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Come with us to the North Pole next April
Please Note: The background on this page is an aerial photo of the sea ice near the island of Svalbard, Norway
April 25, 2003
back home in North Salem (reluctantly so)
OK, you asked for it. The continuation of the saga of Moki's 'polarization'. But, I feel that a forewarning is in order here. This may get a bit long. No, not may, this WILL get a bit long. Most likely, veeeeeery long. We're talkin' the Great Wall of China long. So, for those of you who have lives to live, save this for a long airplane flight (maybe even round-trip), or for a night of insomnia. Or, you could even consider printing this story out, numbering the pages, and using them as wall-paper in your bathroom. At least there will be something a little less boring to read than last July's issue of "Cuticle Crafts Quarterly". Alrighty then. Here goes:
Now that the last remaining ice crystals on my breath have thawed, and that the over-flow of adrenalin has been somewhat contained, I can begin the last installment to my North Pole Expedition story. As I have said before, this part may seem a bit anticlimactic after you've already read that I did reach the pole, but you might find parts of the story amusing nonetheless. It is embellished with trivia which you never can tell if you may need the next time you're a contestant on Jeopardy. So, bottom line is: pay attention!
Hmmm...... Where did I leave off? Ah, yes. Our expedition group was about to leave for Longyearbyen airport to depart for the Ice Base at Borneo. The weather had been bad the day before, but improved just enough to allow a flight out. Or so we thought. Nooot sooo faaast. This is Svalbard, folks. The problem was that our group was large enough that it needed to be divided into two; the first half being the marathon runners and the cross-country, or rather cross-ice skiers, and the second, consisting of those who simply wanted to stand at and experience degree 90. The first group left for the tarmac, loaded the aircraft, only to sit on the runway for an additional 4 hours, waiting for the wind to subside enough for a safe take-off. Wind-sock a bit limp, and off they went! The flight is a little more than 2 hours there, and with a one-hour drop-off layover, the second group would have been ready to fly about 5 hours later.
Now, I said that we were READY to go. But did we? Nyah-uh...... You see, whoever made the offering to the weather gods, apparently wasn't aware of the second group. There should have been TWO heaps of sacrificial mutton instead of just one.... which meant that the plane did not return to Longyearbyen, but had to continue all the way to Norway's mainland due to bad visibility at our airport - where we sat and relished in the lovely view of beige linoleum floor tile for an hour or two more. <sigh> Back to the hotel for a night's sleep, or something resembling sleep, taking the 24-hour daylight into account. A second try in the morning was our only hope. One last shower, a caffeine fix, aaaaaaand they're oooooooff! This time, all systems were go! Thankfully! The Antonov aircraft was downright luxurious (she said with tongue firmly implanted in cheek). Every time the gentleman in front of me coughed, all the tray tables on the left side of the plane fell in domino-fashion and left a decent black-and-blue on many a knee. And the fuselage windows? What windows? I think there were a total of 3 per side. I was not one of the lucky ones, so I amused myself by counting the missing rivets in the ceiling. 57, in case anyone wants to know... After almost two hours, my ears snap, crackled and popped, which was the only indication of descent. SLAM! We hit the ice really hard. It's the best way to land such an unwieldy plane on an ice runway. It apparently keeps it from doing any ballet moves. And quite frankly, pirouettes, as pretty as they are during Swan Lake, don't look quite as graceful when an Antonov cargo plane performs them. Plus, I was not particularly interested in testing the leakage factor of the itsy-bitsy barf-bag which had slept in its pocket since the Brezhnev era. I was grateful to be on the ground. Well no, on the ice. The eagle has landed...
Exit the plane. Enter the chopper. Seven kilometers to the Ice Base. Normally, the runway is near the base, but the original runway had developed a huge crack in it a few days before (which means... well, you know what it means <duh>), and a new one had to be constructed on the nearest safe ice. Hence the 7 kilometer distance. We got off the helicopter, and glanced around the 360-degree horizon. The only flaw on the perfect white field was a herd of red and yellow tents. Ah.... for the next 3 days and white nights, home sweet home! Borneo Ice Base Camp. (OK, everybody in unison now, repeat after me: Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo......) After a stern 'Willkom to da R-r-rawshen Ice Baze' speech as well as the informative 'These are the rules or you will be staring into the barrel of a sub-machine gun' lecture, we made ourselves at home. 8 or 9 people per tent, cots and sleeping bags at the ready. Just like summer camp. But unlike my summer camp replete with its aromatic latrines, we had what I dubbed as the two red "pee-pee tee-pees". I will leave the vision of those to your imagination, and will tell you that whatever you're thinking, you're probably correct. An experience for sure! All I will add, however, is that I'd hate to be um... eh... constipated.... Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase: "sh*t or get off the pot". 'Nuf said.
Meals... Cup o' Noodle, but WITH chicken! We're talkin' class here! Hot oatmeal or bread and cold-cuts (yes, pun fully intended) for breakfast, and stew or soup, Russian-style, for lunch and dinner. Not bad considering where we were located on this planet. We even had (drum-roll please) a cappuccino machine! Imagine that! Will wonders never cease....
And now for a look-see around. This is, after all, what I came all the way up here for. To experience the ice-cap.... the frozen crust of the earth's cranium. Oh, I know you're dying to ask me, "And how cold was it?" Well, aside from the typical "It was as cold as a witch's..." uh... never mind... let me just say that the little thermometer I had attached to my zipper tag goes down to minus 20. And I could've sworn that I could hear a faint sucking sound when I checked it. That was the sound of all of the bright red fluid, which under more 'normal' conditions resides in the narrow tube, running scared and cowering deep inside the small round bubble. Talk about your basic shrinkage! So, I couldn't tell exactly how cold it was except that it was considerably LESS than minus 20 according to my high-tech sources. But for Siberian Sybil here, not a problem at all..... especially since she's donned electric yellow and black Russian-edition arctic gear, and a 'stolen' from either one or the other expedition leader furry hat (they call them their dogs). I felt no cold. I felt no pain. But I did feel like a Michelin bumblebee....
So, this bumblebee stuffed her camera and extra film deep inside her warm parka to keep it from freezing, and she made like a real explorer. At first, I was simply fascinated by the sounds of my boots on the snow. Because it was so cold and dry, the snow squeaked very loudly. However, as I walked, the pitch of the squeaking would change depending on the thickness of the ice underneath it, and came to a relatively high pitch whenever I was approaching an invisible crack in the ice. In certain spots the pitch changed abruptly enough that you could almost 'play' a simple melody with your feet! Ah yes. Once a music teacher, always a music teacher. Anyway, these were the songs of the arctic. Add to that the sound of the wind, and it's practically a symphony! Music to my polar ears. The only thing missing was the dancing of the aurora borealis, which was not visible due to the midnight sun even if it was there. I walked some distance away from the camp, all the way to where the pressure ridges began. These are large sheets of ice which have been pushed up into vertical or near vertical positions by the shifting of the ice-cap, some of them 15-feet high, where days before, cracks or leads of open water had been. The depth of the turquoise and the intensity of the blues and soft greens is impossible to put into words. A concerto of color in and of itself. Every hue imaginable. Every shade imaginable. An infinite sculpture garden which stretched as far as the eyes could see and beyond. Three full rolls of film shot right then and there! However, no matter how good the photographs are, they could never do this landscape justice. The play between these and the thousands of shades of white, all set up against the painted sky was better than the best poetry I'd ever read. Excuse me for being such a romantic, but it's quite apropos here.
But since I have gone off on a bit of a tangent, I shall return to my story now. While we were on our way to Base Camp, the marathon runners had been busy running their race (at minus 29 no less), but had to, unfortunately, be picked up from the North Pole before they had completed their full 26.2 miles. Russian helicopter red tape of some sort. So, they recorded their times at the point of interruption, flew back to continue and finish the run at the Ice Base. By the time our group arrived, most of them, adorned with eye-brow icicles, some nursing mild frost-bite, were taking off their running shoes, and comparing results. One of the runners who should have been with the rest of them, had been detained with our second group, and arrived with us, while the rest were completing the race. I felt terribly sorry for him because he had come such a long way to be able to compete. But, after a brief weighing of his options, he decided that he would run the full marathon right there at the Ice Base! Go, Paul!!! He was relentless in his resolve. And this, my friends, is a true champion! I could hear the soundtrack of the "Champions" movie playing in my head. The rest of us took turns cheerleading (not very pretty, I must admit). Paul ran wearing a Santa hat on his head.... and sporting a large duct-tape #7 on his chest. Never mind the fact that he is 13 years younger than I am, when I grow up, I want to be just like him! And the best part was that during his one-man marathon, he turned 34 years old. What a thing to do on your birthday, huh?!? Anyway, all times tallied. Winner: Martin Tighe from Rhode Island, originally from Manchester, UK.
At that point, it was well past 2:00 in the morning, but none of us who weren't checking our watches could tell. That pesky 24-hour fireball in the sky! But we retired to our cozy cots - because it was the right thing to do at that hour. Damn! Left my water bottle on the floor. Frozen solid! Not the nicest thing to place inside your sleeping bag for the night, but it has to thaw out somehow. Can't very readily place it next to the fireplace now, can I? Jeff, who is in the cot on my left, falls asleep first.... which means that just as the rest of the tent crew is beginning to see visions of beaches in the Caribbean, Jeff's uvula starts doing the rhumba. A boot, or something of similar shape, flies across from the opposite side (hmm... just like at real camp). Jeff mumbles, turns over, and we listen to arctic silence as we fall off into polar slumber, interrupted only by a similar scenario inside the tent next door, but that one peppered with a few sordid expletives. There's also an occasional hurried kweak, kweak, kweeeaaak of boot-steps running in the direction of the pee-pee tee-pee, the one which still has some toilet paper. FYI: you can always tell the degree of urgency of Mother Nature's call up there...
But, since I am getting carried away - again... I will move on to the following day. THE day. N.P.-Day! Yes, the day I had waited 47 long years for - even before I knew little more about anything besides my Cupie Doll.
(See? I warned all of you, didn't I? Tired reading yet? No? Good. 'Cause there's lots more. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the rest.)
But, perhaps this is a good time for an intermission. Coffee anyone? A fresh helping of popcorn perhaps? Amphetamines? I'll wait.........
OK? Done? Alright.... and as Ed Sullivan would say: Now, back to the 'shoe'........
After a few
hours of what I think was sleep, I got up, put my bumblebee costume and
my 'borrowed' dog back on, and went out for a stroll while the rest of
my tent-mates rubbed the proverbial frost off their eyelashes. I stood
out in the open and simply breathed it all in. Suddenly, I heard a distant
gunshot. Hmm....must be some Russian sentry scaring a polar bear off. But,
to my surprise, that's not what it was at all. It was the ice cracking.
And, in cartoon-like fashion, the crack traveled at lightning speed
- and shot past me about 5 feet away! Imagine being witness to that! I
straddled the crack, and took a photo. I marked the time. What was a pencil-width
crack at first, spread to a foot-wide lead within an hour.
By the time breakfast was over and done with, the lead was about 3-feet
wide. This was the lead we had to jump, yes leap across to get to
the chopper which was our transportation to the 90-th degree. Let's just
say that I was quite happy to have visited the pee-pee tee-pee prior to
that "on the thirteenth day of Christmas bumblebees-a-leaping" experience....
Quite scary. NO room for a slip-up here or you can call yourself a human
popsicle in 3 minutes flat! Feat accomplished...<whew!> Wipe sweat off
Anyway....... We take off again to continue our flight to the top of the planet. The helicopter flies in a circle a few times, trying to hook onto exact 90 with its GPS. It tests the integrity of the ice by tapping it with its landing gear. Not safe here. It moves over a few hundred yards, and this time we land. My heart is pounding so hard that I'm not sure it won't escape from my rib-cage. The North Pole. THE North Pole!!!! I am here......
First foot-step on the polar ice-cap...... Call the time, Moki!
I walk off in the direction of where my own GPS shows me that exact 90 is, and I stand there for a brief eternity. Alone. In my solitude. In my dream of dreams.... I am far enough away from everyone that I am experiencing total silence except for the sound of my own breath, and my own sobbing...... šTears do not freeze if you wipe them quickly.....
There is a reverence here. This is the realization of my deepest wish. My most precious journey finally at its ultimate destination. I am moved with overwhelming emotion, and I take it all in with wide open eyes.......
I revel in the sanctity of the moment as long as I need it. My time and oneness is respected by the others who know exactly what I came here for. They are here for the same reasons, and no one needs to ask why. Each of us communes with the place in our own minds. THIS we will remember until our last breath.....
I re-join the others to celebrate. And..... I pull out the Ukrainian flag which I had brought with me. I hold it out in the wind, and am honored to become the first woman to fly a Ukrainian flag at the North Pole! Talk about a Kodak moment! For the rest of the photo-op, I ask that one of the helicopter pilots, who is a Ukrainian himself, hold the other end. A historical moment indeed! It is nothing short of a kick-in-the-pants to be standing there! I am oozing exultation.....
(Notice the last few paragraphs have been written in present tense? Well, that's because I re-live those moments in my mind every hour!)
I got my bag, and took out the few things which friends had given me to take to the pole for 'energizing'. I placed each of those items onto the snow, took a photo and returned them to my bag. Last of all, I took out two large water bottles and filled them with the surface snow. The melt water from this snow will have its own honored place on my shelf at home, where many other such containers sit, filled with water from various glaciers and mountains I have visited. This water, however, will get the most prominent spot! This is Moki's Oscar!
I took one last look, boarded the chopper, and we departed....
Upon arrival back at Base Camp, I noticed that the lead which we had jumped over only a few hours before, had spread to a width of 20 feet! It's amazing that the ice shifts quite this much. Thankfully, the helicopter landed on the tent side of the crack because my mind wasn't particularly too set on swimming.... in 13,000 foot deep water, its frigidity notwithstanding.
After dinner, Helmut (the climber mentioned in a previous Email) and I went to observe the new leads, of which there were now many all around our tent city. We stood at the very edge of the widest one, and could feel the ice moving sideways. And not only that. If you stood still and closed your eyes, you could also feel a slow upward and downward undulating, just as you would on a massive cruise ship. šThis was the earth literally breathing... So, what was that Carol King song from the 70's? Well, with apologies to her... "I feel the ice..... move..... under my feet..." (OK, OK! So, I won't give up my day job to begin a singing career. I get the hint! Jeez! Cut me some slack, people....)
(Speaking of ice, let me go soak my poor little finger-tips in some. Too much typing...)
I'm back... Back to the edge of the lead. Helmut told me that he wanted to show me a phenomenon of lead ice. He got on his knees anad leaned forward. For a moment there, my heart stopped because it looked as if he'd fall in. I grabbed his parka. He laughed, and told me to let go and watch. This was just too incredible. He leaned on the freshly-formed ice skin of the open water, and it gave as if it was made of rubber! The more he pressed on it, the more it stretched! I have never seen elastic ice!!! When he let go, it returned to a flat horizontal not unlike a rubber-band. He did it over and over, and never punched through it to fresh water. The ripple traveled some distance as if the ice was a trampoline! Amazing! I'm not sure if that trait is due to the salinity of the water, but I was once again in awe of Mother's Nature's sense of humor. It just didn't make any sense, but there it was.
On a side note,
I'd like to take this opportunity to add some comic relief to this story.
The other of our two illustrious leaders, Curtis, used to run an
ER at a Florida hospital. He had decided, or rather hoped, that he would
become the first to perform surgery (no lobotomies naturally...) at the
pole. However, this is not something any doctor can really plan in advance.
But Curtis had brought a mini-version of an OR with him - just... in...
case.... Realizing that our expedition was nearing completion, he
began feeling the heat (strictly metaphorically) of a deadline. And now,
with overtones of desperation in his voice, yet with a smirk, he walked
around asking anyone and everyone, "Do you have any lesions that need to
be removed?" "Does ANYONE need any surgery done?" The only 'surgery' he
got to perform was the removal of an embedded splinter. Sorry, Curtis,
that doesn't count as real surgery. Better 'luck' next year... So, should
any of you who are reading this desire to be in the record books, call
Curtis and make a reservation for next April.
We celebrated our successes, as well as out last night on the ice by having some fun. Paul, our lone marathoner, had thought ahead and brought a jar of bubble fluid. He started blowing bubbles as the rest of us observed. Did you know that bubbles freeze? Yup, they formed in normal fashion, but would quickly turn a hazy white, float up for a bit, and then collapsed and fell limply to the snow like wads of cellophane. Who'da thunk it? Some people sang, others flew a kite. It was like a bunch of grown-up kids having the time of their lives. No wonder I didn't want to leave! Partying over, one by one we brushed the fur off our teeth and retired for one more night on the ice, but this time it felt like it was our ice.
I have to admit that I had been getting somewhat concerned with the integrity of the ice changing so rapidly. We had only one more night to go, but the tents were staying up another 2 weeks. Weren't the Russians who run the Ice Base worried? When I asked, I got a chuckle in reply. "No, it's all in a day's work," they answered. Sure enough, the following morning, the temperatures had dropped to 37-below, and with the wind, I calculated it to be somewhere around MINUS 50! Helmut and I went out to check the leads. What leads? Where the leads had been only a few hours before, now there were pressure ridges! Endless snakes of standing ice-shards. No open water whatsoever! They had all closed right back up. No wonder the Russians were so oblivious... Sure makes you think about the fragility of it all.
One last walk to the helicopter... A long and silent one. None of us spoke. None of us wanted to leave this mesmerizing place; I least of all. I am sure I left part of my heart up there. After all, it had finally come home... and now I was ripping it away. And during that walk, I promised myself that I would return.... Mark my words!
During my flight back to Oslo, it occurred to me that this would be the first time in over a week that I would see a tree, that I would see any colors in the landscapes other than white and blue, and the first time I would once again witness the darkness of night. Can't say I had really missed any of them. This was an experience beyond my wildest expectations.
In conclusion.... I have returned a different woman. I have experienced a sense of belonging to our planet, and at the same time felt smaller than a speck within a universe previously only imagined. I have come to know true camaraderie of people with the same desires and visions and hopes. I have lived this dream both solo and with them. To discover the deep significance of existence is a rare joy, and while I stood there in the white windy presence of eternity, and in the silence and vivid elemental splendor of the Arctic North, I felt peace and spiritual harmony within my soul. Ironically, in this ultimate adventure upon a boundless sea of ice, I have witnessed the power and the magic of life itself. I am humbled to have been able to stand at the very top of the world, and to understand that no one does so without bringing some of it away with him nor without leaving something of himself behind... This, my friends, is the very essence of what I call: Polar Nirvana!
So, the next you see me standing in front of you, I believe that a genuflect is in order.... (unless, of course, you have a bad knee)
Now, you will all excuse me while I go begin writing that book I mentioned earlier: "Sleeping on Ice For Dummies"..... But AFTER I chuck my toothbrush, and revel in the joys of the flushing mechanism on my toilet!
|. I have told many people that I want to return up to the Ice. Naturally, they all think I'm insane, but it doesn't matter to me what they say. It is true that I want to go back. I just HAVE to go back. There's no two words about it. One way or another, I'll be up there next April|
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