Exposure

What It Took to Reach the North Pole

The Women's Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition team made it to the North Pole on April 21, 2018, enduring minus 40 degree temperatures, the prospect of aggressive polar bears, vast open leads of water, and even the vagaries of the Russian government.

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Photo: PowderKeg Studios

The 11-member Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition team, composed of women from the Arab world and the West, was led by veteran polar explorer Felicity Aston. She conceived the expedition to create greater dialogue and understanding between women from Western and Arab cultures and to inspire all women to reach beyond societal expectations. Thousands of women responded to a global call for applications. Most of the team had never stepped foot in a polar environment. I’m the director of Exposure, a documentary about their endeavor. Since 2016, my team and I have shadowed theirs on training expeditions in Iceland and Oman and every grueling step of the way to the North Pole. Film productions and expeditions require years to organize and take a toll before a single frame of principal photography is shot. The photos here not pulled from the film were shot by climber and visual artist Renan Ozturk, who was with the team in the days leading up to the expedition. (He was hired by one of the expedition's sponsor's, Kaspersky Labs.) The year 2018 was one of the worst in recorded history for Arctic sea ice. After three years of hooking and crooking the budget together, we spent the weeks before the expedition scouring NASA satellite images and weighing the odds of whether we could even launch, much less make it to 90 North. 

Photo: In spring 2017, the team trained in the Rub’ al-Khali Desert in Oman, where sunset offered relief from the day’s soaring temperatures. The Arabian Peninsula was nearly 130 degrees hotter than what the team would face at the North Pole.

Photo: Renan Ozturk

Anisa Al Raissi, a desert guide for Outward Bound in Oman, and British chaplain Misba Khan test equipment in the Arctic outpost of Svalbard, where the team was grounded in April awaiting the start of the expedition. The Russian government had revoked helicopter aviation permits, the fallout of two recent chopper crashes. We waited to see if permits would be reinstated quickly enough for the expedition to have a chance of success in what in a good year is only a three-week polar expedition season.

Photo: PowderKeg Studios

Swedish polar bear expert Ida Olsson kills time at the local shooting range. It’s illegal to breach Longyearbyen’s perimeter without a big gun and someone who knows how to use it. Harming a bear is an absolute last resort, explained Olsson, an ardent conservationist.

Photo: Renan Ozturk

In extreme conditions or crises, it becomes imperative that routines are muscle memory. Perfecting tent setup was another way the team burned time and nervous energy while waiting for the expedition to launch.

Photo: Renan Ozturk

Aboard the cargo plane bound for the Russian ice station Barneo, the launch point for the expedition, even team leader Felicity Aston was feeling the pressure.

Photo: Renan Ozturk

The Russian ice station Barneo, which exists for roughly a month each year, is all about the runway. This year’s runway is 100 yards shorter than ideal and was built 72 hours before our April 14 arrival. How? By parachuting in two tractor-plows, 40 tons of equipment, and a fleet of hardy workers.

Photo: Renan Ozturk

After three weeks of waiting and filming around Svalbard, cinematographers Ingeborg Jakobsen, who is from Norway, American Kathryn Barrows, and I are finally on the ice. And happy! The exhilaration atrophied a few hours into pulling our sledges laden with six cameras, a couple hundred pounds of batteries, and another hundred of food, like dried fruit, chocolate, peanut butter cups, nuts, and more nuts. Add to that the ton of worry that comes with producing a film in these conditions.

Photo: Renan Ozturk

At 2:30 a.m., hunching against blowing snow and the howl of the chopper, the team is left on a crust of frozen Arctic Ocean, huddled with what they’ll need to survive for 12 days. It’s time to move—standing around in these temperatures can be fatal. The team clicked into their bindings and strapped on harnesses as the Mi-8 chopper became tinier and tinier, disappearing into the frigid blue Arctic sky.

Photo: PowderKeg Studios

Omani rock climber Anisa Al Raissi’s fiery drive to be the first from her nation to reach the pole is unmatched. Every day, she and her teammates leaned into skills they had learned during trainings on Langjökull Glacier in Iceland and the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Photo: PowderKeg Studios

Day five brought open leads of water, the danger Aston most feared. The strategy: the team crossed small leads and wended their way around the wide ones, carefully progressing from one frozen chunk of sea ice to another. No one fell in.

Photo: PowderKeg Studios

In April, there are 24 hours of light near the pole. Every “night,” team members set up tents, melted snow for dehydrated meals, prayed, made notes for the psychological and physiological studies they were taking part in, and then slept—except for those on polar bear watch. The women took 90-minute shifts throughout the night, firearms at the ready, watching for the telltale three black dots in the distance (two eyes and a nose).

Photo: PowderKeg Studios

Asma Al Thani, a marketing executive for the Qatar Olympic Committee, prays toward Mecca during break time. The team kept to a strict routine of 90 minutes of skiing followed by a seven-minute break, since it’s crucial to keep moving in extreme polar environments. Prayer times were carefully calculated into the routines from the outset of training.

Photo: PowderKeg Studios

French marine biologist Susan Gallon worked to capture data about the impact of extreme conditions on female physiology before this fragile polar environment is gone forever. With global warming and the rate of ice melt, expeditions like this may be possible for only a few more years.

Photo: PowderKeg Studios

In the final days before reaching the pole, the team faces its biggest challenge: making their way through an ice-rubble field created by colliding floes. Not knowing where the field ended, or if it was even navigable, required a new level of teamwork and faith.

Photo: PowderKeg Studios

The Herculean achievement of reaching the North Pole is fleeting. Being on moving ice means that, almost instantly, what was 90 degrees north no longer is. As they reached the pole, several women wielded their GPS devices, chasing true north; others hit their knees. Here, Aston hugs Al Raissi.

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