Politics Puts North Pole Skiers, Marathoners on Ice

Political tensions between Russia and Ukraine have delayed flights to the seasonal Arctic Ocean station known as Barneo. The station has been partly operational for days, but flight permits have been revoked due to a dispute between Ukrainian and Russian authorities. This has ended any chance of the Ukrainian-owned Antonov-74 aircraft ferrying passengers north from Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian arctic island of Spitsbergen.

The plane is even banned from flying north of 80 degrees, roughly the latitude of Longyearbyen. As a result, 200 scientists, tourists and polar guides are stranded, waiting for the bureaucracy to sort itself out. Some guides, stuck in limbo for two weeks, have packed up and are ready to head home.

Galya Morrell who has been going to Barneo and its predecessor since 1984, and is preparing to take a group of Russian teenagers to Barneo, says “The Ukrainian aircraft will not be flying, and they have started looking for an alternative.”

Morrell suggests that a large Russian aircraft will be available next week. In the meantime, two smaller Canadian planes have been chartered to take the priority group, the North Pole Last Degree skiers, within the next few days. These planes first need to complete three test flights to Barneo before they can bring passengers north. The first passengers could reach the ice on April 13.

The Barneo circus has taken a political turn this year. Photo: Galya Morrell

For 35 days each year, usually from the end of March to end of April (April 26 this year), a hardy team of Russians sets up a small village of tents on drifting ice within the 89th parallel to support a motley assortment of Last Degree tourists, scientists, marathon runners, scientists, ice divers, champagne flights to the Pole and the occasional expedition. The Russians originally named the place after Borneo in a spirit of irony, because it is nothing like that tropical island. It runs under the support of the Russian Geographical Society and the Russian Association of Polar Explorers.

As 24-hour daylight returns to the North Pole region, Russian helicopters pinpoint a suitable ice floe at least two kilometres long on which to land a hefty aircraft. To groom the runway, camp workers parachute onto the ice floe, followed by airdropped tractors and other machinery. Barneo has been running for 18 years.

A who’s who of the polar guiding world, including Eric Larsen, Dixie Dansercoer, Thomas Ullrich, Doug Stoop, Hannah McKeand, Victor Serov and Bengt Rotmo. Photo: Dean Cardinale


However, with these delays eating well into the second week of April, the consequences on the Last Degree expedition season aren’t yet fully known. But Morrell reports that at least one person has already made it to the Pole this season: “One person actually did a parachute jump on the North Pole from an IL-76, so you can say that the 2019 season has started.”

Delays in the far north aren’t uncommon. Eric Larsen notes on his social media: “In 2016, we had to wait 12 days in Longyearbyen due to a cracked ice runway. I’ve spent more time delayed in Longyearbyen than actually leading Last Degree North Pole expeditions. Crazy. But also crazily normal.”

The camp drifts around the Geographic North Pole. It is currently located at N89′ 28, E151′ 41. Photo: Camp Barneo


The 50 North Pole marathoners stuck in Longyearbyen have a particular problem: They all need to be on the ice at the same time to start. This is not likely if only the smaller Canadian planes are available. In addition, a lot of the larger infrastructure, such as group tents, have not made it to Barneo, so that the five-star luxury that all clients have enjoyed in the past won’t happen this year. Instead, they will have to use smaller expedition tents, like everyone else.

Under international law, the Russians have no claim on air space over the Arctic Ocean or even on an ice camp, which falls in a kind of jurisdictional limbo. Some even suggest that it was the Ukrainian authorities themselves that declined to license one of their planes to land on purportedly Russian territory. Though impatient to begin their adventure, most visitors in Longyearbyen prefer to wait rather than reach Barneo the way some of its personnel have, by parachute.


Camp Barneo logistics personnel on their morning commute. No landing permit required. Photo: North Pole Marathon