Arctic and Polar expeditions for beginners
3 Best Sub-Zero Expeditions
Have you been toying with the idea of taking part in a polar expedition, but as a beginner you’re finding it difficult to work out what the best option is for you? Setting off on a full distance ski to the Geographic North Pole is probably too far out of your comfort zone but walking up a frost-dusted hill in Cumbria doesn’t have you rippling with excitement.
What you need is something that straddles the borders between truly wild places and the reassurance that comes with having help at hand, if you need it. We’ve pulled together our experience to create this list of the 5 best sub-zero expeditions for beginners. I’ve visited each destination at least once so you can be sure that I’m not going to throw you in at the deep end. The middle, maybe. But not the really deep part of the icy pond.
Let’s start your journey.
Hiking and Skiing Norway
A truly stunning country that shapes the coastline of north west Europe, Norway meanders through the seasons, experiencing a range of temperatures that make planning your journey easy. But let’s forget about summer for now. You’ve come for the cold and that’s one of the most enduring images people have of this vast and stunning country.
If you’re a true beginner, my first recommendation would be to start in Finse and plan to move down towards the Hardangervidda, one of Norway’s National Parks. As this is a winter trip you should definitely think about using the DNT hut system to rest and sleep in. Take a tent just in case you find yourself in an emergency situation.
Access to the area in winter is via train only and the shortest route, about 2 ½ hour, is from Bergen. I’ve stopped over in both Oslo and Bergen a few times and the latter is a truly beautiful destination. In fact, you should spend a couple of days there and walk up the mountain at least once – the views into the fjord are breathtaking.
Before we move on, here are a few tips you should consider before booking your flights to Norway.
-Ask yourself if you’re confident you can cover up to 25km per day, on skis and carrying all the equipment you need.
-Fitness is important, there are some big hills to cross and if you’re unfit you’ll find the routes incredibly hard work.
–Take the right equipment. Twice on my trips to this region I’ve been caught in cold weather snaps during which temperatures have plummeted to -20C (and almost never rise above sub-zero).
-Safety first! Mobile phone coverage can be erratic so have a backup option like the Garmin InReach Explorer+ (here’s TrekSumo’s review of this very handy satellite communicator)
-I like to travel alone but, as this is one is an expedition guide for beginners, you should plan this as a group activity. Think safety in numbers.
Norway might not be edgy enough for some of you and this next destination will definitely tick many of the boxes you have for a first polar expedition…
Crossing Lake Baikal in Russia
Lake Baikal is the largest, deepest freshwater lake in the world. If you look on a map of Russia Baikal doesn’t seem very big when compared to the vastness of Siberia but trace the outline of the shores and lay them over a map of Greenland and you start to see the enormity of the lake.
Lake Baikal is 640 km long from tip to tip and about half up the body of water there is a small island called Okhlon. Well, not really small… it’s over 70 km long and home to quite a few Russians, many of them earning a living from fishing the rich waters of Baikal.
Although not a truly polar region, Lake Baikal sits in the barrens of Siberia which is infamous for cold weather and tales of hardy tribes who roam the vast expanses of this stunning part of Russia. And for a few months every year the lake freezes over, the ice penetrating up to 1.5 metres into the cold grasp of the Baikal. And it’s in these months, between January and April, that your opportunity comes. You can hike Lake Baikal for most of the route, but I recommend you take a pair of skis as, in some places, the snow can be deep and hard to navigate.
Here are some tips for anyone wanting to cross Lake Baikal (read my account first…)
-For a true first-time attempt, use a guide.
-Prepare for this trip like you would do any other polar destination and invest in quality cold weather gear.
-In most places, the furious Siberian gales drive away the snow and leave the ice exposed – you will slip and slide if you don’t buy some spikes (ice screws for hiking boots, or running shoes designed for extreme cold weather).
-Don’t leave it too late in the season; from late March the melt starts and increases the risk of you going through the ice, soaking you and your gear. Trust me, this is not a pleasant experience.
-Take lots of photos when you are there! Honestly, this is a beautiful place and, if you’re ready and fast, there are plenty of opportunities to capture shots of the wildlife, including the unique Baikal seal.
Ski The Last Two Degrees to the North Pole
Now you’re treading the borders between beginner and explorer. Skiing the last one or two degrees to the North Pole has an inherent risk, which is why many adventure junkies have this destination on their bucket list. Yes, expeditions in Norway and Baikal are physically and mentally demanding, but they don’t have quite the same level of risk attached as a North Pole exped.
In most countries, the safety net is close by and the accessibility of the mobile phone networks is pretty much guaranteed (apart from a few ‘small’ patches of no comms!) The polar ice at the top of the world is a very different place and you are reliant on satellite communications and dedicated rescue services provided by the Russian teams that build and operate Barneo ice station.
The conditions you’ll experience, even during the milder months of March and April, are extreme with temperatures that dip as low at -40C. Moving in the cold is draining and you body will burn calories at a rate most people never get to experience (which is great news for people like me who want to eat vast quantities, but not put on weight). All your gear is hauled in a pulka (an enclosed sled) which can weigh up to 100kg, if badly packed, which means you need to be relatively fit. A last two degrees ski to the North Pole will take you about two weeks. The daily distances you’ll cover aren’t huge, but you’ll need the time as storms can often prevent travel for a day, or two, at a time.
Tips and thoughts for anyone wanting to ski to the Geographic North Pole:
-The fitter you are the easier the expedition will be for you. This goes for all three of the expeditions in this post.
-Unless you have a huge budget (hundreds of thousands of dollars) you’ll need to use a polar guide.
-You will be totally self-sufficient – there are no shops or taxis on the polar ice.
-Open leads – cracks in the ice that can extend for several kilometres, and further – and ice rubble can add considerable distance to your ski.
-The points above might make this seem like a daunting expedition, but fear not as you guide will keep you safe and on the most direct route to the North Pole
Are You Ready For A Sub-Zero Expeditions?
If any part of this guide has started alarm bells ringing in your mind, put yourself at ease. Many people have covered these routes before you, many more will follow in your footsteps. Regardless of where you decided to – Norway, Russia or even the North Pole – see it as an experience and a stepping stone on your way to harder and colder expeditions.
This article was written by James who is a former soldier, now business owner, and likes to spend as much time as possible in the wilds. His journeys have taken into the coldest regions of Norway and Russia, through the jungles of South East Asia, across the Sahara Desert, Lake Baikal and Greenland. Next stop: a solo the South Pole.
James runs https://treksumo.com, an outdoor gear review and hiking site.