The North Pole: one of the last “propertyless” lands on Earth
(Image credit: By Breiehagen/Getty Images)
The journey to reach this elusive destination helps travelers grasp the power and fragility of our changing planet.
The world is full of wonderful places, but there are still many remote corners of the globe that few people get to see. In their next book, Remote experiences: extraordinary journeys from north to south, photographer David De Vleeschauwer and travel journalist Debbie Pappyn traveled to 12 of the world’s most hidden, unexplored and remote territories relatively untouched by tourism. By going where the crowds don’t, the duo hope to encourage others to travel slower and more purposefully, and take better care of the planet we all share.
Belonging to no one, claimed by many, the enigmatic North Pole is an ever-changing sheet of ice in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. The world’s largest and most powerful nuclear-powered icebreaker, the 50 Let Pobedy, sails every summer towards 90° North with 100 passengers on board, all eager to set foot on the geographical top of the globe. For most of them, this moment is more than checking off a list. It’s all about travel.
When the ship cracks a 3m thick ice cap on its way, it sounds raw and unqualified. The ship’s name means “50 years of victory” in Russian and refers to the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s triumph in World War II. To commemorate its launch, the ship carried the Olympic flame to the North Pole in 2013 in preparation for the Sochi Winter Olympics. Powered by a pair of 171 megawatt nuclear reactors and two 27.6 megawatt steam turbogenerators, the nearly 160m long icebreaker can reach 21.4 knots – almost 40 km/h – and cruise non-stop for nearly six years without returning to shore to refuel. With nuclear reactors on board, fuel stops are almost a thing of the past.
The 50 Let Pobedy vessel can sail non-stop for nearly six years without refueling. (David De Vleeschauwer)
The juggernaut’s main mission is to transport large freighters through the frozen Northeast Passage in winter. During the summer, the icebreaker transforms into an expedition vessel for exploration and adventure, departing from its home port of Murmansk. From there, the ship sails towards the mythical Franz Joseph Land, where only Russian ships are allowed to anchor.
There is a throwback quality to those who travel this far north, an eccentricity reminiscent of early explorers who were not discouraged by extremes or frightened by difficult situations. After leaving Murmansk, it takes two days to reach the pack ice. This is the kingdom of the polar bear, where human visitors are faced with a new set of rules. From there, the icy silence, starkly white vistas, and murky darkness of the freezing ocean seem endless. As 50 years of victory slice through the pristine landscape, the thunderous groan of the ship’s steady progress reverberates through its reinforced red-painted hull. Passengers wrapped in thick layers of warm clothing stand on the bow, watching the ice split, shatter and crack, followed by the blue of the Arctic Ocean rolling in, as if breathless .
This is no ordinary sea voyage aboard a luxury cruise ship. The road to the planet’s northernmost point, where the Earth’s axis of rotation meets its surface, takes 11 arduous days, traveling at just 20 km/h as it slices through the ice. The presence of polar bears gives this journey an additional dimension: in this frozen world, man is not king. Travelers make this trip not only to set foot on the world, but also to immerse themselves in the raw beauty of the High Arctic.
There can be four seasons in one hour at the top of the world. (David De Vleeschauwer)
Gazing at vast expanses of sea ice is addictive and even soothing. The sun never sets during the arctic summer and yet the light is constantly changing, reflecting off the pale white ice cap. Sometimes the weather is cold, gloomy and dull, with thick fog. Other days there’s a velvety sheen to the light, flushed with pink or lavender tones. The frozen ocean is often delicately enveloped in a flowing palette of shades of white. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on deck or peering through a porthole into the warm underbelly of the ship at this ever-changing panorama. After a few days of sailing, when the North Pole is finally reached, the excitement spills over to the ship. Some passengers describe it as a feeling of recalibration, a fresh start.
From the authors
“The North Pole is an exceptionally rare and raw place where there is no sense of time and every direction the traveler looks is south. In 30 years, it is likely that the geographic North Pole will be entirely free of ice cream during the summer months and that unique otherworldly feeling could be lost forever.”
On top of the world, it’s time to toast with ice cold vodka. All passengers gather in a circle around the geographic North Pole and raise their glasses in joy. The moment is almost triumphant. And then there’s the infamous Polar Plunge, perhaps the most iconic swim in the world. This dip, which is nothing more than a dip in the Arctic Ocean, is a unique thrill. The daredevils warm up with mulled wine and more vodka, while the ship’s crew prepares a barbecue lunch on the ice. In the few hours spent at the Pole, the sun is out, the wind picks up, the clouds arrive and it snows. There are four seasons in one hour at the top of the world.
The North Pole is elusive; this place does not want to be caught. It is a very brief anchorage; staying at the exact latitude of 90° north takes about a minute. By the time the ship leaves, it has already drifted two nautical miles, or almost 4 km. The frozen ocean is in constant motion. On the way back south, the ship tries to retrace its tracks in the thick ice sheet.
Upon glimpsing this rarely seen landscape, the authors hope more travelers will be willing to protect it. (Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images/Getty Images)
At Hooker Island, inflatable Zodiac boats take passengers along towering glaciers near Rubini Rock to view dramatic bird cliffs where more than 70,000 kittiwakes, ivory gulls, penguins and guillemots nest. Helicopter rides provide a bird’s-eye view of the packed pack ice and the remote territory of François-Joseph Land. Passengers are invited to join these aerial escapades to capture the true immensity of this frozen desert. As the helicopter rises, the huge, hovering steel colossus that is the ship transforms into a tiny red dot in a brilliant, shimmering white ocean, its traces in the ice still visible like an artery. filled with dark and cold arctic ocean. The helicopter circles the ship, letting passengers grasp how endless and timeless this landscape is – always bright or always dark.
Before this trip, no one would realize that this panorama extends to the elusive North Pole. Now, having set foot on this 90° north pole, these travelers finally understand the immensity and scale of this thick blanket of white ice that stretches around the extreme and surreal summit of our world.
This article was adapted from the forthcoming book Remote experiences: extraordinary journeys from north to south
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