Published: April 2016
Ten years ago this week, working as a Video Journalist for the BBC, our Founder and Creative Director Tom Chown travelled to the North Pole with his colleague Mark Norman.
They were following Kate Charles from Brighton, who was setting out to complete the Grand Slam – a marathon on all seven continents and at the North Pole. This is Tom’s diary. I first met Kate when she contacted the BBC South East newsroom after she’d completed her 7th marathon in the Antarctic. But trips to the North Pole don’t just fall into your lap; it took nine months of planning and raising the budget.
Over the coming months we were fortunate to be offered free travel by race organiser Richard Donovan from Longyearbyen in Spitzbergen to Base Camp Barneo, where the race takes place each year. As Producer I needed to raise several thousand pounds to pay for our flights to Norway, accommodation and most importantly specialist clothing for temperatures of -40 degrees. With support from my Editor Quentin Smith I set about approaching BBC Sport and BBC News Channel (formally News 24) to raise funds internally.
It’s all very well travelling to the top of the world to film a marathon, but how do you get your pictures back to the UK? In 2006 there were no satellites strong enough to transmit a video signal orbiting the North Pole. As we were spending 48 hours at the North Pole, we planned to edit our news packages back at the hotel in Longyearbyen. Working with technicians at BBC Television Centre in London we were loaned two laptops, one with AVID software to edit our films on, and the other to encode and send back the file, via the internet. These days we use a mobile phone as a modem with a laptop, but in 2006 this kind of technology didn’t exist.
The other major issue to tackle was filming in such hostile conditions. Mark and I not only needed specialist clothing, we also had to consider how our cameras would stand up to the conditions. We consulted Sony about how their cameras, a classic timepiece – the HVR-Z1E – would function in -40 degree temperatures.
Sony couldn’t guarantee the camera would operate below 0 degrees so we arranged to test our cameras in Brighton University’s freezer at the Sport Faculty where temperatures reached -10 degrees. We also planned to store the cameras in unheated boxes at the North Pole to avoid getting condensation inside the lenses. At these temperatures the condensation would easily freeze again when the cameras were taken outside, causing further untold problems.
At the beginning of April we flew from Heathrow to Oslo, taking with us three video cameras, two laptops, tripods and associated kit, and our polar clothing for the week long trip.
The next day we flew from Oslo via Tromso all the way up to the Norwegian Svalbard islands, the most northerly civilisation in the world. Based at the local Raddison hotel in Longyearbyen this was where the North Pole marathon competitors were to convene for acclimatisation.
An ice runway is cleared from the snow drifts by a bulldozer, and is approximately 1km long, just long enough to enable the special Anatov-74 aeroplanes to land on the ice. Not only can these Russian cargo planes take off over very short distances, but they can also land on very short stretches of flat terrain, ideal for the conditions at Barneo. After a couple of days’ delay in Longyearbyen due to bad weather at the base camp, we got the call to depart on the afternoon of Friday 7th April 2006. We were embedded with the first group of competitors and the race organisers to fly from the airport at Svalbard.
ARRIVAL AT THE NORTH POLE
The AN-74 is a cargo and passenger plane, and more than half the aeroplane was loaded with cargo for the camp. It was the first, and only time I’ve ever been inside a plane’s cockpit. This one had a crew of four, two pilots and two others doing what looked like very important tasks in front of banks of navigational equipment. Coming into land, and without a window to look out of, never have I been more appreciative of the pilots’ skills as they successfully touched down, without breaking the short ice runway. It was almost midnight when we landed, but since the pole was in its six months of 24 hour daylight, the sky was a permanent haze of sunshine. Accommodation at base camp consisted of heated tents, capable of housing approximately 20 people on shallow camp beds, each with a thermal sleeping bag for warmth.
THE NORTH POLE MARATHON
The following morning the weather remained fine and the race organisers were keen to make the most of the good visibility. A circular route around Barneo Base Camp of just under 2km had been marked out with tiny flags whilst we’d slept. Runners would complete as many laps as necessary to achieve the 26.2 miles of a marathon. The circuit went along the side of the runway, then off into the light powder of the snowy terrain, avoiding big leads (breaks) where plates of ice had broken apart, or ridges where ice had risen up to form hills of ice terrain. Race doctors would be monitoring competitors as they completed circuits of the course, whilst the Russian crews manning the camp would be on the look for polar bears.
We’d stored our camera equipment in an empty wooden crate beside the tents, packed with insulation bubble wrap and pocket hand-warmers. We’d taken a dozen fully charged camera batteries as we knew their lifespan would be shorter in cold temperatures. Before the race started Mark was able to do a two-way live report for BBC News 24 via our Bagem satellite phone, and then the race began. As the competitors set off down the side of the runway, Mark and I trudged our way through the snow, up to our thighs in some places, avoiding deep snow filled crevices. We had four layers of clothing, a base layer, thermal layer, then clothing layer, and finally our outer Gortex coated winter ski jackets and salopettes.
It was our extremities that faced the most potential risk and operating fiddly buttons on a camera is not the easiest of jobs with mittens on. The practicalities of this meant the outer and more cumbersome gloves had to come off, but we had two further layers of gloves on to help trap warmth.
Our faces were the other possible area of risk; with the bright sun temperatures were around -20 to -25 degrees, but when the snow clouds blew in, the change in temperature was immediately noticeable. We returned to the heated tents frequently to re-hydrate and warm up and after several hours the winners had crossed the finish line.
HELICOPTER to 90 DEGREES
After a second night’s sleep at Barneo Base Camp, the following day we were treated to a flight onboard the camp’s helicopter which took us to the magnetic North Pole. Onboard the huge Russian helicopter, we flew for around 40 minutes before reaching the North Pole. Once we’d safely landed our hosts gave us an hour to take photos with a symbolic ‘North Pole’ pole that came out of the back of the helicopter. A few people had a celebratory bottle of ‘fizz’, and we all walked ‘around the world’ in a large circle around the ‘North Pole’. After a short helicopter ride back to the camp we were to return to Svalbard.
With our bags packed I waited at the end of the ice runway with my camera to film the plane coming in to land. The AN-74 appeared from the snow-laden clouds without much warning, other than the tremendously loud engines. What we didn’t know at the time was that when the aeroplane had landed it had cracked the ice runway. We remained unaware of this until the after the second ‘shuttle’ carrying competitors completed its flight and returned to collect us. As we boarded the plane to depart the pilot asked if anyone would like to disembark and wait for the next flight as the aeroplane was overloaded. Nobody volunteered, so the camp logistics team positioned a member of their crew by the break in the runway so the pilot knew the point where he needed to take off.
When you fly in an AN-74, as it takes off you can feel the extra G-force, as it’s much quicker than a conventional commercial passenger flight and you’re thrust back in your seat with an unfamiliar force. I had an iPod with me and was listening to Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Bird of Prey’. There’s a very slow build up in that track, but as the beat dropped the pilot launched us down the runway, the nose lifted a few metres before the crack in the ice, up and off into the Arctic sky.
FAST TURNAROUND FOR BBC NEWS
Touching down in Svalbard a couple of hours later, Mark and I had almost three hours of footage to ingest and edit overnight, before we had to send our report back to the UK for broadcast the next day. It was late on Sunday evening, and despite having spent the last couple of days surviving on next to no sleep, the adrenaline of the adventure propelled us through the scripting and editing of our film. Working through the night, we were able to file our story overnight, ready for broadcast the Monday 10th April. We slowly sent our report over the hotel’s internet to BBC Television Centre in London, packet by packet (a technical term for data transfer), and from there the newsrooms were able to pull down the relevant package for each news programme.
The story was broadcast across the UK, and we managed to deliver a live from Svalbard into the Monday evening BBC news bulletin, via the internet. It’s believed that the speed of filing pictures from the North Pole within 24 hours of return was a global first. Ten years later, on reflection, the whole adventure was a truly unique experience. Having the opportunity to stand at the top of the world, and being lucky enough to do it for work was a privilege and something that will stay with me for a long time to come.