The Catlin Arctic Survey
By Ann Daniels | Written by Jamie Maddison Photography by Martin Hartley
I was a little bit reticent when Pen Hadow asked me to lead an expedition across the Arctic Ocean. After all, Pen was the first man to trek solo and without re-supply from the coast of Canada to the North Pole. But I was going to be the one at the front of his team: route finding; testing all the ice; making sure the way was safe and swimming across all the open water first. In effect I’d be leading the leader. Maybe I wouldn’t be up to the job? Or perhaps Pen would be at the back not liking my decisions. Yet, he was doing ‘the science’ on this trip: that was his job. And – as I was to quickly learn – we all had roles we needed to fulfil to make this unique scientific expedition across the frozen ocean a success.
The Catlin Arctic Survey was a three-year scientific study put together by Pen. It involved a long expedition conducting a lengthy transect across the Arctic Ocean. This was something that the science team couldn’t do from a base: they could study around the edges of the icecap but to do a long transect across the ocean itself pulling sledges really does need the expertise of polar explorers. This was the task of a three-person team, with my role out in front scouting the way; Pen at the back doing the survey and in the middle was Martin Hartley, the expedition photographer. The reason we took a photographer was because it’s all very well discovering the science of what’s happening on the face of the Arctic Ocean but if you don’t communicate your findings with the general public – you don’t tell them your story through photographs and video – then nothing would ever get done as a result of your efforts.
We had all set off slightly nervous about how this trip would go: on top of the usual stresses and requirements of polar travel we would also have the added duty of regularly drilling through the ice, obtaining samples to measure the thickness of the North Pole ice cap. I’d never been with guys on a team before either; all my previous trips had been all-female expeditions. I’d guided men before, but I think that’s still a very different concept to doing a serious 74-day-long expedition in the Arctic. Added to all this, the three of us had initially set out with completely different personal agendas. Mine was to get as close as possible to the North Pole, so I was always wanting to ski faster and harder and try and get there. Whereas Martin obviously needed time to take really great photographs, and Pen periodically had to stop to drill through the ice, take readings and measure pressure ridges.
The Catlin Arctic Survey was a three-year scientific study put together by Pen. It involved a long expedition conducting a lengthy transect across the Arctic Ocean. This was something that the science team couldn’t do from a base: they could study around the edges of the icecap but to do a long transect across the ocean itself pulling sledges really does need the expertise of polar explorers.
Throughout the first week or so temperatures rarely rose above -40°C, -60°C with wind-chill. Nothing worked in those sorts of temperatures; your kit doesn’t work, you don’t work, and it’s all just horrendous.
For the first few days we all pulled in opposite directions to one another, trying so very hard to do our own thing. So much so that we had to all sit down in the tent after a while and state: ‘right what’s the most important aspect of this trip?’ This was, of course, the science: that’s what we were about. The second objective was then photography, communicating our discoveries a wider audience. And actually my ambitions were the least important. It may have been a dispiriting realisation to begin with, but as soon as we had seen the conversation out the three of us galvanised and suddenly began to help each other as a whole. In that way we helped each other achieve our own goals too.
Unfortunately, as with any big expedition, if things are going to go wrong in the first few days they will go horribly wrong indeed. Throughout the first week or so temperatures rarely rose above -40°C, -60°C with wind-chill. Nothing worked in those sorts of temperatures; your kit doesn’t work, you don’t work, and it’s all just horrendous. The sleek expensive radar we had brought along that was supposed to measure the thickness of the ice as we were walking didn’t turn on at all in those temperatures, even though we tested it thoroughly in – 50 °C fridges before we left. Martin’s video camera wouldn’t operate for the first two weeks. Instead he had to take all his video footage using my little Panasonic Lumix pocket camera, tucked deep in the folds of his clothing to protect it against the elements. He shot everything on that little camera to begin with, even footage for the ‘News at Ten’, such was the fallibility of our technology to the omnipresent cold.
It was strange being in a tent with two guys because, to begin with at least, you retain an innate sense of what you should and shouldn’t do in view of the company of others. It’s not natural to be peeing, going to loo and washing yourself in front of two complete strangers. But in that environment and at those temperatures you simply can’t hide yourself away; it’s too damn dangerous. At first things were awkward, but soon all the normal concepts you have in real life you just simply got rid of. After the first few weeks I really didn’t care; if I wanted to go to the loo I went, even having to ask for help from the lads on occasion when my zipper got stuck. You just don’t worry about all the trapping of social etiquette anymore, and you gradually become the person you truly are. It doesn’t matter how rich you were, what education you had, or what your background was; when you are surviving from day to day you become the ‘you’ who’s normally hidden away behind the veneer of civilised society’s rules and regulations.
On my first North Pole expedition in 1997 we didn’t have to swim at all. Yet on the survey conditions had changed so significantly that we had to cross countless stretches of open water. We devised a way of tackling these breaches where I’d swim across the water in my immersion suit with a rope attached to the three sledges. The boys would raft the pulks together and then they’d get on them and I’d just literally pull them to me. It was actually quite comical for the girl to be yanking the burly boys across. But I like the water; I really felt quite at home in the Arctic Ocean. I think it’s really important to look to your strengths when attempting tasks like these, to what you can and can’t do very well. Physiologically I am not as strong as the guys. That was quite hard to take, because I had always been one of the strongest members of the female teams. Suddenly I found myself the weaker member of the group. I had to accept that, that the guys could pull heavier sledges than I could. But you can only go as the fast as your slowest member, so our core aim always remained to spread the loads and tasks in such a way that we could travel as fast as possible and still at the end of the day all be as equally knackered.
Even if we did distribute our tasks and loads fairly, the team still had absolutely no control on the weather. Martin suffered bad frostbite on his big toe early on in the expedition. Every night we would dress it, give him antibiotics so the wound didn’t go septic, and warm the toe to try and keep as much blood circulating to the damaged extremity as possible. A lot of people say modern-day exploration isn’t as difficult as it was back in the olden times of Scott and Shackleton. Whilst they’re right, it isn’t as difficult – we’ve got better equipment and we are better fed – you still can’t get an immediate rescue out there if there is an emergency. The nearest plane is a day and a half away and that’s if the weather systems are good at each one of its four refuelling sights. But what we did have that explorers before us didn’t until very recently, was satellite technology. We could take a photo of Martin’s frostbite, upload it, and send that image to a doctor in Chamonix. From him we knew the likely extent of the damage and that Martin luckily wasn’t going to lose the toe, and hence that we could carry on.
The drift was against us. Sometimes we were skiing across ice that was no more than two inches thick, other times it was five metres thick. Each and every day we worked really hard, until exhaustion set in, and yet even then we didn’t have the luxury of getting into our sleeping bags until late as we had the scientific work to conduct. One night we put our tent up and in the middle of the darkness were awakened by an almighty of crashing. The noise ice makes as it crunches and presses against itself is unbelievable. It starts with a little squeak, and builds and builds until it almost sounds like a train is about to run through your tent. And you have to go out and check it: sometimes it might be far away but other times the disturbance is very close indeed. The tent has to be moved quickly or otherwise we would all get caught up in the flow and carried into the black ocean.
The noise ice makes as it crunches and presses against itself is unbelievable. It starts with a little squeak, and build and builds until it almost sounds like a train is about to run through your tent. And you have to go out and check it: sometimes it might be far away but other times the disturbance is very close indeed. The tent has to be moved quickly or otherwise we would all get caught up in the flow and carried into the black ocean.
A record-breaking polar explorer and a renowned international speaker, Ann Daniels is the first woman in history, along with expedition teammate Caroline Hamilton, to reach the North and South Poles as part of all women teams. She has led three major expeditions, working with scientists to better understand the problems facing the fragile Arctic Ocean.
One of the world’s leading expedition and adventure travel photographers, Martin Hartley specialises in documenting the most inaccessible places on earth. He has documented 20 unique polar assignments and is one of the only professional photographers to have crossed the Arctic Ocean on foot and with dogs.
Article written by Jamie Maddison
The Arctic is a real moving environment; there’s no path and you never head true north. There are always obstacles to get around: thin ice, open water, pressure ridges. At times it seems as if the ocean has its own personality, its own attitude. Sometimes you feel hostility directed towards you, like all the elements are conspiring to get rid of you. But then there’s a light wind, the sun is shining and it’s like this cold inhospitable world is looking after you, sheltering the team from the storms that had battered us just two days before. In many ways the Arctic is like a living being; a sentient ocean, alien in comprehension but all too aware that we continued to tread along its delicate surface through its good grace alone.
We finished the expedition after 74 days on the ice. We had come to the end of the Arctic season; in the next few weeks the ice pack would begin to break up and there’d be no way a plane could land to retrieve us. Still, we had to wait an agonising 12 additional days before the weather windows deigned to allow an aircraft through to pick us up. By the end of it we were surviving on a handful of nuts and chocolate in our sleeping bags all day. Lacking the energy for anything more, I replayed in my head all the images of the beautiful world we’d travelled through: rainbows that curved right the way around the sun; the colours as you are travelling, deep blues, aquamarines, white hues and the still blackness of the ocean.
I recalled the beautiful effect that occurs when recently opened water starts to freeze. You’d get a clingfilm of ice on top of the ocean and then the wind would catch salt crystals in the water, making ice butterflies and ice flowers that would carpet the whole area. Despite the tiredness, carrying 300pound sledges over such a huge distance, those were the moments that took your breath away. The journey made me realise that I was, and still am, so honoured and so lucky to work in such a beautiful environment. And I felt a sense of purpose on this scientific expedition, as if I really were helping save this detached, yet wonderful, world I have come to love so much.