Monday, October 28, 2013


New York, October 28, 2013


While roaming in Google and other relevant websites, I found new information. The Panamanian National Police (effectively the country's army) has strict orders to prevent anyone from crossing overland from Panama to Columbia, which means getting through the Darien Gap.

Now next Winter's planned Darien Gap crossing seems more difficult. Apart from harsh territory and wild nature, and FARC rebels, I'd now also have to try avoiding contact with local authorities.

This won't be at totally new experience. Three times before I'd entered a country illegally, cashing borders by avoiding authorities. The first time by getting lost in north-western Afghanistan and accidentally entering Turkmenistan, from where I got out without detection by authorities, next by purposely crossing the Himalayas at Chang La, from western Nepal to get to Tibet's holy Lake Manosarowar and holy Mt. Kailash, and the third time from northern Togo into northern Benin in West Africa.

Each time these border crossings turned into a doozy of an adventure, in Turkmenistan by getting lost in a desert, wrecking the car, then repairing it in a little Turkmenistan village, in Tibet by becoming prisoners of the PLA (People's Liberation Army) for entering China illegally (described in my book A SHORT STINT IN TIBET), and in Benin in a boxing match with an officer for a "fun" resolution about how to deal with a border crasher (I lost and he let us — my wife Emilie and me — go).

Tuesday, October 1, 2013



Written October 2013 about what happened April 1995

Eighteen years after the actual events ... from memory. 

After blog posts about the East Africa journey, the Burma border crashing attempt(s), the Borneo search for whorehouses and the Cambodia happenings, this, albeit old, North Pole adventure seems to fit right in. 

Maybe, after the coming winter's Darien Gap attempt — which I plan to describe here — I'll also write about the Himalaya crossing to crash into western Tibet's Lake Manosarowar and Mount Kailash where we became prisoners of the PLA (Chinese People's Liberation Army), or  cris-crossing the Australian Outback in search of edible desert plant seeds for our place in the Sahara, or some Atlantic crossings in small sailboats (from England via Canary Islands to the Caribbean, from Dakar, Senegal, via Cap Verde Islands to Florida, from France, via Ireland to Florida, from Holland, via Azores to Florida), or hitchhiking around the globe without money, or the China trip in 1960-1961, or the Branco Casiquiare from the upper reaches of the Rio Negro to the upper reaches of the Orinoco (my River of Doubt), or my solo car trip from Uruguay, via Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Equator, all of Central America, to the Big Apple — in a twenty-seven-years-old car without power steering.

In my son's ski jacket and jeans at the North Pole.
Scene: Middle of March, 1995. Dinner with Emilie and her mother Helen in our New York SoHo loft.

The phone rings. My friend Christian, a mountain guide from Chamonix in France is calling. Christian was my navigator for the Paris-Dakar rally across the Sahara.

"Would you like to join us trekking to the North Pole from Siberia?" he said.


"We'll be flying there next week. We are about ten guys, a couple mountaineering friends and two from the French army, and oh, Françoise is coming also."

"I got no equipment for the Arctic."

"No problem, we'll get everything from the ex-Soviet Red Army."

"Where would we meet?"

"In Khatanga.'

'Where is that?"

About 300 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, at the bottom of the Taymyr Peninsula in Eastern Siberia".

I turned around and asked Emilie.

"Like to walk to the North Pole?"

"How?" Emilie said. Her mother looked across the table as if Emilie had lost her mind.

"You are not seriously contemplating that," she said.

"Christian," I said into the phone, "how we move?"

"Skis, pulling sleds with equipment."

I told Emilie we'd be going on skis, pulling sleds with equipment. 

"You know I never skied, and I don't think I'd like the idea of walking to the North Pole anyway," she said.

Her mother nodded vigorously.

"Okay Christian, I'll try to book a flight," I said. (That was a bit more complicated in 1995 because online booking — if it was even possible — I certainly hadn't heard about it.)

Emilie got a big hug from her mother Helen. Then Helen looked at me rolled her eyes up towards the ceiling, then stared at me twirling an index finger around her temple. Under normal circumstances Helen and I got along gloriously.

A week later:

After four flights; New York - London, London - Moscow, Moscow - Norilsk, where the toilets were covered by a  partially frozen, smelly, yellowish, brownish one-foot deep flood, then Norilsk - Khatanga.

In Khatanga I walked over dirty, frozen snow drifts between a jumble of wrecked Soviet air force planes through a hole in the airport's chain link perimeter fence to the one and only hotel in town. Khatanga was a Soviet forward base during the Cold War. The snow was covered by a black soot film because, as I later found out, everything in the arctic town was heated with coal from a nearby pit. The hotel looked like a dilapidated public housing complex. At the reception nobody spoke any language I also spoke but they directed me to the second floor where I heard my future French companions talking in their rooms behind paper-thin walls.

I hugged Christian and Françoise, his totally cool wife. They introduced me to the others. Most were mountain guides or ski instructors, friends of Christian from the French Alps. Two were French Special Forces soldiers who came along for Arctic training and equipment testing.  A charming, young woman, a correspondent for Agence France, and a male journalist from Forbes magazine, were also part of the group.

The leader was Bernard, a French documentary film maker. Together with nomadic Dolgan reindeer herders, he was the discoverer of a fully intact young wooly mammoth preserved in permafrost (that find was later described in a Discovery Channel documentary film). With excavating the frozen mammoth and while filming a walrus colony on an island off the Taymyr coast, he had found out about the availability of equipment from the former Soviet Red Army.

In the general disorder after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, parts of the army were literally forgotten, especially the ones in the way out, almost inaccessible far north of Siberia. Just to eat, officers resorted to selling, renting out or giving away equipment to anyone willing to part with some cash. I even heard a story about how during that time a nuclear submarine removed their ICBMs in order to transport potatoes — for pay — from Murmansk to isolated settlements along the shores of the Arctic Sea.

"Where is your luggage?" Christian said, looking at my small carry-on backpack. 

"What luggage?" I said. "Don't we get all the equipment here?"

"Equipment, yes," Christian said, "but not personal clothing.

I had one pair of spare jeans, two pairs of long johns, some socks, some thermal undershirts, a woolen hat, and wore my son Tony's ski jacket.

"Okay, I'll buy stuff here," I said. 

Bernard, who had been in Khatanga before for his mammoth recovery and documentary film, said that there was absolutely nothing to buy in town. People fly for shopping to Norilsk, or place orders with people that come from the outside to this forlorn outpost.

"Then I come along in jeans."

"You nuts?" Bernard said. "I'll lend you my pants because I'll have to stay back to organize stuff, like your equipment, transport flights, and your return from the pole by helicopter." 

It turned out his pants were too small for me. I couldn't button them — and I certainly didn't feel like going to the pole with an open fly.

One of the Special Forces French soldiers thought it was okay to go in jeans. None of the group had ever been at or near the pole. I decided to try.

While in Khatanga, we got twice daily reports from a cold war era Soviet Early Warning Observation Station on the ice of the Arctic Ocean, about sixty miles from the pole. They reported violent winds. Since the plan was for us to fly to that station in a little transport plane, where we'd get our skis, sleds and equipment, the weather made that impossible. 

Piece of cake, I thought. Walking sixty miles over level Arctic Ocean ice, what's the big deal? My jeans will do just fine. 

To pass waiting time, Bernard organized with the help of Boris, a local musher and trapper, and Sergey, a local jack of all trades, a visit to a hunting camp way out in the tundra on the shores of a frozen lake. We flew in a Soviet transport helicopter, took provisions; frozen fish and vodka. After a lot of hoarse singing, mostly a mangled version of the Marseillaise, the French National Anthem, deliriously laughing over nothing, high-fiveing over everything, and soaking wet from sweating in the over-heated cabin, and amply lubricated with vodka, we slept, snored and shared body heat in a pile somewhere in the small hut, because nobody had bothered to keep the fire going.  

Being above the Arctic Circle, it never got dark but we woke with painful hangovers to a heavy snow fall. After a couple of hours' slogging back to Khatanga, because the helicopter couldn't fly in a total white-out, we found out the weather was still not good enough to fly to our trek's starting point — this time because of the weather condition in Khatanga.

We spent another day in town, warming our frozen limbs from the hunting cabin return slog and nursing splitting headaches — Boris assured us we had not been drinking the same bootlegged stuff from an illegal distillery that recently killed many people in Russia.

Next day we boarded a small transport plane.

At the Early Warning Station we were expected. A big red cardboard sign saying WELLCOME written with the double T in our alphabet, not cyrillic, and mugs of hot tea, greeted us.  The station consisted of two tents, a radio transmitter, four men and a small bulldozer to keep open a runway on the ice. Sometimes they also had a transport helicopter.

We got skis, sleds, tents, sleeping bags, super insulated moon boots, cooking equipment, like gas camping stoves, pots and pans, eating utensils, frozen fish and loads of dried food. The equipment looked fairly new but was of such poor quality I wondered if it would survive the trip. One of the stoves, it turned out, broke the first time we tried to use it. The bulk of provisions was Ramen Noodles. I had read how, in the extreme cold and under the other punishing circumstances on such a trip we should eat close to ten-housand calories per day. I wondered how many Ramen Noodle packs that would be. 

Upon seeing the poor equipment, one of the potential participants for the journey opted out. He was going to return to Khatanga with the transport plane. I don't want to let on who that dropout was, not to embarrass him should he or one of his friends read the blog.

We stowed tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, food, onto our sleds, put on the Russian moon boots, adjusted the ski bindings to fit the boots, strapped harnesses around our waists to drag the sleds. 

As soon as we had our skis, sledges and other equipment, we took off for the first day's slog.

So close to the pole, there was practically no difference in daylight, no matter what the watch said. Cricket, an almost seven-foot tall beanpole,  a former French special forces soldier, now the leader for the trek, entered 90º North as our waypoint on his SatNav, a pre-cursor of GPS. He could have typed in any longitude, east or west, and it would have made no difference because at the pole all longitudes end in one point. At the pole you can walk around the earth by just turning around in place.

The first day we walked about ten hours. Cricket announced we had made just a little over five miles in the direction to the pole. 

The ice cover, driven by ocean currents and surface winds, is totally unpredictable. It was entirely possible we'd walk ten miles in the direction of the pole and during that time drifted back by the same amount. 

Also, we couldn't travel in a straight line. There were numerous open leads, that is open water where ice fields separated and shifted. Sometimes we had to make huge detours around them to find ways to pass over the 40,000 feet deep open water of the Arctic Ocean. When the floes crashed together, huge ice boulders piled up, creating forbidding walls through which we had to find passages. Pulling our sleds over these ice boulders was very exhausting. We had to hoist and lift the sleds. At times one person was not up to the task and needed help from others. During the whole journey everybody was incredibly helpful to whoever needed assistance. Everybody got and gave.

When we rested, my sweat-soaked jeans almost immediately
Pulling sleds over ice ridges on the Arctic Ocean
froze stiff. That turned out to be a blessing. The others in their modern high tech Gortex outfits sweated just as much as I under their outer coverings. My frozen jeans created a perfect shield agains the icy winds. I can't say I fared better than the others in their special duds, but I surely wasn't worse off.

On one of our rest stops. The others, with high tech outfits were just
as cold as I in jeans.
My little Olympus camera froze. I couldn't even slide the cover open anymore. I asked Martine, the Agence France journalist to take from time to time a picture of me. She didn't have a sled to pull because she needed to be free to go ahead of our group or stay behind, go off to the side, to record our progress.  Somehow her camera functioned during most of the trip. Hers are now the only pictures I have.

Our tents were two men jobs. I shared mine with the only other old man, Robert, the father of one of Christian's friends. When that friend couldn't make it for work-related reasons, and he had already paid Bernard for the expenses of organizing the Siberian part of the trip, something over two-thousnad dollars, the father took his place. It was a present for his sixtieth birthday, he said. — Nice guy, his son!  Even though an avid mountaineer his whole life, Robert felt that he was not in good enough condition to pull a sled so he made arrangements with Boris to have him carry his stuff on the dog-drawin sled. We two old dudes got along gloriously, especially because I was the only one in the group who had brought along what everybody came to call a 'Warm Swiss Jacket" — a bottle of Johnny Walker.

Boris the musher, who had a Georgian 'Warm Jacket", a bottle of Georgian brandy, and I with my "Swiss Jacket", became the center of attention. Everybody wanted to be our friend.

We all got three sets of gloves, supplied by the Red Army: one pair regular, knitted woolen gloves with fingers, for the second layer a pair of heavy wool mittens, for the third layer a pair of heavy canvas, fur-lined mitts. Together with the heavily insulated moon boots, they were the only personal effects we got from the Russians. The rest were skis, sleds, tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils and frozen fish. Bernard had brought the Ramen noodles from France.

The worst part of the journey for me came when I had to "go". Of course there were no toilets. The temperature was as low as — 40º F. At —40º, Fahrenheit and Centigrade converge! 

For the process I would get out of my ski bindings, trample a depression in the snow to have a solid footing and not sink into the snow, get toilet paper ready, torn off the roll and folded into convenient, ready to use sections, then I waited until I was totally certain that there was absolutely no waiting time to accomplish my mission. When thus ready I tore off two layers of mittens, dropped my pants and long johns, finished in a flash what I was doing, including the wiping and pulled the long johns and pants back up and threw the mittens back on my already freezing hands. 

Usually, after about ten to twelve hours walking. we stopped to make camp. That could have been any time in a 24-hour period because daylight remained practically the same around the clock. Together we set up a big, orange-colored communal mess tent, then melted snow on the one remaining gas-powered camping stove and cooked Ramen noodles with sparse additions of dehydrated meat and vegetables. We drank instant coffee, tea and instant hot chocolate. Preparing all that for a dozen people on our crummy cooker took forever. Luckily the French soldiers had their own, minuscule, yet efficient one, which they had brought along for field — or rather ice — testing.

The communal tent, even though also freezing cold inside, provided shelter because it allowed us to get out of the biting, ice cold wind that blew incessantly, pelting us with snow and ice particles.

On the forth day we walked twelve hours in the direction of the pole. A compass doesn't work at that latitude. It is almost impossible to calculate how to orient oneself by the sum, so we depended mainly on Cricket's SatNav information. We were spread out over a long distance as some stragglers were extremely exhausted. As always, when we stopped for camp, all the first arrivers gathered around Cricket's SatNav to see how far we had come. That day, it turned out, we had drifted back so much, we were at almost the same place where we had started. Two days later we happened on a more beneficial drift because we made close to double the distance we had actually walked.  A lot of these currents are depending on wind directions. 

One of the less cold days. That picture could have been taken at midnight or mid-day. It was all the same light, all the time.

Robert was getting more and more exhausted. Boris and Sergey who followed us with their dog sled started to give him rides. I set up our tent, laid out his sleeping bag and placed whatever remained in my bottle of "Warm Swiss Jacket" near his bag. When he slogged to the camp, he was often too tired to even go to the communal tent for food. We took turns bringing him sustenance. 

Apart from ice boulders we had to navigate over, there were cracks, sometimes water-filled, we had to cross.

On the seventh day Cricket announced, if the then current drift held, we'd arrive at the pole by "evening". The drift didn't stay favorable, but, since we were getting low on food, we decided to walk on until we got there. The wind picked up. It got worse than it had been any time during the whole journey. Cricket kept checking the SatNa. Everybody was totally exhausted. Robert was all wrapped up in furs, on the dog sled. 

After twenty-one hours' slogging over the ice, almost without rest stops, the SatNav announced 90º North. Even though totally bushed, most of us walked around Cricket who stood on the pole. That means we hiked around the world a couple of times while almost getting blown over by a freezing wind. The temperature was — 40º Fahrenheit (or Celsius) but with the windchill factor I might as well have been a gazillion degrees below.

I tried to set up our tent but the fibre glass rods that snap together with the help of elastic strings inside didn't function because the strings were frozen stiff. Robert stayed on the dog sled wrapped in furs and I climbed into our pole-less tent that flapped like crazy in the storm. The "Warm Swiss Jacket" bottle that, thanks to judicious sipping having lasted all the way to the pole, was empty. 

All the other Russian tents had the same problem, except the French soldiers'. When they saw the collapsed tents, they defrosted everybody's frozen elastic bands. They had a two men pup tent with a heater inside. That heater was one of their equipment testing implements. After a while they handed out the rods, all ready to slide into the nylon pockets to prop tents upright. 

Since we were going to be picket up by a helicopter to fly back to some sort of civilization, we didn't set up the mess tent. With the howling wind, it might even have been impossible. We had no Ramen noodle, no Nescafé, no hot chocolate, neither Geogian nor Swiss Warm Jackets —  nothing to celebrate our arrival at the pole. 

Cricket had called the forward station for the helicopter already before we had gotten there but we waited and waited and waited for the welcoming sound of throbbing rotors. After an interminable wait it swooped down near us. They had circled all around in the vicinity of the pole searching for us. It turned out, with the strong wind, the ice we were on moved very fast. By the time we got on the copter we had already drifted miles past the pole.

Because the copter had been so long in the air while searching for us, they were low on fuel. We had to fly back for a fill-up to the forward station from where we had started our trek by ski. While they refueled none of us left the protective hull of the copter. It then flew us to a Cold War Soviet Air Force base on Zevernaya Zemla island. Because of weight restrictions Boris, Sergey, the dogs and their sled had to stay back at the forward station. They would take a later flight in direction of Khatanga, bringing back our equipment we had borrowed from the army.

Boris said to me in his rudimentary German — which he had learned in school, "Ernst, I like your attitude. Visit me in summer, I will show you how wonderful Siberia can be." 

I was very touched and told him it would be a great pleasure and privilege to see him again. 

After Serge and Boris had unloaded their dogs and and gear, and our borrowed Soviet gear they got off the helicopter. We flew on.

The frozen air force base had rows and rows of fuel tanks, a couple of abandoned-looking shacks, a few wrecked planes. The runway was not plowed. 

We were led into one of the shacks. A wave of welcome, yet stifling heat hit us as we were ushered into a large room. The floor was cracked linoleum, the wall had blistering paint, waves of giant cockroaches welcomed us. 

Some of it might have been because of the sudden heat, some of it because of exhaustion from the final dash to the pole, at any rate, all of us plopped to the floor and fell asleep. I don't remember how long the sleep lasted, I simply know I woke up from hunger pangs. Apparently the same happened to all the others. Cricket went in search of a human to find out if there was a chance to get some food. He learned that the transport plane that should bring us back to Khatanga couldn't make it in the strong wind. He also brought a rotund , red-faced lady into the room. None of us spoke any Russian. We made signs of eating. She made signs of "I have nothing". I showed her a few dollar bills and made a sign of eating. She warmed to the idea. I asked if everybody was willing to pay ten dollars for food. All agreed. In no time I had 120 dollars in my hand and waved them in front of the woman's face, again making motions of eating. To judge from her reaction, the woman, probably, having heard of what dollars can do, and accustomed to work for nothing or almost nothing at this abandoned godforsaken place way out in the Arctic Ocean, caught on to the new notion of cash for service. She became an instant capitalist. She waved the bundle of dollar bills as she waddled out. 

We, the truly dirty dozen — none of us had washed any part of our bodies for over a week — were drooling over a prospect of food. After, what seemed like an eternity, the women reappeared with a huge iron bowl full of hot, battered, fried fish. With such a successful outcome I became totally optimistic and made motions of drinking, and showed her more dollar bills. We soon drank beer, albeit, despite all the freezing temperatures around us, it was warm. Nobody complained. Robert recovered completely from his stupor.

The "diploma", signed by the participants of
 our trek to the North Pole, affirming that I did
the trip in jeans.

Once we felt revived again — sort of —, waiting for the transport plane to being us back to Khatange, the participants in the group signed the little note torn from an agenda that said in French: 


I have personally seen that during our trip to the North Pole on skis, pulling sleds, Ernst Aebi has worn nothing but blue jeans. 
Signed by the members of the expedition

(Of course, besides the jeans, I wore also other clothes. The description of nothing but blue jeans has to be seen as the grammar of a bunch of people way above the Arctic Circle, barely been reanimated by warm beer!)

Full of yummy fried fish and warm beer we all fell asleep again on the floor, roaches or not. 

Eventually, I have no idea how much later, we ended up in the same transport plane we had flown to the forward station about a week earlier. It was a very rough flight back to Khatanga. 

Had Bernard, who greeted us at the hotel, not announced that we'd get a pre-ordered meal in the town's one and only restaurant, the two shower stalls on our floor would have been occupied for a long time, but the pull of food and drink, eating at tables, sitting on chairs was even more powerful. 

We got to really celebrate our journey to the North Pole. (One strange note: Along with local fare, fish and reindeer, at the restaurant, we had baked whole chicken legs and thighs. The restaurant manager proudly proclaimed they were from the USA. All the way out in the Siberian hinterland! It is a result of American's preference for white chicken breasts. The surplus, less desirable, for Americans, the "dark" meat is exported to places like Siberia. I'd had such American chicken legs at fancy restaurants all over the world where they are routinely considered a delicacy.)

Once more we had to wait for a few days until the weather made a flight to Moscow possible. 

When a plane finally came, there was such a backlog of passengers for the flight to Moscow, the plane was stormed. We, the participants of the North Pole expedition, had tickets that Bernard had organized, but being not as familiar with local customs, by the time we got on the plane (you get on like onto a bus, there are no check in formalities, no boarding announcements, one just gets on.) Most hopeful passengers had come through the hole in the airport's perimeter chain link fence, climbing over snow drifts between wrecked airplanes, just the way I had gotten out of the airport when I arrived. 

Most seats were taken by more than one person. Our whole group stood massed near the plane's door. The isles were packed with luggage. People sat on it. 

During our time at near the pole, Bernard had found a very cute translator.  Her name was Marina. She took matters in hand and complained to someone in an uniform. That uniform spoke to the passengers and Marina translated for us:

"Everybody has to leave the airplane and after all are out, you can come back in with ticket in hand. There will be a control at the door."

Nobody moved.

"You can sit here forever. The plane will not leave before everybody has gone out and then come back in presenting his ticket," was the next announcement.

A few people trickled out. When there were but a few stalwarts, the uniformed man, maybe he was the pilot, went to each and made them leave.

It turned out that, with control, the uniformed man by the door, when only passengers with tickets could get on the plane, some seats ended up being empty. All the luggage, lots of it, remained piled in the isle. 

The rest, getting to Moscow, and a soggy farewell party in a hot Moscow nightclub, and the return to New York, was uneventful.
Back in New York I got mail from Bernard. Apparently the pilot of the helicopter who'd brought us back from the pole, is a kind of archivist for people who'd reached the pole. I now have a diploma making me one of them.

I decided to get back to Khatanga to spend a summer in the tundra with Boris and Sergey. I hoped to bring along Emilie, and maybe my brother Peter. 

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We did. Peter, Emilie and I were there the following July and August. We had a grand time. Peter ended up returning to Switzerland with a mammoth tusk, Emilie and I returned to New York after a long river journey on the Yenisey river, the Trans Siberian railroad, then through China by train and bus, then through Vietnam from the Chinese border to the DMZ, by train and motorcycle, from there to Lao, Thailand, and Japan,.

You can find out all about that  in the next post. Maybe Emilie still has some photos that I can include.

Stay in touch.

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