How I Made it to the North Pole

How I made it to the North Pole is a roundabout story that goes back more than 2 years. Ever since my first failed Antarctic expedition when Prince Harry prevented me from reaching the South Pole and when I finally made it to the South Pole I knew I was going to go to the North Pole. The question was how I would get there. Getting to the North Pole is not easy, nor is it cheap any way you slice it. So here is how I made it to the North Pole and all the crazy circumstances surrounding the expedition!
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Lee Abbamonte, Quark, Barneo
After looking into all possible options I decided to go with Quark Expeditions for my North Pole expedition. Quark is obviously a well known, trusted name and they were highly recommended by several people whose opinions I value. They had a few options including an icebreaker out of Murmansk, Russia that would reach the North Pole and back in 15 days or so. This was considered but the time commitment plus the price was pretty steep. The only other appealing thing about this trip was it also stopped in Franz Josef Land but that wasn’t worth an extra $10,000 to me.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Barneo, tents
So I went with an expedition out of Longyearbyen on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. This expedition involved a chartered Soviet cargo plane up to the Russian ice camp of Barneo and from there it was a Russian military helicopter to the North Pole. If all went according to plan it would’ve been about 3 days altogether. All did not go according to plan. It rarely does, as I’ve learned, in the Polar Regions.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, supplies, Barneo
Myself and my two good friends; Jeff and Joe, arrived in Longyearbyen on the 10th of April. The expedition was set to begin on the 13th where we’d meet the rest of our Quark Expeditions team including a few Chinese guys that came to the South Pole with me in 2014. I was excited to see everyone and meet new explorers. As it turned out we had a great group of people!
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, toilets
For the three days before the expedition began there were a series of emails, Tweets and Facebook updates from the Barneo page that there was going to be a significant delay because of a giant crack in the ice runway constructed at Barneo by the Russians. Some groups had been in Svalbard for a week already and were essentially stranded. We made the unilateral decision to wait it out, as there was nothing we could do and we were going to make it come hell or high water.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, crack in the ice
We killed three days in Svalbard doing some awesome outdoor activities that I will detail in an upcoming post. On the 13th we found out we were going to be delayed a few hours then it was a day and then two days, etc. I was having serious déjà vu back to both of my torturous and stressful South Pole expeditions where we eventually made it of course the second time but it wasn’t without a lot of stress.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Barneo
Finally on April 16th, the group was presented with an option to break away from the group and join a Russian team on an earlier flight to Barneo after the ice cracks were repaired and a new runway was built. There were four open spots on that first flight on the Antonov AN-74 cargo plane.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Barneo, tents
There was a lot of discussion about whether it was worth it, the pros and cons, etc. In the end there were 7 people who wanted to go on the earlier flight with the Russians; which meant giving up all our protection etc. from Quark Expeditions. To my friends and I this was fine and we’d be one or two steps ahead of the game to ensure we made it to the North Pole itself. Plus, we wouldn’t get shut out because of the North Pole marathon; which was at the same time and they had been delayed 10 days. There was also a group of 3 Chinese guys-all of whom came on the trip because of me, who also wanted to go on the earlier flight plus one Mexican researcher.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, North Pole Marathon
We agreed the Mexican would go for sure and the 2 groups of 3 wouldn’t break up and had a very amicable discussion about it. The Chinese graciously told us to go. We were grateful and they’re some of my favorite and funniest people I’ve ever traveled with.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, North Pole Marathon, medal
So we had to get ready immediately to go to the North Pole and join the Russian team that was essentially a massive family trip led by some Russian Oligarch. He literally brought like 25 family members including some children. We didn’t care at all, we were just happy to be able to get there earlier giving us a better chance at making the North Pole.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Antonov 74, Longyearbyen Airport
We met the Antonov AN-74 at Longyearbyen Airport in a special cargo area where we were able to store our non-polar luggage for as long as we’d be at Barneo-we had no clue how long that would be!
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Antonov 74, Inside
The Antonov 74 is smaller then the Ilyushin 76 that I flew twice from Cape Town to Novo Base in Antarctica back in 2013 and 2014. Nonetheless it was equally as weird and uncomfortable. Jeff and I sat in the back row directly in front of all the cargo.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Lee Abbamonte, Antonov 74, backseat
Of course we couldn’t just have a normal easy flight. Since the flight was all Russians except for us and the pilots were also Russian, there were many visits to the cockpit by people looking for photos, etc. The pilots decided to show off a little bit and make sudden turns scaring the shit out of people and inflicting unnecessary G-forces on us in the back!
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Antonov 74, Barneo
To make the flight even more “exciting”, we had an aborted landing about 2 feet from touching down onto the ice runway at Barneo. Finally, we made it on the second try and landing in a cargo plane on ice is always an interesting experience. The plane comes to a stop almost immediately and you are tossed around pretty good in the back. But alas, we had landed at the famed Barneo Russian drifting ice camp about 50 miles or so from the North Pole.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Barneo, Lee Abbamonte, Antonov 74
Upon landing we were met but the nicest guy ever, named Tomas, a Polish scientist working his first season at Barneo. He was basically our best friend and took care of us, as we had no guide since we left the Quark group. It honestly couldn’t have gone smoother.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Barneo, helicopter
He told us that we’d be going straight to the helicopter to the North Pole even before we went to camp 2 miles away from the new runway they built where we had landed. I was pumped. Assuming this was the case, all my stress would disappear once we made the North Pole.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, helicopter, Barneo, inside
45 minutes later we found ourselves boarding a massive Russian military chopper that could hold 40 people…and it did! My friends and I were joined by the massive Russian/Israeli family plus a spattering of people from other nationalities. We had a Mexican, Swede, Belorussian, Swiss, Canadian, South African, Norwegian. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few others but it was basically like the United Nations at the North Pole!
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Lee Abbamonte, Jeff Gilroy, helicopter
It’s kind of fun when explaining how I made it to the North Pole to say I did it via Russian military helicopter charter but that’s exactly how it happened. At 11:08pm local time on April 16, 2016 we landed at 90 degrees north. The North Pole where all points are south from there. We had made it after all the delays, changes, missed flights, incurred costs and mental anguish. We were on top of the world and everyone was thrilled.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Lee Abbamonte, santa hat
Just like at the South Pole, I was so happy to have achieved such an amazing feat with some great friends. I’m blessed to have such good friends who are also adventurous, love to travel, and have the finances and flexibility to do such trips. I’ve always been fortunate in that aspect in both life and travel. If you surround yourself with good people and friends, you’ll always be happy-especially with some vodka at the North Pole.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, vodka at North Pole
For me personally, reaching the North Pole meant that I am one of the few people who have ever visited every country in the world and have reached both the North and South Poles. This was never a goal of mine until it became one but it’s something I am tremendously proud of.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, midnight
We spent about 90 minutes at the North Pole. The temperature was a balmy -35 degrees Celsius or -31 degrees Fahrenheit. That sounds freezing of course but it really wasn’t that bad. Granted we had the best gear possible, I didn’t feel nearly as cold as I did at the South Pole; which was some -60 degrees with wind chill. That said, it was still freezing and you had to move around a lot.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, ice
The North Pole is constantly moving. It is not like Antarctica; which is a continent. The North Pole is a point upon frozen sea ice and moves daily. The helicopter goes by GPS to the point at 90 degrees North and finds a safe place to land. Then you follow the GPS on foot to the exact point that is the North Pole.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, sea ice
Our group, in Russian/Israeli style, all held hands and spun around the pole in a big circle with everyone coming into the middle at the end and yelling-it was like a big Jewish wedding-and yes I’ve been to a ton of Jewish weddings! I wish I had video of this because it was really quite fun and very funny considering where we were!
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, sea ice
As we boarded the chopper to fly back to Barneo, I remember just staring out the window of the helicopter at the stunning sea ice below and thinking how amazing the experience was and how fortunate I am to be able to do what I have done. I thought how much better it was that I was able to reach both Poles with great friends and that this little kid from Trumbull, Connecticut had done something really cool.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, tent
Back at Barneo, we headed into the food tent for some Russian polar food. It was not good by any means but it did the trick. The best part was just chatting with other polar explorers and meeting the badass Russian scientists who you know have some miles and stories under their belt!
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Barneo, sleeping barracks
After dinner and some lectures we hit the barracks for some much needed sleep. It was hotter than hell in the tent and I completely passed out with all my polar gear on. I had the best nights sleep I had had in weeks. I guess that’s what sheer exhaustion and coming off a true adrenaline high will do to you.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, soup
I woke up at noon the next day, headed into the food tent just in time for lunch, a crappy borscht soup but I ate every last bit of it before we got our certificates of achievement for reaching the North Pole! Then we had about 2-3 hours until the flight back to Longyearbyen. Everything went shockingly smoothly and we celebrated deep into the night in Longyearbyen!
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, certificate
Of course the only issue was all the delays caused us to miss our flight back to Oslo and onward. All the flights were booked until Friday or 5-6 days away. So we had to basically pay for an upgraded ticket that was flexible and were placed on the waiting list for each subsequent flight out on SAS.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, guard
So that’s how I made it to the North Pole. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t cheap but it was an adventure and an experience I will never forget. To stand on top of the world is something that’s hard to explain to people. The sheer vast nothingness of the North Pole is something that photos or words cannot due justice.
North Pole, The North Pole, How I made it to the North Pole, Barneo, runway
The North Pole is the end of the Earth and it looks and feels just like it. If you ever have the chance to explore the Polar Regions-do it. The ice is captivating, it gets into your soul and you want more. The poles themselves are testaments to achievement and perseverance and that feeling is impossible to convey to others. You’re bound forever to the people you are with at that moment of triumph. All I can say is enjoy the moment when you are there. In the end, I won’t think about how I made it to the North Pole and the struggles, I will think of that visceral feeling of exultation, accomplishment and pride I had when I stood at the top of the world.

Comments

  1. This is unbelievable! Congratulations on your achievement!

  2. Don’t I feel like the laziest person ever now LOL! This is incredible Lee. Good for you, you deserve it and thanks for sharing the drama on facebook, it was fun to follow!

  3. Thanks for sharing. I’ll never do this type of thing but it’s fun to hear the passion in your writing and see the pictures.

  4. I never would have been able to step foot on the cargo plane or the helicopter 🙁

  5. Geri from Oz says:

    I can’t even fathom the level of accomplishment you must feel. You’ve done so much in your young life. Take a bow my friend.

  6. I love following your adventures!

  7. I can say I knew you when man…can’t wait to read the book!

  8. Very cool Lee!

  9. We’ve never met but I really do admire how you live life to the fullest. If you’re ever in in Charlotte, please give me a shout and I’d love to buy you a beer.

  10. Congratulations! what you have done and achieved is amazing, so inspiring for me to see someone accomplish so much!

  11. great story Lee!! great pictures too!! so glad and proud of you! felicidades!!

  12. Awesome man, unfortunately you didn’t meet Santa Claus.
    Can you add a comment for each pictures? Sometimes it works with your narrative but sometimes not.

  13. Congrats on reaching the North Pole, Lee! Now that you’ve visited every country in the world, the most TCC countries, and both Poles, where do go from here on your travel adventures? What’s the next challenge you are hoping to accomplish next?

    • Hey Ray and thanks buddy. I’d still like to finish the TCC (I haven’t done the most, some people have done 324) list but in absolutely no rush to do so and really don’t care that much anymore although I’ll likely do the 3 South Atlantic islands plus Bata in the next year or so. I still have many things I want to accomplish but starting with the 7 summits and eventually every country more than once-more than half way there already but again no rush at all. Trying to scale it back a bit and focus on work and real life as well!

    • Thanks for replying, Lee! It’s always good to hear what other adventurous things still exist out there and you’ve been a great example to follow. Hope you get to accomplish all of those goals while also leading a “normal” life again. Wishing you all the best!

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