The Arctic ocean is, and always has been, one of the most challenging terrains for expeditions. The drifting sea ice creates a labyrinth of open water, frozen leads, and pressure ridges, where the straight line is rarely the fastest way ahead. With the fading ice, modern explorers have to use dry suits to swim across open leads, dragging their floating sledges behind them. On thin ice, one wrong step can mean almost certain death, plunging an explorer into the freezing water. If that’s not enough, polar bears are roaming the ice cap, ready to hunt any prey, including humans.
Let’s take a look at the great achievements that happened in this hostile environment and the explorers who were brave enough to battle the ice. Same as with my article about Antarctic firsts, I will look at overland travel only, although over-ice would probably the more accurate term. Additionally, the Arctic in this context means expeditions to the North Pole, because listing all possible firsts above the Arctic circle is too tall a task for me alone, and other destinations, like the Arctic Pole of Inaccessibility or the Geomagnetic North Pole are very difficult to research.
Team size: unknown for Pole Party, Distance covered: unknown, Duration: unknown, Mode of Transport: Sledges
It is impossible to say who the first person to set foot on the Arctic pack ice was. The Inuit likely travelled there for centuries before any other humans arrived, and early Vikings are also likely to have sailed and explored the ice. We do know the first documented attempt to reach the North Pole, however, which happened on the British Arctic Expedition in 1875 and 76. Back then, there was a widely held belief that an ice-free ocean surrounds the North Pole, and once they broke through the outer ice ring, ships could sail to the pole unimpeded. Based on this idea, the Royal Navy sent the HMS Alert and HMS Discovery up the Nares Strait between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. The ships quickly got stuck in the ice and sent out a sledging party in search of the open polar sea. The men reached 83° 20′ 26″N before returning to their ships. (Source)
After the British Arctic Expedition, many great explorers gradually pushed the Farthest North mark closer to the pole. The most famous of them was undoubtedly Fridtjof Nansen, who likely could have reached the pole in 1895, but decided to turn around and retreat to Franz-Josef Land
Team size: 23 (6 for Pole Party), Distance covered: ~2400 km, Duration: 55 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing and dog-sled
The first person to make a believable claim to have reached the North Pole was the American Robert Peary. He had set out on February 28th 1909 from his base Camp Columbia on Ellesmere Island and reached “Bartlett Camp” 87°45′ N on April 1st. It was his last position confirmed by the second experienced navigator in the party, Robert Bartlett, who was sent back with the rest of the support party by Peary. Peary then pushed on to the Pole with a party of six, claiming to have reached it on April 6th. He returned to Camp Columbia on April 23rd.
After his return, his decision to send Bartlett back was immediately scrutinised, since he was the only one who could have produced navigation records backing up Peary’s own. If Peary had reached the Pole as he claims, he would have covered over 560km in only eight days, a speed unheard of in Polar travel, and highly unlikely since his party did not make that progress on their journey towards Bartlett Camp and also not on the way back from Bartlett Camp to Camp Columbia. After his return, Peary’s North Pole claim was quickly certified by the National Geographic Society, who was also a primary sponsor of the expedition. His records were not submitted to independent review at the time. The NGS granted British explorer Wally Herbert access to Peary’s logs in 1984, and he concluded Peary likely did not reach his goal.
Today Herbert’s conclusion is widely accepted. Peary’s claim needs to be listed here nonetheless because it shifted the focus of Polar exploration away from the Arctic towards the Antarctic, where a pole could yet be achieved. Almost 50 years passed before the next expedition attempted to reach the Pole overland. (Sources: 1, 2)
Team size: 5 (4 to reach the pole), Distance covered: 663 km, Duration: 42 days, Mode of Transport: Ski-doos
Ralph Plaisted planned and pitched his expedition as only the second to reach the North Pole overland and the first on motorised machines. Back in 1966 Peary’s claim was still universally accepted, but our state of research today makes the Plaisted Polar Expedition of 1968 actually the first-ever expedition to reach the North Pole overland.
Neither Plaisted nor his companions – Art Aufderheide, Don Powellek, Walt Pederson, Jerry Pitzl and Jean-Luc Bombardier – had any significant experience in Polar expeditions, a fact that showed at the very start of their 1968 attempt. They started heading out in the wrong direction, and on the first evening discovered they had forgotten essential equipment in their base camp on Ellesmere Island, such as their medical kit, mechanic tools, and generators to power their radio, so they had to send one man back to fetch it. Storms and difficult ice impeded their progress and morale was low. They managed to find their flow after a turbulent start, however, and on the Morning of April 20th 1968, they contacted a military plane flying overhead via radio, who confirmed they had reached the exact North Pole. They were airlifted back to Canada by one of their support planes. (Sources: 1, 2)
Team size: 4, Distance covered: 5987 km, Duration: 476 days, Mode of Transport: Dog-sled
Simultaneously to the Plaisted expedition, another team was gearing up to reach the pole. British Arctic explorer Wally Herbert was denied the claim as first to the Pole, but his 1968/69 Trans-Arctic Expedition still set numerous firsts. The Team of Herbert, Kenneth Hedges, Allan Gill and Roy Koerner set out together with their 40 dogs on February 21st 1968 from Point Barrow, Alaska. It would be 476 days till they stepped on solid ground again on the other side of the Arctic ocean. In July 1968, after travelling 1900km, they established a summer camp at 81° 22′ N to wait out the melt period. The ice drift was not in their favour, however, and they had to spend the winter as well, drifting counter-clockwise around the Pole, but not gaining any ground. When sunlight returned, they continued their journey towards the Pole, passing through the Arctic Pole of Inaccessibility, the farthest point from any land in the Arctic ocean. On April 6th 1969, they became the first expedition to reach the North Pole unmotorised. Through difficult ice, they reached Spitsbergen on May 29th 1969. They had crossed the Arctic ocean along its longest Axis, travelling almost 6000 km. During their journey, they had received supplies via seven long-range parachute drops by the Royal Airforce. (Sources: 1, 2)
Team size: solo, Distance covered: 775 km, Duration: 54 days, Mode of Transport: Dog-sled
Japanese Explorer Naomi Uemura made a name for himself by achieving solo what previously only teams had achieved. In 1978, he became the first person to reach the North Pole solo. Uemura set out from Cape Columbia on March 6th with his dog-sled that could also hoist a small sail. During the trip, he survived a polar bear attack and only narrowly escaped off an ice floe that had broken off and was threatening to drift out into open water. He reached the Pole on April 29th. You can find amazing pictures of the expedition in this article.
Team size: 8 (6 to reach the pole), Distance covered: 1600 km, Duration: 56 days, Mode of Transport: Dog-sled
In 1986, Will Steger set out together with Paul Schurke, Brent Boddy, Richard Weber, Geoff Carroll, Ann Bancroft, Bob McKerrow and Bob Mantell on a North Pole expedition. Where earlier expeditions had always relied on outside help, this one was a deliberate throwback to the golden age of Polar exploration. The team brought all supplies for them and their 49 dogs with them from the start, three tons overall. The expedition report reads a bit like the journals of golden Age explorers as well, with the team encountering challenges like Ann Bancroft falling through thin ice, a tent catching fire because of a faulty stove, the death of a lead dog, diminishing supplies, and a malfunctioning navigation device. McKerrow and Mantell had to abort the expedition due to injuries. On May 1st 1986, after 56 days, the remaining six reached the Pole and thus became the first team to do so without resupply. On top of that, Ann Bancroft became the first woman to reach the North Pole. (Sources: 1, 2, 3)
Team size: 13, Distance covered: 1750 km, Duration: 92 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
In 1987, the Soviet Kolmsomosco Pravda Permanent Polar Expedition proposed a joint Soviet-Canadian expedition to cross the Arctic ocean on skis from Siberia to Canada. Where earlier expeditions were motorised or had used dogs, this one would rely solely on human power.
The team of nine Soviets – Demtri Shparo, Mikhail Malakhov, Valodya Ledenov, Yuri Khemeleski, Vasily Shishkariov, Sasha Beliaev, Tolya Melnikhov and four Canadians – Richard Weber, Christopher Holloway, Max Buxton, Laurie Dexter – left Cape Articheski in Siberia on March 3rd 1988. They were carrying all equipment for the 1750km in massive 50kg backpacks. Besides the usual hardships of frostbite and broken skis, they also had to deal with the language barrier within the team, as no single team member was fluent in both Russian and English.
They arrived at the North Pole on April 26th, where they were greeted by ministers from the USSR and Canada and several amateur radio operators, who had assisted with communications during the expedition. They reached Ellesmere Island on June 1st 1988.
Team size: 3 (2 to reach the pole), Distance covered: 800 km, Duration: 58 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
After Will Steger’s 86 expedition and the Soviet-Canadian expedition two years later, it was only a matter of time until someone would combine the two distinguishing firsts of those expeditions and go to the North Pole both without resupplies and relying only on human power. Børge Ousland, Geir Randby and Erling Kagge set out from Ellesmere Island on March 8th 1990. Randby had to be evacuated due to injury, but the other two arrived at the North Pole on May 4th. Both Ousland and Kagge would go on to become Polar legends with many more successful groundbreaking trips and firsts between them. (Sources 1, 2)
Team size: solo, Distance covered: 980 km, Duration: 52 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
After his successful 1990 attempt with Kagge, Børge Ousland returned to the North Pole in 1994. In his trademark fashion, he pushed the boundaries of what was believed to be possible for a human by completing the first unsupported and unassisted solo ski trip to the North Pole. He started from Siberia on March 2nd 1994 and arrived at the Pole on April 22nd after 52 days of skiing. (Source)
Team size: 2, Distance covered: 1512 km, Duration: 121 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
The pair of Richard Weber and Mikhail Malakhov had both been part of the joint Soviet-Canadian expedition of 88. They had their minds set on achieving the first unsupported and unassisted North Pole return journey. In 1992 they had already aborted an attempt at 89° 39′ N, only 39km from the Pole. On February 14th 1995, they set out again from Ward Hunt Island, pulling about 500kg of equipment in sledges behind them. They reached the pole after 81 days on May 12th and returned back to Canada on June 15th. They had spent 121 days on the ice and established a new record for unsupported Polar travel in modern times.
Team size: 2, Distance covered: 2100 km, Duration: 109 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
Norwegians Rune Gjeldnes and Torry Larsen snatched one of the last remaining firsts right after the turn of the millennium. On February 16th 2000, they set out from Cape Arktichesky, dragging four 100kg specially designed pulks behind them. After 109 days, they reached their destination Cape Discovery with no food left and having lost 53kg of body weight between them. (Source)
Team size: solo, Distance covered: ~2000 km, Duration: 82 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing & Kiting
Børge Ousland took another Arctic milestone in 2001 when he became the first person to complete a solo crossing of the Arctic ocean. He started from Cape Arktichesky on March 3rd dragging a sledge of 170 kg through the pack ice. Within the first few days, his sledge showed unexpected signs of damage as the Kevlar hull broke off exposing the core. Makeshift repairs with aluminium sheets didn’t help, so Børge had to call for a replacement sledge or abandon the journey. He chose to forfeit his unsupported status and continue with a new sledge delivered via helicopter. On his crossing, he pioneered several ways to navigate the Arctic ice. He was the first to use a dry suit for swimming across leads of open water and the first to successfully kite in the Arctic ice. He reached the North Pole on April 23rd and arrived on Ellesmere Island on May 23rd.
Børge has written about his crossing in his book Alone Across the North Pole.
Team size: 2, Distance covered: ~775 km, Duration: 68 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
Tina Sjögren reached the North Pole from Ward Hunt Island together with her husband, Thomas. She became the first women to reach the Pole unsupported and unassisted. (Source)
Team size: 2, Distance covered: 980 km, Duration: 61 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing
Here is probably one of my favourite Polar expeditions that must rank among the most daring attempts of modern exploration. Where trips in the Antarctic and Greenland usually benefit from long hours of daylight or even midnight sun, this one was the complete opposite, taking place in almost total darkness. And once more, Børge Ousland was part of it.
Together with South-African explorer Mike Horn, he set out from Siberia on January 23rd 2006. After multiple polar bear encounters, temperatures below -40°C, and an infection that almost killed Mike Horn, they reached the North Pole on March 23rd, just in time to watch the first sunrise of the Arctic spring. (Sources: 1, 2)
Team size: 2, Distance covered: 675 km, Duration: 53 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing & Snowshoes
It is an undeniable fact that our planet is changing. Ecosystems that have existed for thousands of years are now spiralling out of control. The effects of the global climate change on the Arctic ocean are profound. For Arctic exploration that means the time where travel over the pack ice is possible is becoming increasingly shorter, and the ice rarely reaches to the two common start points for North Pole trips, Cape Arktichesky and Cape Columbia, any more. Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters are, at the time of writing, the last explorers to complete a trip from land to the North Pole. Sadly, they may well go down in history as the expedition which marked the end of the era of overland travel in the Arctic ocean.
Larsen and Waters left Ellesmere Island on March 15th 2014. They dragged two pulks weighing 145 kg each using snowshoes and skis. Right out of the gates they hit difficult ice conditions and had to team up to draw only one of their sleds across difficult ice to then track back and fetch the other one. On May 6th, they finally reached 90° North and were airlifted back to Resolute Bay 42h later.
Larsen has written about his expedition in his book On Thin Ice.
That were all the notable firsts regarding the North Pole I could find. If you’ve read my list of Antarctic firsts, you may find that there are still several firsts out there that could theoretically be achieved. However, climate change and political tensions between the Arctic nations make it increasingly difficult to mount an expedition to the North Pole.
Please let me know if you spot any errors or if I’ve forgotten an expedition! I put quite a bit of research into this, but there’s never a guarantee I caught everything.
Keen hiker and ÖAV trekking and hiking guide, in love with Nansen. Owner of the most walk-averse rescue dog ever. Ice cream lover, kit junkie, runner and mad software genius.