View from the Top

Neil Armstrong Article

Our last issue gave you a glimpse of an extraordinary group of adventurers who came Up here in April to visit the North Pole. Sir Edmund Hillary, first conqueror of Everest, First Man on the Moon Neil Armstrong, and Pat Morrow, leader of the first Canadian expedition to climb Everest, were all members of the Polar party. Our reporter got left behind at Resolute, so we couldn't take you along on the final leg to the top of the world. But we persuaded Pat Morrow to take some pictures for us, and to write a firsthand account of what the jaunt was like.

If everything went well, we would arrive at the Pole 76 years to the day after Robert Peary reached it for the first time in recorded history. Our means of getting there was far faster and easier than Peary's. The American explorer endured incredible hardships. He lost two members of his expedition, and nine of his toes. He gave 23 years of his life to the Polar quest.

We, on the other hand, would make the journey from Edmonton to the Pole in a few days. We would make it by airplane, not dogsled; and we'd have to be very careless to encounter life-threatening situations, or even frostbite. We'd have all the help modern technology could dream up. In fact, Sir Edmund Hillary commented wryly that our journey was just a guided tour.

And indeed it was a far cry from Peary's epic assault.

In the end, it made that first victory all the more impressive.

Ours was the latest in a long string of Polar journeys made by scientists and adventurers and crackpots; some in balloons and biplanes, some on skis and dogsleds; and some in submarines and jet-age airplanes.

No one since Peary has ever made the trip without mechanical support, mostly in the form of airlifted supplies and radio communications that kept rescue planes ready to go at any time.

Rescue could become a very real need, even for us. We were on our way to the top of the world - a place so remote and forbidding that it still has the mystique that's lured adventurers for a century or more. Our trip had to be carefully planned. Planes and equipment could not be allowed to fail us. We could only hope the weather - always unpredictable in the Far North - would not wipe us out.

The geographic North Pole is an imaginary but mathematically precise point in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, beneath ice that forms a disk over 1500 km in diameter, varying in thickness from one to 30 meters. The Polar cap is in constant motion, influenced by tides, currents, and winds. It travels at a rate of up to four km/h.

The ice is topped by windswept drifts of granular snow, over tortuous folds and ridges and open leads. Not a place to be unless you're as fully prepared as possible. If anything went wrong with the logistics of our trip, we could find ourselves exposed to the harshness of that savage white desert. Our expediter, Mike Dunn, had had that very experience in 1982 when a Twin Otter broke through the sea ice on landing, and sank to a watery grave. All members of that Polar party got out of the plane, but were forced to trek seven miles in subzero weather before they were rescued.

Perhaps their experience was less hair-raising than Peary's, but our knowledge of it was unnerving just the same, even though our little company of travelers had its share of venturesome elements.

We were all here for different reasons. Neil Armstrong and Sir Edmund Hilary had been invited to join us by Mike Dunn. Armstrong, who is now a partner in a computer-navigation company based in Ohio, told us he was curious to see what the North Pole looks like from, ground level: he'd only seen it from the moon.

Sir Edmund had logged many notable journeys since he reached Everest's summit in 1953, among them a 1958 crossing by snowcat of the Antarctic ice fields to the South Pole. The North Pole visit would be a first for him, one he declared himself delighted to add to his list. Hilary was obliged to take the "tourist" route to the Pole because he was pressed for time: he'd just been appointed New Zealand's High Commissioner to India, and his new job was waiting for him.

Peter Hillary, Sir Edmund's son, seems to share the family penchant for adventure. The trip North was another milestone in a career which included such outdoor exploits as a ten-month hike in the Himalayas, from Sikkim to Pakistan across 5,000 km of the most rugged alpine terrain in the world.

Seventy-seven year old Rex Wakefield of Glendale, California had a less spectacular background: he'd simply booked the trip with his travel agent. It all began when he'd decided to give his wife something special for her birthday, he told us. A vacation in Yosemite seemed just the thing, but bookings were unavailable. The agent suggested one of Mike Dunn's North Pole tours. "Then he called and told me there was, unfortunately, room for just one person," Rex grinned. "So here I am!"

Four of us had more than a simple Polar jaunt in mind. Martyn Williams, a wilderness guide from Whitehorse, Yukon, and climber Stephen Fosset, of Chicago, had joined me and Mike Dunn in an attempt to scale Antarctica's highest peak, Mt. Vincent Massif, just six months before. We were involved in the Northern trip because we hoped it would create public awareness and support for our next try. More experience of harsh Polar conditions would help season us for the ordeal we'd face when we took up the challenge again in autumn, 1985.

Mike was notching his seventh Polar trip, and counted among his most memorable adventures the first-ever parachute jump over the Pole, in 1981.

The group assembled in Edmonton; we got acquainted over a banquet of roast reindeer, then hopped a Pacific Western scheduled flight to Resolute Bay, Northwest Territories. It took just five hours for the climate to metamorphose from T-shirt weather to bone-chilling cold. Bezal and Terry Jesudason of High Arctic International Explorer Services met us at the airport with down-padded jackets, hooded and trimmed with wolverine fur, plus insulated boots.

The couple were also hosting a 26-member Japanese film team in the process of shooting a documentary tribute to the great Naomi Uemura, who had passed through on his solo dogsled travels to the North Pole in 1978. The walls of their com fortable hotel/home are covered with autographed photos of adventurers, including a Finnish team who skied to the Pole last year.

"The Finns were the best organized and most realistic Pole-seekers we've come across, next to Naomi," said Bezal.

Resolute Bay is the distribution and administration centre for the High Arctic. A notice I saw in the native co-op illustrates its remoteness: "Our sealift order will be placed in the near future. Anyone wishing to put in an order for furniture, appliances, Skidoos, Hondas, or any other bulky items that cost too much to be air-freighted please see manager."

After a few hours spent in the quiet streets of Resolute, the main body of our group left in a Kenn Borek Twin Otter for Bezal's camp at Lake Hazen, on northern Ellesmere Island.

Peter Hillary and I stayed overnight at Resolute, reveling in Northern hospitality. We talked far into the next morning with RCMP constable Mark Gaillard, air-base manager Bruce Jonasson, and local pilots and aircraft mechanics, who shared stories of high adventure in everyday jobs that took them all over the Arctic.

First thing next morning, Bruce loaded us onto a 748 destined for Eureka Weather Station at 800 North. We stretched out for a snooze on top of 300 boxes of gelignite, destined for the Polar Shelf project, located an an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean.

Most of the islands between Resolute and Eureka are flatter than an adventurer's wallet, until you pass over Axel Heiberg Island and reach the south end of Ellesmere. As we neared the airstrip at Eureka, the pilots dropped low to show us a group of muskoxen eking out their harsh existence.

Later on, we spotted a dozen or more gigantic Arctic hares peering curiously at our activities on the base.

Sir Edmund Hillary had come along on the flight sent to collect us at Eureka. "My only alternative was to go fishing for Arctic char through the ice on Lake Hazen at -40 with the others," he chuckled.

Then we took off again. Our last jumpoff point, the camp at Lake Hazen, was 1 1/2 hours away. As the small aircraft pushed smoothly through the dense, cold Arctic air, we had a few minutes to check out the upper reaches of Tanquary Fiord, where some of us planned to spend a few days climbing on our return from the Pole.

While the highest mountain on the island is only about 2,400 m, the number and variety of peaks makes this one of the loveliest mountain vistas in the Arctic. In mid September of 1981, Ranulph Fiennes and Charlie Burton had left on foot from here to traverse the dry river valleys of Ellesmere for 200 km on their way to Alert, Canada's military base at the top of Ellesmere. They were members of the British Transglobe Expedition, which had received the blessings of their patron, Prince Charles, and massive financial support for their two-year circumpolar navigation of the world along the Greenwich meridian.

Almost before we knew it, we were in sight of our destination, Lake Hazen - the most northerly lake in the world.

During the summer of the International Geophysical Year, 1957, a glaciological, meteorological, seismic and botanical study camp was set up on the south shore of the lake. Two traverses of the ice cap had been done, using dogs imported from Greenland. The camp is now maintained as a base for North Polers in the spring, and hikers and fishermen in summer.

The insulated quonset huts show no signs of wear over the years, due to the calm air arid the preserving effect of the cold, dry atmosphere. (The island receives less than 10 cm of precipitation a year, which puts it and most of the High Arctic into the desert classification.)

At the Lake Hazen camp, two base managers were using the Jesudason's powerful shortwave radio to communicate with teams out on the ice.

Tsugo Saotome was in contact with Japanese actress Masako Izumi, who had departed with three Inuit and two Japanese on a snowmobile expedition March 21. Saotome himself had been involved in a ski crossing of Greenland, so knew of the special problems of travel in the Far North.

"The group is using traditional caribou skin clothing with down and fibre-fill sleeping robes. They've incorporated a nylon/silk fabric into the material of their tents, which gives them a blend of the old and the new. Bezal helped us with the tent design, a pyramid with four poles that's fast and easy to put up even in windy con ditions."

American Andy Miller was in daily radio contact with Mike McGuire, who was hauling a companion towards the Pole in temperatures that hovered relentlessly in the -43 degree Celsius range. They reported spending up to four hours a day drying out the condensation on their clothing and sleeping bags. The sand-paper texture of the cold snow made dragging the sledge extra difficult. This, combined with the ruggedness of the terrain, made it look as if they wouldn't reach their goal before spring breakup. But they were determined to stay on the ice as long as possible. Andy spoke reassuringly to Mike over the radio.

"We're trying to get ABC to pay for another 18 days of food. Westinghouse is keen to get some footage. Have you got the camera thawed yet?"

It seemed we had no sooner arrived at Hazen and been fed by Debbie, the camp cook, than we were whisked back to the plane. Mike had been in radio communica tion with Camp Opal, our fueling depot out on the pack ice midway to the Pole. Weather was calm and cold, with good visibility. We had to grab our chance and take off right away.

As we left the small peaks of Ellesmere behind, bathed in alpenglow from mid afternoon til midnight every day now, we passed over Ward Hunt Island, the last point of land from which Pole expeditions can set out. Our heavily insulated bodies were crammed against each other inside the tight fuselage of the Twin Otter, its controls locked on the North Pole.

The plane droned steadily toward our goal. Looking down at the pressure ridges and knowing the rough chaos of the surface ice, we couldn't help thinking again of Peary and all the others who had made the epic crossing. It was an act of stoic courage to set out over hundreds of kilometres of terrain such as this, and in temperatures so cold.

Slamming hard onto the snow-hummock runway at Opal, a tent camp on a sturdy chunk of old lead ice, we jumped out into the arms of Ric Airey, who had been our copilot on our Antarctic trip. He was working at the camp, relaying scientific supplies from Thule, Greenland.

We excitedly exchanged greetings, and hopped back in the plane since we knew we'd be back here in a few hours, on our return refueling stop. We picked up a second plane to be used as backup.

At last, on April 6, 1985, at precisely 7:01 p.m. Mountain Time (9:01 p.m. EST) we touched down at the geographic North Pole. This was it, the goal Peary had so desperately sought, that many of today's adventurers find irresistable, taking on all sorts of odds to prove themselves against the fierce laws of nature.

We were at the top of the world. Both Hillary and Armstrong had been there before, in a figurative sense, when their achievements brought them global fame. I, too, had been at the top of the world, if you count the summit of the world's highest mountain.

But this experience was unique.

We popped the champagne, and could pour only two cups before the stuff froze clear to the bottom of the bottle.

The airplane engines roared. The pilots hadn't dared turn them off, since chances were they couldn't get them started again. They knew their mission was only half finished: they still had to get us back to base safely.

The pilots probably had little time for philosophical thoughts. But most of us drifted away, escaping the noise so as to better savor these moments, until the signal came to reboard the Twin Otters.

Back at Lake Hazen, "fresh from the Pole," we relaxed amid creature comforts while Neil Armstrong read us an excerpt from an account by the Swede Saloman Andree of his attempt to reach the Pole by airborne balloon, back in 1897:

    "Is it not a little strange to be floating here above the polar sea, to be the first to have floated here in a hydrogen-filled balloon? How soon, I wonder, shall we have successors? Shall we be thought mad, or will our example be followed? I cannot deny but that all three of us are dominated by a feeling of pride. We think we can well face death, having known what we have done is not the whole, perhaps the expression of an extremely strong sense of individuality which cannot bear the thought of living and dying like a man within the ranks, forgotten by the coming generations? Is this ambition?"

To his reading, Armstrong added an eerie coda. He told us the bodies of the Andree expedition had been found 33 years later, on Bear Island. With them was black and white film, which, when developed, yielded ghostly images of the last months of these men's lives.

The silence that followed was a salute to the mysterious lure of exploration itself. We knew our group would very shortly break up and go in different directions. But for that time, we were united in our celebration of that spirit.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Pat Morrow and his companions went on to ski and scale peaks at Ellesmere's remote Tanquary Fiord. Next issue, we'll bring you his account of the heart-stopping excitement, with spectacular photos.

copyright (c) 1985 Pat Morrow

For more information, contact Bob Antol
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