Recently PolarExplorers' Director Annie Aggens sat down (virtually) with accomplished adventurer and explorer Lonnie Dupre to talk about the Full North Pole Ski Expedition. Lonnie has completed two Full North Pole Ski Expeditions in addition to many other polar and mountaineering feats, including a circumnavigation of Greenland by kayak and dogsled, and a solo winter ascent of Denali. Lonnie guided PolarExplorers' 2009 Full North Pole Expedition as well as a shorter PE North Pole expedition in 2011.
Annie: Lonnie, you've done many expeditions in the Arctic. How does the Full North Pole expedition compare to some of your other expeditions?
Lonnie: Hands down the Full North Pole Expedition is the hardest expedition anyone could ever do. Even my winter Denali climb was more of a mental game. The North Pole is a steady physical and mental challenge 24 hours a day for months. You've got to have your wits about you all the time.
Annie: We get many emails from people interested in this expedition. Most of them don't have any sense of the physical, mental or logistical challenges involved. Having successfully completed this expedition twice you are intimately familiar with it. What would you rank as the top three challenges?
Lonnie: The absolute, hands down, biggest challenge is the extreme cold. The extreme SUSTAINED cold. When we did our Full North Pole Expedition in 2009 we got off the plane and the temperature was -58º F. The warmest it got was on the day we reached the Pole, almost two months later, when it warmed to -22ºF. We had sustained extreme cold for basically two months. A lot of teams that attempt the Full North Pole Expedition don't make it past the first five days. I always say if a team can make it past the two week mark they'll probably keep going and be successful. But many expeditions just don't understand the cold and how it plays on your psyche and equipment. First degree frostbite is just normal. It's an everyday thing. In 2009 during the first couple weeks it was so cold that we were unable to stop for any reason, even to eat. We had to walk in circles while we ate and do jumping jacks. We were never sitting or standing still, ever. EVER. The only time we could ever get one minute of rest was after 45 minutes of kicking and screaming in our sleeping bags to get them warm, and then we'd fall asleep of exhaustion. We'd sleep good for the night, and then wake up and think "oh shit," about having to do it again.
The second challenge would probably be getting your sleds over the horrendous pack ice. Because the entire Arctic Ocean is moving around but the majority of it really hammers against the Ellesmere Island / Canadian & Greenland coasts. It's the worst pack ice you'll find in the entire Arctic Ocean. You just have to keep hammering forward with a thick brain and a thick head, only making a couple miles per day for a while. You really don't see decent ice until you pass 86 degrees north, and at that point you've already been on the ice for a while. You have to know that things will progressively get better the further you get away from the coast. Third, there's sleep. Towards the end of the expedition our work days were 20 hours long. For a week and a half we had 20 hour work days. We were getting four hours of sleep per day for a week and a half, in the extreme cold. That was really hard. (vlog from that time below)
Annie: How hard is this expedition on your gear? What tends to break the most?
Lonnie: The biggest issue is actually your hands. They're the worst. While they're not technically "gear" they get damaged faster and more frequently than anything else. You have superficial frostbite on your hands all the time just from handling stuff. Even with fairly thick gloves on. For example, the fuel you're handling for your stove is the same temperature as the outside air, right? You're grabbing this fuel bottle that's 60 below zero and your skin will stick to it if you don't have it wrapped with something. The whole process of just getting a stove started at 50 below inside your tent might take you 45 minutes MINIMUM and by the time you get everything set up you've exposed your hands multiple times - even though you're wearing gloves. Of course everything takes three times longer, or more, in the cold.
In terms of gear, the sleds get beat up pretty bad. And you have bindings breaking, all that stuff. Which is why you have to test your gear in the extreme cold before you go; and we have years of experience doing that. It's just this never ending fight to keep things from freezing. Another example is the stove pumps. I brought synthetic oil that wouldn't get gummed up and I put it on the plunger every night. Without the oil the pump would break and the fuel would leak all over. Every night I took the pumps out of the bottles and replaced it with the bottle cap, which of course wreaked havoc on my hands. Then I get the liquid fuel out of the pump, put the pump in a plastic bag, put the plastic bag in one of my pockets and sleep with it. Every night. Then in the morning I handle the bottles again to put the pumps back in and re-do the whole process. I remember that just from the stoves and cooking I had these callouses built up on all my fingers from this cycle of getting first degree frostbite, then healing, then first degree frostbite again, and so on. At the end of the expedition, when I took my first shower, I took off my long underwear and I had these frostbite scabs on both of my kneecaps, just from cooking, even though I had a ground pad under me. I still have scars on each kneecap.
Annie: The Full North Pole Expedition starts in northern Canada, in early March, when the sun has just risen above the horizon, but it's still hiding behind the mountains. In other words it's still twilight. How good does the sun feel when you see it for the first time?
Lonnie: When we landed on northern Ellesmere island on March 4 it was the first day the sun squeaks above the low spot in the mountains behind you to the south, and you get this little ray of light. But it's also probably the coldest day of the year in that particular location. It's completely raw and so cold but it's also beautiful at the same time. The extreme cold does something to the light; at like 50/60 below it does something. It creates these magenta colors and pinks and lavenders that you won't find at other temperatures. But it was so cold. I was thinking, "How do polar bears live in this stuff? How do they survive?" And the answer is that when it's that cold even the polar bears burrow under the snow and take long naps and wait for things to get warmer. They aren't all wandering around in 60 below zero, that would be very seldom."
Annie: Weight is a big issue on any expedition. Do you often bring anything that isn't purely functional? Anything just for fun?
Lonnie: I think it's important for the psyche to have something that brings you out of the expedition mentality periodically. For me I bring my favorite coffee because that's what gets me going. Another thing I bring is a super good playlist for my music thingy. What's it called...not a walkman... Annie: Lonnie, that dates you. Lonnie: You know, some good music for whatever device you carry. Because it brings you back home for a little while. It's familiar, it's happy. So, what to bring? Maybe something that you like eating and something that you can listen to that you like.
Annie: If you were to do this expedition again, what qualities would you look for in a team mate?
Lonnie: Number one is Happy-Go-Lucky. They need to have a good attitude. Above everything else, Happy-Go-Lucky. The other thing is of course they need to be fit because this is a HARD trip. Also, someone that lives in the moment. On this expedition you can't think about how far away the North Pole is or how far you've got to go. You just have to be in the moment and live in the day and do what you can each day; and it will slowly add up to success.
Annie: You've done many expeditions in the Arctic. Do you have any places you still want to go?
Lonnie: They're getting fewer (haha)! I want to do some exploring along the eastern Alaskan Arctic coast. I also want to do some work in Ellesmere Island up by Lake Hazen, primarily in the summer. I've got a couple more years of mountaineering projects in Alaska. That's sort of what's on the horizon. The most immediate is a film project in Greenland, focusing on the polar Inuit culture and finding out how things have changed for them in the last 20 years. It will be exactly 20 years since I did my circumnavigation of Greenland with my partner John. It started in 1997 and finished in 2001. So we'll be commemorating that too.
Annie: Based on your experiences, what would you say are some of the biggest differences between mountaineering and polar travel?
Lonnie: Polar travel is sustained long expeditions, sometimes in a boring environment, let's say Antarctica. It's like crossing a dinner plate! But of course people who are in tune with the environment see the cool things, like how the sastrugi is formed, and crevasses, and the way the light is. You can really learn about our planet, like how does the weather work down there (in Antarctica). Polar expeditions are true full-fledged, long term projects that take lots of planning; whereas mountaineering, it also takes planning, but it's much more short term. I think before I ever got into mountaineering the shortest expedition I had ever been on was like three months, maybe two and a half. Most mountaineering expeditions can be from a few days to a few weeks. So there's that difference.
Of course in mountaineering you have more visual stimulation which is kind of nice. You're often on these moving rivers of ice called "glaciers" that have all different shapes and sizes and cracks in them. Mountaineering is also very dangerous. From a systems standpoint a North Pole expedition is all about moisture management. It's all about keeping frost out of your clothing, your sleeping bag, all that stuff. Because you're right on the Arctic Ocean. It's cold and it's humid, if you can combine those two, and you can, because you have open water around you. And it's like 50 below. There's no colder, more difficult place to live day in and day out. You have to use vapor barriers, synthetics, etc. With mountaineering you don't need to worry as much about moisture management because it's a more arid environment. That's unless you're traveling in the dead of winter when you get no help from the sun. Like when I did my Denali climb in winter. I had to incorporate a lot of my polar expedition gear tactics because there was no way I could dry any of my clothing.
Learn more about Lonnie at his website: https://www.lonniedupre.com/about
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