ate my chocolate. Misha was shocked. Normally I really like to have some of my sweets in the evening, so called dessert. I’ve been saving my, you know ¾ square of chocolate every day for the whole expedition. Suddenly I eat it all, but in my mind we are coming to the end it’s more important to walk than a psychological dessert especially when we had such a good bowl of seal. And so instead we used a bit of raspberry drink that we had for dessert. Which was fine. Other wise we just have tea and put extra lumps of sugar from breakfast. So this morning we’re prepared for another long attack.
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Great sunshine and no wind. The temperature in the tent is up to 22-23C some times. -10 outside in shade. Ice sets up slushy cracks quite frozen, doesn’t really freeze open water very quickly. At the same time unbearably hot in the tent. Sitting with open door which is something you never dreamed, sitting here some hot food and door is open, it is quite warm.
Cont May 31 -June 1 95
Set off with high spirits in the morning, bright and sunny and very calm virtually no drift. So again cool at night -10 / -7 mid day instead of mid night. We thought no drifts, no cracks, things would get better and everything would be frozen , however not case; no wind, no pressure, cracks continue to open getting wider and wider. We just ran into more cracks, staying enthusiastic pushing length to march 2 hours. In beginning progress less than yesterday, which means progress dropped dramatically in the past three days ever since the southern wind started to get less there has been no wind, big cracks, several big cracks, taking ½ march or more to go around of course the only way to get out of ??// and rough areas is you have to go through rough areas to cross them. ???? Wanted to use the boat, we considered using the boat, however there was enough ice on the lead that it would be quite hard to break the ice in front of the boat. I considered rafting but the only suitable piece of ice was quite questionable and Misha wasn’t too keen on the whole idea of trying to raft. He said he didn’t understand how it worked. Cause the lead was froze, I was more concerned that the piece of ice had turned over once it was upside down, making it slippery to stand on and perhaps unstable. We saw quite a few seal holes, one seal in the distance surfaced but didn’t stick his head out. Misha immediately got excited, we need fat, I just don’t think we need anything in our sleds at the moment and we haven’t finished eating the seal we have. I’m sure another opportunity will present itself if we need it. However, I only got through the rough area and to some better ice as we predicted. That this was a rough area when we came north seems to be a rough area heading south and when we got out of what should have been good ice there are still cracks. At every pressure ridge there was a crack. Suddenly made me realize, it really wasn’t up to us anymore, you know you can work 24 hours a day and our speed is just dropping, dropping and unless conditions change we will have a really hard time to get to Ward Hunt Island on the 14 anyway – what to do – nothing to do really. Do our 8 marches, as planned, so we did 8, there is nothing else to do but slog away and hope the weather changes. It was kind of depressing coming so far being so close that all of a sudden, the possibility of failure is staring you in the face. However we still have 10 days food it has been 3 calendar days of very nice weather. The first 3 calendar days in two months, so not likely to stay that way. Weather should change. Misha really ticked me off, 8 marches 18 ½ hours, I was getting quite tired he knew this yet he still persists in doing an extra 5-10 minutes at the end of the day before finding a place to camp and them explains he can’t find a camping place. To me an extra 200 or 300 meters when you have been going for 18 ½ hours really isn’t going to make any difference at the end of the line. 10 times 100 meters is only a kilometer this won’t make much difference by the time we get to Ward Hunt Island. However when you’re not feeling well, when your tired, it is most irritating. I told him this, he almost gleefully said, yeah I’m trying to get closer to home.
The only reason we could do 18 hours is addition of seal meat to diet, at least 100 g seal meat during the day… plus of course used some reserve food for the 8th march.
Also been impossible not sweat anymore, quite hot skiing, skiing in just my underwear and a top. Toward end of day did have over 15 miles which is just under what we needed as a daily average of what remains to Ward Hunt Island, however if it takes 18 hours to do it we won’t arrive by June 14, which is when we expect our visitors to arrive. The other thing is it is taking substantially longer every day to do it. Yesterday could have been done in 16 hours the day before a littler bit less … now it takes a couple of hours longer every day. Basically I had to look at it as a survival day, it is funny to think of a survival day as being a blue sky sunny and without any wind, but really it is the worst thing. Turns out, that good weather is a bad thing for us. We had some interesting crossings; one lead that was filled with bits of loose ice and slush and we jumped from one piece to a another piece dragging the sleds through the slush; quite a classic crossing. We shoveled a couple of time to make bridges, great classic crossings but they take much too much time. After all the crossings, we only walk for 10-20 minutes out of every hour not more.
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