Arctic explorer Richard Weber has travelled across the surface of the Earth to the North Pole seven times.
But his latest trip, completed in April with his older son, Tessum, 21, and two other adventurers, may have been the last - not just for Weber, but for all who want to visit the top of the Earth. As polar ice melts away, the chance to travel by foot to the North Pole will be relegated to stories from the past.
"The seasons are shortening," Richard said upon returning from his latest expedition. "April used to be clear and sunny, now the weather is much worse."
In 1986, Richard, a cross-country ski champion, made the first expedition over the ice on foot since American Robert E. Peary claimed to have reached the pole in 1909. Three years later, he started taking people to ski the last degree of latitude.
"It was the extreme leading edge of adventure tourism. People said I was crazy," recalls Richard, who, with his wife, Josée Auclair, Tessum and younger son, Nansen, runs Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge.
For Tessum, it was typical family life. "My family has been in the North for eons. Going to the North Pole is normal."
His first polar experience came strapped to his mother's back at just six weeks old. At the time, it seemed polar expeditions would be feasible well into the future as traditional scientific models indicated the polar regions would remain frozen until about 2100. Quickening warming trends have shattered that expectation.
"Even the most pessimistic models didn't predict ice free conditions until 2050," said David Barber, associate dean of research at the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth and Resources at the University of Manitoba, and the Canada research chair in Arctic-system science.
"The melting is pretty clear, but the surprise is how fast it's happening," Barber said. "The rate … is picking up speed. Observations now suggest the Arctic will be ice-free by 2030, perhaps as early as 2013."
Weber says it is "shocking how much change has happened in the last 10 to 15 years." At the same time, North Pole expeditions have become "more commercial, more competitive." The famed adventurer - who set the speed record for a South Pole trek with no outside support with companions Ray Zahab and Kevin Vallely in 2009 - says this North Pole journey was his last (though he will still consult for others hoping to make the journey).
Fearful for the future of such adventures, South African Howard Fairbank joined Weber's April expedition. Fairbank has sailed solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and has pedalled more than 25,000 kilometres on his bicycle, crossing Europe, Africa, North and South America and Australia. Still, he hoped by reaching the North Pole he would reach deeper into his understanding of himself and others.
Because there's no peak, no signpost, no trailhead and no landmark at the North Pole, this expedition, Weber explains, is unlike any other. "The route is drifting pack ice all the way, the view is exactly the same, so it really is about the journey."
Each day, wind pushes ice pans into each other, crushing and grinding loudly in the unmarked surrounds. Pressure ridges made of jagged blocks of ice form between ice sheets at impact. As pans separate, stretches of open water, known as leads, are revealed. The drift is non-stop, a fixture of the partly frozen and constantly changing Arctic landscape.
A trained eye is needed to determine the varying kinds of ice in the Arctic, from older, thicker ice to barely formed stretches of slushy ice that easily disintegrate. The differences can be mere feet apart. While one lead may freeze over to allow an expedition to pass, another may open up, blocking the team's progress.
Conditions overhead are as varied as those underfoot. Storms are more frequent, causing whiteout conditions, while dark clouds block what was once an ever-present sun. Signs of wildlife disappear as the group leaves the resources of solid land, and expedition members quickly realize the depth of their solitude: They are the only living creatures out on the ice.
And every night, as the team slept, they drifted farther from the Pole. The phenomenon is termed negative drift: Arctic currents work against expeditions leaving from Canada, pushing the ice pack south, against the direction teams are travelling, leaving their progress at the mercy of the ocean. By day, every footfall is shortened by the drift.
For Fairbank, the goal of reaching the Pole weakened the closer they got. "I had experienced more than I could have ever imagined," he recalls. "The relevance of the journey made the specific end point fade into insignificance."
For Tessum, the value of the journey is learning from his father, Fairbank and the fourth member of their team, David Pierce Jones, and from putting himself to the test.
In his blog ( www.tessumweber.com), he captures the essence of Arctic exploration: "You are pushed to your physical and mental limits daily, you lack sleep, and you need to stay sharp. ...
"The purpose of this journey was the last 41 days that you just survived on the Arctic Ocean, every time you suffered, every moment of beauty, of heaven and hell."
Special to The Globe and Mail
EXPLORE THE ARCTIC
Richard Weber and his family operate Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, 800 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, where tourists can go in the summer to learn about the Canadian Arctic while enjoying the comforts of home. Guests take day trips from the lodge to spot wildlife such as beluga whales, muskox and, of course, polar bears. Those wishing to travel to the Pole can consult Weber in preparing their own expedition. 1-819-459-1794; www.arcticwatch.ca.
Best time to go
Visit from July 18 to Aug. 6 to watch as many as 2,000 beluga whales come to the inlet to breed, raise their young and enjoy the warmer river water.
What it costs
--A week of guiding and sightseeing starts at $7,900 per person.
--A new Youth Leadership Program for young adults ages 14 to 18 runs from Aug. 6 to 20. At $9,950, the course includes nine days of Arctic travel, including seven nights away from the lodge.
--Air Canada and Canadian North offer special rates for tourists on flights from Edmonton and Calgary to Yellowknife (to arrange, discuss with Arctic Watch or your travel agent); Arctic Watch supplies transportation by private plane to the lodge.