The North Pole

The North Pole

In 2004, Scott Browning ’95 and his mom, Diane Schetky ’61, traveled to the North Pole on a nuclear-powered, Russian icebreaker. Browning documented his experience in this essay, which was first published in the April 2007 edition of the Believer. Hear Schetky's take on the trip in an online extra Q&A.

It was morning when we reached the North Pole, though the light was little changed from the night before. Swaddled in identical, expedition-issue red parkas, 96 of us shuffled impatiently as a gangplank was lowered alongside the Yamal. We made our way down, stepping off the giant icebreaker onto the sea of ice. From a great height it would have made for quite a sight—our ship leaking rivulets of red that quickly spread across the white sheet of ice like an ink stain. A crewmember had planted a large red pole in the ice 50 yards off the bow of the ship. The sign affixed to it read NORTH POLE. A line quickly formed to have a picture taken with the pole.

Six months before, Mom called asking if I would like to go with her to the North Pole. Long a world traveler, Mom’s trips had become increasingly ambitious, and despite years of consistently underperforming in all manner of foreign and domestic family travel, my older brother James and I had both gotten the call to accompany her to the ends of the earth. For James the destination was Antarctica.  It was a trip that completed Mom’s first lap of the seven continents and left my brother feebleminded and infirm.  Far from his life as an inveterate ascetic in Baltimore, James found common cause with a Spanish- language translation of The Catcher in the Rye, a man learning to speak again after a stroke, and a ten-year-old English girl who was forever setting him in her sights, cocking her head, and declaring, “You must be mad!”  Laid low by seasickness, flu-turned-double-ear-infection, and breakfast-table chitchat with fellow passengers, James asked our mother for permission to abandon ship in the Falkland Islands.  Permission was denied. 

My trip, some four years later, was led by Zegrahm & Eco Expeditions, veterans in the safe transport of the well-heeled to remote and inhospitable locations. Several months prior to our departure, I received from them a bibliography of notable polar exploration narratives, no doubt intended to inspire esprit de corps and a sense of derring-do. For the lay adventurer preparing for a distant and costly trip, it was a curious list. Taken as a whole, these books, featuring such titles as Valerian Albanov’s In the Land of White Death (1917), constitute a fairly comprehensive compendium of gelid horrors. Their message to the prospective sojourner into what Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen referred to as a “cold prison of loneliness” was, to my mind: don’t go. Dying, I quickly surmised, is but one of the notable misfortunes likely to befall those who seek the pole. Before death you might well (pick any three) go blind, go mad, instigate/be target of mutiny, eat/be eaten by a bear, lose a finger/toe, starve, contract scurvy,1 eat a friend/colleague, be eaten by same. You might do all of this en route to a destination that Jon Krakauer, in his introduction to Fridtjof Nansen’s Farthest North, calls “a geographical abstraction surrounded by an expanse of frozen sea that [is] of no apparent use to anybody.”

Reading on, I learned that what I had long taken for granted as being the North Pole is merely a North Pole. It turns out there are, in fact, many North Poles (no fewer than three of which I began to wish we were going to instead). They include the Geographic North Pole (this is where all of the earth’s longitudinal lines converge; also known as True North or latitude 90° North, it is a fixed point and lies in the Arctic Ocean), the Magnetic North Pole (believed by early mariners to be a “magnetic mountain,” this is where your compass points and is about a thousand miles south of the Geographic North Pole), the Geomagnetic North Pole (the northern end of the axis of the earth’s magnetosphere),2  the Celestial North Pole (draw a line through the earth’s axis and keep going up), the North Pole of Inaccessibility (the point in the Arctic Ocean farthest from land on all sides), the Instantaneous North Pole (the point where the earth’s axis meets the surface; the earth wobbles as it turns on its axis, so this pole moves in an irregular circle known as the Chandler Circle), and the North Pole of Balance (the center of the Chandler Circle; a quick heads up: every year this point moves six inches toward North America). It’s also worth noting that there are periodic flips in the earth’s polarity, known as geomagnetic reversals, during which the poles actually switch places—the North Pole becomes the South Pole and the South Pole becomes the North Pole. Such reversals have occurred roughly 400 times in the past 330 million years, with the most recent taking place about 780,000 years ago.

Over the course of that August above the Arctic Circle, I received frequent, cheerleader-grade approbation from the Zegrahm & Eco staff for having “ACHIEVED THE POLE!” My achievement, they claimed, put me in the company of men like Robert Edwin Peary, Matthew Henson, Roald Amundson, and Fridtjof Nansen—bold crusaders, heroic even in failure,3 who faced unimagined hardship and privation in their quest to attain the North Pole. (None to my knowledge had done so with his mother.)

Their methods were audacious and frequently insane, and yielded decidedly mixed results. In 1869, following the implosion of their icebound ship, a German expedition drifted for 600 miles on a gradually diminishing ice floe, burning books about previous Arctic expeditions for warmth. The aforementioned Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s strategy for reaching the pole, as described in his 1897 narrative Farthest North, involved a ship whose reinforced triple hull was designed not to break through the ice, but to resist being crushed under its tremendous pressure. Once frozen into the ice, his theory went, the prevailing currents would take an icebound ship to the North Pole, eventually depositing it near Greenland. Two years into the journey, realizing that they were still well south of the pole, Nansen and a companion jumped ship with food for 100 days and continued north by dogsled. They did so knowing that their ship would continue its drift and would most likely not be found again. Making it within 261 miles of the pole, they set a new record for farthest north.

Between 1894 and 1909, the  intrepid American journalist, explorer, and aeronaut Walter Wellman made multiple unsuccessful attempts to reach the North Pole. His first, starting from the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen, was on foot, utilizing sledges and dogs to haul supplies.  Beset in quick succession by a brutal snowstorm and a spring thaw that left the expedition trekking through thick slush, he turned back 200 miles from the pole, but not before shooting all of the dogs (whether out of necessity or frustration is unclear). He next endeavored to sledge from Franz Joseph Land, an icebound archipelago some 600 miles from the pole. The polar bear that attacked Wellman at base camp wound up representing one of the lesser misfortunes to befall the expedition before he gave up, never having made it off the archipelago. The newspaper headline upon his return home read: WELLMAN BACK, A CRIPPLE.4

Six years later, Wellman received a cable from his editor at the Chicago Record Herald that read: “Build an airship and with it go find the North Pole.” 5 Buoyed by the prospect of not having to walk to the pole, one year later he attempted to fly there in a hydrogen-filled dirigible, but the untested engines self-destructed before the craft could even be inflated. Undaunted, he returned in 1907 with a new and improved airship, second in size only to the motor balloon of Germany's Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Succeeding this time in getting the enormous craft off the ground, he was quickly blown off course and crashed into a glacier. The expedition had lasted three hours. In his final attempt, in 1909, a guide rope—to which a year’s worth of provisions weighing over 1,000 pounds was attached—snapped and fell into the sea. Of what happened next, The New York Times reported: “Relieved from this great weight, the airship shot upward at terrific pace until it was at a great height above the clouds.” 6 The crew was able to bring the craft back down by venting large amounts of hydrogen gas, however the now-misshapen balloon proved unfit for further use and had to be towed back to land. The disconsolate crew then set about emptying the fuel tanks, puncturing them with pickaxes. Again relieved of a great weight, the craft shot 6,000 feet into the air and then exploded. “The most thrilling thing I’ve ever seen,” wrote one witness. 7

With all of this in mind, it is worth qualifying the nature of my achievement. The home of Russia’s fleet of nuclear icebreakers is the city of Murmansk, located on the northern shore of the Kola Peninsula some twenty miles from the Barents Sea. The atomic icebreaker Yamal (a term originating from the nomadic, reindeer-herding Nenet people’s word meaning “end of the earth”) is one of five Arktika-class icebreakers currently under lease by the Murmansk shipping company from the Russian government. While its original purpose is to keep open Russia’s Northern Sea Route during the long polar night, it has found a lucrative sideline business contracting with expedition tour companies. Painted fire-engine red, the 490-foot Yamal resembles a giant toy, albeit one powered by two pressurized-water OK-900A nuclear reactors, each containing up to 500 kg of enriched uranium-235 fuel rods and encased in 160 tons of steel, water, and high-density concrete. (Plugged into a power grid, the Yamal could power nearly 20,000 homes). With 75,000 horsepower of propulsion and an outer hull of 48-mm-thick argon-welded steel armor, the Yamal is the one of the most powerful vessels of its kind, able to navigate through ice 17 feet thick. Yet like a muscle-bound bodybuilder, there is a point at which the Yamal’s own strength begins to work against it. Its reactor cooling system requires the steady induction of very cold water, and thus, in spite of its abilities, the Yamal is confined to the northern polar seas. A trip to Antarctica, for example, requiring travel through warm equatorial waters, is impossible.

Designed as a working icebreaker, the Yamal makes few concessions to the tourist class. The ship’s condiment-colored, inexplicably contoured furniture is better suited to fortifying a beachhead against attack than proper sitting. Mom and I shared a cabin that, had it led anywhere, would more traditionally be thought of as a corridor. I slept on the sofa and Mom in the bunk, the main advantage of which was a lip that kept her from being hurled to the floor while the ship was crashing through the ice. Equally advantageous were the blackout curtains that wrapped around her bunk, allowing a crude approximation of night against the otherwise unrelenting daylight of the Arctic summer.

The handful of onboard amenities (tiny pool, steam room, and world-class array of medicine balls) serves as an unsettling reminder of ongoing efforts at keeping the crew from becoming surly and mutinous during the long polar night. Further discomfiting is the pool’s proximity to the reactor core, making its uterine warmth somewhat suspect. A bulletin board in the lounge keeps a running tally of Arctic bird sightings: pectoral sandpiper, glaucous gull, ruddy turnstone, northern phalarope, gyrfalcon, pied wagtail, pintail snipe, Temminck’s stint, parasitic jaeger, long-billed dowitcher, rough-legged hawk. Walls are adorned with large framed photographs of the Yamal itself and of passengers from previous expeditions celebrating their achievement. Over time, I came to suspect that the photos were put there less as evidence of past triumphs than as visual prompts, reminding you of just where you were and what you were doing there.

Their purpose, like that of labels found in the apartments of people with certain traumatic brain injuries (little notes like “refrigerator” or “cat”), is not entirely unwarranted. The polar environment is so wanting in ordinary contextual cues that maintaining a handle on your wits presents a real and constant challenge. Traveling as we were in the summer months, there was nonstop daylight. The sun, instead of reliably rising and setting, nests in the sky, never moving. Watches and clocks, ordinarily advantageous in such situations, become almost useless, for as longitudinal lines converge at the poles, so do time zones. Take a moment to walk a tight circle around the geographic pole and you have traveled through every time zone on earth. Thus, when traveling even marginally east or west at very high latitudes, the time of day becomes rather fluid. This presents a real problem for scientists and other semi-permanent residents of the far polar regions, one that is often dealt with by picking the time of your home base, and never deviating from it no matter where you are. In our case, a helpful voice from the intercom announced each day whether to advance or rewind our clocks at bedtime.

The landscape, too, is a dubious means of getting your bearings. Located in the middle of a vast frozen ocean, the North Pole is a world without proper three-dimensional topography. I would often stare out our porthole at our surroundings in the way I imagine a stick figure drawn on a piece of paper might behold its world. My ability to apprehend the ways in which this new lifestyle was wearing on my mind dimmed with each passing day, making it progressively harder to defend against.

In describing his experience in Antarctica, my brother referenced Harry Matthews’ novel The Conversions, in which the survivors of an Arctic plane crash fight amongst themselves until only one remains alive.  The last man, starving and snow-blind, begins to walk south, all the while losing the ability to pronounce the “ion” in words like ambition and salvation—abstract nouns whose meaning, James said, has perhaps been lost to a man who knows he is going to die. 

The cognitive degeneration I experienced was akin to Alzheimer’s, yet instead of the incremental loss of names for familiar objects, people, and places, you progressively lose the things themselves (landscape, time of day, night). It is an erosion that begins not in the mind (though this is its terminus), but in the very world around you, as external points of reference and stimuli disappear. Amazingly, my mother seemed to suffer none of these effects, something I would credit to her 35-plus years as a mental-health professional and a keen interest in seabirds of the Arctic.

Unlike a climber cresting the summit of a mountain, when you reach the North Pole you have arrived at a place indistinguishable from any other for miles around. It is a place so lacking in actual thereness that reaching it becomes as much a feat of imagination as anything else. To attain it you must believe; believe not that you can get there, but that there is, in fact, a there to get to. That you might board the Yamal an unbeliever is not necessarily a liability. Zegrahm & Eco provides a bullpen of kindly and knowledgeable scholars, historians, and scientists whose charge is to help establish and maintain the dramatic narrative thread that would draw us inexorably toward the expedition’s center of gravity. Twice daily we all dutifully filed into the ship’s lecture hall for talks on polar history, climate, topography, flora, and fauna, all punctuated by spirited reminders of our place in the pantheon of polar exploration. Their task was made immeasurably easier by the fact that as time wore on we became a highly suggestible lot.

In 1963, the CIA published a top-secret manual known as KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation,8 detailing various interrogation techniques, specifically those using deprivation of sensory stimuli as a method of breaking prisoners. In Section IX (“Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources”), subsection D (“Detention”) is found the following:

The circumstances of detention are arranged to enhance within the subject his feelings of being cut off from the known and the reassuring, and of being plunged into the strange… The point is that man’s sense of identity depends upon a continuity in his surroundings… Little is known about the duration of confinement calculated to make a subject shift from anxiety, coupled with a desire for sensory stimuli and human companionship, to a passive, apathetic acceptance of isolation and an ultimate pleasure in this negative state.9

Later, in Section E (“Deprivation of Sensory Stimuli”) the disruption of normal time patterns like sleep and food are shown to cause disorientation, fear, helplessness, and regression:

The symptoms most commonly produced by isolation are superstition, intense love of any other living thing, perceiving inanimate objects as alive, hallucinations, and delusions. The apparent reason for these effects is that a person cut off from external stimuli turns his awareness inward, upon himself, and then projects the contents of his own unconscious outward, so that he endows his faceless environment with his own attributes, fears, and forgotten memories.

Many of these techniques were based on the research of John C. Lilly, the scientist and psychoanalyst whose lifelong exploration of the outer limits of the human experience led to famous experiments involving sensory deprivation tanks, dolphin/human communication, and LSD. Lilly, in turn, based his research on a study of 18 autobiographical accounts of polar explorers and solitary seafarers.

By the morning of our arrival at the North Pole I had spent sufficient time studying the photographs hanging in the lounge that I knew something of what to expect from the day. One of the more prominent photographs was of what I had come to think of and fear as the “maypole moment.” This much anticipated “We Are the World” pole day ritual involves a 40-foot maypole set in the ice alongside the Yamal. The pole is decked out with colorful ribbons and flags of the world, around which we would all join hands and complete the traditional circumnavigation of the earth.

My plan, thought out days in advance, was to work my way unseen to the opposite side of the Yamal, thus putting a good 250 feet and 100 tons of argon-welded steel between me and the ceremony. Once on the ice, though, with so little in the way of landscape, activities, or attractions, I became utterly transfixed by the sight of our ship and simply stared back dumbly at the Yamal like an astronaut at the Earth. I was thus taken very much by surprise by the gloved hand that gently took mine and began leading me toward the circle assembling around the maypole. My immediate instinct—to shove my fellow passenger to the ground and run—seemed, in light of my mother being nearby, unwise. Someone now took my other hand and the circle began to close. The Yamal’s captain appeared and bid us welcome to the most remote place on earth. Of the 14,000 people to ever reach the North Pole, he informed us, 7,000 had done so by ship, and fewer than 5,000 had ever stood where we now did. (Quite frankly, this seemed like a lot.) Upon the completion of his remarks, the circle began to turn and the United States national anthem blared from the ship’s loudspeaker.

This for me is where things began to pretty much fall apart. I had spent months reading the stories of men who had lived and died for the slim hope of standing at this very spot—a spot whose salient features were currently clots of identically clad tourists and an on-ice barbecue of pork chops and French fries. I had made it to one of the most inaccessible places on the planet, yet all I could think of was getting away from it all. We had spent the last week in the lecture hall learning to believe in the North Pole and all its historical, geographical, and ecological significance. And now, out on the ice, I was suffering a crisis of belief, a failure of imagination. I no longer believed in, much less cared, where I was.

Failing to believe in the North Pole pretty well devastates your chances of getting there. Failing to believe in the North Pole while at the North Pole is to go from being someplace pretty special to pretty much nowhere at all. Traveling to the top of the Earth, to the one place where there is no north, where every direction is south, only to find that you have not gone far enough, leaves you with no place to go but back. As the celebration on the ice gathered steam, I discreetly withdrew up the gangplank back into the Yamal. Making my way through the now-empty ship, I stopped in the lounge. Pinned to the corner of the bulletin board was a poem written by a fellow passenger. “Imagine, just imagine,” it began, “you are at the North Pole. Impossible! Just imagine and the thought goes away.”

Scott Browning is the director of Snapshot Nation, a national nonprofit social history project; chief curator of The Greenhouse Project at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights; a founding director of the Fine Arts Workshop at Serenebe; and an independent filmmaker. His film work can be found at