Hot Air Balloon - Where?
Kiff - you may remember me, we met many years ago and you took me on my first balloon flight in Australia. I was wondering whether you might like to consider bringing one of your balloons to the North Pole? Regards Bill
You just have to love emails like this - concise, to the point and just loaded with potentiality.
Bill Davis is VP of Quark expeditions operations team - he has spent most of his working life focused on opening up the amazing world of Polar Tourism. Certainly to hear from him I knew that this was not one of those emails that was purely conceptual.
My reply was completely casual ‘Sure - What do you have in mind Bill' - I did not want to give away the underlying eruption of excitement that was brewing in my heart.
Saying ‘Sure' to putting a balloon up at the North Pole is one thing - getting equipment and approvals together is another. This clearly was not your standard ballooning job - we would have to locate and then transport everything to Murmansk. Once there, we would then need to get all the approvals to load our equipment onto a 75000Hp Russian Nuclear Ice Breaker.
As circumstance would have it - I had recently employed a Russian Balloonist named Viktor Myazov who had just immigrated to Australia. After much discussion we determined that the best course of action was to shelve taking my own equipment from Australia and just use Viktor's ballooning equipment that he had left in Russia.
After one year of planning, involving hundreds of emails, phone calls and meetings, Victor and I finally sat on the dock of Atomflot on the 25 June 2012 watching in disbelief as our little balloon basket and gear ascended by ships crane onto the deck of 50 LET POBEDY (50 Years of Victory). We had test flown our balloon in Moscow and then driven 2000 Km North to Murmansk. It was hard to comprehend after the fabulous experience of travelling across Russia with Viktor as my guide - that it was only now that our adventure was really about to begin.
If you were to ask me what is the best thing about going to the North Pole - I would answer ‘everything'. For those who are looking for first class raw adventure then this is it. It is certainly not luxurious but it is real adventure travel managed very well by the Quark team.
Your first introduction to the polar journey is a giant ‘blood orange' Nuclear Icebreaker parked at the dock - it is a behemoth, and the fact that passengers are allowed to travel on board at all, to arguably the worlds most remotest destination, is incredible.
Next step is meeting and getting to know the Quark team of high arctic achievers. It reminded me of the first day at a new school. To be able to hang out with them, tap them of their knowledge and to hear their stories is truly inspirational.
To find yourself standing on the bow of the ship in the midnight sun, taking in the crisp arctic air whilst gazing out over this vast expanse of raw beauty - Well I do not think you can feel more alive. The North Pole is a journey so few have done before and to carry in your heart the memory of those who have perished in the attempt, just to achieve this allusive goal, adds to ones cognitive sensory enlightenment. Everywhere you look, everything you hear, everything you touch or think is new - and in my mind, that is when you really know you are living.
Even the sound of this magnificent vessel effortlessly crunching its way through the ice with metronomic ease made me sleep like a baby - it was a back to the womb experience - crashes, rumbles and gentle rocking in a warm and secure environment.
Anyway enough superlatives - back to ballooning - as the sole purpose for Viktor and I being on the boat was to achieve something truly remarkable for our guests. We passed up several perfect light wind days on the way up to 90° - so Viktor and I had everything crossed that perfect weather conditions would hold for us to achieve a successful outcome. Certainly the level of excitement of the passengers on board suggested we were not the only ones.
When I conduct flying training in Australia - I always remind my students that ballooning is about minutes - this proved to be the case as we reached the North Pole. Although we arrived in light wind conditions, by the time we had secured the boat in the ice, unloaded the balloon and set all the ice screws and ropes in place the wind had increased to gusting over 10 Knots - too much for safe operations with passengers. I managed to stand the balloon up and bounce around on the rope but we where not in a position to take our guests 40 metres up in the air.
Putting aside our disappointment we soon reveled in the experience of being on the polar ice, participating in and watching various guests perform their own personal and group rituals on the axis of the world. What a day - food, fun and frivolity. It was a day of supreme positive and communal energy, that will be etched in my mind forever.
Once North Pole celebrations are completed ‘South' is the only option open available to travel. After a long day everyone crashed into a deep and rewarding sleep. The next morning I was woken by Laurie, our expedition leaders, welcoming message and weather report, which contained the words 15 Knots of wind. I was crushed - I was beginning to wonder if we had missed our opportunity - I was so disappointed that I did not even go out on deck - I instead made for the library to write letters home and to hide from passenger enquiries.
After a few hours my hand held radio popped into life with Laurie asking me if I would mind coming up to the bridge - when I arrived he asked me what my opinion was of the weather. It was embarrassing to have to confess that I was only working off his morning forecast and that I had been in hiding. He motioned for me to look at the pools of water in the ice that appeared to show little to no wind - the blood started to pump through my veins a little faster. Gathering Viktor - we negotiated with the Captain to first stop the ship to take some wind readings and then to look for somewhere to stop. Laurie was correct we where looking at only about 4-6 knots up on deck and with our safety margins for passenger operations. Viktor and I quickly began to get the gear ready for unloading onto the ice.
In a matter of one hour the ship was set in the ice at 86° 48 N 47° 21 E and so began the process of setting the tether up on what could only be described as perfect ice, on a perfect clear day at +1°C.
The good news for us was that we had become the single focus of attention, being the only physical activity for that particular day. The other big plus was that we also had the full contingent of Quark crew to assist with passenger management and balloon wrangling. In hindsight this was a much better outcome as it made the activity all the more manageable and surreal. Everyone was focused solely on the big yellow balloon tied to a big blood orange ship in the middle of the Polar Icecap.
Thankfully the inflation was straightforward - and so began our epic tether on the Polar Ice cap.
A tether on three ropes to 40 metres for a balloonist is not generally something we would write home about - but I must say - trading off the laughter and excitement of the passengers and crew - it was one of the most incredible ballooning experiences of my life. I am sure none of our guests gave any thought, as they reveled with childhood enthusiasm, to the complexity involved in bringing this experience together and the investment that Quark had made to make it possible - but for me - well this is why I am on this planet.
Our Quark Expeditions polar balloon was tethered for 2 hours. We were able to ascend into the sky over 40 times in the world's oldest form of aviation, giving our guests a chance to look out over a vast ice wilderness from the unusual platform of a wicker basket. There is little more one can say about this, other than the pictures of the balloon and guests tell the whole story - it certainly was a magical day.
Viktor and I are certainly not the first aeronauts to head to the North Pole with a hot air balloon, there have been several expeditions in the 90's by Antonov Polar aircraft - but confidently boast the we achieved something of a first. To be able to offer the first commercial tethered rides to our Quark guests in such a remote location and to be able to use a Russian Nuclear Ice Breaker as an anchor point for our balloon - well - it was unique and incredible opportunity for all involved.
For the rest of our voyage back south, Viktor and I were floating on air - Whales, Walrus, Seals, Franz Joseph Land - The Quark team taking us by Zodiac's to the campsite of Nansen and listening to lectures about the incredible geography, history and biology of this amazing frozen location just blew our minds. I hope it is still around for my children's children to see.
So I leave this story with a couple of quotes from the ships notes -
There are two kinds of men in the world, those that stay at home and those that do not. Of the two, the latter are by far the most interesting." - Rudyard Kipling
‘For the success of such an expedition two things only are required: good clothing and plenty of food.'?Fridtjof Nansen (Farthest North, 1894)
I would like to express my thanks to Quark for taking a ‘giant leap of faith and daring to dream', to Laurie and the QE team from the ship for their help and to all of the passengers whose enthusiasm and friendship made this the trip of a lifetime.