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Insider Insights: Articles

Skis, snowmobiles and airships: Seven great Arctic explorers

By Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter
Sunday, August 18, 2013, 3:30 PM

So much of Canada lies in the Arctic, yet that frozen region remains one of the most desolate and little-travelled in the world. Even so, there have always been scientists and explorers willing to march into the waste to push back the boundaries of our knowledge of this pristine and often hostile frontier. 

Here are seven people who braved the journey, and lived to return to take their place in history.

1909: Robert Peary is the first man to reach the North Pole (maybe)

We’re putting U.S. naval officer Robert Peary on here due to him being the “official” discoverer of the North Pole, but with some pretty grave doubts. 

Photo: NOAA

Photo: NOAA

He claimed to be the first one to reach the North Pole in 1909, but the feat was disputed by Frederick Cook, who said he beat Peary to the punch the year before.

After a brutal back and forth in the public and academic domains, Cook’s version was eventually discredited in the public mind, and Peary apparently was declared the winner.

Peary's final party at the north pole. Left to right: Ooqueh, Ootah, Matthew Henson, Egingwah and Seeglo. Image: National Archives.

Peary's final party at the north pole. Left to right: Ooqueh, Ootah, Matthew Henson, Egingwah and Seeglo. Image: National Archives.

But the doubts, summed up by this article in the Smithsonian Magazine, persisted through the years, such that most sources can’t even talk about Peary without mentioning the huge asterisk beside his name.

National Geographic Magazine published a 1988 article, based on examining Peary’s papers, that cast doubt on his claim, and says he likely “came within 10 miles” of the pole in a retrospective issue.

The Explorer’s Club, which counted both Peary and Cook as members, lists the former on its “famous firsts” page, while saying the issue of who got to the pole first was “unresolved,” while the encyclopedia Britannica coyly says “the truth remains uncertain.”

Most sources use language like that, and it'll likely be some time before anyone knows for sure, if ever.

1903 to 1906: Roald Amundsen makes it through the Northwest Passage

If there ever was a Chuck Norris of polar exploration, it's this guy:

Library of Congress.

Library of Congress.

Roald Amundsen lived and breathed polar exploration. He started out serving aboard a Belgian expedition to the Antarctic, which managed to get stuck in the ice for more than a year, giving him plenty of time to prove he had the chops to lead and survive in some of the most hostile environments on Earth.

He ended up discovering the South Pole in 1911, and was aboard the first airship to overfly the North Pole in 1926 (more on that later), just two of the many expeditions he either led or participated in.

We guess he figured to build his way up to those feats with the baby step of being the first man to make it through the Northwest Passage.

Today, the passage is high on the public agenda thanks to ice loss due to climate change making the icebound passage truly navigable for the first time, but at the dawn of the 20th Century, hundreds of men had perished trying to prove it even existed.

Amundsen set out with a special ship, the 47-ton sloop Gjoa, with a tiny crew of only six men. The ship was small enough to make it through parts of the Passage that were only a metre or so deep according to this account.

Amundsen in the Antarctic. Source: NOAA

Amundsen in the Antarctic. Source: NOAA

During his trip, he spent two winters on Williams Island in what's now Nunavut, establishing contact with local Inuit peoples and learning techniques on keeping warm -- like igloo building and using animal furs instead of woolies. He also carried out tons of scientific experiments, and confirmed that the Magnetic North Pole doesn't stay in one place.

The last time anyone saw him, he was boarding a plane in 1928 -- taking off to join the search for a crashed airship in the Arctic. The polar regions were his one and only interest, right up until the end.

1926: Airship Norge is the first aircraft to overfly the North Pole

Trekking through the endless polar expanse of ice and snow is all very well and good if you've got boats and dogs, but if you want to ride in style, an old-school airship is the way to go.

Photo: Norwegian polar institute/Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Norwegian polar institute/Wikimedia Commons

Designed and piloted by Italian explorer Umberto Nobile, the first transpolar air expedition was led by (who else) Roald Amundsen. The airship, a 100 metre long behemoth buoyed by hydrogen, set off from the Norwegian Arctic island of Svalbard with a crew of 16 men (and Nobile's little dog, Titina) and reached the pole several hours later.

That turned out to be the easy part. Rough winds on the way to Alaska rocked the fragile ship, blowing them almost to Siberia before they could re-establish their course. When a fog sprang up, the moisture froze against the airship and propellers, with small fragments of ice being thrown onto the hydrogen balloon.

Umberto Nobile aboard the Norge. Photo: Library of Congress.

Umberto Nobile aboard the Norge. Photo: Library of Congress.

Still, they made it, touching down in the small Inuit community of Teller after a 72-hour adventure. Clashing egos between Amundsen and Nobile overshadowed the expedition, but the two men were considered heroes in their own countries. 

When another polar flight by Nobile, aboard the airship Italia, crashed in the Arctic two years later, Amundsen set aside his differences with his former colleague and joined one of the search parties. Their plane was lost, and he was never seen again.

1968-1969: Wally Herbert leads the first (and only) surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean

See this huge expanse of icy wasteland known as the Arctic Ocean, down below? Has the urge ever struck you to walk all the way across it from one end to the other, just you, three other guys and a few dogs?

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

As it happens, British explorer Sir Wally Herbert did, indeed, have such a hankering. Already a veteran of polar exploration (During a survey mission to Antarctica, he apparently travelled more than 5,000 km by dogsled) he took six years to plan the epic crossing, setting out from Point Barrow, Alaska, in February 1968 with a team of four men.

Without ships to resupply him, Herbert had to be super organized, arranging air drops by the Royal Canadian Air Force and timing their journey to make it through before key ice routes melted, according to his 2007 obituary

Even then, he ended up having to pitch a summer camp in July 1968, and couldn't get going again until the next year, reaching the North Pole in April 1969.

A month or so later, they made it to the Norwegian island of Svalbard - 463 days and more than 6,000 km later.

1968: An insurance salesman from Minnesota snowmobiles to the North Pole

Many of our viewers know the joy of snowmobiling in the winter, a pastime that's been around since the early 1960s, producing vintage machines like the 1968 model in the video below.

Minnesota native Ralph Plaisted was working in insurance in St. Paul when, according to the Bombardier Museum, he took an interest in snowmobiles and decided he'd drive one to the north pole.

It wasn't just a passing fancy - he had to earn an explorer's licence (we didn't even know there was such a thing), assemble a team (which would go on to include the nephew of Joseph-Armand Bombardier, the first person to patent and market commercial snowmobiles) and find sponsors for the journey.

After modifying their snowmobiles to survive the grueling journey, and a failed attempt in 1967, the expedition set out from Ward Hunt Island in what is now Nunavut in March 1968. 

The team covered more than 1,300 km in 43 days, coping with shifting ice and a six-day snowstorm, arriving at the pole on April 19. A U.S. Air Force plane verified their position, telling the exhausted adventurers "every direction where you stand is south."

1978: A Japanese world explorer takes time out from his schedule to trek solo to the North Pole

It's possible you may not have heard of Naomi Uemura, but he ranks up there as one of the greatest world explorers of our time.

By 1978, aged 37, he'd already solo-climbed major mountain peaks across Africa, Europe and Asia, as well as travelled the length of the Amazon on a raft, before figuring he might as well dogsled solo to the North Pole.

Credit: Hashi photos/Wikipedia Commons.

Credit: Hashi photos/Wikipedia Commons.

So, with no one but 19 dogs for company, he set out from Ellesmere Island on his 57-day trek.

Although regularly resupplied by airdrop, and equipped with a satellite tracking beacon, it wasn't easy. At one point, he survived having his camp raided by a polar bear - which he shot when it returned the next day, according to this account in People magazine.

Even after this latest jaunt into the history books, he wasn't done. The last time anyone saw him, he was climbing solo up Mt. McKinley (again). He reached the summit, but disappeared on his descent.

Here's special on his last days, from an Alaskan TV station:

1995: Canadian makes it to the pole on skis and unsupported

Earth's polar ice caps are living, dynamic environments. Have a look at this footage of the pack ice slowly moving:

That's from the Youtube channel of Edmonton native Richard Weber. He's had plenty of opportunity to shoot videos like this, over the dozens of Arctic expeditions he's led or participated in, more than any other Arctic explorer in history according to his website.

We don't have room to go over all of them, so we'll stick with the achievement that secured his place in history: A 1995 odyssey with Russian surgeon Misha Malakhov that saw the pair ski all the way to the north pole and back in 81 days, unsupported and without dogs or snowmobiles (others on this list had the benefit of resupply by boat or by aircraft).

He's still very much in the business of guiding in the Arctic. In 2006, he went with British explorer Conrad Dickinson to the pole, this time using only snowshoes.

We have our own polar explorers here at the Weather Network, as Mark Robinson and George Kourounis are on a 22-day trip through the Arctic. You can track their radar progress here, and catch a glimpse of the kind of summer Arctic weather they've been seeing:

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