I first came across British polar traveller Alex Hibbert a few years ago thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia. Two things struck me. First, the audacity of his breakout polar expedition – the Long Haul. Second, he appeared to be only a few weeks younger than I (and incidentally grew up a stones throw from me). The latter holds importance as shortly after I finished my first degree, Alex also aged 21 was skiing into the record books for achieving the longest unsupported polar journey in history. What on earth was I doing with myself at 21?!
The Long Haul expedition was a hugely ambitious 1374 mile ski crossing of the Greenland icecap. Alex and his teammate George Bullard were only 21 and 19 respectively. This drive to create innovative and new journeys in the polar regions has characterised Hibbert’s polar career over the past decade. In particular I refer to the Dark Ice Project, an endeavour to ski to the Geographic North Pole in winter via a mammoth journey across the sea ice between Greenland and Canada.
Alex is now due to launch the latest iteration of his Dark Ice Project. Two previous attempts in 2012 and 2013 were unsuccessful, and as such he’s developed a renewed plan, including a new route, team, and a significant scientific component.
Following a recent training trip in the Northwest Territories of Canada, I caught up with Alex to find out a little more about him and his current plans for Dark Ice.
For those that don’t know you Alex, could you give us a brief introduction?
I’ve spent the last decade or so leading polar and cold-weather journeys. I have a particular interest in their modern relevance, in the physical performances currently viable across new routes and in the culture of the Far North. I’m based in London but spend a lot of my year abroad, ensuring that I’m frequently on the ice. My most significant journey to date has been the Long Haul journey where, with George Bullard, we hauled 1374 miles unsupported in 113 days – then the polar record and still the Arctic distance record.
What is the Dark Ice Project?
The Dark Ice Project is a concept I developed in 2012 and its main aim is to reach the North Pole, without resupply, but in full winter conditions i.e. with the sun below the horizon throughout. Our current goal is to launch a science phase (involving collection of environmental data) via a specialised boat from Northern Canada/Alaska and then complete the ice section on skis.
Although the original Qaanaaq route is still viable (the years since 2013/14 have shown good ice conditions) we have decided that an Alaska/Yukon start point allows for the science phase to be more elaborate and for a more guaranteed start. The principal of the trip is the same. North Pole on skis in full winter. The ski section will be undertaken entirely with the sun below the horizon. It’s all the same project (hence project, not expedition) and just the latest iteration of that end goal.
Editors note: The current Dark Ice plan is:
• Boat. Launching from some of the northernmost shores of land anywhere on Earth (exact location is currently under wraps), the team will travel north in a modified science craft through the last weeks prior to the onslaught of the winter freeze-up.
• Drift. Using special equipment, they will set up a floating, drifting headquarters on the dynamic sea ice of the Arctic Ocean. This phase will allow for many weeks of the most ambitious scientific work. All will occur in the darkness of polar winter.
• Ski. Once in position and taking into account weather, drift and dozens of other factors, the Dark Ice team then take to skis and complete the final few hundred miles across pressure ridges and open water to the North Pole. Theirs will be the first to reach the North Pole in true winter conditions and without resupplies. They will have lightweight science instruments with them in order to continue their work and widen the sphere of discovery.
Can you tell us a bit more about the two previous attempts?
The Dark Ice Project has had two previous, very different, launches in 2012 and 2013. In the first my teammate was taken seriously ill on Day Two, and the second suffered an unusually poor set of ice conditions from its Greenlandic start point. The team and I decided not to risk the 90% chance of needing a rescue, so spent the winter and spring in the local Polar Eskimo/Inughuit community.
You’ve recently been training in the Northwest Territories of Canada. What specifically were you testing?
The Barren Grounds training phase was to give the three of us, James, George and I, time together in very prolonged cold conditions. We’re old teammates but each new dynamic needs testing, even with the near 1000 days of Arctic experience we have between us. We also produced a comprehensive set of routine and equipment improvements and a show of concept for film broadcasters and science partners.
We’ve produced over a hundred tweaks and improvements to equipment. Most notably to the sleeping systems and technology surrounding charging and satellite communications. We’ve also looked at our routine, which is about maximising rest, splitting duties most efficiently and ensuring our use of a large tent is viable in high winds and if one member is incapacitated.
Your plan recalls Fridtjof Nansen’s Fram expedition in the late 19th century. Why do you think you’ll succeed where he and others have failed?
The idea of using an ice-locked boat is certainly one that has been in use since the dawn of polar exploration by Europeans. It’s often been done badly, or by accident, with inevitable consequences. Our reasoning for Dark Ice is that it gives us access to the part of the icepack that we simply couldn’t reach in winter via commercial air operators. It also provides a secure science base and a capsule to keep equipment safe until recovery some years later. Using large wooden ships was the original style, but modern advances in small boat design gives us confidence in our vessel’s strength and versatility. It’s also bright orange, which is pleasing.
I understand the scientific data you collect will be open access. What information are you collecting? and why will scientists deem it of importance?
A subset of our basic data output is intended to be released for open use, yes. We aim to shed light on information that, quite simply, no-one has a clue about at the moment. It’s therefore critical that we provide this openly and transparently for people worldwide to interpret and debate. We have no campaigning agenda, as is right and proper for scientific work. Some specialist data and surveying will be completed for cutting-edge partners in the US and Europe and will in time we’re sure also benefit human understanding of how the Arctic Ocean behaves in the dark season. Why is it important? We, people, know desperately little about the Arctic Ocean in winter. No-one goes there for good reason and satellites are handicapped without corroboration and visible light.
What will be on your iPod/reading list for those days when you need a motivational kick?
I tend to have one iPod with a wide variety of music genres – anything from acoustic Noel Gallagher to Green Day to Tove Lo. On the other I have audiobooks and podcasts. However, in the dark and in bear territory, it’s not really practical to zone out into iPod-land too often. Avoiding getting eaten is the main reason.
In the boat is another matter. We’ll have a wind generator and gasoline-powered generators. We’ll have laptops for science work and broadband internet, so this will be far easier for us to enjoy during downtime. I gather no Netflix though!
Briton’s were recently given a bit of a bashing in this article. Do you think this is a reasonable assessment of British polar exploits?
Outside magazine has been in a slow and then rapid decline over the last decade or so. The pressure of social media and changing appetites of readers mean that publications either hold firm on quality and providing impartial journalism, or they give into the latest craze and just churn out click-bait. Outside have done the latter – which is sad. The article you link to is embarrassing for a previously market-leading source of adventure editorial. They have a comically US-centric and anti-British leaning, which is just not productive in a world where the bright and progressive are decreasingly interested in nationality, and more motivated by new ideas. The British, because it would be wrong of me to dodge that part of the question regardless of what I just said, have a difficult exploratory past. Bravado, misguided senses of superiority, and ‘heroic’ failures have often taken the place of calm and experienced success or retreat. Britain also is the alarming epicenter of commercialised adventure ‘inspiration’ and faux-explorers – something I don’t endorse nor represent. I represent, stand for, and answer for myself and my actions, and not the UK.
How can we find out more about your plans?
I’m afraid that the total lack of information on the Dark Ice Project website will have to persist for now, but I promise that all will be broadcast as widely, honestly and originally as we can manage when the time comes. My social media is the best spot for updates in the meantime.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
You can find out more about me at www.alexhibbert.com or follow me on Twitter and Instagram via @alexhibbert
In 2006 the Norwegian and South African duo, Børge Ousland and Mike Horn, attempted the North Pole in Winter, unassisted, unsupported; starting January 22 and arrived at the North Pole March 23; after 61 days on the ice and only two days after sunrise/equinox. They did it unassisted, unsupported by pulling all their food, fuel and equipment with them from the start at Cape Arktichesky.
The Russians, Matvey Shparo and Boris Smolin, started their Winter expedition on December 22, 2007, the day of winter solstice, from the Arktichesky Cape. They reached the Geographic North Pole on March 14, 2008, after 84 days of traveling and one week before sunrise, the beginning of the Polar Day. They received one resupply by air.