On top of the world - The North Pole

By Expeditions / 10 May 2016

On top of the world - The North Pole

The sea ice that covers it is constantly moving and the climate always harsh and with extreme variations of light through the year - from the long, dark winter to the non-stop sunlight of summer.

There is no permanent land covering the North Pole. The sea ice that covers it is constantly moving and the climate always harsh and with extreme variations of light through the year - from the long, dark winter to the non-stop sunlight of summer. As a consequence, the first explorers who wanted to navigate their way to the top of the world not only had to contend with completing the journey in utterly unforgiving conditions, but attempt to navigate in a world of ice without any landmarks, to pinpoint the correct location using often rudimentary instruments in order to prove they had done so.

According to legend, a Greek explorer Pytheas first described the far North about 325 B.C., claiming to reach an island about six days north of Scotland. For centuries, no one believed the story. Little was really known about the Arctic until the growth of European empires and trade after the renaissance and the search began for a quicker, northern sea route to the Orient. Various explorers, hunters and traders travelled to Greenland, Spitsbergen, Jan Mayen, and Canada, but no one succeeded in finding a commercial passage. Long into the 18th century, the Arctic and the North Pole appeared blank on world maps. Africa’s unexplored “Heart of Darkness” was more widely known than the great frozen spaces of the far North.

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Great explorers such as Vitus Bering and James Cook made further tantalising discoveries suggesting a northern passage was possible. In 1845, Sir John Franklin sailed in search of the Northwest Passage and disappeared. Clues were discovered about his fate but the wreck was not located until 2014. The Northeast Passage over Russia was navigated in 1878–1879 by the Swede Nordenskjöld and the elusive Northwest Passage through Canada was finally completed by sea in 1906 by legendary Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. What further conquests could be made? Why, the North Pole of course!

Discovery

Fridtjof Nansen’s heroic expedition in the 1890s helped inspire the race to the Pole. He drifted in pack ice for three years aboard the specially-designed Fram – not reaching the actual pole but showing it was possible to survive extended periods in the ice.  Seventeen different expeditions tried to get to the North Pole by sled, ship, balloon, and even airship, but none succeeded. US explorer Frederick Cook claimed to have reached the North Pole on 21 April 1908 – apparently the first to do so on foot. But he was unable to produce convincing proof and his attempt was discredited. Another US explorer, Robert Peary claimed to reach the Pole on 6 April 1909. His claim has also been disputed and remains controversial. The speed of his journey cast doubt on his claim and those who accompanied him were not trained in navigation and could not back up his claim. Richard E Byrd was the first to sight the North Pole by airplane in 1926. He returned to the US a national hero, although doubt was later cast upon his claim, also.
It wasn’t until 1968 that 90 degrees North was finally reached over ‘land’ (sea ice), by an American team led by Ralph Plaisted. Cold War tension then led to Air bases and surveillance being established and both Russian and American atomic submarines have explored the area beneath the ice cap. In 2007 the Russian flag was even placed by submerible on the ocean floor exactly at the Pole, over 4000 metres deep under the water.      

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You too can travel to the North Pole?

Today, it is entirely possible, if rather expensive, to reach the Pole itself as a traveller. Thanks to advancements in technology one of the pinnacles of Arctic expedition is within reach of tourists with enough dollars, without actually mounting a serious private expedition. Each summer, the world’s most powerful icebreaker ’50 Years of Victory’ takes lucky passengers to the North Pole on an adventure where the getting there is as much fun.  Before reaching the destination, travellers cruise the Barents Sea and Franz Josef Land archipelago, spotting wildlife and crushing through thick ice fields as they go. The sheer power of the massive icebreaker can be witnessed from the air with amazing helicopter sightseeing flights. It is even possible to fly in a hot-air balloon over the Pole. The two-week North Pole cruise expeditions fly first from Helsinki to join the icebreaker and normally cost from about US$25,000.

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 An even quicker way to reach the North Pole is now also available by air. Since 2002, the Russians have annually established a research base, Barneo, on the ice close to the Pole which can now be visited by keen adventure tourists. The base operates for a few weeks during spring and allows you to follow in Byrd’s wake with an aerial North Pole Express expedition. You can spend two nights at the Barneo ice camp – one of the world’s most unique experiences and in the company of an exclusive group of adventurers, researchers and scientists etc. From Barneo station fly by helicopter to reach the North Pole itself.

For more information on adventures in the most remote regions of the Arctic, see the Arctic section of the Expeditions Online website. Whether it is a North Pole expedition or a shorter and more affordable Svalbard or Greenland trip, you’ll experience wilderness, wildlife and beauty on an immense scale. 

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