Make or Brake

Published on 21.03.2010 - Richard Weber North Pole Expedition

This is an expression used in the jargon of polar adventurers to denote the successful completion or otherwise of the first two weeks of a trek when they set out from Ward Hunt for the North Pole. Weber and his three companions (including his son) have now well and truly passed the make-or-break mark on their journey.

By having Howard Fairbank (a 52-year-old South Africa adventurer with a background of solo sailing races, long-distance bike rides and kayaking expeditions) as one of the four trekkers (a corny South African play on words!), we have access to a close look at how Richard Weber's team is progressing. Each day, Howard gives us full details of all the minutiae of what goes on with the expedition as it advances, but also an insight into the movements of each member as they put up their tent every evening and finally slip into their sleeping bag (see an example of Fairbank's prose in his blog).

Which is how we come to know the many reasons that have prompted the explorers to ponder on the significance of "Make or Brake" during the first two weeks of their trek from Ward Hunt to the North Pole. In broad terms, this has to do with:

  • the topography of where they are and the currents that thrust the Arctic pack-ice up against the coast of the Canadian Far North, creating an area for dozens of kilometres that looks like an inextricable jumble of huge ice blocks, sometimes as high as a 3-storey building and constantly on the move, riding up and over one another
  • the extreme temperatures, because when these expeditions set out, the sun has still not peeked above the horizon, even during the day
  • the heavy weight of their sledges, weighed down as they always are at the beginning of the expedition
  • the fatigue of the individuals on the expedition, who have just emerged from a generally tiring and stressful period of preparation before setting out
  • the fact that the hostile elements that the adventurers have to cope with are so uncomfortable and difficult that it takes at least a week to get into a proper routine -tent, sleeping bag, how the equipment is organised on the sledge, etc. 
  • the fact that they have to consume at least 6000 calories a day to keep their bodies going, whereas the usual quantity for a normal human being is around 1500, 
  • the additional stress created by the fact that the beginning of any big adventure involves immense anxiety, which in turn is very tiring
  • the inevitable discoveries about the other expedition members (which are all the more pronounced when the team members don't know one another very much or at all). This then raises questions and sometimes dreadful disappointments when they discover things about each other that they don't like, etc.

It is also interesting to learn that while everything has gone well during the first two weeks of the trip, there have nevertheless been a few equipment breakdowns. Technical snags include a broken ski stick, worrying cracks in two of the sledges, two pairs of torn mittens, broken boot crampons, a ski binding coming undone, etc. "But thanks to Richard's experience," writes Howard, "we had plenty of spare equipment -and because of this precaution, we are able to fix all the breakages as they occur..."

Having said that, the foursome are progressing at an average of about 10 to 12 nautical miles a day (18 to 22 kilometres). On Sunday 14th March, the expedition log reported that they had already covered 25% of their trek to the pole. On 16th March, Fairbank's blog informed his followers that they had already travelled 125 nautical miles to the north (231 km), with a further 572 km to go to the North Pole.

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