I'm afraid I have some very disappointing news. The long and the short is that Dark Ice is not going to be possible this year at least. We're sorry for the hiatus in information but we needed time to gather all possible information to be sure and also inform the extended Dark Ice team before going public. The reasons for this are complex and interlinked and in summary (in order of severity) are:
1. The Kennedy Channel, the main narrow section of the Nares Strait, is in exceptionally poor condition. Due to permit restrictions in the polar winter, it is the only feasible route for the initial leg. In other years (except notably 2007 and 2009) this waterway has developed either fast (landlocked immobile) ice or slow compact mobile (more navigable than much of the polar pack ice) by midwinter (about now). This is due to a combination of low winds and low temperatures typical for the region which aid stable ice creation and the narrow north (Robeson Channel) and south (Smith Sound) entrance/exits that lock ice within in a sort of plug known as a bridge or arch.
Unlike last year when the straits were ideal for winter/spring surface travel, this has not happened. There are no signs of a southern arch to stop ice flushing out into Baffin Bay and a storm on the edge of the Arctic Ocean has broken an entire section over fifty miles wide where the infant northern arch should be.
2. The vastly reduced surface area of sea ice in the Thule region and north has had two effects on the large polar bear population (a vastly higher density than on the Arctic Ocean). Their hunting has been compromised, meaning that the bears are both mobile and hungry. They also have a smaller range to share amongst them.
My expeditions often base themselves from local settlements and the Inughuit (great people) of this area are respected even amongst other Arctic peoples as robust and skilled hunters. We're lucky to be able to ask their advice and share in their judgement in matters they understand far better than I.
I have been quite taken aback this season by the increased urgency in their feelings about the polar bear situation. A usual sensible caution and recommendation to travel with an alarm dog (Dave) now takes on a certainty of regular and non-benign encounters with large predators we cannot easily predict or detect early.
The Kane Basin contains a bulk of the bears and they do not display any of the caution around humans you might expect in less extreme Arctic locations. The consensus is that with the current conditions, the balance of probability lies with repeated, concerted raids on our team and camps by hungry male bears. This could easily end in tragedy for the team but could also force a lethal defence from us, not once but many times. We did not come here for that.
3. There is barely any ice off the Qaanaaq/Siorapaluk coastline (Murchison Sound) and this leaves highly undesirable routes for us to access the inland ice/Etah/Inglefield Land to the north. The local hunters are perplexed. There has been next to no snow and so overland routes are out of the question.
Given all this, the team and I have had days of serious discussions at our base in Qaanaaq. Our test day was a real success with loads of nigh on 300kg being hauled strongly on sea ice and 20km being travelled in the dark. There was an extraordinary desire to embark on Dark Ice regardless but the satellite images (in particular from Trudy at the Canadian Ice Service) were impossible to ignore.
My judgement was that without these three barriers Dark Ice was possible whilst far from a certainty - the premise on which I built the project. I do not deal in expeditions which are almost certain to result in an easy win.
With these complications though, it was my, the team's and our Inghuit friends' opinion that the team would be halted by dead ends thirty miles from the start, end up in a fight for survival on the Kane Basin or most critically, meet an impassable conveyor belt of loose drift in the channel. All that even before the 500mile North Pole bid across the polar sea.
The accompanying Radarsat image shows the dramatic state of the ice (more will follow).
Harder than the reeling frustration and hollow emptiness of promise unfulfilled (not to mention my two years of preparation and two further cumulative years by my team) is the fact that Dark Ice is our largest scale to date with regard to extended team. Both on corporate and personal levels the support has been deeply moving for me and much of my sadness is for those who put faith in Dark Ice - we are not going to be able to deliver, or even begin, and for that I am profoundly sorry. We feel that starting a journey that is likely doomed would be futile and not representative of the maturity of the team.
Moving onwards. We are not coming home. We are four, fit (plus a little chubby) highly motivated travellers in one of the special places of the Arctic. We are amongst one of the last truly traditional Inuit communities, have a stockpile of supplies and ambition to match.
Beyond our physical assets, the team is something I'm inordinately proud of. We are united, hard-working and are enjoying our time together.
Our plan is to live amongst the Inghuit in Qaanaaq, Qeqertat (a tiny cluster of huts to the east) and the abandoned settlement on Herbert Island. From here, we will launch shorter winter journeys in the spirit of Dark Ice.
Not to disappoint those with an appreciation for scale though, we have another trick up our sleeve which will be revealed soon. As a teaser though, we plan to spend the next four months recruiting and training two large teams of sled dogs.
We will keep you up to date with all our news and hope to be back with you home in Europe in the summer exactly as planned - with a dose of good luck with a successful journey completed.
That's all for now and for your support for an uncertain but, we truly believe, special project, thank you.
Alex and team.