Surviving -30 degrees on Barneo, the North Pole's floating ice camp

Lawrence McGinty

Former Science and Medical Editor

The camp in Barneo. Credit: Luke Collinson

It’s a joke, apparently. The Russians call their camp on the sea-ice only 1° away from the North Pole “Barneo” because it’s not Borneo. I didn’t get it either. The Russian sense of humour may evade me, but I’m full of admiration for their inventiveness, persistence and just plain guts in setting up the camp on the ice.

They do it every March while the sea-ice is strong enough to take the weight of planes landing.

By the end of April, the ice - this year less than 2m thick - is breaking up and they take it all away. Barneo is born when the forward party is parachuted onto the sea-ice. They send a GPS position via the Iridium satellite system and the Russian Air Force in Murmansk gets airborne.

They fly in 50 tonnes of equipment – including an ancient tractor with a bull-dozer shovel for smoothing the ice to make a runway.

You might ask how, since there’s no runway yet. Well the Russian pilots have a little trick. They open the cargo ramp at the back of the Ilyushin and then pull the nose up. The cargo just slides out of the back and parachutes down to the ice.

When it’s finished, Barneo is not quite home from home. But it’s a refuge for scientists, explorers and even tourists. A generator runs 24 hours a day to power space heaters the warm the tents. When you walk in wearing down jackets and pants, it’s toast.

A mess serves hot food. Russian hot food. No chance of a Michelin star but its full of carbs.

And there are toilets – sort of. An unheated, small, square tent acts as a privy. The smell isn’t good but it works. They build a snow wall to make a French-style urinal. The dash from the heated tent to the urinal and back would break Olympic records. Who’s here? There’s the Russian dog-sled team, scientists of every hue (American, Norwegian, Japanese, French, Portuguese and Russian) and tourists.

Tents set up at Barneo. Credit: Luke Collinson

They come for the forty minute flight to the North Pole. They start mostly from Spitsbergen, 600 miles away, flying to Barneo in an Antonov specially built for Arctic work. Next day they climb in a Russian Mil MI-8 Helicopter to go to the top of the World.

All this technology is very Russian – clunky and a bit basic – but it all works.

And at the end of a day, to slide into your sleeping bag in a tent heated to 18 degrees while temperatures outside are nearly 30 below, is just heaven.

If you fancy a spring break at Barneo, better phone your bank manager first. A three-day stay including a trip to the Pole, costs around £13 000.

But how else could I have said: “Lawrence McGinty, ITV News, at the North Pole”?

Lawrence McGinty and cameraman Luke Collinson. Credit: Luke Collinson

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