Venturing to the North Pole — a dream realized

By Jack Ogg
This article appears on page 38 of the February 2014 issue.
View of the ship Fifty Years of Victory.

Jack Ogg, Houston, TX

Three mighty blasts of the icebreaker’s horn and I knew I was there… the North Pole. I had dreamed of it all my life, and as I slowly walked out on deck and looked around at the barren, windswept landscape, I was mesmerized. Every direction I looked was south because I was on the top of the world! 

Getting there

I traveled to the North Pole with Quark Expeditions (Waterbury, VT; 888/979-5356) after researching the best way to go. Quark makes only two trips there per year, in June and July, aboard the nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker Fifty Years of Victory. The ship’s name commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Russian victory over Nazi Germany.

The expedition began with a muster of the passengers at the selected hotel in Helsinki, Finland, before a charter flight to Murmansk, Russia. We had approximately six hours in Murmansk, where lunch and a tour of the city were provided. 

After sightseeing, we boarded the ship in the late afternoon to begin clearing Customs. Four hours later (due to the usual Russian red tape), we headed north across the Arctic Sea. 

On the water

It takes five to six days to reach the Pole, depending on the temperature and density of the ice. Each day was packed with a variety of animal sightings (polar bears, walrus, whales, arctic foxes, etc.), with at least two lectures a day by experts on the polar region. 

Jack Ogg at the North Pole.

In addition, there were ample opportunities for exercising in the workout room, swimming in the heated pool, hanging out in the bar and visiting with other passengers, playing cards or reading in the library. 

The library was stocked with a wide variety of books, including many about the Arctic region and several about the exploration of the two poles.

If you get your fill of vodka and visiting, you can always get a massage or just “veg out” in your cabin. The invitation to visit the bridge and watch the operation of the ship was open-ended. 

The food 

Meals began with a huge selection of Western and Eastern breakfast items. Lunch was typically a choice of salads, soup or pasta to start, followed by a fish or meat dish with potatoes, a choice of several vegetables and desserts, ranging from several flavors of ice cream to various pies and cakes, and assorted fruits. 

Dinner always contained an appetizer before the salad or soup and wonderfully prepared seafood or meat. Desserts included such items as crepes Suzette or baked Alaska with cherries. 

Bottled water, coffee, tea, juice and soft drinks, as well as wine (white, red or rosé), were liberally served.

The food was a huge surprise. While the rooms may have been equivalent to only 3½- to 4-star accommodations, the meals were 5-star-plus. 

The ship

Driven by 74,000 horsepower, the 494-foot-long ship of ice-crushing steel carried 140 staff and crew and up to 128 passengers. There was a helicopter and a hot-air balloon aboard, so passengers could take rides for an extra $100-$250 each. 

Accommodations included single cabins, double cabins and suites. The current cost of the 14-day trip varies from $24,995 to $37,995 per person, double occupancy, depending on the type of cabin your pocketbook can afford. 

The single and double cabins were roomy, with adequate closet and drawer space to store the myriad items and clothes necessary for such a journey. (Adequate packing checklists and a wealth of information were furnished before the trip.) 

The beds were single or bunk style, and the bedding was more than comfortable. The bathroom was properly proportioned, with shower, commode, sink and accessories. 

There were numerous decks, elevators and staircases, a gift shop, a massage room and a sizeable dining room. In short, the ship was classy.

The expedition leaders

The leader of our expedition was Laurie Dexter, who was from the Shetland Islands, though he now lives in the wilds of northern Canada. He has made over 100 trips to the Arctic, about a quarter of those to the North Pole. Laurie has spent 91 days with a group skiing across ice and snow from Russia to Canada through the geographic North Pole. In the off season, he runs marathons and is a mountain climber. 

Franz Josef Land.

The others on staff salted their lectures with interesting and hair-raising stories based on their experiences in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. You had to feel safe with a veteran crew like that, who stressed safety, safety, safety. 

The passengers

On this trip, six of the seven continents were represented by the travelers on board. There was a tour group of about 50 people from China and Taiwan, and the rest of the passengers were either traveling solo, like I was, or in groups of two to four people. 

It was the most international crowd that I have met in my worldwide travels. Most were friendly, well traveled and well versed and the type of traveling people that you might keep in touch with for the rest of your life.

For a modern-day adventurer, there were no downsides on this journey. There were several people (including me) with handicaps, some of whom required walkers, canes and wheelchairs. 

Was it cold? Yes. Tough? Yes. And it was difficult getting up and down the stairs. But if you want the ultimate adventure, you can do as several people on the trip did: just man or woman up and do it! 

The celebration

A celebration when we reached the pole was preceded by a ceremony requesting King Neptune to allow our passage. The crew, dressed as members of the king’s court in various costumes and masks, performed several rituals before the king finally gave his “permission” to pass.

The walk around the North Pole (the fastest trip around the world), the delicious outdoor feast at 90 degrees north and the off-ship trip on the Zodiacs to Franz Josef Land and its unusual rock formations all were a plus, but standing at the North Pole, at true 90°N, was the “whole enchilada” for me. 

Touching down where few had ever tread and few will ever go was akin to the foggy, dreamy ecstasy that I experienced on my wedding day. 

My one step did nothing for mankind, but it fulfilled the thoughts and dreams of my 7-year-old self who, looking at a globe of the world, dared to think, “Someday I’ll go there!”