Across the North Pole
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 3 Nov 1988, p. 102-112
Weber, Richard, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
A very vivid and detailed description of the Polar Bridge expedition, in which the speaker took part. This expedition was proposed by the Soviets: a joint Soviet-Canadian ski expedition to form a polar bridge from Siberia to Canada, linking the East and West across the North Pole.
Date of Original
3 Nov 1988
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Full Text
Richard Weber Adventurer
Chairman: A. A. van Straubenzee President


What we have here is not something you hear about every day. It is not an afternoon outing in the country, a trip to Europe or a white-water rafting trip. It is a unique and impressive feat by 13 men - nine Soviets and four Canadians.

What these men have in common is a fascinating and remarkable achievement, the first transArctic expedition in history, from the U.S.S.R. across the North Pole to Canada.

Richard Weber, the Canadian leader of the expedition, had travelled to the Pole in 1986 with a U.S. team. It never occurred to him at that time that he would again head across the Arctic ice pack to the top of the world.

But the Soviets proposed a joint Soviet-Canadian ski expedition to form a polar bridge from Siberia to Canada, linking the East and West across the North Pole.

The four Canadian team members were selected from 300 applicants. Richard Weber, 26, and Rev. Laurie Dexter, a 42-year-old Anglican minister, were chosen following a training camp in the Soviet Union. The other two Canadians - Chris Holloway, 30, and Dr. Maxwell Buxton, 31, were added later.

Mikhail Gorbachev told the expedition: "Your trek will undoubtedly serve to strengthen the mutual understanding and good relations between the U.S.S.R. and Canada."

The expedition covered 1,200 treacherous miles in three months. The four Canadians spoke no Russian, and the Russians spoke little English. The conditions they were to face were so awesome there was no way they could be sure of success. Their survival would depend on how well they could work together under extreme pressure. Cultural differences aside, the physical demands of the trip would be gruelling.

When the team arrived at the North Pole for the halfway celebration, the trip had begun to exact its toll. Max Buxton, the doctor on the Canadian team, described, in a letter home, the skin on his team-mates' faces as: "pizza-like wizened packages of freezer food or last year's frozen brussel sprouts:'

On the Canadian side of the Pole, the team faced relentless sun as opposed to the constant twilight during the first half of the trip. They also had to surmount 60-foot hummocks created by sea currents pushing the ice together.

On June 1, they arrived at their final destination, Canada's Ward Hunt Island. The team had survived three months of extraordinary hardship on the ice cap.

Some of the interesting aspects of the trip:

- Dr. Max Buxton proposed marriage to Nancy Burton at 2 a.m. Easter Monday by Ham radio.

- The team discovered that at minus 40 degrees Celsius peanut butter does not stick to the roof of the mouth.

Richard Weber joined the national ski team in 1977, has won 20 national ski titles and represented Canada in four championships. While at the University of Vermont, he was twice named All-American. In 1984 he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Since his most recent polar expedition, Richard Weber has been lecturing extensively. He has spoken to, among others, the Royal Geographic Society in London and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. We are honoured to have him here today.

Richard Weber:

It was incredible for myself when, after months of preparation, we were actually standing on the start. It seemed impossible to realize that, across the Arctic Ocean, somewhere on the other side, was Canada. It was really terribly exciting. The Arctic Ocean is like a giant jigsaw puzzle and as the pieces of the puzzle move with the winds and the currents, these pans can push up against each other, forming pressure ridges which get up to 60 feet, or 20 metres, in height. At the same time, they can pull apart and open up, forming open water and great blocks of ice the size of a house.

We had to carry all the bare essentials on our backs and this made our backpacks 45 to 50 kilograms, which incidentally isn't much less than I weigh myself. When we started the trip, we may have looked like Santa's helpers, but we weren't really carrying any frivolous items. This was truly the land of the midnight sun. We started off in polar twilight and every day the sun comes up a little higher and a little higher until, when we reached the end of March, the sun no longer sets but just goes in increasing circles around your head. When you actually reach the North Pole, one of the ways you can tell you're there is that the sun no longer rises or falls. It simply goes in a circle about your head. This is really perhaps the single most significant thing about the Pole, because when you actually get there, it doesn't look any different. It's not like the peak of a mountain. It doesn't look any different than the 900 kilometres it took to get there. The light never changes. There's no morning and there's no evening. The intensity never changes.

We had some cold weather. To start, it was minus 48 degrees Celsius and never really went above minus 40 for the first month. Lots of Canadians have been at 40 below before, but it's a little different when you're camping out in it for a month and there are no warm buildings to go to and no bathroom. The worst day we had was 30 below with a 70kilometre-an-hour headwind. You've got a big fur hat on and a fur ruff and a mask and all you can see is a very small patch of snow in front of you and you fix on the skis of the person in front of you and your world is limited to this few square feet.

The start was a little rough, but the ice generally on the Soviet side is smoother and the ice actually drifts with the currents in a direction towards Canada. So, even when we were asleep, we were still moving towards our goal slowly.

When we started the expedition, there wasn't a single Soviet who could speak fluent English and there wasn't a single Canadian who could speak fluent Russian. But through a mixture of broken English and Russian and hand signals, we always managed to get our messages across, simply because we had to.

We would ski for 15 minutes and then rest for 10, which is great in theory, but in practice it turns out that the first person skis for 15 minutes and stops, and then after his 10 minutes, he is ready to go. . . whereas the last person is just getting there. The first person is getting cold because it's 40 below and the last person wants his rest. So it can lead to some frustration.

In the middle of the day, we would stop for a little bit longer and have a cup of coffee. There is a little bit of a trick to drinking coffee at 40 below. You pour it into your cup. Of course, it's scalding hot, but by the time you're halfway through, it's luke warm and by the time you get to the bottom of the cup, it's starting to freeze.

As part of the scientific program of the expedition we had to take geomagnetic measurements every evening. There was a Soviet scientist who presented a theory that there's a second magnetic North Pole on the Canadian side. Not everyone was in agreement with his theory, but no one had actually gone out there and done the measurements, and it so happened that where we were going to ski was exactly that area. So, we did measurements every evening throughout the expedition and it seems that there is no second magnetic North Pole - only one located in Northern Canada.

Every 13th day, it was your turn to be on duty. This meant getting up at 4:30 a.m., making breakfast for everyone, having it ready for six, being in charge of making sure everyone got their coffee at mid-day and being in charge of the evening meal. The evening meal was the best time of the day. You were always hungry by that time. We ate a very high fat diet of about 6,000 calories. A normal diet is about 1,500 to 2,000 calories. We ate Canadian food and Soviet food. In Canada, we had pemmican, which is dried meat and fat mixed together, and buckwheat groats, which is sort of like a barley porridge. And we ate the same thing every day. This was mixed in with more butter and tea and then a thing we called dry bread. The

Soviets had dried black bread. It was actually extremely good. There was one tent for 13 people. It was extremely crowded. There was about a 25-per-cent overlap in the sleeping bags and this led to some dispute as to the best system of getting everyone to fit nicely into the tent. There was what became known as the old system and the new system. The old system was what they had been using up to now, which was that everyone slept in two parallel rows with their heads to the middle. We suggested a different way which was sleeping like the spokes in a wagon wheel with your feet towards the middle. There was a lot of discussion about this and we tried the new system for a few days. And then one of the Russians said: "Well, I don't like this new system. I think we should go back to the old system. The old ways are always the best." The Soviets were very hesitant to accept change, especially when you are in an environment like the Arctic. They have been travelling up in the Arctic for 15 years. They have their own equipment. Perhaps it is not the most comfortable, but they were all alive and so therefore it did work. We came in and we had our own ideas, and it was very hard trying to get them to accept or even try new things.

The main problem with a big tent and small stove is that during the night, you would breath out about 11/2 litres of water and it would freeze on the inside wall of the tent. When you turn on the stove in the morning, it rains. This can really play havoc with your sleeping bag. So, after only one night, Chris Holloway and I decided that we were going to sleep outside. Outside at almost 50 below is a bit of a challenge. We weren't really experts in igloos, so we started with what were really just wind breaks. If you practise every night you finally became quite proficient. The snow in the Arctic is almost cement. We had little saws and you could cut out blocks and those blocks made an A-frame every night - they're almost four feet long and about eight inches thick. An igloo is a much more comfortable place to sleep. The snow breathes so that moisture doesn't collect on the side of the tent. And if you sealed it off, it's actually warmer than a tent. The only problem is, of course, you have to build the thing. So, we would be skiing for ten or 11 hours, and then at the end of that, you had to spend 11/2 hours building the igloo. So, we built igloos for a month and decided there had to be a better way. We took a parachute from our re-supply. All our supplies were airdropped to us. We took this parachute and made a tent and at that point we were joined by two of the Soviets who also thought is was a better idea to sleep outside. Eventually we kept modifying it until we came up with a system where we'd stick six or seven skis in the snow in a sort of oblong, take the material, throw it over the top, put snow around the edges and we had a very good tent. It would take about 10 minutes to put up. It looks very fragile, but it's very wind resistant and very strong and it was quite comfortable with room for up to five people inside.

The sleeping bags we were using are called vapour barrier, which means that you're almost sleeping in a plastic bag. The inside is waterproof to keep the moisture from your body from going into the insulation. But it means the inside of the bag is very wet, even to the point where it is frozen together in the evening and you have to actually kick your feet down to pry the two halves apart. As the sun gets higher and it gets a little warmer, by mid-April, you can actually put your sleeping bag out and the ice will sublimate, it will evaporate from the bag and, by the end of April even the wettest bags were all nice and dry and fluffy once again.

For each person, it was his personal choice as to what clothing he would use. The Soviets had their clothing they'd been using since 1972. We had outer jackets which were quite large and bulky and somewhat heavy. The Soviet's chose a down jacket. If you put the down jacket on when you're a little damp, after a few days the insulation gets wet. It means it doesn't work any more. In our jackets the insulation goes into the jacket and freezes. Because it is a synthetic, it will continue to work, but the jacket will get two, three times heavier. Against our skin, we used the new underwear called polypropylene underwear which breathes very well together with a thing we call the polar suit. Now, this is a one-piece suit that we wore at all times. We even slept in it. And then, over that, a wind-breaker made of Gortex which is completely windproof and waterproof, which means that if you do fall in the water, your jacket wouldn't get wet. At the end of the day, all the moisture from your body works its way through the material, through the polar suit, freezes on the outside and you take off your windbreaker and you get out your toilet brush and you turn your jacket inside out and brush if off.

The Soviets had much more traditional gear. They used wool underwear, nice wool pants and a number of wool sweaters depending on how cold it was. Perhaps at times it is a little warmer and it's a traditional Arctic gear, but also if it gets wet the moisture actually goes into your jacket. We both had fur hats and these were the best. They were Siberian Arctic wolf. They're extremely warm. There was a difference in skis. We had fibreglass skis and they had wood skis. Actually, most people on the expedition chose the wood skis as they were a bit more stable and they gripped better on the ice.

Every 13 days, an airplane would fly over and drop us resupplies. This is a bit like a mixture of Christmas and the weekend. You had been eating all this pemmican and butter for two weeks and, all of a sudden, you could have pretty much anything you'd like. The plane would fly over. It was a Soviet jet - the first jet to be used in the Arctic. It would simply drop the things and we had to catch them (if the boxes didn't explode entirely) before the wind would take them away. And we had to also be quick, because often they had DO NOT FREEZE written on the boxes. They would drop us some fruit, and things like that were a little perishable.

We did have a few accidents. At our first air drop, we were camped near a crack of open water. It was only about 10 feet wide. We thought that the chances of hitting that little tiny crack were quite minute. Unfortunately, one of the parachutes didn't open and our fuel went straight into the crack. But they turned the plane around and went back and got us some more fuel within a couple of hours.

In a joint expedition, we used three Soviet stoves and three Canadian stoves. The Canadians were really individuals that were thrown together and were forced to work together. The Soviets were a very cohesive group. They worked very well together. Their team was like a well-oiled machine, but they tended much more to do as they were asked whereas we like to know the reasons for everything.

During our rest breaks, we'd try and wash ourselves a little bit. We'd take everything out of the tent, get the stoves going ? and we'd sponge ourselves off. In retrospect, I think it probably did more harm than good. It was very nice in that you'd have a chance to relax and be warm, but by the end of the expedition, everyone was having some sort of bacterial skin problem. On my last polar expedition, we went from February to May without ever taking a shower and no one had any sort of problem at all.

The greatest nightmare of any polar expedition is open water. When we came to open water, we'd simply ski along the shore until we could find a place to cross. We used to joke amongst ourselves that we were never really that far from land. It's only about two miles straight down. It always seemed that there was a place to cross somewhere and even though it involved at times crossing very thin ice - salt water ice is different from fresh water ice in that when it's thin, it's quite rubbery, almost like wet cardboard - and it will bend when you walk on it. But like wet cardboard, you can only stand on it so many times and it tears. At one point Tola Melnekoff went;. right in. Luckily for him, he was wearing the Gortex, the red suits that are waterproof. They were quite tight around his ankles so he didn't actually get wet. We pulled him out quickly because it was very cold that day, still about minus 40 and he was covered with ice on the outside but inside he was dry. We were able to make a little bridge across that piece and keep going with the skis. About 500 kilometres into the journey, we came across a tree in the middle of the Arctic Ocean which is something no one in the group had ever experienced before. It was quite a large trunk and must have come a very long way indeed.

There are bears all the way across the Arctic Ocean but they are few and far between and we never fortunately saw any live ones. As we approached the Pole, there was quite a ceremony being arranged. They had tents and balloons. A couple of hours after we got there, about 200 journalists, VIP's, tourists, Joe Warmsley, Arctic Joe and his group of runners came in. There was quite a crowd there for about two to three hours. Then they got back in their helicopter, took down the tents, took away the balloons and left us all alone once again.

At that point we had rest and food. It was very good. We had gourmet meals made by a French chef. Every day we would be in radio contact with the outside world. We would also get our location, our co-ordinates, our latitude and longitude, and these I could plot on a piece of paper and we could tell which way we were drifting. After the North Pole, we started to drift, not only south towards our goal but also to the east, which meant we had to be able to account for this drift.

It is a very long journey. You have to draw on strengths wherever you can, including perhaps friends and loved ones back home. You have to take this sort of trip one step at a time. You have to concentrate on now and not worry about tomorrow or think about reaching Canada or the North Pole.

Max Buxton froze his feet quite badly and almost had to leave the expedition. It was getting a little bit warmer then. The Arctic Ocean is a very special place. It can be very beautiful, the weather was nice and sunny. So I was enjoying myself and he was having a horrible time. But later on, my horrible time came too. I got very sick for a few days. When you are sick all you want to do is stay in bed for the whole day, but you have to get up, you have to put on your backpack and you have to ski for 10 hours. And every step becomes quite an effort. Fortunately, we were working together as a group and some of my weight was taken out of my backpack and distributed amongst the rest of the team members for a few days until I did feel better. But it was really the low point in the trip for me.

The ice on the Canadian side is a lot rougher than the Soviet side of the Arctic. Often we had to take our skis off and walk. And the weather also started to go bad on us. We had a lot of days on end of white-out. And for those of you who have never been in a real white-out, it's caused by fog, low clouds. I think the closest thing I can imagine to it is being blind. If you happen to be in the first place, you really cannot see where you are going. If you climb a pressure ridge and it drops away six feet underneath you, you can't tell. There is no definition, no shadows, everything is white and you simply fall over the edge. During your 15 minutes that you spend leading the group you fall three or four times. I found it personally very depressing. I was prepared for the cold, I was prepared for the length of the trip, I was prepared to have a heavy backpack on me all day, but I simply wasn't prepared for this endless white when you simply can't see.

As we approached Canada the ice got steadily rougher and rougher including vast mountains and some of the blocks were like large houses all piled up on top of each other. But the Arctic is a beautiful place. The ice is continuously changing in colors from turquoise to blues and greens and even yellow and black ice.

Finally after 90 days the weather cleared up and there was Canada. It was the best moment of the expedition. It seemed impossible that we actually crossed an entire ocean on foot and this was Canada. On reaching the first piece of gravel, we all got up, 13 in a row and stepped simultaneously on to land to demonstrate our co-operation. We were 13 people sharing in the moment of glory.

We had our differences but, by working together, we all got there. And I think that one of the most important things of this is that 13 people started the expedition and 13 people finished it. Most major expeditions have a lot of casualties. On my last polar expedition, 25 per cent of the people didn't make it to the North Pole. But, by working together as a team, we reached Canada.

I was very proud to be part of the Polar Bridge expedition and I hope it did just a little bit in forming relations between the Soviet Union and Canada. I think we have a lot to learn from them and they perhaps have a lot to learn from us.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Sam Blyth, President, Blyth & Company, and a Director of the Empire Club of Canada.

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Across the North Pole

A very vivid and detailed description of the Polar Bridge expedition, in which the speaker took part. This expedition was proposed by the Soviets: a joint Soviet-Canadian ski expedition to form a polar bridge from Siberia to Canada, linking the East and West across the North Pole.