Top Expeditions 1970-2020, #2: North Pole Round Trip

It was a project so daunting that even Borge Ousland thought it was impossible. For decades, explorer Robert Peary was credited with reaching the North Pole (and returning to land) in 1909, but it had become increasingly clear to historians that Peary did not get anywhere close. No one had made a North Pole round trip until Richard Weber and Misha Malakhov did so in 1995. No one has even tried to do it since.

Reaching the North Pole is incomparably harder than a South Pole trek. The South Pole rests on land and getting there is largely walking and winter camping. Fit beginners can do it. The North Pole lies in the middle of an imperfectly frozen ocean. It is much colder, involves multiple crossings of dangerously thin ice, detouring around open water or swimming across it, camping on a platform that can shatter underneath you while you sleep, and possibly dealing with predatory polar bears.

In the beginning, you have to push your heavy sled over mountains of buckled sea ice a dozen metres high. It requires experience, yet is difficult to train for because nothing else is quite like the Arctic Ocean. You can train for the cold in lots of places, but not for that unique surface. It’s also very expensive — six figures — to get to and from the starting point.

Richard Weber and Misha Malakhov both learned by apprenticing on other men’s expeditions. Weber had been a member of Canada’s National Cross Country Ski Team and represented his country at the World Championships from 1977 to 1985. In 1986, he was part of Will Steger’s unsupported, one-way dogsled expedition to the North Pole.

Malakhov, while not a competitive athlete like Weber, had superb strength and endurance and had also learned to ski well. Most polar travelers merely shuffle, using skis like snowshoes, for support on the snow. Malakhov and Weber, both real skiers, glided a little with each stride. In his early thirties, Malakhov had joined a famous group of Soviet polar skiers, led by Dmitri Shparo. Among other daft projects, they skied 500km between floating ice stations on the Arctic Ocean in the dark. Long before Ousland and Horn, theirs was the first Polar Night expedition.

Malakhov and Weber met on a joint Soviet-Canadian expedition across the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada in 1988. Two of the strongest and most ambitious members, they began to plan a joint trip together. In their early- to mid-30s, they were already highly experienced, and at the peak of their strength.

Weber was a mechanical engineer, which gave him a unique and technical perspective on navigating ice and managing equipment. Malakhov’s background as a physician gave him insight into the body’s response to cold and how to gain maximum efficiency on an expedition.

With open water on either side, Malakhov skis a fragile causeway while his sled misbehaves. Photo:


In 1992, Weber and Malakhov made their first attempt at an unsupported North Pole round trip but reached the Pole too late to do the return leg and had to call in a flight out. Partly, this was due to their late start in mid-March. Partly, because they originally wanted to make it a four-person expedition, but one member dropped out just before the start and another gave up partway through the trip. He turned around, skied back to land by himself, and called for a flight out. Next time, Malakhov and Weber would do it entirely by themselves.

Shouldering his skis, Malakhov maneuvers through rubbly ice. Photo:


In 1995, they managed to start much earlier than any modern North Pole expedition had before, in early February, from the north coast of Ellesmere Island. They threw flares out of the plane so that the bush pilots, who still took a great deal of convincing, could land in the darkness, a month before sunrise. Ellesmere Island was the usual place to begin. The current was against them en route to the Pole, so they were moving up a down escalator, losing hard-won ground each night they slept, but it would assist them on the return to land.

They each started with two fully laden sleds, with two lighter sleds clamshelled on top, so when the sleds inevitably overturned in the rough ice, they could just continue. They also carried a big backpack each.

On northern Ellesmere Island, the current pushes the ice against the rising seafloor, where it buckles into giant mountains. For the first several days, they made only a kilometre or two a day, working in the dark in the -40s and -50s. Unable to pull their full load at once, they shuttled one sled forward, then returned for the other. Sometimes, they just moved their food ahead in the backpacks before returning for the sleds. The idea was to shuttle as much food as far forward on the Arctic Ocean as possible, before striking off fully loaded. In the cold but calm weather, they were able to find their depots again each day.

As they stubbornly advanced, the ice surface improved. In the second week of March, the sun peeked above the horizon for the first time in months. Temperatures remained frigid, although the light increased rapidly.

As they ate through their supplies, they were eventually able to ditch one sled each. Sometimes they detoured around open water; a couple of times, they paddled across in an inflatable boat. Packrafts hadn’t reached the West yet, but Malakhov brought a lightweight Russian version. Finally, on May 12, their GPS read 90 degrees: They’d reached the geographic North Pole. 

Yet there was no time to waste. They’d come just halfway. It was milder now, but the ice wouldn’t refreeze any more when storms or tides broke it up. They had to hurry back to land before the ice totally disintegrated under their feet.

By June, they had abandoned most of their gear and just carried the backpacks. Once, Malakhov fell into the ocean. Conscious of the impending breakup of the ice and the increasing open water, they cut down on sleep, just napping for a couple of hours before continuing. Finally, on June 14, incredibly late in the season, they reached land.

It is unclear whether such a journey could be done again. The ice of the Arctic Ocean has thinned dramatically since 1995. Charter airlines, under tighter rein from their liability lawyers, would no longer land in the February darkness by the light of parachute flares.

Malakhov is now a businessman in Russia, based in Ryazan. He once ran for governor of his state. Weber led ski trips to the North and South Poles and elsewhere in the Arctic for many years as one of the first professional polar guides, and now owns two arctic fly-in lodges.