In humankind’s long history of travel and exploration, perhaps no other place has been featured more than the North Pole – the point to which many have set forth through frigid temperatures and frozen climes, where 24-hour darkness descends from September right through to March.
Few have dared travel during the polar winter, when temperatures top out at -50 degrees Celsius, but that is exactly what one team now plans. After a brief setback this December, a two-man expedition will soon return to the Arctic with the ultimate goal of reaching the North Pole unsupported during winter.
As experienced explorers and intrepid expedition leaders, Alex Hibbert and Justin Miles stand an excellent chance of setting this yet-unaccomplished world record. Traveling north from Greenland past the cliffs and glaciers of Ellesmere Island, the two will journey over 900 miles across shifting seas before reaching their final depot on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
We sat down with Alex to hear more about The Dark Ice Project, and to bid him and his teammate good luck on their long journey into the night.
The Travel Word: What first inspired The Dark Ice Project?
Alex Hibbert: I have always been excited by and inspired to do things which are as new and creative as possible. I don’t see the point in following the crowd. When I found myself with a winter/spring arctic season free of other expedition plans, I decided to go big. There are a number of things I always wanted to incorporate into an expedition – sea ice, the darkness of polar winter, the North Pole and depot-laying as a prelude to an unsupported new route. Dark Ice became exactly that!
TTW: What is it like to travel in polar winter?
AH: On a practical level it’s very demanding on your navigational skills and on personal administration. The simple things are made so much harder when done by torchlight. The associated cold and lack of chance to dry out sleeping bags etc. in the sun also spices things up a bit. Visibility is limited for obvious reasons and whilst in polar bear territory that is always a concern. Mentally, it’s horrendous but you just get on with it!
TTW: Polar expeditions have a long history. What’s unique, in your perspective, about modern polar exploration?
AH: That is a subject which I could write a whole book about. In fact, I have, and it’s out in May. There are lots of opinions flying around amongst the outdoor community regarding the value and realities of modern polar travel. I think that because of their place in history, the early polar expeditions were mostly unique. There simply weren’t as many, but that has nothing to do with professionalism – there were amateurs then and there are amateurs now.
In the post-war era and from the start of the ‘renaissance’ in the 1990s, it is much harder to stand out and do something significant. It’s an attitude thing and the vast majority of people heading to the Poles do it for bragging rights or to tick it off a bucket-list – they’re not enthusiasts or professionals. There are then some who seek to push the boundaries whenever they step onto the ice. I can’t see much similarity between these two groups of people – from their spirit to their skill levels and to their behaviour and honesty when promoting their journeys.
TTW: We’ve heard a lot about on how global warming and the melting of sea ice is changing the Arctic in countless ways. What is it like to travel through a part of the world that is changing so fast?
AH: It is certainly something to think about and we have to make sure we plan accordingly, to make sure we have enough ice and that it is in reasonable condition. I don’t subscribe to the complaining about lack of ice and blaming avoidable failures on it. Ice can’t argue back. We know the situation and we must change our plans or timings to match. That’s for people like me who lead expeditions. For the locals, it is a problem and there is absolutely zero doubt that changes are afoot. In Qaanaaq, the Inuit hunters used to get out hunting on the frozen sea in November. Now, it’s nearer January.
What is happening is beyond the realms of doubt. The exact causes, the balance between human-caused damage and natural cycles, and what we can do about it – well they are the questions we must be discussing globally. In my ‘industry,’ you often see expeditions claim to be saving the world or doing token science to attract funding, but in reality most of this is hot air. Useful science surveys and polar expeditions need different routes, different equipment and different teams. I think it’s best to leave science to properly-funded scientists and leave polar journeys to those who can then dedicate themselves honestly to their goal.
TTW: You got off to a false start this winter and were forced to turn back as a result of Justin’s pressing health issue. How is your teammate doing?
AH: That was a very tough one. The ice, despite forming late in the season, was actually perfectly workable as we set off. We were travelling at a great pace and our routines were working. Justin suffered a potentially fatal (if not treated) epigastric hernia and so we decided to turn around and ski back to our base camp in Qaanaaq, Greenland. Brutally disappointing given the thousands of hours put into the project, but Justin is safe and recovering and that’s the main thing. The Pole will always be there, but that doesn’t make the premature end of a meticulously planned journey any easier.
TTW: Any news about when you hope to return north again?
AH: As soon as possible! With luck this winter coming up.