North Pole-11 drifting station — the hardest of all
Nikolai Bryazgin headed the North Pole-11 drifting station. His crew had to experience many trials and difficulties that only those truly devoted to science and their homeland would endure.
25 years later

We were supposed to continue our work on North Pole-8 but nature made its own decisions. The station was destroyed by the elements, and we were forced to evacuate the people and instruments. A decision was made to build a new drifting station — North Pole-11.

We flew from Leningrad on a quiet spring evening on March 31, 1962 and arrived at Tiksi the next day. It was winter and blizzards were raging. The temperature was about —30°C, but the sun was shining brighter and longer every day as the polar day was approaching. We decided to build a new station to the north of Wrangel Island where NP-2, NP-4 and NP-8 started. Ice from the eastern sector is drifting to the Greenland Sea as the circumpolar region rotates clockwise.

We found a suitable ice floe on April 13 and flew there with the basic necessities. We saw an endless ice desert from the plane: ice covered by snow, disorderly twists of old hummocks with fresh bluish-green ice piles in some places. Dark cracks and black spots of open water flickered below. Finally we saw our ice floe. Against the snow background we could clearly see the tents, the An-2 aircraft and the landing strip marked with small red and black flags. The sun was sending its last rays as the evening was drawing in.

First thing in the morning we attentively inspected the ice floe. It was an MYI floe. The landing strip was located on shore ice — even year-old ice. It was 140 cm thick and was covered with snow. This was an excellent natural runway. There were ice drifts up to five meters high on one side of the runway and fresh ice and ice leads on the other

April 17 was a sunny day, and I defined the coordinates of the station: latitude 77°10' N, longitude 165°58' W. We had to build a camp as quickly as possible. The radio operators were efficient: they had already equipped the radio station and contacted the mainland. Our NP-11 went on-air, transmitting regular weather reports and our coordinates.

On May 1 all of us gathered near a snow rostrum at 10 am local time (2 pm Moscow time). We had a short meeting and gave a gun salute from carbines and signal pistols. Our fatigue was gone and all of us were in a good mood. We received many greeting messages from our families, friends and colleagues.

The official opening of the NP-11 station took place on May 5, 1962, exactly 25 years after the construction of NP-1, the world's first drifting station.

A land surveyor at the SP-11 scientific station studying the area
A land surveyor at the SP-11 scientific station studying the area ©RIA Novosti.Yuriy Korolev
Farewell to the ski!

During a regular inspection of the ice floe on May 16, a duty man found a crack along the entire runway, which was turning into a lead (shear crack). Our airfield was gone. We took the An-2 plane to a dispersal airstrip that was located 5 kilometers to the north. But having cleared it of snow we saw that it was only good for a Li-2 size plane. Two hours later, Sarafanov's plane landed with three geophysicists and equipment. This was the last flight from the mainland. Half a year will pass before another aircraft lands on our ice floe.

Having taken aboard some of the delivered cargo, we flew to the camp, planning to return soon. Our navigator remained at the airfield to help the Li-2 crew refuel. But the unforeseen happened:

The plane's ski broke when it was landing on the main part of the ice floe. The An-2 could no longer fly. Sarafanov was told by radio to fly to the mainland and take the navigator with him

Mechanic Nikiforenko and two of his assistants spent the night trying to fix the ski in their shop. Much to the surprise of the crew, in the morning the ski was stronger than before. The plane took off and delivered the remaining equipment from the dispersal airstrip.

We decided there was no point in keeping the aircraft for half a year. The ice floe was big and could not break apart completely. Everyone at the station bid farewell to the plane. It circled the camp for a long time, as if reluctant to leave the hospitable ice floe. A month later we received a message from them: "We are taking a break in Sochi, swimming in the warm sea and recalling the cold ocean and the warm attitude of your team. We wish you successful drifting. See you, friends! Crew Commander Popov."

Uninvited guests

One sunny day we saw an aircraft with orange wings over the camp. It made two passes over us. Then it suddenly dropped landing gear and began to descend. The plane landed, plowing through snow with its wheels as we ran to the airfield. Two men climbed out of the plane: a tall Black man and a slender blond of average height. Both wore coarse wool sweater and without hats. Gesturing and smiling, they shook our hands.

We learned that they were delivering food to the ARLIS II American drifting station that was not far from ours. They had flown from Cape Barrow, Alaska. They took a picture of us against the backdrop of their aircraft. We could have continued taking pictures but it was getting cold. Our guests bid farewell to each of us and climbed back into their aircraft. The plane's engines were still running and it quickly ascended back into the sky.


Covering a nose with a paw

We lead a steady life. Seasoned polar explorers Sharikov and Vorobyev prudently brought soil and seeds to the ice floe and were growing plants in a box by the window. In late June they had large asters. They were up to 80 cm tall.

The geophysicists were alone in not starting their observations. They were still mounting equipment in their tent and putting anchors into the ice to secure a mast. Suddenly someone yelled:

"A bear!" Everyone looked back but saw nothing. Pointing at the bear Sharikov said: "There it is. It has covered its nose with its paw." I had heard from older polar explorers that polar bears cover their nostrils, the only black spot on their bodies, with a paw when they are trying to catch a seal in a water lead. Looking closer we saw a yellow spot on the snow

The dogs smelled the bear, too. Sputnik, a smart and bold sheepdog, rushed to the bear. Zhuchka followed it, while Druzhok hid in his kennel and barked from there. The bear was already running away and the dogs failed to catch it. Having sent a flare in its direction, we continued putting up the mast, laughing and joking.

Ice is not a fridge

The ice began to melt rapidly on June 10. Snow that only recently could support a tractor became loose and permeated with water. Even the dogs fell through it. There are many water leads; we see a lot of seals in them.

The onset of the polar day triggered another problem: how to keep fresh meat, fish and bread?

This is a paradox: we are surrounded by ice but it is difficult to keep meat at drifting stations. We tried many things: kept it under snow and ice; left it in the blowing wind, but the meat still went bad anyway. We had seven deer for meat. We put up a big metallic tripod on a tall ice lump and hung the carcasses on it. A dry 3 mm thick film formed over them and we had fresh meat under it

A cook went to the tripod every day and cut the meat he needed. One time he was followed by a polar bear. The man on duty saw this and fired his rifle as soon as the bear rose on its hind legs. The bear ran away leaving drops of blood on the ice. Apparently he was slightly wounded.

We kept frozen fish in an ice closet in our storehouse. The cook didn't think it would last long and began to prepare fish meals more often. The bread was also delivered frozen and began to grow moldy when it melted. We put it on the roofs of our cabins where it was subjected to the sun and wind. This is how we preserved our bread until winter.

Polar pilots measuring the thickness of ice, North Pole 11 drifting station, Arctic
Polar pilots measuring the thickness of ice, North Pole 11 drifting station, Arctic ©RIA Novosti.Alexander Mokletsov
The first hummocks

There was no sun in the middle of October. The ice flow continues drifting to the north. In half a year it covered a winding path of 1,625 km at an average speed of 10 km per day and reached the Canadian Arctic where NP-8 finished its drift in March 1962.

We began to receive cargo for the second half of our drift. On October 27, at night, we were waiting for another plane but suddenly the runway started cracking. It was one meter wide when the ice stopped moving. We contacted the pilot by radio. The aircraft that had been airborne for seven hours turned back to the mainland. The only option we had was to extend the runway from the other end.

On November 7 we held a meeting. Grobovikov and the aerologists made fireworks. They tied several flares to a rubber casing filled with hydrogen. Then they lit the Bickford fuse and released the casing. In a minute we saw a multicolored rain of flares over our camp. That evening we gathered in the main cabin but our fun was brought to a halt by the man on duty. We heard the cracking sounds of forming hummocks.

A huge pile of ice was slowly moving to the edge of our ice floe. The breaking ice emitted a loud scraping sound; condensed snow was creaking. We also heard the noise of water that was covering ice. We watched what was happening by the light of lanterns with an oppressive feeling

The hummock process finally stopped, but the damage had been done. Two new cracks appeared on one side of the airstrip. The runway extension helped us. We were supposed to receive one more aircraft. It arrived on November 9.


November 26. It was clear; the sky full of stars. The ambient temperature was —35°C. During dinner the crack that had divided the camp in half began to widen again. We sent three aerologists and the hydrologist to the other side of the camp where their instruments were. The cook and the mechanic remained on our side of the camp. The crack (that had already become a gaping hole) narrowed towards the landing strip but turned into an ice lane up to 100 meters wide on the opposite side.

But no matter how hard we prepared for the worst, it caught us unawares.

On the night of December 7, the ice floes that held both parts of the camp suddenly came together. We hoped the old ice would not turn into hammocks but it did. The four-meter thick ice was crashing all along the crack. It was breaking and moving upwards

The forming hammock was strongest near the diesel generator — the ice pile had already reached 10 meters. One diesel generator was knocked out, but we saved the other one. Only once the ice stopped piling up and the pressure was gone did we fully realize what we were threatened with. It was impossible to leave the camp on the same place where it was.

I began looking around. We could only move to the bigger part of the ice floe by crossing the expanding ice plate. It was impossible to get round it because it extended far to the east via the landing strip. It was not as high a kilometer away from the camp. We decided to cut a path there for the tractor. Armed with crowbars and mattocks, the five of us made a cut four meters wide. We decided to move the new camp 300 meters to the north of the cut. All of us were so busy that we didn't even notice that the temperature had dropped to -40°C. Our clothes were covered with frost. They were frozen stiff.

We wanted to move the crew' quarters with the tractor but it couldn't move it and broke down. We couldn't fix it properly. The tractor could only move very slowly and without light but even this was good enough.

There are six meters of ice below us!

After dinner I visited the aerologists. They were launching a nighttime radiosonde. "It won't break our ice floe since there are six meters of ice below us," Chichigin said optimistically. In three hours we heard the ice alarm again and gathered near the crack. It was in the middle of our camp. It was about one meter wide.

We followed the crack and saw in the moonlight that we had lost the airfield; the last plane had left just 12 hours ago. A day later and we would have had five onlookers at the station.

The center of the camp was now located on a 200х300 meter ice floe. The two aerologist cabins, their pavilion, the hydrologist tents, the cabin where the cook and the mechanic lived were on the other side of the crack. We extended the electric cable and telephone wires over there and put up a radio station in case the crack grew wider.

We wanted to do everything we could to stay where we were. It is difficult to rebuild the camp and move the research pavilions during a polar night. I made the move in my head several times. What would we do first? Where would we move the cabins? What if another crack formed there?

Three days passed. The crack was covered with ice, and life at the station was returning to normal. We talked to our families on the radio. Everyone was anxious and looking forward to his family taking the microphone. After each radio broadcast we emotionally discussed the news, and our mood improved.

Crack in cast iron

It was the middle of the polar night. The temperature was -50°C. The New Year was approaching. People at home didn't forget about us. Many items were dropped from a plane: mail, fruit, a movie, a generator for the tractor and a Christmas tree.

On December 31 we celebrated a double holiday. We started with the birthday of our magnetologist Galkin, and then we were the first in the country to celebrate the New Year. We had already downed our champagne when it was still afternoon in Moscow.

Birthdays were always fun. The birthday boy was given a present — a book with the North Pole stamp, signatures of the polar explorers and some funny words. This is what they wrote for me: "To Captain Nick from his obstinate Dig for Victory team." In the evening we sang songs to the accordion and guitar. A song composed by our colleague Piguzov was a particular success. Of course, it wasn't perfect but the lyrics reflected our lives on the ice floe.

North Pole 11 Soviet drifting ice station
North Pole 11 Soviet drifting ice station ©RIA Novosti.Alexander Mokletsov

We had already begun to forget about the cracks and ice piles when we heard a strong vibrating rumble on January 9. We ran out of our cabins to see a crack passing along the side of the old camp via a hydrological ice hole, under the magnetologist tents and extending further to the observation site. We had to move again but only partially — we brought everything that was on the other side of the crack closer to the camp's center. But we stayed on the 150х200 meter ice floe. There were several water leads around our station.

A more dangerous crack was found on February 1.

It was in the cast iron frame of our only diesel engine. We no longer had an electricity generator and therefore had no hot water. Using small portable engines we could generate electricity only for research observations and charging batteries. We had 4 volt lamps from dry batteries and sometimes stearic candles in our cabins and the crew's quarters. We warmed up water for the kitchen and bath with the gas stove

Our drifting station was coming to a close. However, it was still unclear whether our station could continue operating. We had to look around to see whether there was a suitable ice floe within a 50 km radius where we could move the station. But our ice floe had a lot of water leads and broken ice. Finally the decision was made: evacuate NP-11 and establish a new NP-12 station.

On April 20 we parted with our ice floe. We reported by radio that SP-11 had finished its work. We planted the national flag and left the ice floe at 9 am Moscow time. Another victory over the blind Arctic elements brought a feeling of deep satisfaction in each of us.



Excerpts from the chapter "Eleventh drifting station" from the collection of stories "Twelve Exploits," Hydrometeorological Publishers, 1964