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Gerardus Mercator‘s map of the North Pole from 1595

It was surreal – I felt as if we were sneaking out of Spitsbergen when we boarded the midnight helicopter which was to ferry us to the Yamal about 40 miles away. Nuclear-powered ships aren’t allowed dock in Spitsbergen but if you want to reach the North Pole, Yamal is the only ship guaranteed to take you there.

From the air, our ship looked unremarkable except for its red colour (reminding me of the Golden Gate). Only as we approached to land did its size become apparent- an absolute colossus, 23,000 tonnes and its nuclear engines packing 75,000 horsepower. lt’s a match for any ice bar the Ross Ice Shelf.

Next morning, I was on deck just in time to see the approaching pack ice. Some years ago, that was where my Spitsbergen trip ended. Yama| barely slowed, crashing through like a bulldozer that handles like a sports car. Cracks in the ice radiated off towards the horizon.

Spectacular views

You get some huge views from the upper decks so I noted for the first day or so that there were quite a few areas of open water and indeed, we often availed of it to make faster progress. But generally we were breaking through ice. It was constant thunder initially and once or twice I looked up to see where the fighter jet was. Further north, where there were more snowfalls and maybe different ice quality, it was more of a muffled crumpling sound. Many times, I went deep down inside the ship to simply sit and listen. Imagine yourself by a log fire at night, with a storm blowing outside- on a night like that, I’ll always be on the Yamal.

Going north, we often travelled through a flat snowscape where you couldn‘t tell sky from horizon. Sometimes, everything disappeared in a snowfall. Often, you had sunshine and could admire the ice ridges, meandering lines of glistening white and blue spires – hundreds of them- stretching as far as the eye could see. They were anything from a metre to ten metres high.

Seabirds fly

We weren’t always alone. Seabirds occasionally followed the fish, maybe feeding in the water exposed in its wake. We saw plenty of polar bears, on one occasion mum and two cubs, and even if bears weren’t around, we saw their tracks in the snow. Under the breaking ice you could see algae.

At times, the ice was particularly tough and it took three or four runs against it to break a path through but we never retreated and, finally, to the sound of the ship’s hooter, we ground to a halt at the North Pole. It was midnight.

Amazingly, the sky cleared, the sun shone and everybody was crying and hugging everybody else. A solitary kittiwake flew by the bridge. We parked for a few hours’ sleep. Next morning, we descended onto the ice. I walked behind an ice pinnacle out of sight of the ship into a white world that had neither direction nor distance.

Climbing even the smallest ridges was a marathon. Back nearer the ship, we took a zodiac ride on some peaceful open water. Everybody celebrated in his or her own way. I took a polar dip – finding the water warmer (!) than the air. The American passengers played a baseball game.

The weather shifted continuously from snow to blue skies to grey cloud and back again. Fortunately, no high winds or wind chill.

Spitsbergen

Helicopter flight

Our trip “home” to Spitsbergen took us through Franz Josef Land. Unlike the incredible peaks of Spitsbergen, it’s mainly a set of sinister low islands, rounded and smoothed by glaciation into snow domes. We landed here by helicopter. I will always remember one particularly beautiful flight over the mountains, down along a snowfield to the melting sea.

We cut through the pack ice and the Yamal nosed its way – as if it was a gondola – right up next to Rubini Rock, a sheer basalt cliff. From the bow, we looked up and downwards at the nesting sites of about 750,000 birds – auks, guillemots, kittiwakes and others. We were fanned by flying wings, deafened by the chatter and some of us were hit by organic confetti.

Nature

There were other cliffs, flights and landings in soggy tundra or cindered slopes. But one dinghy ride stands out. It was midnight Arctic stillness and we drove by ice floes and gleaming snowy islands. We stopped in silence to observe a giant walrus polluting the ice a few metres away. Abruptly, our expedition doctor asked to go ashore – anywhere- as his bladder was in imminent danger of bursting. Impossible – the shorelines were frozen – so he relieved himself over the side while we all studiously looked the other way. Surreal!

Paul Holland is a Secondary School Teacher who delights in exploring unusual world environments.

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Written by Paul Holland

Published here 15 Aug 2023 and originally published Winter 2002

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