Trip to the North Pole: Ski-Trek and NordSki-Comm

22-27 April 1988

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Introduction

At the third of March, 1988 a group of thirteen Russian and Canadian skiers set out from Siberia, in an attempt to ski to Canada over the North-Pole. The nine Russians and four Canadians reached the North-Pole at the 25th of April where they were welcomed by a group of dignitaries from the Soviet-Union and Canada, members of the international press and radio amateurs involved in the coordination and communications. The daily progress of the skiers was followed by many thousands of school children and radio amateurs all around the world, who listened to the voice synthesizer on board OSCAR-11 , which transmitted the latest known position of the expedition on the two metre FM downlink using digitised voice.

Being responsible for the satellite operations on the University of Surrey's OSCAR-11 satellite, I was offered the unique opportunity to meet the skiers at the Pole. For this, my thanks go to Leonid Labutin, UA3CR 1) and his team who invited me, and to my boss, Dr Martin Sweeting 2), head of the UoSAT department, for allowing me the time off! Leonid managed to organise a visa for the USSR for me in the short time of 5 days, This story tells about the expedition from a Radio-Amateurs point of view, plus my personal experience during the trip to the Pole and back. Some of the material used in this report originates from Rich Ensign, N8IWJ, AMSAT-NA Science Educator Advisor, from Leonid Labutin (UA3CR) and from the Ski-Trek Support team.

Univeristy of Surrey News Letter


BACKGROUND

In the autumn of 1986, a group of Soviet scientists and radio- amateurs made plans to ski to the South-Pole, starting at the Antarctic coast. It was intended to use amateur HF radio for all their communications with the outside world, especially the support stations in Moscow. It is, however, not a good idea to rely on HF propagation conditions to the other side of the world, even with the help of a support station on the Antarctic continent itself, so in November 1986 initial contacts were made with the University of Surrey (UoS) UoSAT centre, in order to investigate the feasibility of using UoSAT-OSCAR 11 for the relay of information to the skiers.

Since UoSAT is a polar orbiting satellite in a low earth orbit, it flies over both poles every 100 minutes and a small hand held receiver with a simple whip aerial is sufficient to get a few minutes of excellent reception at every 'pass' of the satellite. While preparations were on its way in the USSR, by the end of 1987 it became clear, that the expedition would not take place at the south pole, but instead at the North-Pole, and the team would consists not only of Soviets, but a few experienced Canadian Skiers as well. This time they would not only ski to the pole, but they would continue their trek, joining two countries in a peaceful cooperation between two nations. The target thus became to cross the Arctic Ocean from the Siberian coast, via the North Pole to the Canadian coast, on foot, by ski. The expedition started at the third of March 1988 and finished at the first of June when the skiers hit Ward Hunt Island, a small island just off Cape Columbia at Ellesmere, northern Canada.
The members of the group consisted of Russians Dmitry Shparo, expedition leader and well trained Arctic explorer, Photographer Alexander Belyayev, also in charge of meals, artist Fyodor Konyukhev, Cameraman Vladimir Ledenev, Physician Mikhail Mala Khov, radio operators Anatoli Melnikov and Vasili Shishkaryov, Anatoly Fedyakov who was responsible for equipment, and researcher Yuri Khelevsky. The four Canadians were: navigator Richard Weber, cameramen Laurie Dexter and Max Baston, and scientist Chris Holloway.

COMMUNICATIONS

All the necessary equipment for the 1750 km route was carried by the participants in rucksacks. No sledges, dogs or other transport vehicles were used, other than six airdrops of new supplies, carried out by Russian and Canadian planes. The four Canadian and eleven Russian skiers trained both in Canada and in Siberia during the months prior to the expedition and in the mean time also tried to learn to speak and understand each other language. The main obstacles during the 95-100 days would be, and have been open water, pressure ridges, thin ice, blizzards and very low temperatures (-50 d C).

Communications were handled via HF amateur radio between the skiers and support stations on and near the Artic Ocean, and headquarters in Moscow and Ottawa. Special callsigns were allocated to the expedition and the support stations: CI8UA and EXOVE for the expedition, and the CI8 and EX prefix for the support stations. UoSAT-OSCAR-11 was used to relay the position of the group, using the Digitalker (computer speech synthesizer) on board the satellite. Two methods were used to obtain the position of the group. First of all by measurements carried out by skiers themselves, the second method uses the COSPAS and SARSAT 'Search and Rescue' satellites. This method requires the use of a beacon or Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT), which signal is picked up by one of these satellites when it flies over. Like UoSAT, they are in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), flying over the poles. The position is calculated by command and tracking stations in Moscow and Ottawa, using the on-board stored date and time of when the signal was received, together with the measured doppler shift (a shift in frequency, due to the relative velocity between the beacon and the satellite). As you need special receivers and computers to translate this data into degrees longitude and latitude, this could not be done by the skiers. Once the data was processed, it was sent to the skiers direct via HF, conditions permitting, and sent by telex or HF radio (packet or voice) to the UoSAT command station in Guildford, Surrey, where the information was subsequently loaded into the UoSAT- OSCAR-11 Digitalker. To listen to the satellite, the skiers carried ICOM u2AT handhelds, which were donated by ICOM and tested to work at very low temperatures (-50 degrees C).

The HF equipment was a Russian made solid state 10 Watts rig. It weighs 1.2 Kilograms without batteries and has six fixed, crystal controlled frequencies for SSB operation on the 80, 40 and 20 metre band. The 2 kg Lithium Battery can provide the 2.2 Amps at 12 V required to operate the rig, for about a month, one hour per day, at low temperatures. The antenna for the system is an inverted-V, with the mast made of five skies fitted together. The limited life time of the batteries was of course one of the reasons, that no QSO's with the skiers were possible other than between them and the support stations.

Unfortunately, there was a six to seven hours time delay between the position time and upload to the spacecraft at UoS, due to the fact that we always have to wait until the satellite comes in range of the ground station.

The time schedule used by the skiers was as follows: around 1100 GMT the skiers settled for the a resting period of about 8 hours and switched on their ELT's for about 2 hours. Within this period, the COSPAS/SARSAT satellites would have passed at least once. As soon as these satellites came in range of their groundstations in Moscow or ottawa, the information was downloaded and processed. The resulting position in degrees longitude and latitude was then passed on to the Ski-Trek Amateur radio Support stations and to G3IGQ, the University of Surrey Amateur Radio club station.

On the 20 metre band, conditions to Moscow never failed and this proved to be a reliable way to get the daily position updates. To program this into the Digitalker, we had to wait for the first OSCAR-11 pass in the evening, around 1830 GMT, as we never see afternoon passes. The skiers also got this information via the support stations in the USSR and Canada on their HF radio. The support stations were manned and set up by volonteers in remote areas, close to the Artic sea. They were located at:

  • Resolute Bay on Ellesmere Island, NWT, Canada (CI8C)
  • Sredniy Island, a small Island near Severnaya Zemlia, Siberia (EXOKP)
  • Soviet drifting ice island Nort-pole 28, near the North-Pole (4KODC)
  • Dixon Island, USSR (4KODR)
  • DIGITALKER

    One of the problems we faced was composing a proper DIGITALKER message, which could be used for the expedition, choosing from a limited vocabulary. The on-board speech chips contain about 500 different words, some with an American accent, others with an English accent. The manufacturers actually used digitised human voices. It doesn't offer the possibility to create new words, so if it doesn't have the word you want, you're out of luck. And, of course, nobody thought about a polar expedition when they made these chips. Words like NORTH, WEST, EAST, POSITION, LATITUDE, LONGITUDE are not available. Fortunately, it does have DEGREE, TIME, DATE.

    After some discussions we composed the following message: (audio example)
    
    	NUMBER 18
    	PRIORITY 0 0 0
    	DATE 24TH OF MARCH
    	TIME 12 HOURS AND 52 MINUTES GMT
    	YOU ARE AT 84 DEGREES 25 POINT 6 MINUTES N
    	AND 95 DEGREES 58.2 MINUTES E
    	73S
    
    

    The priority was an emergency code, for when all communications with the skiers failed, and assuming they can still listen to UoSAT, it gives a possibility to sent acknowledgment of the last received message plus the action which is taken, like sending a plane or helicopter, if necessary. Fortunately, we did not need the emergency code.

    This unprecedented hybrid link, involving ELT's, SARSAT/COSPAS, voice or telex and UoSAT-OSCAR-11 is known as NORDSKI COMM. It is the co-primary navigation tool for the skiers. Celestial navigation is the other -more traditional- method.

    THE TRIP

    As they skiers set out after a two day delay, caused by bad weather (the airplane couldn't take off for Sredniy), temperatures were around -47 degrees Celsius, with occasional blizzards. It was still in the polar night which ended at the start of spring, 23rd of May. Unexpected for those not familiar with the Arctic regions, the skiers reported that they encountered many leads of open water. Although they do carry single man boats, they never used it, but tried to go round the lead, or waited until the gap narrowed. The main cause of this phenomena is the transpolar drift-stream, a major force in the ocean, which makes the ice break up and drift away, helped by the ever blowing wind. Even when the skiers were resting for a few days, their position changed by several kilometers per day, in most cases more or less in Northern direction. The daily routine consisted of a steady 10 to 12 hours trek, followed by the setting up of their single twelve- men tent, switching on their ELT, a meal together (dried food) and a few minutes on the HF radio (80 m). A few hours later they again had a short QSO on 80m, in order to get the SARSAT/COSPAS information. When HF failed, they had to wait till the morning and listen to UoSAT. The morning routine includes a quick breakfast and tent break-down.

    The Canadian Communications Support Station, CI8C, at Resolute Bay has been monitoring EXOVE, the skiers', 80 meter transmissions and found propagation to be better than expected. Daily messages, relayed to the south by CI8C have given listeners a near real time look at what life on an arctic expedition is like. Here is a message from EXOVE on March 9th after one week "on the ice":

    
    	Frost bite scaring most faces. Toes and fingers permanently numb
    	and painful even when warm. A skier has blisters on his feet and
    	is taking medication for them. We have been making good distance
    	with only one lead blocking us for 1/2-day. Moisture is a big
    	problem in tent, clothing and boots. No chance of drying clothes
    	that are not being worn as they freeze instantly when taken off.
    	Richard (Weber) and Christopher (Holloway) have slept outside
    	every night to avoid condensation from the tent with the
    	success of perfect igloo building skills. Three pairs of
    	Russian skis broken and we will replace them with Canadian.
    	We have received telegrams from (Secretary) Gorbachev and
    	(Prime Minister) Mulroney wishing success. With our 90km
    	behind us we press on with good steerage and look forward to
    	longer days and warmer weather.
    
    

    The first airdrop of supplies took place on March 14th. Eleven drops were made in two passes over the skiers with an AN-74 Soviet plane, specially designed for this type of expedition work. All supplies arrived safely on the ground by parachute. it included fresh food and new batteries, as well as replacement skies. The skiers reported having built an igloo, used to dry damp clothing. The problem with the damp is that as soon as they took the clothing off, it freezes, and the main tent had the damp problem as well. The temperature inside an igloo can rise above zero celcius, when built properly. On March 16th, the skiers continued their trek.

    On April second, the "Moving Group", as the skiers were now called, was half-way to the North Pole, and more than a quarter of the complete trek. In the mean time they had received their second air- drop of food and supplies, and there would be one more stop before they reached the Pole. During the airdrops they take a two days rest and do some Medical and scientific tests, mainly geomagnetic and meteorological observations. NP-28 reported to receive meteo- information from the skiers. As the skiers were approaching the North Pole, NP-28, the drifting ice station became more and more important as a communications base, being within 100 km from the Pole.

    The support station at NP-28 had by this time an excellent voice link with the moving group on 80 metres for most of the time. Many messages were exchanged, some personal or of logistic means, others were for the outside world, spread around by the support stations. As far as I know, on one or more occasions, the skiers QSO was relayed on the HF and VHF bands in America. Some of the messages give a real good impression of what the arctics is like:

    A report from Maxwell Buxton, the Canadian Doctor ...
    	"We have been on the ice 45 days now and are ready to begin our final
    	assault on the Pole. The journey has been divided into two week
    	stages Every stage has had its unique problems and solutions, but
    	as we progress I think we all feel that things are getting better. The
    	weather has warmed from a bone chilling -48 degrees Celsius to the
    	present balmy -25 degrees. Many of our initial injuries attributable
    	to cold and inexperience are resolving and we are learning to live and
    	work together more efficiently as a travelling group. For example, in
    	our first thirteen day stage, we covered 215 km. Stage two saw 236 km
    	passed and our recent thirteen days of skiing reduced the distance by
    	313 km. On the map our efficiency improved. In our tents and in our
    	minds the mood has shifted from apprehension, somber eternalization
    	and concern with survival to optimization, conviviality and a sense of
    	accomplishment. Almost 1000 km remain before our goal is realized, but
    	with the Pole just over 200 km away we are feeling spunkier than at
    	any point to date. The upcoming ceremonies at the Pole, which will
    	bring us in direct contact with the outside world for the first time
    	since our departure, present an exciting focus for our attention. This
    	is the largest expedition ever to reach the Pole and the one hundred
    	days required for the complete crossing is a long time to spend on the
    	ice. In every respect, these startling adventures represent the tip of
    	the iceberg. The magnitude of the project is considerable and its
    	success and completion depends on the work of many people on both
    	sides of the Arctic Sea. For the Canadian members of the trip now
    	presents (an opportunity for thoughts) of home, our families and
    	friends. For all of us we have, in fact, reaffirmed our love for them
    	and for the homeland."
    

    A message from all four Canadian skiers:
    	"We have found peanut butter to be one of the Arctic's best travelling
    	foods. We receive it in frozen lumps of 100 grams. The plan was
    	originally for 50 grams per man per day but it is so popular we are
    	increasing it to 100 grams daily. The Soviets were unfamiliar with
    	peanut butter and, at first, somewhat suspicious, but have taken to it
    	with vigour. Peanut butter supplies a good balance of carbohydrates
    	and fats, supplying both quick and long term energy. It is also a
    	tasty treat, something to look forward to during our ten hour skiing
    	day. 
    	P.S. At -40 degrees Celsius peanut butter does not stick to the
    	roof of your mouth."
    

    Meanwhile, on the Soviet Ice Island North Pole 28 not far from the Pole, Barry Garratt (4KODX) was getting a real exposure to arctic unpredictability. On April 22nd a large lead opened up in the ice of the ice island just two meters from the front door of the radio shack. As the 40 and 80 meter antennas drifted away from the shack, coax- cables had to be cut. The 40 meter antenna was salvaged and both it and a new 80 meter antenna have been erected. Communications with the skiers was not disrupted by this event. The airstrip was on the separated section. Later on Barry reported that the lead was freezing over and that the situation at NP 28 was stable. Later on they experienced much more damage during which complete houses were lost, but no-one got injured.

    As the communications with the skiers went very well, the support stations operators were regularly calling CQ and working through a pile up on 20 metres. Conditions from the Arctic Ocean (4KODC and 4KODX on NP-28) to Europe were very unstable for most of the time. Sometimes the signals were very strong, but the opening short, less then an hour. The station on Sredniy reported Auroral distortion on many days.

    THE NORTH-POLE

    On the 26th of April, the skiers reached the North-Pole, and were welcomed by a large group of journalists, officials and radio- amateurs. Here are two audio clips:
    audio Laurie Dexter Speech (part1)
    audio Laurie Dexter Speech (part2)
    audio joke by Soviet minister Izraeli

    Regarding the Nordski-Comm navigation procedure, skier Laurie Dexter reported that the conditions on HF have been very reliable, the skiers get their position back via 80/20 m from Moscow about 2 hours after they switch on their ELT beacons. In the case of UoSAT, there is a 6 to 8 hours time delay, due to the fact that at Guildford we have to wait until UoSAT comes in range for programming. The skiers have listened and found it very easy to understand. He indicated that pressure ridges were everywhere on the trek so far, but none of these proved to be impossible to cross though some were difficult and they had to search for a good path. Although it is flat, the surface is not smooth at all. Not only pressure ridges, but the wind blows constantly, leaving strange shapes, like you can sometimes see on a sand beach, caused by the flowing sea- water. The surface is layered, snow freezes, new snow falls on top of it, is blown away, etc. The thickness of the cap varies between 3 and 12 meters.

    Laurie told me that they hadn't seen any life on their journey, but curiously, about 30 km from the Pole they saw the foot prints of a polar bear. (audio interview) This is very much closer to the Pole than anyone expected. The skiers did carry a rifle, but have never needed to use it. The skiers have not used their rubber boats. When they encountered open water, they either went around it, or waited until the water froze, or the gap narrowed enough to cross it. At that time they expected that because of the warmer weather, more and more gaps would occur, which would freeze less quickly, thus forcing them to use the boats. For a while, it looked like they would have to cross an open lead at the very last day of the trek, but the temperature suddenly fall, the lead closed and they were able to cross it. But there was a lot of thin ice and water at the last part of the trek, and together with the rapid southward drift of the ice-pack (as much as 12 km per day), their movement was limited to about 20 km per day. During the first few weeks the skiers reported a problem with moisture in their suits and tents, which they could not get rid of. After the rise in temperature and more sunshine, the problem is completely gone. The main problem with the moisture was, that as soon as they took of their suits, it froze instantly.

    As the North Pole visitors were hurrying back home, the moving group started their 750 km trip to Ellesmere Island. Two more air drops were carried out, and they remained in excellent health and spirit.

    Meanwhile, since the expedition passed the North-Pole, the position update reports were now being provided by John Henry VE2VQ, by telephone and later on by telex direct to the university. This also meant that there was no need to use the short wave, and I made only a few QSO's with the support stations. Conditions to Canada were poor during the day, and the few times I was able to contact CI8C at Resolute Bay, Leonid, who was now signing UA3CR/VE8 was not around.

    The Great Transpolar Ski trek Expedition came to a successful conclusion on Wednesday June 1, 1988 at 14:35 UTC as the 13 skiers stepped ashore onto Ward Hunt Island. Ward Hunt, a tiny island just off the coast of Cape Columbia, Ellesmere Island, has seen the beginning and end of many a polar expedition, but never one of this magnitude.



    Michael Meerman (G0/PA3BHF)
    University of Surrey, UoSat group, Guildford, UK
    May 1988
    Email: pa3bhf@amsat.org
    or: michael@meerman.fsnet.co.uk

    All pictures (except img310,320,340,380,390,490,520): © M.Meerman 1988

    Notes:
    1) Leonid labutin UA3CR sadly passed away on Sept 10th 1998
    2) Now Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, CEO of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, a UoS spin-off