A few years ago a small TV company drove to the Magnetic North Pole. It made a cool show if you are into that sort of thing, but driving over the real pole is another order of magnitude more challenging. It's not a rocky continent under the snow it's the sea, and the ice is constantly moving, sometimes up to 10km/h, pushing up great ridges of broken ice or suddenly splitting to make large channels of open water… all in temperatures approaching -40oC! Conditions so unrelentingly extreme that only one team has ever managed it.
n vehicles which were in equal part extreme off-roaders, boats and mobile scientific labs the Russian MLAE expedition took on the 2 ½ month, 4000km expedition all the way over the pole and on to the coast of Canada have the accolade of being the first and only to park at the top of the world. (MLAE stands for Marine Live-ice Automobile Expedition.) Even the start point of this amazing expedition was impressive in its own right; Severnaya Zemlya was the last geographical discovery on the planet! Afanassi Makovnev was the expedition photographer and I caught up with him to ask about the hows and whys of such an extreme undertaking. “We already made it successfully from land to the Pole in 2009 but that expedition did not satisfy us as the team had to be flown out and the vehicles were abandoned,” he explains. “Basically we were very well prepared, but overconfident timewise. What we learned then we used to our advantage this time. The question why is simple to answer… If you ask a true adventurer why he does what he does he will tell you that he dreams of being the first to get somewhere, whether it is up a mountain or to the bottom of the sea. To be the first to drive a vehicle to the North Pole is of course quite a notable achievement… but why turn back and do the same route twice? So we decided to carry on all over the ice cap to Canada!”
The question how is a bit more complicated to answer. At first glance the Yemelyes don’t like the most extreme or capable vehicles I’ve ever seen. The spindly wheels and treadles tyres make the bus-like vehicle look quite flimsy… “The designer Vasily Elagin made them to be able to comfortably transport the team in -40C, to get over walls of broken ice… and float, so they are tough and extreme vehicles… although the name comes from a Russian children’s folktale about a village simpleton who could travel anywhere on his kitchen stove. The Yemelyas are warm inside and can go anywhere, so the name kind of works. Also driving across the North pole… is it not a fairytale?” The body and chassis are made out of 4mm duraluminium box-section and 1.5-2mm thick sheets insulated with polyurethane foam sheets. The bottom is flat and wide so it floats with minimal displacement and being bottom heavy it is quite stable in the water. The engine is a Toyota diesel because torque at very low revs is much more important that outright power. A Toyota five-speed gearbox with some special innovations and other parts in the transmission come from a variety of other manufacturers such as Mitsubishi and Russian army trucks like Gaz and Zil. Some clever engineering by Elagin means that each differential can be locked, but so can every individual wheel. The winch is a mechanical PTO because it's not susceptible to overheating or ice build up inside its components like an electrical one is. The battery terminals are extended outside the body so the team can hook up a rudimentary arc welder for emergency repairs. The engine and gearbox are sealed inside the body and this both helps with the stability in water and protects the mechanical components from the icy salt water. Suspension for the 6 axles is self-made, independent, double-wishbone with 450mm of travel and the wheels were specially made in Belarus. The tyres are soft and smooth and very elastic. “The Yemelyas are not designed for comfort and they’re definitely not campervans. There is no shower, toilet, TV or coffee machine but you can dry clothes on the engine and melt snow for drinking and cooking water over the exhaust pipe.”
Behind each of the two vehicles is a train of three trailers each loaded with a pair of 200 litre fuel barrels and six 130 litre plastic containers for food and gear. This was a fully autonomous expedition, so there were no fuel drops or any other ground support… everything they needed had to be taken with them. And pulling 2400kg it’s obvious why they needed an engine with torque instead of power. March 1st saw the seven members in the two Yemelyas head off towards the frozen, constantly shifting landscape, although to start with the Arctic welcomed them with a strong storm. Still, that day they managed 60km at an average speed of 8.5 km/h. “A good day with 10 hours of driving is about 20 or 30 km a hard day is about one or two. It's the big ridges of ice that slow us down. A few of us would go out looking for a way ahead for the cars but sometimes once we'd found the easiest route everyone takes big ice picks and starts smashing the blocks of ice. The tool we used was a 1.8m long pipe with a sharp pyramid at the bottom. On a normal day we had to get out and do this 20 to 30 times. It's not difficult, just physical.”
There was no setting up camp on this expedition. The Yemelya is designed to be just wide enough to sleep across, so you can get six or seven people in each sleeping comfortably… although comfort for us reading this probably has a different meaning to a group of Russian Polar explorers out on the ice for months! “In March there’s already 24 hours of light up there but we didn’t travel constantly. The crew needed to stop and rest… and this gave a great opportunity to see the incredibly beautiful Northern Lights. The blazing flame coloured half the sky, constantly changing. and made the contours of a giant magical fairy, it’s wingspan spreading across the sky. It was simply amazing.” The drifting ice also meant that every time they stopped, they’d start again from a different place! “A good drift was a ratio of 1:4. That means that for every 14km we drove we’d be 10km closer to the Pole. On a bad day it would be 24km for every 10km on the GPS. This gave us two calculations at the end of each day. Actual km driven and ‘useful’ km!”
There were two constant obstacles for the team. When plates of constantly moving ice crushed into each other… and where it pulled apart. The first caused long, impenetrable ridges of smashed ice and the second, open water. “We tried to avoid getting the cars in the water if we could help it as the instant build up of ice, especially on the wheels, could cause structural failures. But if there was absolutely no way around then a little rubber dingy would paddle across with the end of the winch rope in it and then each car would swim across. One the other side we'd anchor the winch with iron stakes and construct an upside down V-shape frame that the winch line ran over so we could winch the front of the car up onto the shelf again. But doing this we were vulnerable to one of the most dangerous things; not sinking or polar bears; icebergs! Some were half a metre wide, but some were 5m across… and once one caught the last trailer and started pulling the whole train away. We had to work pretty quickly to rescue it!”
But you never get used to the constant noise and feeling under your feet of the ice moving. Once we came across a structure no one had ever described before. There was a straight line, straight like a railway where two massive plates of ice were rubbing against each other. By massive I mean going on all the way from one horizon to the other. It was very hard to cross this as the ice blocks were chaotic and constantly moving with lots of freezing water splashing up on the ice making pools. Sometimes when the ice cracks it relieves the pressure of the sea below and can shoot a spout up to 3m in the air. Once it did this quite close to us and the Yemelya slipped into the water. It floats easily though as when it breaks through the thin ice it just sits on its belly in the water but the scary thing is that it could be smashed by moving ice plates so we always have to be very careful and very quick when we are in the water. But this one was a hard ridge to get over. It took us five days to find a way to the other side. At the right place moving ice made a new structure like the fingers of a hand opening. It was changing so much that it was impossible to drive the whole train through. We had to take each trailer off and pull it over by hand and winching…” “It might seem strange but after 5 weeks when we got to the Pole, over 1000km further north than the magnetic pole it was actually almost an anti-climax. The last time we were there we did the funny dance of running around with the GPS devices trying to keep standing in the exact spot of 90 degrees but after more than a month of seeing the same landscape is only the numbers on the GPS screen tell you where you are. Everything looks the same as everywhere else!”
Quite remarkable considering the terrain and conditions, the only real technical issue was that the polyurethane CV boots couldn't cope with the cold and constantly cracked. It's only a few euros for a replacement but anyone who’s ever had to replace one knows it's not an easy job as to slip it off the shaft you have to strip down the whole hub. Not too hard in the comfort of the workshop but in -25°Cwith a strong wind… and the longer you take the further away from the ideal route you drift… “Another issue was the universal couplings for the trailers. But they weren’t hard to fix. All we had to do was join all four batteries together and weld them back…” The plan was for a 75 day crossing so to do it in 68 was a bonus. “Good planning by the expedition leader. That was the secret,” Afanassi says. When we made it to land again at Resolute Bay we had one 50 gallon barrel of fuel left. On a 4000km trip where consumption was 88l/100km that’s pretty accurate. Taking too much gear and supplies with you can also be as bad as not taking enough. Making it to land in Canada was pretty good too. To have that explorer’s feeling, knowing that no one had ever done what we’d done…” Think you can do this as well? As the interview was winding down I asked if apart from the previous expedition he’d ever done anything similar. “I lived on the coast of the Bering Strait for 15 years with my Eskimo wife so I guess I can answer yes to that question. I used to go hunting seals on thin ice in winter and in summer grey whales and walruses in traditional walrus-skin boats to feed my Eskimo family…” So no, you probably couldn’t!
Photos: Afanassi Makovnev