A tourist fortifies himself with a whiskey during an exhausting Arctic expedition
© Sascha Montag

Polar extremes


Every spring a large number of wealthy tourists invade a Russian research camp at the North Pole – to brake records, have adventures and take selfies on the ice.

Mr. Montag, our photographer, and I are drifting across the polar sea on a large ice floe, and are about to open our next can of Russian beer. Is it the fourth or the fifth? We have stopped counting, but are still among the more sober people around here – at least, we feel we are. Most of our fellow travelers are having champagne – the good stuff from Bollinger – very old, very pricy scotch, or just high-end cognac.

The heated cafeteria tent is filled with a strong smell of sweat, due to the 50 marathon runners who have all squeezed into the place and are now celebrating reaching the finish line. They consume huge quantities of gummy bears and tell each other how hard it has been. I joined them earlier for ten kilometers of the way, just for fun, and running was indeed difficult. Then again, running is always difficult, especially in the snow and wearing winter boots, but the air was refreshingly cool and clear. What’s more, anyone, who has ever jogged along Hamburg’s Alster River on a Sunday afternoon knows that the real difficulty is avoiding the pedestrians, who insist on walking four abreast, without colliding with racing bikes.

We are at the 89th parallel, in the Camp Barneo polar station. It is the last outpost of civilization, approximately 100 kilometers from the North Pole – the top of the world. Dozens of generations of adventurers and researchers, and countless expeditions, have yearned to reach it before us. The American explorer Robert Edwin Peary claimed to have been the first to reach the pole in 1909, despite Frederick Cook insisting he had reached it the year before. The race to the Pole is today staged in the form of the North Pole Marathon, which is held annually in April. These days the region, which is among our planet’s remotest and most inhospitable, is accessible to everyone – including us. Tour operators like the Russian Special Travel Club take you there and back in only three days, weather permitting, for a price starting at 16,900 euros. So sign your medical evacuation policy, and off you go: from Hamburg via Copenhagen and Oslo to Longyearbyen, and on to Camp Barneo.

Indispensible for any polar expedition: a transport plane

Indispensible for any polar expedition: a transport plane

© Sascha Montag
Electricity generators at the arctic camp

Another essential: electricity generators

© Sascha Montag

  I have no idea what time it is. The sun never sets and there is constant daylight. The clocks show Moscow time. Around us there is nothing but icy desolation and polar bears. Having said that, the only polar bear we have actually seen so far was towering over the entrance to the local supermarket in Longyearbyen, Svalbard – and it was definitely stuffed. I do not think that a polar bear would voluntarily approach the camp, although this is a story the staff love to tell visitors. I suspect they only do this so that people do not wander out of the camp and fall into cracks in the ice. These crevasses are much more dangerous than polar bears.

The station’s live-in physician, Stanislav Boyarsky, is more impressive than these stories. His hands are twice as big as mine and he boasts a belly that he could hoist onto a tabletop. He is the scion of a famous family of Russian polar researchers and has been Camp Barneo’s physician since it was first set up in 2002. Boyarsky always carries a thermos flask of home-brewed tea with him, which contains “lots of fire vodka.” He offers me a cup.

When he is not at the North Pole, he works as a surgeon at a suburban hospital in St. Petersburg, stitching victims of motorcycle accidents back together. When I talk to him, he comes across as very kind, even gentle. The only consultation of his that I witness goes very well: he sticks an adhesive bandage on a blister that has developed on a marathon runner’s foot.

Outside, three scientists are freezing their hands off while attempting to drill a hole into the ice. The hole is important for climate science, they explain. They want to lower a probe to measure the salinity, currents and temperature under the ice. On a large pile of snow next to them, a woman called Diana is posing for photographs, in a bikini and fur boots. She is from Phoenix, Arizona and has already displayed a proclivity for hitching up her top in front of the other passengers on the plane ride over. She can afford to – both in terms of her figure and financially. Her boyfriend is grinning and taking photographs. He is 20 years her senior, so maybe he is the one who has bankrolled this trip. A female scientist looks up briefly and shakes her head. Not because she thinks it is strange that Diana strips down to her bikini in temperatures of minus 23 centigrade, she says, but because she does not understand what some people spend their money on.

Tourists at the North Pole camp

Room for one more? The signposts help those who are suddenly overcome by homesickness – despite all the fun

© Sascha Montag

  Chechen paratroopers also live in the camp. Most of the time, they just sit in their tent. They emerge only occasionally to march around in their camouflage gear brandishing their polar-proof machine guns. They line up ten meters away from their tent. Attention! Then they go back inside. It is just a drill, the North Pole does not belong to any country, so any government can send troops there. Because of the billions of tons of oil and natural gas located around the North Pole, a number of nations have lodged claims for all or part of the region. The U.S., Norway, Canada and Denmark all want a slice of the pie. But apart from the Chechens, I do not encounter any other military personnel. In 2007, a Russian mini-submarine is said to have planted a small Russian flag in a titanium capsule on the seafloor 4,261 meters below us, to mark the territory. Naturally, no one can see it from up here.

When rumors started circulating that Chechen soldiers had traveled here via Norway, disguised as tourists, the Independent Barents Observer proclaimed a threat to national security: “Cuban Missile Crisis at the North Pole!” And when the Chechen president Ramsan Kadyrow, a dictator and torturer, promised his “heroes a triumphant welcome home” on Instagram, and praised their “unlimited potential,” peace and quiet at the North Pole seemed to have come to an end. Flights were cancelled or rescheduled, airspace clearances withdrawn. That is why it took us so long to finally fly up here. Every day, we were told that we would be taking off, only to be informed it was not going to happen after all. A large crack in the icy landing strip was the official reason given each time. Those who want to go to the North Pole have to have a lot of patience, I thought at the time. Now I think it was all because of the Chechens.

You have to give the soldiers some credit, though: The runway on the ice has indeed broken apart four times already, and they helped to repair it every time. Probably, because they also wanted to be able to get back home quickly.

Once, we almost landed on such a crack. It would have torn the plane apart, but the pilot pulled up at the last minute. One of the female marathon runners from the U.S. excitedly shared her unsolicited take on the situation: God was trying to tell us something. She exclaimed that he was yelling: “Don’t go there!” I would have loved to yell back that it was more likely climate change was trying to tell us something. For example, that too many people in the U.S. leave their pickup trucks running – including the air-conditioning – while they shop at the organic supermarket, so that their car is nice and cool when they collapse back into it. God has nothing to do with that.

Officially, the North Pole does not belong to any country, but many nations have a keen interest in the natural resources said to be located there

  To me the true heroes are the parachutists, who construct the whole camp, only to dismantle it again a month later. They are dropped off above the ice floe with their tools, two bulldozers and supplies. They have to gather together all the materials and spend days flattening the ice with the aid of shovels and icepicks, until the runway can be smoothed out with bulldozers.

That can take up to a week and is extremely exhausting. After this, it is the pilots’ turn to fly back and forth, bringing with them the rest of the materials for the camp, and finally, the tourists. The pilots do not really want to mingle with the latter, which is why they are staying in another encampment a safe distance away.

Every time yet another flight is cancelled or rescheduled at short notice, someone will talk about the “the expedition-like character” of a trip to the North Pole. The biggest journey into the unknown, however, was the food. I did not dare try it. Instead, I exclusively consumed the marathon runners’ cereal bars and gummy bears, which they left behind on the tables in the cafeteria tent, before setting off for their eight-hour circular run in the snow. To this day, I admire the courage our photographer displayed when he tucked into the beige meaty gruel. His face was unforgettable. Most of the visitors only stay for a short time. Having conquered the North Pole, they fly back to Longyearbyen and dine at the Sheraton. The cafeteria would also have driven Ivan Papanin to despair. In 1937, the arctic pioneer was the commander of the Soviet “North Pole 1” station, the predecessor to Camp Barneo. “Those who want to spend the winter at the North Pole must eat like in Moscow’s finest restaurants,” he demanded at the time. Papanin managed to take 450 pounds of caviar with him. His attempts to squeeze a live pig onto the overloaded plane were less successful. He and his team of three, plus a dog called “Happy,” conducted research for nine months in the station on the drift ice, until an icebreaker took them on board off the coast of Greenland. Despite there still being supplies for another six months, Papanin had lost a third of his body weight in the cold, leaving him weighing only 60 kilos.

Sports people disembarking from an Antonov AN-74

Snowy flying conditions: Sports people disembarking from an Antonov AN-74. They want to tackle the last few kilometers to the North Pole on skis

© Sascha Montag
Expedition leader Victor Serov coordinates the ski hikers and ice divers

Expedition leader Victor Serov coordinates the ski hikers and ice divers

© Sascha Montag
The communal tent for the airport personnel

The communal tent for the airport personnel

© Sascha Montag

  The only thing I find more frightening than the food is the fact that the Arctic is in the process of melting. Victor Serov also finds this disquieting. He is one of two managers in charge of the station. I totally buy that he is a serious polar scientist. He really means it when he says – with pathos in his voice – that the North Pole is unpredictable and that you never know what will happen next.

This year, he says, it has been a difficult season. The winter temperatures were unusually warm, causing frequent cracks in the icy runway. And then there were the Chechen paratroopers and the geopolitical squabbles – but he does not mention those, of course. Serov works as an expedition leader for the Russian Geographical Society, who are the official operators of Camp Barneo. It is a good job; he only misses his wife, he says. Nevertheless, he wouldn’t like to vacation here. Somewhere warm would be more to his liking – the French Riviera, perhaps.

William MacPherson from London and his two sons walk past. He tells me – probably because I just happen to there not doing anything particularly important – that he finds everything here pretty surreal. He and his boys skiied for three days before finally reaching the pole where he thought they would be alone. He couldn’t have been more wrong! There was quite a bit going on: Two Britons were planning to go up in a hot air balloon to break some record or other. In the camp things are no better. In fact, just now, Captain America jogs past. MacPherson cannot quite believe that either.

The comic book hero’s actual name is Douglas White and he is a clerk from Tampa, Florida. His costume is hardly aerodynamic. It takes him six hours and 25 minutes to complete the course, which is enough for him to come eighth among the men. A small number of other runners has donned a costume, too, but most of them are doing the run for charity: for cancer research, war veterans or landmine victims.

This is the runners’ justification for being here. I suspect, however, that they would also like to brag about it on Facebook. And indeed, some do exactly that.

A helicopter takes Arctic aficionados to the world’s most northerly point

A helicopter takes Arctic aficionados to the world’s most northerly point

© Sascha Montag

  Six hours and several cans of beer later, Montag and I have actually reached the geographic north pole. The icy desert looks exactly like at the camp – just without the camp: white and flat.We got here in 40 minutes by helicopter. A little girl was crying for most of the flight because she found the whole thing exhausting and boring. She is the only child among the visitors to the Pole. Her parents look somewhat sheepish.

Those who don’t take risks never get to drink champagne

Russian proverb

At the North Pole itself, people are dancing in a circle holding hands. I do not notice at first, because I am busy recording a message for 7th graders at a Hamburg high school. It is only later when I watch the video that I see the circle of people in all-weather jackets dancing around the iron rod that marks the North Pole. Around the world in a few leaps, crossing all degrees of longitude and 24 time zones. A lifelong dream fulfilled. A man scatters the ashes of his father. Many toast the occasion – with champagne and hip flasks probably containing expensive scotch. We are at the top of the world, so it is all downhill from here. The next evening, back in Hamburg, it finally gets dark.

This story first appeared in Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine.
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Cover Lufthansa Magazine N°2 | 2017