‘You don’t know what’s under your feet’: How to survive a North Pole storm

‘When it blows that much, the snow can cover open water’

Snowplough in action widening road, high view across landscape,Canada

Snowplough in action widening road, high view across landscape,Canada

Richard Weber is a 53-year-old adventure guide who has completed seven expeditions to the North Pole, spending 600 days on the Arctic ice. 

“It was the middle of April 2007, and we were guiding two clients from Britain to the North Pole on skis and snowshoes. We were about 200 km from the pole—pretty close—when we had what to us felt like one storm, but I know now was a series of lows, one after another. There’d be maybe a half-hour break when you’d see the sky brighten and then, whoompf, another would come in. It went on for about three days.

READ: Who owns the North Pole?

In all the time I’ve spent out there, this was absolutely the worst piece of weather I’ve seen. The temperature went as low as -30 but with an extremely strong wind. At Borneo, a Russian ice station up there, they had record speeds, upwards of 70 or 80 km/h. So we’re talking full white-out conditions. You can’t see where you’re going. You’ve got your hood up, the fur ruff around it drawn in tight. Everything’s covered with frost. You’ve got a neck tube you can pull up so you don’t freeze your nose when you’re facing the wind. When it came time to camp, we’d try to find a pressure ridge in the ice to cut the wind. One day, we had to build a snow wall around the tent.

    If we’re near the beginning of an expedition, we’d just hunker down and wait it out. But when it starts to blow way out on the Arctic Ocean at that time of year, you’re going to drift. In this case, the ice under our feet was drifting due south at about one km/h, only a little bit more slowly than we were moving north. We’d walk 12 hours and gain a bit, then go to sleep and wake up in the morning south of where we started. You could see on the GPS that we crossed the same geographic location four times. I wasn’t scared, but we had to be careful. When it blows that much, the snow can cover open water and you don’t know what’s under your feet. It was disheartening. I’d go into the tent and say, ‘Okay guys, this was a s–tty day and tomorrow’s probably going to be worse. Don’t even think about it. Just get up and go. Tomorrow or the next day, the sun will shine again.’

    We made it in the end—49 days, but we could have been a lot quicker. By then, I knew I was close to having enough of going to the North Pole.”

    —as told to Charlie Gillis

    This article originally appeared in the Maclean’s Extreme Weather issue in 2012.

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