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90N on a nuclear powered icebreaker

Trip ReportJames Hipkiss

How many people have reached top of the world? That's been a controversial question since the beginning of the 20th Century. The real number may never be known because the Russians and Americans sent spy subs across the top of the world during the Cold War. I traveled to 90N with 80 other adventurers in June 2008 aboard 50 Years of Victory [50 let Pobody], Russia's flagship nuclear-powered icebreaker.

Victory is a working icebreaker that is leased to travel firms during the Arctic summer months. Her home base is Murmansk, in the high security icebreaker docking facility. When I was aboard, Victory was making her maiden voyage to the North Pole. The icebreaker had been in dry dock for 20 years. Only two years before sea trials had been conducted. In the two decades since her keel was laid, maritime technology had advanced. When she was taken out of mothballs, the latest navigational equipment was installed, making her the most technically sophisticated icebreaker in the world. Victory's helmsman used a joystick about six inches long to steer. I know this because we were invited to the Bridge on occasion. Security was tight, because of her nuclear reactor. Victory sails on the tide, so we left the moorings just before midnight. The midnight sun glowed pink on the horizon. It was so warm in our cabins that fans had been distributed. The deck was more comfortable, so a few of us made our way to the Fly Deck, about 9 stories above sea level. That was the moment I fell in love with Victory. No engine noise, no fuel fumes. Victory is unexpectedly silent. No thrum of engines under your feet. I remember wondering how similar my experience was to that of a tall ship. However, there was no rigging to whine in the wind or sails to flap. We didn't reach the pack ice until late in the afternoon of the second day.

The atmosphere changed immediately. We scrambled into our expedition gear and gathered on the bow to watch the approach. Victory cut through 9 foot thick ice like a hot knife through butter. Chunks of blue-green ice churned over to expose the nutrients growing on the underside. Every once in a while a particularly large chunk would bang against the hull, echoing throughout the ship. Victory did not falter. She was in her element. North of 80 degrees the ice was relatively solid, expect for natural leads and pressure ridges. Hanging over the side, we could see polar bear tracks, but not one bear. The ice spread around us as far as the horizon. Only one who has experienced the vastness of polar ice can imagine the fascination. Whenever I tell someone about my adventure, they shake their head at my fascination. Endlessly shifting, one minute sparkling, another dull. Shades of blue and green, never really white. Under bright sun or grey clouds, Arctic ice is mesmerizing. Four and a half days from port, we gathered on the bow while the Expedition Leader, Laurie Dexter, gave us a play-by-play of the maneuvers on the Bridge as the helmsman and navigator fought the cross wind. The guests with hand held GPSs watched their small screens as the numbers moved closer and closer to 90N.

The Captain, who was celebrating his birthday that day, wanted to put the icebreaker's midships on 90 N. His officers were fully aware that this was a moment in his and their careers that they would talk about in their old age. At last the ship's horn sounded. We were parked on top of the world. About an hour later, we were able to descend to the ice. The icebreaker had parked in a particularly stable section of ice. First the shortest circumnavigation in the world:We walked in a circle around the North Pole sign that had been planted for the occasion. Later we enjoyed a BBQ and some guests, after a dip in the ocean, warmed themselves with a shot of vodka. The crew played a game of soccer, and a couple were married by the Captain. Victory had established a new surface vessel crossing record that day. She had earned her place in history. The return journey became a quest to see a polar bear in the wild. Our first polar bear sighting was just after 1AM in the morning, under the midnight sun. Lucky travelers actually saw the bear capture the seal. The remainder followed the bear as she dragged her kill across the ice. As she began to rip the kill apart, a bold ivory gull landed on the ice just out of swatting range. Gradually the gull inched closer, the bear ignored the bird that was trying to steal bits of flesh while the bear continued to rip into her meal. The rare sight kept us silent and enthralled until 3 AM.

The return journey included stops in Franz Josef Land, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean between 80 and 70 degrees North. The standard visit to the flat-topped, uninhabited, basalt islands lasted about 3 days. Because Victory had reached the North Pole in record time, we had an extra day to explore. Weather curtailed some activities. We were exploring under a weak sun, when the expedition leader told the 20 or so who were lingering until the last available helicopter flight back to the ship that our visit would be cut short. He pointed to a bank of clouds rolling down from the north, ominous and dark. We were using the ship's Mi-8, a cargo 'copter, to transfer ashore. The pilot had said, there was only a small window, or we would be stranded overnight, like Nansen. We scrambled aboard, some sitting on the deck, as there weren't enough seats for us all. We held our breathes as the copter rattled and roared, chugging skyward inelegantly. By the time we were on Victory's helicopter landing pad, visibility was zero. No extra charge for the adventure, I was told. Returning to Murmansk was all about timing. We had a tide to catch.

However, Victory was so fast, we were hours ahead of schedule. So the Captain had to throttle back. So slow did she sail that the Mi-8 became a roost for gulls!