Finally got to the N 89.59.985!
After the extremely long waiting in Murmansk, we eventually were informed on Monday evening that we would be airborne on Tuesday. Correct, Tuesday the 1 April. This time, it was no joke. During the briefing by Dima the Chief, the more experienced skydivers were slightly concerned about the weather, as we had been told that the weather this year had far from excellent. The main problem was the clouds, as if they go down to the ground (ice, that is…) it may become a very dangerous landing.
However Dima and Serjey, our Russian guide seemed very relaxed.
Monday I was hence working until 2 pm and then packing for an hour or so. After I went to bed, I experienced one of those very few occasions when I couldn’t sleep. But going to the North Pole isnt happening every day, I guess.
Tuesday came, and after an early breakfast we went to the Murmansk Airport. Anticipation was high to say the least. Quite a strange process: First there was the normal pre screening of the luggage before going into the airport. Then we were issued tickets for the Illusion cargo plane. Departure from Murmansk. Going to Barneo…
Then we went through normal luggage check, We checked in our luggage (!) and went through another control. Then there was a very meticulous passport control. After some waiting we went on a normal transfer bus that was taking us to the Illusion.
Expectation grew quite a lot. The Illusion is a big military cargo airplane. It was almost full with cargo that was to be airdropped to the Barneo camp. Maybe 10 persons from the Russian rescue team for Barneo and us. Yet some more waiting and we were off.
Murmansk is well above the polar circle, and the Illusion is a four jet aircraft. Still, it takes 4 hours to the North Pole. We were still a bit concerned about the weather, but conditions got better and better the closer to the pole we got. Inside the airplane it was hot, so it was a long trip. Just after taking off , the crew started preparing some food. All other flights I have been to they have served pre-cooked food or sandwiches. Not here. The crew started with raw potatoes and onions, cabbage, some spices – and a whole chicken. No fillets, a whole chicken. It was clearly not the first time they prepared this, so they organized a great lunch for the 20 or so of us. Surreal to get a meal prepared from scratch by the loading guy in the aircraft before jumping out of an Illusion76…
30 minutes before arrival to the pole we were instructed to get our gear on. On the ice, it is about minus 30 Celsius, so at 3000 meters, where we were dropped, I guess it was -50 or -60. Windchill effect of 300 km per hour and you need some pretty good protection.
But matching that protection with getting dressed in a cabin which is surely more than 30 degrees and you get quite sweaty.
First we came down to 300 meters, the altitude where the cargo would be dropped. 10 km before Barneo, the ramp is opened. 2 minutes later, 20 platforms are rolled out of the plane, which travels at 80 meters per second…. The ramp closed, did a loop and came back again for dropping another load of 20 platforms. Most of the platforms contain fuel, air kerosene. And as the Russians say – no kerosene, no life in arctic. The fuel is needed for the helicopters, for constantly heating the tents, for melting water and refueling the Antonov airplane for coming back.
The platforms hit the ground at 10 meters per second, so a lot of the oil barrels with fuel were completely deformed, but most of them were not broken. However one of the tractors that was dropped the day before was broken due to a hard impact landing. This meant they had only one tractor to build the landing strip. And no reserve tractor. No landing strip – No return flight.
Anyway – after dropping the second load, we started climbing again up to 3000 meters. Visibility was great. The sun was just a bit over the horizon (where it apparently stayed during the days we stayed at the Camp) and it was beautiful. There were only solo jumpers and 2 tandem jumpers, me and a Russian person part of the team. Tandem jumpers always exit last, so I had the opportunity to se everybody drop out of the plane from that big ramp. At 300 km per hour….
Dima cheered us goodbye and good luck. Ramp opened. Big big ramp opening to the void. Dima raised his hand, three, two one…. We were off. The solo jumpers jumped out one at the time, and I and Nikloai were a bit slower, so we exited maybe 2 seconds after the last solo jumper.
I wasn’t nervous when jumping, but for the last few steps before leaning into the void, I suddenly realize: this is actually happening. I just leaned into the air and we fell…. I never felt the wind hitting us, maybe I had so much adrenaline. But instantly my ski goggles went off. I knew the straps wasn’t very tight, but I hadn’t had time to fix them. No worries, They were secured as the straps were under my hat.
As instructed, I held my hands on my chest and arched back. Very controlled free falling, and I could really really enjoy this skydive. The feelings were overwhelming me, I saw the canopies opening underneath me, I saw the big aircraft disappearing in the distance, I saw the ice, the landing strip being build. And I saw the most beautiful arctic sun just over the horizon. Magnificent.
Nikolai released the canopy at 1500 meters and took us down safely to the team waiting by the camp. We landed long after the other guys and we were cheered when coming down. some guyes helped us to a safe landing. We landed just by the tents, 50 meters from the camp, consisting of 3 tents and an Igloo that was used as a loo. What a great feeling!!
It was about -27 degrees and I got quite cold soon, as I had been sweating too much in the last 45 minutes in the Illusion. Some of the solo jumpers were planning to do another jump at the actual North Pole later the same day, from the helicopters, so they instantly started packing their canopies. Nikolai, however had other plans, so he took me into one of the tents to show me some great Russian hospitality. I was given warm tea, biscuits, sandwiches with ham, cheese etc and, of course, a vodka.
However, the weather got worse and the additional jump was cancelled for the day. Barneo Camp is currently at about N89.3. I say currently, as the ice is of course moving all the time, at a speed of about 1 km per hour.
Instead, we started to prepare our tent which was only half completed. Remember – we were not part of the actual tourists, but rather part of the team preparing the landing strip and camp. We had to go scouting for the platform that contained our luggage, and eventually we found it. Most of the luggage seemed to be intact.
We got installed in our tent. Heated with a kerosene burner. We got supplies of cookies, bread, cheese, meats, tea and chocolate. Only thing was that everything was frozen solid. We sorted that out, and it got really cosy in there. The small camp has three tents, and the igloo for a toilet. It is actually a ditch cut out in the ice about 1.5 meters long, 1 meter deep and 50 cm wide. So basically a ditch in the ice and an igloo built on top of it. I can assure there are no flies in there, but works really well.
The two helicopters and the helicopter teams live completely separate and has similar facilities. But they even have a heated sauna, build from parts of the cargo platforms…
Eventually, the Barneo tourist camp will be much bigger and in a third location with mess tent, souvenir shop etc etc…!
Life in Barneo is very pleasant. Heated tents, great food (often the polar stew), and great company. In additions to our little team of 6 skydivers, the Russian rescue team that work at Barneo are incredibly friendly and nice. Language is no barrier in general, and I cannot stress enough how great the hospitality is.
The first night was surreal. In one of the tents, our great friend Gregory started singing his repertoire at about 1 am – he must have been very thirsty that night. But time at the north pole is of less importance, as it is equally light all day – and night.
Next day we waked up in the tents and prepared ourself a decent breakfast. We went for a walk in the surroundings, watching out for polar bears, inspecting the build of the runway, finding the highest peak in the nearby area and we went over to the helicopter crew. there was smoke from the sauna so I guess some of them were killing time with taking one. Polar bears actually come this far north. It is unusual, but just a day before we arrived at the pole, there was a curious mother and two cubs 30 meters from the camp. And at Barneo they had no guns – at least not until the day we departed when they actually got one.
My gear was working excellent – the Icebug Sorix winter boots that I was using were great in these conditions, great traction and warm, certainly in combination with the GoCoCo ski socks. In fact I wore those during the whole stay at the pole, odor free….
I have come to notice that this trip included a LOT of waiting, but once things are happening – it happens fast. So when we were eating lunch in our tent we were briefed that the helicopter was to take the 4 skydivers to the actual North Pole in 30 minutes. I was very fortunate that I could get the opportunity to come along in the helicopter and get to the exact North Pole. The helicopters were old military style, albeit in civilian colors. Real arctic work horses. It was about 50 km to the pole, and we passed many big cracks in the ice during the trip there.
We, the ground people were dropped in the middle of nowhere, but clearly the GPS said we were as close to the pole as we could – 89.59.985 Degrees….
The heli took of and ascended up to 3000 meters to drop the skydivers. First we didnt think they saw us, but eventually they came down towards us. Omar was the first to land – clearly very very happy!
The weather was becoming worse, so we soon got into the chopper and started to get back to Barneo.
But we had been to the Top Of The World!
The evening continued with cheering, making a great polar stew again. When cooking and melting water the tent got so warm it was almost unbearable to me, especially when standing up. When sitting down in the bed it was much more comfortable.
The clearing of the runway continued day and night. The weather shifted very fast, and we could experience changes from blue sky to cloudy and windy several times each day. We didnt expect the runway to be finished until late on Thursday, but on Thursday morning, we were again surprised that when things happen, they happen quickly. This time, we were all of the sudden briefed that the Antonov would take of from Svalbard at noon, and arrive two and half hours later.
Svalbard is quite far north, but still it takes 2.5 hours with a jet.
So we spent the next few hours with packing, saying our good byes and taking some mandatory photos that we had missed.
The Antonov 74 is an amazing aircraft and was welcomed by the whole search and rescue team and us. I guess it is a symbolic event when the runway is finished, and there is actually a way of being evacuated from the pack ice.
Anyhow – the Antonov is an amazing sight to see landing at the pack ice.
A whole lot of people, surely 30 people or so comes out, and soon starts offloading a big pile of gear, including a skidoo, a lot of doors for making make-shift houses, saunas, restaurants etc. Surely in a weeks time, the Barneo camp will not be as we saw it….
A final good bye, and we enter the AN74 back to civilization. To Svalbard this time.
But that is a another story…..