Analysis and Commentary
Spending a polar night in the central Arctic Ocean
© From the personal archive Dmitry Shparo

Spending a polar night in the central Arctic Ocean

In 1986, an expedition headed by Dmitry Shparo skied from the North Pole-26 Soviet drifting research station to the North Pole-27 station via the Northern Pole of Relative Inaccessibility during a polar night. interviewed Shparo on the details of that historic journey.

Could you tell us about the expedition's route? Why did you decide to ski via the Nothern Pole of Relative Inaccessibility?

We were professional skiers capable of crossing drifting ice floes, and we had already reached the North Pole in 1979. In 1976, we skied from Wrangel Island toward the North Pole-23 drifting station. That journey was quite difficult, interesting, beautiful and memorable. The station was drifting rather quickly, and we were also drifting on ice-floes. We were pitching, rolling and veering off course. Nevertheless, we had to reach that relatively small ice-floe where polar explorers set up camp

We were quite happy about that journey, and we realized that it was possible to ski smoothly from one drifting station to another and to visit the Northern Pole of Relative Inaccessibility en route. Unlike the Geographic North Pole, the Northern Pole of Relative Inaccessibility is the center of the Arctic Ocean, to some extent. It is equidistant from the northernmost continental tips. No matter where you start, you have to ski 1,000 kilometers to get to this pole. For its part, the North Pole is located only 740 kilometers from Greenland.

How long did the expedition last?

On January 29, we pushed off from the North Pole-26 station, and we covered 700 kilometers in 38 days. It is very unpleasant skiing at night because it is psychologically very difficult and can even cause hallucinations.

Everyone was exhausted, and, on top of that, temperatures dropped to an unprecedented minus 55 degrees Celsius in late February. The Northern Pole of Relative Inaccessibility in the Arctic Ocean is so remote that it is considered the oceanic pole of cold temperatures and should not be confused with the absolute pole of cold in Verkhoyansk. We encountered heavy pack ice, which generated tremendous amounts of cold all around us.

Did you ski across solid ice during the 1986 expedition?

No, there was water all around us.  Although I have already mentioned dense pack ice, this does not rule out various gullies, divides and patches of ice-free water. Ice floes are moving all the time and certain patches of ice-free water open up and freeze quickly. Skiers consider thin ice to be the most unpleasant thing because it is not always possible to detect it. And we all know what it is like to tread on thin ice.

We had a small single-seat boat for crossing divides, one man at a time. Vasily Shishkaryov, an expedition member, was not so lucky. When he climbed into the 200-gram boat, a small piece of ice tore the thin silk lining, and he found himself soaked in water. Still we pulled him together with the boat.

Did your expedition conduct any research?

We implemented an ambitious medical-biological program, compiled by scientists from the Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine in Novosibirsk. Dr. Mikhail Malakhov, Ph. D. (Medicine), who skied with us, was a highly qualified specialist. He took blood samples from our veins, and also collected saliva and urine samples. Apart from a first aid kit, we had our own medical laboratory.

We completed a medical checkup before the expedition, and two doctors from the same institute were waiting for us at the North Pole-27 station.

By 1986, you had a close-knit team that had been to the Arctic more than once. How did you train for these journeys?

In 1970, the management of the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper established its own public Arctic expedition. This was a team of like-minded people who stayed in top shape and who worked constantly in preparing equipment, conducting research and who were accustomed to accomplishing such projects all by themselves. I had to visit various generals, admirals, marshals and KGB chiefs in order to resolve administrative and organizational problems. As the newspaper's freelance correspondent, I had no trouble doing this. After 1979, we were supported by the Central Committee of the All-Union Lenin Young Communist League (VLKSM) because we had never let VLKSM officials down and because many other people became famous along with us. We maintained good relations with everyone.

Polar explorers were wildly popular in those days, and many people wanted to reach the North Pole. Did you receive many letters from people wishing to join your team?

That's right. We accepted everyone, but I tried to convince them that all this was extremely difficult. People see a glossy picture, they write to Komsomolskaya Pravda, show their admiration, and organize various meetings. But all this is superficial interest, and the in-depth aspects of such a trip are completely different. And this primarily amounts to constantly denying one's self the pleasures of life and committing to staying in peak shape. This sounds rather absurd nowadays to remind people that back then expedition members received no pay and had to rely on their salaries alone. I don't know whether it is possible to set up a similar team today. Everyone had problems with the permanent discontent in their families. Maybe, they are happy during our finest hours, but our trips, including those to the North Pole-26 and North Pole-27 stations, are extremely dangerous. What families would support their loved ones' taking such a journey?

Vasily Shishkaryov from Kazakhstan was unique. He wrote to us, and we said it was unclear how he could join our expedition because he was living so far away and because all team members were training together each week and running marathons on Sundays. He said he wanted to join our expedition very much. I told him to come to Moscow, to find a job and to contact us later on.

He came here, landed a job at a greening agency, started attending our training sessions and became second radio operator, second navigator and second assistant manager of supplies. He was indispensable.

The situation was completely different 30 years ago. You lacked modern advanced equipment, including GPS navigators. What gear and equipment did you use at that time?

We now can boast about our hi-tech clothing, communications and navigation systems.

On December 22, 2007, Matvei Shparo and Boris Smolin set out from Cape Arktichesky in order to reach the North Pole. The polar night was in full swing, meaning it was practically dark during the day, December 22 is the darkest day of the year  when the Sun is at its lowest ebb, hovering just above the horizon in the Southern Hemisphere.

Realizing that it's very hard to ski during the polar night, I was routing for these two men whose aim was to set a very beautiful record and to reach the North Pole with no sunlight. (In 1979, the expedition of Komsomolskaya Pravda skied to the North Pole — Ed.)

They carried the same food as in 1979, but their clothes were much better because new fabrics for sleeping bags, boots, underwear, balaclavas and gloves had appeared. These lighter fabrics let through humidity but keep the cold out, and they provide adequate ventilation, etc.

Matvei called me every day, while skiing from Cape Arktichesky to the North Pole. In the past, we could only communicate by using a radio transmitter. Leonid Labutin, the senior radio transceiver operator with the Komsomolskaya Pravda expedition, came up with a portable and extremely light Ledovaya (Ice) short-wave transceiver which was later copied and mass-produced by the Soviet Armed Forces. Currently, a satellite telephone links the caller with any region worldwide.

There were no GPS navigators in the 1970s. We had theodolites, chronometers and look-up tables and charts. A theodolite is an optical instrument mounted on a tripod. You sight the Sun or a star if there is no Sun and measure their altitude using a special scale. You take notes and clock the time using a high-precision chronometer. Each longitude has its own time. You also need a special look-up table showing the altitude of the Sun and specific stars at any specific time and location. After that, you use the theodolite, the chronometer and the tables and charts to make some rather complicated calculations and to determine your coordinates. Some methods are rather complicated, and others are simpler. If you only calculate the latitude at noon, then it's quite easy, and it's also easy to calculate only longitude at 6 pm. Otherwise, it is harder to do this during any other hour. Today, all you have to do is look at the GPS navigator's screen, and you see a precise location, without any calculations.

What, in your opinion, was the most dangerous episode during your expedition via the Northern Pole of Relative Inaccessibility?

In late February, we faced some extremely low sub-zero temperatures and we were already approaching our destination. All of us were worn out, and we were running out of food. Yury Khmelevsky, our head of research, wisely decided to use our emergency rations that were supposed to remain untouched during the entire trip. He suggested that we eat them to perk up our systems and to be able to accelerate. I believe this was the most difficult moment. There were 11 of us, and we had to constantly rack our brains during our journey.

We were worn out completely. Our really stiff anorak parkas resembled metal space suits. We could take them off and easily place them on the snow, and they would remain upright. When you ski in the Arctic Ocean for a long time all your clothes and sleeping bags become wet. When you are doing this in March-April, you can dry them on a sunny day. This time, however, we were completely unable to do this.

We continued to lose weight because we were underfed. We were supposed to lose two kilograms every two weeks. Each of us have lost about 12 kilograms by the time we reached the North Pole-27 station. Of course, I was very hungry. Although it is very hard to keep track of one's own performance, I looked after my friends, and I could never imagine that people could eat so much. In Jack London's story "The Love of Life," a completely emaciated man who found himself close to death and who was dreaming of bits of dried bread was rescued by a group of explorers traveling aboard a whaler. He was about to succumb to starvation, and his rescuers therefore gave him very little to eat for fear that he would suffer from digestive failure. His bodily functions were eventually restored, and he started eating normally to his heart's content. Everyone was later surprised to learn that he was hiding biscuits under his mattress because his attitude toward food had changed; deep inside, he feared that food might become scarce and therefore he wanted to keep some food close by, for peace of mind. We felt quite the same after reaching the North Pole-27 station. I am absolutely sure that people ate as much as they wanted at the cafeteria and after that took some food with them and put it into their sleeping bags.

And now the main question which should probably be answered by all explorers: Why did you do this? What did you learn from your Arctic expeditions?

The Arctic has a certain magnetism, and if you have learned to overcome difficulties getting there, then it is very hard to rid yourself of the feeling that it would be nice to do it again. Arctic nature is very fascinating, and anyone who has been there at least yearns to go back.

We eventually became a sort of Komsomolskaya Pravda expedition's fraternity. How fortunate must be those people who can work hand in hand with each other for more than 20 years, earning in the process each other's absolute trust!. We were very happy in all respects: We pursued a noble goal and formed a team that is cherished by each of us.

We feel that we have accomplished something important for the Arctic and for our country in that region. This is something we can be proud of.