Waiting in Svalbard for the past two weeks for the departure to North Pole have had all the ingredients of John Le Carre novel: an international get together, a diplomatic stand-off, burly men, mercenaries, good baddies, insurmountable obstacles and a happy ending for the protagonist. The sequence of events had a pace of a thriller with an inept writer fearing for lack of oomph filling pages with more and more twists and turns.
First things first. Barneo is the only polar station in the proximity of North Pole, a hot geopolitical spot on the Arctic frontier where nations clash with their claims to the right to exploit natural resources. This Russian station gets built for one month of operation on ice in late March every year. Located within 89*, the last degree, it serves as a jump-off point for all polar travel and operates helicopter operation to and back from the geographical pole. Building Barneo is a feat of human effort – the stations is built on thin ice floating over 4,000 meters of Arctic ocean subject to pressures, tears and drift. It travels with ice. At times some 20 kilometres a day. The key fixture of Barneo is a runway that requires some 2000m of solid ice floe. Polar travellers, scientists, explorers and in the past few years North Pole marathoners depend on the effort of the Russians to make this happen. ‘It’s so very hard to do this in the Arctic environment that tries to kill you …. only Russians can do this’ says Eric Larsen, a legendary polar guide.
April 4: Barneo station publishes an announcement that the first technical flight has landed and accompanies press release with a video that shows huge visible cracks on the airstrip.
April 5: Heroics of the first landing give way to the reality check for the need for safety. ‘The airstrip has cracked further and needs to be relocated’, says Alexander Orlov, head of the expeditions at the Russian Geographic Society that runs the station, at the hastily assembled press conference at the Radisson Hotel. ‘It will take 3 to 8 days to complete a new landing strip’. Later he confides to me that Chechen elite fighters are on the ground in Barneo having been parachuted down for a military exercise. ‘Those guys are 6 feet tall, they are kids of war and love mother Russia more than anything’. He is confident he has manpower to move the Earth… or snow and ice in this case.
The next few days pass in waiting for the clearance of the runway. Russians over-communicate and report speedy progress holding our hopes high. Lay polar travellers kill time by looking for polar bears and learning the basics of dog mushing. ‘Dog days in Svalbard’ is an apt description of the time passed.
Late on April 7 news come in that the new runway located in the vicinity of the Barneo base has cracked as well and will need to be abandoned while the old one miraculously heals with the open lead being closed with the pressure of ice pans.
April 8: While a new ‘old’ airstrip is being regroomed, Norwegian Civil Authorities move to refuse granting Russians a permission to fly AN-74 to Murmansk to refill a larger plane capable of airdrops to the ice Barneo governor refuses to meet Orlov. The base station complete with 20 Chechens starts to run out of food, fuel and oil for the machinery. Russians are alarmed and give in to panic. ‘We just want to know what is the reason behind the delay in issuing permits. We have people on ice that need resupply’, says Victor Boyarskiy, the head of VICAAR. The reason is obvious to all. Social media is now breaming with stories on the Chechen demarche that points to Russia’s intention to provoke and potentially violate the Svalbard convention that rests on the principle of neutrality. On a more basic level it does not help that Orlov himself reposts to his timeline Facebook message from Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen President not known for his pristine human rights record, congratulating his elite squad on a successful competition of Arctic demarche.
Polar travellers get caught in geopolitical crossfire. Too insignificant to matter though being the only diplomatic back-channel that Russians can leverage save for a ‘nuclear’ option of barring SAS flights from entering the Russian airspace.
Late night interventions from Norwegian polar brass reportedly move the case to resolution. AN-74 is allowed to leave for resupply and we are back to the waiting game.
April 9: As we explore nearby hills on skis, we get a call ‘don’t let anyone be too far away, flying tomorrow’… Hopes fly high and repacking starts. Late at night another grave message comes in ‘there is a new crack in the airstrip. Helicopters are back in the air looking for a suitable spot’.
April 10: I get a call from the head of the base Victor Serov, sympathetic to my Everest ascent plans who informs me that the base case scenario now is April 17th. Despondency sets in amongst the folks caught here. Ambitious Arctic plans are out for many as the station has to shut its operation due to warm weather by May 1. Marathoners bail as they never signed up for that amount of resolve. I go through my thoughts on acclimatisation plan with bitter admission that the timeline of completion being moved to April 27th is cutting it too close for comfort on safety. I resolve to waiting until my initial departure date to Kathmandu on April 15th in vain hope that Russians may perform a miracle.
April 11: Waking up from deep slumber I find a cheerful message from Irina Orlova who shares breaking news of the day that Russians have indeed performed a miracle, built two bridges and got the tractor to the site of the new airstrip. ‘The ice floe is smooth and the snow not too deep. We are hoping for imminent departure’.
April 12 We are finally taking off for a drop off on ice on an auspicious day when the first man – a Russian – entered space some 55 years ago. It now feels that open leads and 40 degree frost would compare favourably to the mental torture of sitting in the polar waiting room. Stay tuned for the next polar dispatch!