POLAR TREK II : Bill and Helen Thayer Ski to the Magnetic North Pole 1992
In March of 1992, Bill and Helen Thayer celebrated 30 years of marriage by ski-trekking to the Magnetic North Pole. They skied the same route Helen followed in 1988, when at age 50 she became the first woman to travel alone to the Magnetic North Pole, or any of the world's Poles without the aid of snowmobiles, dog teams, or aircraft.
For the 1992 trek, Bill, then 65 years old, a retired helicopter pilot, became the oldest person to ski to the Pole pulling his own sled without resupply or outside support. Their route covered approximately 370 miles to the north of King Christian Island. After skiing through the center of the Magnetic North Pole they returned by aircraft.
This is a special posting of the story of their trek in commemoration of Bill Thayer’s life of exploration. Bill passed away in 2016.
We finished our training in the Cascade Mountains close to our home in Washington State then flew north to set up base camp at the High Arctic International Explorer Services Inn owned by Bezal and Terry Jesudason at Resolute Bay, Cornwallis Island, a Canadian island north of the Arctic Circle. Bezal, a highly respected Arctic historian and expedition logistics supporter, would take our nightly radio calls as we skied north and supply us with daily weather reports.
We met with Dr. Roy Koerner, a Canadian environmental scientist who had asked us to gather ice samples every few days as we skied north. After he gave us the specialized equipment we gathered our gear and food and finalized our logistics with Bezal. Next day we traveled to Polaris, a lead and zinc mining town of 250 people located 59 miles north of Resolute and the last settlement before the magnetic North Pole, making it the logical place to begin the expedition.
From Polaris to the Pole we would see no other people or any sign of civilization. Our route would take us across Arctic sea ice, the home of polar bears.
Day one was March 29th, 1992, with clear skies and a temperature of minus 36 degrees F.
Our sleds weighed 185 pounds each. Bill led out setting a good pace until we struck soft snow that drastically slowed our progress. Two wolves that lived close to the mine followed us for the first two hours before turning back. They were only curious and presented no danger.
Over the next few days under clear skies the temperature dropped to minus 41 degrees and stayed there for several days. Snow and ice conditions varied with smoother areas allowing us to make up for time lost in soft snow. Arctic fox tracks were common and often interspersed with wolf tracks.
On day 5, as we passed a group of seal breathing holes and some left over polar bear seal meals, a mature male bear suddenly appeared from amidst a jumbled area of ice. He started toward us with nose raised to catch our scent. Fortunately we were standing on ice a few feet higher that probably made us looked bigger and hopefully more formidable. After 15 minutes of weaving his head back and forth to catch our scent he and the accompanying foxes disappeared into the labyrinth of ice. As soon as he was out of sight we took a short cut around some thinner ice to put distance between the bear and us as quickly as possible.
On day 7 we crossed musk ox tracks going in the direction of islands located to the west.
Daylight hours increased each day, while dark night hours were becoming fewer.
Bill was the camp cook while I attended to camp chores. We were making good mileage. The low temperatures caused frost to build up on our masks and clothing but overall our equipment worked well.
Much to our relief on the 11th day the temperature rose to minus 31 degrees. So far we had been skiing almost every mile into a head wind that ranged from 5 to 25 miles per hour that sent the wind chill and overall temperature plunging. The night-light was only a gray dusk. Soon we would have no darkness at all. At 25 miles per hour a ground blizzard developed. It felt as if we were skiing through a river of snow. The snow granules are dense and cannot rise more than a few inches above the surface. At times the spindrift was so thick we couldn't see our skis.
By mid morning on the 12th day we were confronted by 10 to 20 foot high ridges. Sea ice conditions are set up the previous fall when the winter freeze sets in. Storms often pile ice into high ridges of car size blocks. Each year creates different ice conditions. Before we left base camp Bezal told us that Inuit hunters had reported that 1992 was the roughest ice year in memory. His words were proving to be all too true. All day we fought our way over and around several ridges, daunting in height and difficulty. All too often we hauled our sleds over a ridge only to ski into rubble ice that often stretched ahead for miles. Now and then we sunk to our knees in troughs of deep soft snow. Pulling our sleds through was a nightmare of route finding and a test of stamina and patience.
On the morning of day 13, we stepped out of our tent to find the tracks of a bear that had passed by only feet away from our tent door. Our hearts beat faster when we realized that judging by the tracks a male bear had passed by in the night without stopping to inspect the contents of the tent. We surmised that he must have been preoccupied with the scent of seals that came from several seal breathing holes in the vicinity. It had been our lucky night.
On day 15, after a hard day of uneven ice and tough sled hauling we stopped at 8:30 PM to make camp. Just as we were half way through erecting the tent, a bear, this time with two cubs, appeared out of nearby head high ice and headed straight toward us. Instantly we went into action, each with a shotgun at our side. The shotguns were a last protection option and instead, we fired bright red flares from marine flare pistols to land in front of the bear hoping she would turn back. Altogether we fired 21 flares before she turned way. However, she kept looking back, obviously reluctant to give up on two people she had placed on her evening menu. We returned to setting up camp but kept a sharp eye open in case the bear doubled back unseen in the rough ice to try an approach from another direction. Fortunately she gave up and left to find food elsewhere.
As the days passed we grew accustomed to weaving our way through unstable ice and heaving our sleds over ridges and struggling through knee-deep snow. In one area we detoured several miles to avoid gray ice that signaled newly formed ice still containing sea salt and too thin to ski across. The temperature remained consistent at minus 31 degrees to minus 26 degrees with a moderate wind averaging around 5 to 15 miles per hour.
On day 18, we camped not far off the icy shores of Loney Island amid many seal breathing holes and seal lairs smashed by hunting bears. After only two hours of sleep and a quick meal we left to ski farther north and away from all the seal and bear hunting activity. The ice all around us creaked and groaned as the tides moved the ice. Now and then a loud boom would startle us as the ice split and heaved. It was a relief to put on skis and leave the dangerous area. We crossed several places where we had to bridge gaps across open water. We used our ski poles to push chunks of ice together to form bridges. Then with our skis on, we carefully pulled our sleds across. Bill crossed one bridge and stepped safely onto thicker ice. I followed, but as I took the last step the whole bridge fell in and I scrambled and clawed my way to solid ice. I was lucky to dip only one boot into the icy cold water.
On day 22, the temperature climbed to a welcome minus 15 degrees. However the warmer temperature brought dense ice fog. Visibility was reduced to almost zero. It's like skiing into milk. We could see our skis, but couldn’t see the horizon, the sky above or the surface snow. We felt as if we were skiing in space. We were skiing blind. When Bill slammed into an unseen 15-foot wall of ice we stopped and made camp to wait for better visibility. On the Arctic sea ice a whiteout is made even more dangerous because of the possibility of skiing into an unseen patch of water.
That night lenticular clouds formed overhead signaling an approaching high wind storm. It was not long before a storm raced through the area lashing our tent making it impossible to sleep over the noise. By morning the storm had passed by. The temperature was minus 23 degrees but the visibility was excellent and to our joy we saw smooth ice ahead.
Our route took us west past a few islands and then north again as we headed for Helena Island. Bezal reported that a pilot flying north saw rough ice off the northern shores of Helena Island and a huge area of open water a few miles north. Sure enough, as soon as we passed the eastern tip of Helena we entered 20-foot high ridges of ice. From the top of one ridge we were greeted by the sight of a jumble of rough ice stacked in piles and the familiar deep snow. In 1988 on my solo journey I had experienced the rough ice north of Helena but nothing as bad as Bill and I were about to fight our way through. That night's radio call brought us the news that two teams, a German and a Dutch team that had started at Polaris had already turned back due to rough ice and injury. We were not the only ones having trouble.
By day 27, we had fought our way into the midst of the ridges, but from the top of one ridge we could see smoother ice ahead. However we also saw to our dismay the need to travel several miles west to avoid a large expanse of open water. Normally the distance of 70 miles from Helena Island to King Christian Island is reasonably solid ice but this year was not a normal year.
The next day, to make matters worse, another storm swept through. At the first sign of storm clouds and rising wind, we raced to set up camp. Using ice screws we anchored our tent and sleds. Later our wind meter read just over 70 miles an hour. In the shelter of the tent we hoped the ice around or even under our tent wouldn't break up. For two days we were pounded with powerful blasts of wind and horizontal snow that hissed past, but our tent was up to the punishment. When we heard an extra load roar coming our way we leaned back against the tent walls to provide extra stability. Finally the winds reduced in ferocity as the storm lost its power. We escaped our tent to find our sleds buried under a thick layer of windblown snow. It was 2 AM in full daylight. After digging out our sleds, we broke camp, loaded the sleds and headed north toward King Christian Island.
Two days later, finally clear of the hellish area, we detoured around the open water. It had grown wider during the storm so we skied an extra 11 miles west and then finally headed north again off the western coast of King Christian Island.
As we skied along the Island's coastline, it was a thrill for me to once more see the island I had struggled so hard to reach in 1988. It still had the same mysterious look of an island sitting all alone, silent, in a vast white expanse. Bill had looked forward to seeing the place that had been so important to me. Now we shared the experience. The skies were clear, temperature a relative balmy minus 15, and the ice was much improved. Even though it would add a day to our journey we agreed to stop, set up camp and enjoy the experience of sharing the silent beauty that surrounded us.
Next day, number 32, we headed north. Soon we reached more ice rubble. At least our sleds were lighter now as we fought our way ahead. Sometimes it took two of us to pull one sled through but at least we were covering miles, although slowly.
During the extra days spent working our way through often-horrendous conditions we used up all of our basic food rations and were now using our 10-day emergency supply. In spite of the hard days, we were both in good shape with sufficient energy and supplies to reach the end of our journey. Our many years of Arctic experience and expeditions had paid off. We hauled our sleds through one more challenging area and finally found smooth ice. It was a treat after what we had been forced to tackle day after day.
After 36 days of hard work and determination we reached our destination north of King Christian Island. It was time call base camp and give them our coordinance so that an aircraft could find us and return us to Resolute Bay. We collected the final ice samples while we waited for the 'plane to arrive.
A few hours later a Twin Otter aircraft picked us up and we flew south over the hellish ice areas we had fought so hard to pull our sleds through. Looking down, we both agreed that we were thrilled to have completed the journey but didn't want to repeat those days of backbreaking work.
At the Resolute Bay airfield we were surprised by a large group of British tourists who had followed our last days of progress and wanted to greet us and share in the celebration that waited for us at base camp. I was particularly proud of Bill. At 65 years old he had been a strong and determined teammate. Even when the ice was at its worst he remained cheerful and encouraging. And he had entered Polar history.
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