After three weeks skiing across arctic ice in sub-zero weather with ravenous polar bears lurking nearby, a helicopter whirled in and put an end to Doug Stoup’s polar quest.
Truckee resident Stoup and his partners were making good progress toward the North Pole when the Russian government notified their support team that they would not be allowed to set up an advanced supply camp that was critical to the safety of the skiers. And so on April 1, more than a month before the team was expected to ski onto the North Pole, the expedition came to a close.
The unexpected end to the expedition was disappointing to Stoup, a veteran adventurer who was the first American man to ski from the shoreline of Antarctica to the South Pole. But what he left behind on the ice ” a beacon that will track the movement of the Arctic’s thinning ice ” made the trip well worth it. The data sent back by the device that is imbedded in the polar ice, as well as two other that are being placed north of Greenland, will help scientists analyze the effects of global warming on the fragile ice cap
“I’m disappointed about getting pulled off the ice, but I feel good about the science we got done,” said Stoup. “I feel really proud of the accomplishment.”
The Pole Track expedition, as Stoup’s trip was called, ran into early difficulties as they prepared to leave Siberia.
Stoup and his team were scheduled to depart on Feb. 21, but were delayed by the Russian government and left in March. They were flown by helicopter from their base camp in Cape Artichesky to the freezing Arctic.
They had planned this trip for three years. After developing the specialized sleds, designing high-calorie food and assembling all their equipment the team completed a trial expedition to the arctic to test their preparation. Yet, despite all their diligence, there were factors the group couldn’t control.
“Our beards, eyelashes and eyebrows iced over. Sometimes your eyelids would be shut,” Stoup said, noting that the temperature reached 36 degrees below zero. “On most days, you had to cover all exposed skin.”
Stoup said they had to put on dry suits and swim across some leads to make it to the other side. At one point Nyquist’s suit slipped off and some water leaked in.
“You try to ski as quick as you can to generate heat or you get frost bite immediately,” Stoup noted, showing pictures of his frostbitten fingertips. “People have fallen through the ice. You need to set up tents or ski to generate heat.”
And then there were the polar bears. On the third day of their trip, Stoup said a polar bear approached Cornelissen as he was “doing his business.”
“Mark looked over his shoulder and there was a polar bear two feet away ready to pounce on him,” Stoup told the amazed students. “He screamed and I looked out the tent and saw the polar bear two feet away from the tent and 10 feet high on his hind legs. Mark had his pants down and was trying to get him away with the shovel.”
Stoup said they shot off a gun that that scared the bear away.
“This is their home. We don’t belong there,” Stoup said of the polar bears, noting that they are aggressive and can smell seals from eight miles away. “I didn’t sleep for 10 nights. I was frightened of the polar bears because one almost attacked my friend.”
The next night another polar bear tore threw the kevlar material on one of the sleds and got into some of their food.
“He was only four feet from the tent,” Stoup said, adding that the polar bear print was as big as three large, grown male hands. “I was shaking. We put ski poles up as barriers. It was a really thin tent. If he could smell us, he would jump on us.”
The team fought whiteout conditions, rough ice, leads, pressure ridges and daily threats from polar bears, but still managed to traverse 153 miles and place the satellite beacon before their unexpected evacuation.
Despite all the close calls and losing 12 pounds in weight, Stoup wants to return to the Arctic to finish what he started. But this time he wants to enter from Canada because there are not as many polar bears and they are less aggressive.
“I am excited about giving back and doing work on climate change,” Stoup said. “It is important to recycle and reuse. We are on the planet for a short time.”