All photos by Alex Buisse

Racing the Last Degree of the North Pole

The Mamont Cup, an expedition-style race to the North Pole that ended April 18, is an effort to promote polar research and raise climate change awareness.

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Apr 27 2015, 5:40pm

All photos by Alex Buisse

On April 15, four teams of Arctic adventurers launched the inaugural Mamont Cup, an international ski-touring race across the last degree of latitude to the North Pole—60 miles of ice floes, compression ridges, open water and notoriously strong winds. Harnessed to pulk sleds loaded with their gear, the 20 competitors raced for three days from the 89th parallel to the northernmost point on the planet.

The Mamont Foundation, whose founder Frederik Paulsen competed in the race with Team Baltic, sponsored the Mamont Cup to promote international cooperation in polar exploration and research to battle climate change. By funding events like the Mamont Cup, the foundation believes it can inspire people to take an active interest in the plight of polar environments.

The first team to reach the pole at the end of the third day was Team UK, composed of wounded British servicemen and led by David Hempleman-Adams, who was the first person to reach both the magnetic and geographic North and South Poles and climb all seven of the world's highest peaks. All four teams were led by renowned polar adventurers, and all four finished within several hours of Team UK's win.

"You need a lot of luck in the Arctic," Hemplemen-Adams says. "It's a hostile environment with open water and lots of rubble. But we had a pretty good strategy. Once we were dropped off, we got going straight away. We didn't want to hang around."

Team UK, which was the only team with experience together in the cold, gained nearly a day's lead on other squads, who waited until the sun was behind them so they could use it to navigate. Hempleman-Adams had also trained two of his teammates as point men so the three could alternate leading each hour to save energy. That cooperation – and favorable conditions – allowed them to pull long days from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. with 10 solid hours of daily skiing.

"We really didn't expect to win," says Captain Adam Crookshank of Team UK. "For us the main goal was just to get there. We shared the field with some magnificent individuals."

Team UK's success also makes them the first group of active wounded soldiers, all members of the Royal Dragoon Guards, to reach both poles. As they'd anticipated from a previous South Pole expedition, the cold aggravated their wounds. One soldier's facial scar opened up and needed patching. Another skied on a painful, cold-exacerbated ankle injury, and a third had difficulty using ski poles due to a damaged elbow. Each sustained these injuries serving in Afghanistan.

"Never once did they complain," Hempleman-Adams says. "They just got on with it. You wouldn't have known. It was only when they were taking painkillers in the evening that you realized they were suffering."

Though the race's pace proved faster than anticipated, the other teams faced the usual Arctic drama with setbacks from the start. Team Arctic, an all-female team with members from Denmark, Ukraine, Switzerland, U.S., and Canada, suffered two broken cooking stoves that left them powerless to warm food or water, a dangerous prospect that forced them to arrange a helicopter ferry to Team Europa, which helped them fix the stoves. Two days later, Team Arctic's Christine Dennison from the U.S. had to be medevaced with a knee injury.

When the four teams finally reached the pole, all shared a toast of Mamont vodka, then waited out a monster Arctic storm before flying back to Camp Barneo, where racers had departed four days prior.

"[It was] brilliant," Hempleman-Adams says of the event's pervading spirit. "Before the race started, all the teams were helping each other with equipment and advice. It truly was an international collaboration."

Hempleman-Adams believes the display of comradeship trumps the competition and its results, especially given the environmental significance of Polar Regions. Since he first tread Arctic ice in 1983, Hempleman-Adams has seen drastic change there and continues to educate the adventurous on guided trips with his company Cold Climate Expeditions.

"We are privileged to be able to go to these places, and I think it's part of our duties to tell the outside world what we're doing to the planet," he says. "The Arctic is like a canary in the mine in that climate change has an adverse effect around the world, but in the Arctic and Antarctic those effects are far more dramatic."