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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 March 2006, 13:33 GMT
Diary: Ice Warrior Arctic expedition
British explorer Jim McNeill is attempting to become the first person to travel to all four North Poles. He is recording his Arctic adventure on this page.


Jim McNeill (Image: Ice Warrior expedition)
The weather got the better of Jim, this time (Image: Ice Warrior expeditions)

Well, it just was not meant to be.

Highly seasoned "ice pilot" Troy asked me what I thought of the ice conditions as he said goodbye, having eventually managed to find a suitable landing spot. I should have noted my own comment.

"Well, it seems as though the satellite images were right: plenty of open water and huge disturbances." I said. Pressure ridge after pressure ridge had led to very difficult conditions.

Pressure ridges form where two pans of floating ice collide and the edges smash up against each other, causing big piles of ice blocks on top and keels underneath the water. These on their own are difficult enough, but then you get large areas where these pans jostle together - sheer zones, I call them.

And by large, I mean they can extend for miles. The biggest problem crossing this terrain apart from the obvious is the fact that you can only guess whether you are heading away from or towards one of these sheer zones.

So progression was slow. I managed 10km (six miles) in the first two days but not all in the right direction. On the fourth day, I started my scientific measurements of snow and ice depths.

The weather was good and I had a reasonable amount of flattish ice pan in front of me (or so I thought); so the chances of me upping the daily mileage seemed good. I was thrilled that I had managed to start the crucial science programme.

Treacherous route

The flattish pan shortly led me into another very difficult sheer zone. All too frequently, I found myself having to take my skis off, unhook my pulk and climb the nearest, highest mound of ice to make some sense out of the chaos and plan a route across.

The weather then started to turn and the wind felt like shards of glass piercing any part of my face that accidentally became exposed. Feeling tired by now, I promised myself I'd make camp before tackling the next obstacle; and made all too easy progress before coming across a 50m-stretch of broken ice and refrozen open water.

Jim makes camp (Image: Ice Warrior expeditions)
Freezing temperatures forced Jim to take refuge in his tent (Image: Ice Warrior expeditions)
"I'll just have a look", I told myself. I disconnected the pulk from my harness and skied along the banks of this frozen, ice-bouldered river to find a way across and view the prospects on the other side. Just before 1700 hours, visibility was becoming rapidly poor. I soon spotted a potential route across and proceeded to take a dummy run without the sledge.

Having made it across, I headed back deciding that I might as well cross it now, as in the morning it may have all changed. I retrieved my sledge but took off my skis to get better traction across a flat piece of solid ice to the first obstacle.

This was a metre-long crack across the ice like a tiny ravine. I pulled the pulk up to where I thought I had enough free rope to step across the gap and placed my right foot on the other side, lifted my left foot to move forward and was halted halfway by the lack of slack rope. The inertia of the sledge pulled me backward and I stepped on the blue ice in the crack.

This gave away instantly and I found myself chest deep in the sea water, my feet beginning to float underneath the slab.

I remember feeling invigorated and I suddenly realised the potential seriousness of the situation. I snapped into action and made a first feeble and unreasoned mess of getting out.

I took a moment and thought about how to raise my legs enough to swing one onto one side of the slab, twist and with enough momentum, roll and clamber out of the water. I tried it the first time but did not have enough momentum.

Making camp

The second time it worked. I was out of the water but straight into immediate danger with an ambient temperature of about -40C freezing everything that was immersed. I knew from previous experience my salvation would be to keep moving as fast as possible.

I was so glad I'd reconnoitred the route across. I made hastily into the centre of a small pan and set up camp as if my life depended upon it (it may have done!).

I planned each movement carefully and performed them at double pace to ensure I was expending enough energy to keep my blood warm and circulating. I couldn't feel my toes and I could feel my right shoulder was injured.

My stove was on and I was changing all my soaked clothing fast, casting it to the end of the tent while addressing the potential frostbite. I was shivering incessantly by now, but a double helping of drinking chocolate certainly helped.

By 1815 hours I had sorted myself out. In relation to a past disaster this had been relatively mild but nonetheless serious. As I sat there shovelling hot food into my mouth, I stared over at my solidly frozen boots and outer layers. The realization that my expedition was all over swept through me.

The next two days were the most dangerous of the journey, as I was confined to my tent by a vicious storm system that whipped up the sea ice. I was trapped waiting for the ice beneath me to crack, swallow me up and spit me out. I got a minimal amount of sleep. I wanted out of this place.

These were truly treacherous conditions and they fortified my decision to abandon the expedition. Finally, at 0600 hours on Saturday 18 March, the storm subsided and a beautiful day enveloped the ocean. By the time Troy had found a place to land about 1km away, I was somewhat reluctant to leave such a tranquil place. On the way back to base at Resolute Bay, I started planning next year's expedition.

Strange how life can be.


Twin Otter DHC 6 being loaded (Image: Ice Warrior expedition)
The adventure has to start by air because of thin ice (Image: Ice Warrior expeditions)

My pulk is packed for the second time and is heading off toward the airport here in Resolute Bay.

After a few last minute e-mails and fiddling with electronic gizmos - and subject to this window of weather opportunity we're experiencing - I'll be off before first light tomorrow morning at 0800.

Once again, I feel quite a mixture of emotions. The latest satellite image doesn't help, as it clearly shows the ice is virtually disintegrating but I feel the need at least to witness this with my own eyes.

So, the plan is to take off from Resolute, land at Isachsen to refuel, then fly straight out over the Arctic Ocean to assess the sea ice (or lack of it) first hand. If we manage to find a suitable landing spot on the ice then Troy (my highly experienced ski-plane pilot) will land and drop me off.

I'll then progress as best I can toward the Magnetic North Pole some 200 miles away, measuring and reporting the depth of ice and snow en route.

Of course it may be that we cannot land and the ice is just too fragmented to attempt to cross it - in any event I'll be documenting every bit of the way.


Jim McNeill (Image: Ice Warrior expedition)
Jim McNeill still hopes to make history (Image: Ice Warrior expeditions)

Well, I'm back here in Resolute Bay, our base camp, having been stymied by the extraordinary amount of open water in the form of one massive lead stretching along most of the northern coastline of Canada and ranging from 10km to 50km wide.

Looking back at more than 20 years of historical evidence gathered by Resolute's resident weatherman, Wayne Davidson, makes clear that this is the stuff of late May and June - the summer months.

If you add this to the abundance of spider web-like fracture lines seen quite clearly on the satellite imagery, even to the untrained eye it begins to look somewhat dicey.

"So what would your advice be to someone like me attempting to cross such terrain?" I ask Wayne.

"Don't," he tells me, "wait until another year.

"It is as bad as I have ever seen it in the summer months and we're here on the tail end of winter."

Wayne then expounds the root of the problem.

Satellite image of northern Canada coastline (Image: Nasa)
The dark line (top left) shows the open water that has hampered Jim
"The trouble is this: what normally happens is that the cold comes over the pole from Russia and engulfs the whole of the Arctic Ocean on the Canadian side," he says.

"This has not happened and the winds have been coming from the south - far warmer winds - causing fierce storms and crazy temperature fluctuations."

I find Wayne fascinating to talk to and he is an absolute font of knowledge when it comes to this sort of stuff. I have sat at home in Berkshire studying the same images constantly, and have come to be able to interpret them reasonably well.

But he lives and breathes this stuff, advising everyone from commercial flyers to the Department of Defense and all manner of expeditions in between.

So how do I feel about this?

Well, at the end of the day, I'm a family man and a realist and I'm not about to engage in something irresponsible or suicidal. My game is thoroughly knowing those risks and being able to manage them under the prevailing circumstances.

This is where the awesome power of Mother Nature steps in and makes us mere humans look minuscule and quite insignificant in the scheme of things.

Arctic scene (BBC)
Geographic - where the Earth's axis of rotation meets the surface; also known as 'True North'
Geomagnetic - point where the Earth's magnetic dipole meets the surface
Magnetic - where geomagnetic field lines point vertically into the ground
Arctic - farthest point from any coastline; also called the 'Northern Pole of Inaccessibility'
This actually fills me with rather mixed emotions: disappointment at not being able to get on with the great adventure, eagerness to get out there and get on with the scientific side of the project, frustration at the thought of potential failure.

Still, life is full of failure and disappointment, and it is those who can deal with it positively that win through in the end.

I am a great believer in the phrase "if you haven't failed, you've not pushed yourself enough".

So, my plan?

I feel as though this is one of those times when you just have to take a look for yourself. I have come this far with so much support from so many people that I am not about to give up on the basis of satellite imagery.

I intend to fly out over the ice on 7-8 March and take a really good look at the conditions, videoing the terrain as I fly low over it.

If the ice seems passable and not suicidal and if we can find 1,200ft (370m) of flat ice to use as a landing strip, then I will ask the pilot to land and drop me off.

I will then progress as best I can, with my main aims being to fulfil my commitment to the news crew to report daily progress and conditions from the Arctic Ocean, and to report to the Nasa/National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) measurements of snow and ice depth as I travel.

On a really positive note, I learned from Walt Meier - one of the scientists from Nasa/NSIDC - that a scientific paper was being produced using the data I will gather, and that he and the lead scientist Ted Scambos feel that I should be a co-author on the paper because I would have gathered all the data.

This is fantastic for me as a person and hugely motivational but also tremendous for Ice Warrior, the project I dreamt of in 2001.

Ice Warrior has always been about purposeful and worthwhile expeditions, what I call "modern-day exploration" and this is proof that we can deliver.

I just need to get the data now!

Jim NcNeill will be writing regularly for the BBC News website as he attempts to complete his record-breaking journey.

Map showing the Ice Warrior expedition routes (BBC)

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