Headed for the North Pole

Barneo the 13th

On March 20 of this year, the sun rose for the first time in six months at the North Pole, chasing away the long winter night. There was no one there to enjoy that frigid dawn, just a sheet of ice and snow, floating on the Arctic Ocean and stretching to the horizon.

A few days later, a handful of Russians parachuted from the sky within 50 miles of the pole. Food, tents and a bulldozer (for leveling an ice runway) were also dropped by parachute. In a short time, that barren and inhospitable place (average temperature this time of year, -30 degrees F) was capable of sustaining life.

The Russians call their temporary home Barneo, and they have built and occupied a floating camp like this every year since 2002.

For three weeks only, Barneo's 13th incarnation will serve as a research station and the base camp for small groups of travelers who fly in from Norway en route to the North Pole. By the time you read this, I will be on my way.

Here are some interesting facts about where I am headed.

The North Pole is, of course, the northernmost spot on Earth, latitude 90 degrees north. If you stand on the pole and spin 360 degrees on your heels, every direction you look will be due south.

Longitude determines time zones for most places on the planet. All the lines of longitude, and therefore all time zones, converge at the pole, so no particular time zone is more appropriate than any other. It is customary to stay on the time zone of the town you left from, so we will be on Norwegian time.

In most locations, time of day is highly related to the position of the sun in the sky. The sun is roughly at its highest at midday.

At the North Pole, the sun rises and sets only once per year, and its position is not related to the time of day. For the 24 hours I hope to be there, the sun will be just above the horizon and will not noticeably rise or sink in the sky.

The North Pole is a fixed location, but the sheet of ice that floats over it rests on 14,000 feet of water and is constantly moving. Water currents, wind and even the phase of the moon affect the speed and direction of the ice.

If you mark the North Pole on the ice with a flag one day and come back to the flag the next day, the flag will have moved measurably away from the pole, possibly many miles. Our group will locate the North Pole via GPS the day we go for it.

The ice over the North Pole is not a uniform sheet but a collection of ice floes that vary widely in thickness and average 6-10 feet. Ice floes sometimes crack and separate into pieces, revealing fingers of open water called "leads." The ice is so thin in some places that dogsleds and people have broken through to the water.

By the end of April, the ice will break up and it will become impossible to maintain the runway or the camp. It is for this reason that Barneo must be dismantled and rebuilt every year.

Sometimes the ice doesn't follow the plan.

A few years ago, the bulldozer and its parachute broke straight through the ice and sank to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, delaying the creation of the runway and the first supply flight by several days.

On numerous other occasions, cracks or violent storms have destroyed the runway at Barneo and stranded explorers while the crew built a new runway nearby.

In 2010, the ice under the tents suddenly broke into pieces, forcing an urgent relocation of the camp and halting supply and evacuation flights until a new runway could be prepared.

At least once, an incoming flight from Norway touched down and had to return to the air immediately when the pilots realized the ice runway was breaking up beneath them.

I am reminded of a quote from the sixth-century Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu, founder of Daoism:

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving."

Note to self: Bring a flask.

As you read this, I am en route from sunny and warm Houston to Longyearbyen, Norway, the world's northernmost town, on the island of Spitsbergen. Spitsbergen is a tourist destination in itself, far above the Arctic Circle. We'll spend a couple of days checking out the island, acclimating to the cold and breaking in our gear.

After that, our flight from Longyearbyen to Barneo will take just under three hours, plenty of time to reflect on questionable life choices and finish the book on polar exploration given to me by my friend Jeff. I'm up to the part that explains how to thaw eyelids that have frozen together.

We are traveling with the help of US-based Polar Explorers, which contracts space at the camp and has been guiding expeditions to the North and South poles for 20 years. This is my first experience with the company and I will provide more information about Polar Explorers and their trips in future reports.

I'll check in from Longyearbyen next week, prior to climbing aboard my flight to Barneo.

Note: Barneo is operated by the 169-year-old Russian Geographical Society and is the primary evacuation station for North Pole expeditions. The ice camp welcomes scientists and explorers from around the world.


Alan Fox
Executive Chairman
Vacations To Go

Related newsletters:
Exploring the World's Northernmost Town of Longyearbyen
Final Stop -- The North Pole

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