by Mark Beaumont
In many ways, the final week of the expedition was by far the toughest. The Arctic definitely kept the best for last. Throughout the journey north, we were surprised how few serious ice fields we had met and how quickly we could make progress when the weather allowed. Then, just as we started to celebrate being able to reach the '96 North Magnetic Pole, we hit an impenetrable wall of ice. The final few miles of the journey were by far the slowest as we levered, pushed and pulled our one tonne Ice Boat over broken and bumpy ice. Even once we reached the finishing point, our celebrations were half-hearted, partly as everyone was so exhausted and also because we were still a long way from the safety of land. It felt almost the same as when you summit a mountain, yet don't feel the true elation until you actually climb safely back down.
The quickly dropping temperature and thickening ice during our final week was a constant reminder of time ticking away - winter comes early to the Arctic and we had made it just in time. Another week and we could have been frozen out. We were now in Deer Bay, Ellef Ringnes Island and it was another 15 miles around the coast to the nearest airstrip - Isachsen is an old US Cold War radar station, which at one time was part of the Distant Early Warning or 'DEW' Line that ran from Alaska to Iceland. Abandoned since 1977, the derelict buildings and huge dirt runway still remain.
What should have felt like a wonderful victory lap was an almost impossible struggle, as our route was obstructed by sea ice pinned to the headland by North Easterly winds. Our only other option was to reach landfall within the Bay and hike out. Jock's plan is for the Ice Boat to winter in the north and to retrieve her come the spring.
After a month of rowing, it was a different kind of strength required to put on 80lb rucksacks and start walking out. However, our GPS told us that the hike would be over in 8 miles and we planned to carry everything out in a few trips. First day ashore, we set out optimistically carrying just one sleeping bag in case of emergency, planning to return to the boat within 8 or 9 hours. Over 8 hours later we finally reached Isachsen! It may have been 8 miles as the crow flies, but in fact it was around a huge bay and over twice that distance! The distance wouldn't have been an issue if it hadn't been for the terrain. Long sections of deep and very sticky mud with little relief walking over a broken 'ploughed field' of uneven dirt. There were a few easier sections but everyone was sore and tired, making a night-time return trip to the boat unfeasible. That night we huddled into one of deserted residential blocks at Isachsen, wrapped in old curtains and blankets that we found - all six of us huddled together for warmth. Laughter is the best medicine in such odd circumstances and we all eventually got a surprisingly good nights sleep.
Next day, the walk back to the boat was much easier with empty bags, but Jock was suffering most from the previous day's exertion. He was slightly dizzy and suffering from blurred vision so we had to cover the final few hours very carefully. For our final walk out, most of us were carrying even more than the first day. Thankfully the dropping temperatures had frozen over many of the muddy bogs and we knew that every step was one closer to finishing. Spirits were high.
Our second night at Isachsen was a more comfortable experience and we woke to fresh snow and a bitter cold outside. After sharing our last breakfast of freeze dried rations (no-one will miss those disgusting powdered eggs) it was time to leave. However, until the final hours it was unclear if a plane was going to be able to come. We knew that it would have to fly through some bad weather to reach us from Resolute, but Jock did all he could on the satellite phone to reassure them that Isachsen was safe to land at.
It is hard to aptly describe the mixed emotions as the Twin Otter bumped across the dirt - I felt relief and elation but also a tinge of regret to be leaving behind such an amazing journey. To have been self sufficient for a month in our little rowing boat, through the beautiful and ever changing Arctic was an experience I will always remember. Jock Wishart, whose dream it was to row through the Arctic and who had the determination to make it happen, was understandably even more emotional having completed what even he had thought might not be possible.
I have just got back to Scotland and been catching up on all the press coverage. It is great to see the level of interest, although I do want to clarify once and for all that we did not row to the North Pole! Our destination was where the North Magnetic Pole was located in 1996. This important fact has often been missed!
In the excitement of the finish it is always tricky to capture the true spirit of the expedition, and I have every hope that the documentary will become a fantastic record of what was achieved. The documentary should also be a real eye opener for many people as to how diverse and stunning the high Arctic is. It must be one of the least well known parts of our planet.
I thoroughly enjoyed being part of such a unique expedition. The crew members of Jock Wishart, Mark Delstanche, David Mans, Rob Sleep and Billy Gammon have been great company and incredibly resilient - thanks team!