FILIPINO POTPOURRI    By Jesse T. Reyes

SAN DIEGO, Calif. –Cheers! 

For most of us, the North Pole is an abstraction – a stand-in for the concept of “faraway,” of inaccessible wilds, bitter cold, and the unknowable. 

In fact, the North Pole is one of the least explored places on our planet because of the unfavorable climatic conditions and the circumstance that it is not positioned on land but is located in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.  This is the most northern point on earth.  Being very little explored it is surrounded by many mysteries. 

In 1970, a US specialty magazine published an article in which it supported the theory that the Earth is empty inside and populated.  The author of the article took notes of several explorers who witnessed anomalies when they approached the North Pole.  It came back to the question that the compass needle remains in the upright position in the non-functioning state. 

The famous explorer Fridtjof Nansen noted in his diary that one morning he witnessed the emergence of a strong light beneath the polar ice.  Nansen compares the light with a sun shining from within the ice cap and the pale red color.  For several days, Nansen witnessed this phenomenon. 

Another curiosity described by Nansen was that the temperatures were increasing as the expedition members approached the North Pole.  Nansen wondered what was the nature of this phenomenon, which caused the temperature to rise?  In the area called the high seas, there is rare bird species that Nansen said could not explain how they got there. 

Nansen was fascinated by the area he had discovered.   The temperatures were far above zero degrees, the sea was crossed by icebergs that contained sand, rocks and dust inside them.  Where they came from, they remain a mystery.  It’s a world of the unknown, the researcher said; the earth in which certain phenomena cannot be explained. 

On the lighter side, you say “North Pole” and most people think of Santa, but did you – my dear folks – know that the region is a hotbed for international intrigue?  Or it has a special connection to the unicorn? 

There is no doubt about it that the most mythical place on earth is more than just snow and Santa.  Ever since it was discovered by Robert E. Peary, Matthew Henson and four Eskimo companions back in 1909, the North Pole has been an intriguing place, indeed. 

Here are a few facts about the North Pole that may surprise you:  Unlike the South Pole, which lies over the continent of Antarctica, there is no land beneath the North Pole but more of a floating Artic ice sheet that expands during colder months and shrinks to half its size in the summer.  To complicate things even more, there are two different definitions of the North Pole.  The first is the north magnetic pole, which is, quite literally, a magnetic phenomenon which changes daily depending on changes under the Earth’s crust.  Additionally, there is the north terrestrial pole, which is the fixed point that references the top of the Earth.  Regardless of how you define the North Pole, global warming continues to be a problem here – as the polar ice caps melt, the sea levels rise, eliminating the land that polar bears and other wildlife depend for survival.

It’s at the center of an international controversy right now:  Did you know 30 percent of the world’s untapped oil reserves are located in the Arctic Circle?  The U.S. Geological Survey says that amount could actually be higher, since so much of the region has yet to be explored.  Complicating matters is the fact that multiple countries lay claim to the Arctic Circle – Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark (via Greenland), and the United States (via Alaska).  Each country is allowed to explore potential oil reserves within 200 miles of their coastlines, but in 2007, Russia used a mini-submarine to plant the country’s flag on the floor of the Arctic Ocean in an attempt to claim the region and its natural resources, a move that was rejected by the United Nations (U.N.) as the countries continue to work toward a solution. 

The North Pole has seasons:  Just like everywhere else on Earth, the temperature varies here depending on the time of year.  The North Pole is warmest in July, if by warm you mean it’s actually freezing – 32 degrees.  If that gives you the shivers, brace yourself.  Temperatures in February drop to a bone-chilling 31 degrees below zero.  The amount of light each day depends on the time of year, too. Alaska as well as Norway and the other Arctic Circle countries each face six months of broad daylight and six months of almost total darkness because of the angle at which this top portion of the earth receives sunlight. 

Did you know that the creature that inspired myths about unicorns comes from the North Pole? The narwhal, a small whale that lives in the chilly waters of the Arctic Circle, has a six-to-10-foot long tusk, a trait that earned it the nickname “unicorn of the sea.”  Back in the 16?th? century, they were often believed to possess magical powers that could be used to cure diseases.  Demand was high, and legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I shelled out 10,000 pounds to get her hands on her very own narwhal tusk. Nowadays, narwhal populations are on the decline, due to hunting (Inuit peoples use the meat, tusks and vitamin-C-rich skin in their daily lives), climate change, and fishing for halibut, their main source of food. 

So, now – you all know these facts about the North Pole, right?  Yet, I say that despite all of our fancy ideas on what the North Pole is, I am quite sure it never occurred to you all, too – to think of the Arctic Circle as a place that anyone of us could possibly be able to visit? 

But indeed, through a series of converging situations - I suddenly found myself researching for stuff about it, whatever that meant.  I do know that one point in time, I’ve been intrigued by the subject matter, too!  You will probably be asking the same question: “Why would anyone want to go there?

There’s nobody there, you’re cut off from the rest of the world!”   But I do say and do think that is exactly the appeal to it all. 

And especially now that I have found out that human-powered trips to the North Pole may be on the brink of extinction, the very thought of whether the last human has actually trekked to the North Pole for the last time further mystified me. 

“North Pole expeditions are going the way of the passenger pigeon,” says Eric Larsen, a Colorado-based polar explorer who has completed three North Pole expeditions. 

According to Tom Sjogren from adventurestats.com, the record-keeper of Arctic feats, a true North Pole expedition must travel from the coastline of Alaska, Greenland and, Canada or Russia over the polar ice mass to the North Pole, which sits at a latitude of 90 degrees north.  Once the journey to the North Pole has been completed, it’s acceptable to get picked up by a helicopter or plane. 

According to purists, the preferred expedition style is completely human powered, unsupported and unassisted, meaning no air-dropped supplies or external aids such as dogs, kites or motorized vehicles, which increase speed and lessen the load.  Since Admiral Robert E. Peary purportedly completed the first expedition to the North Pole in 1909 (subsequent analysis has cast doubt on whether he actually made it…adding more mystery to polar explorations!), only 47 of the 247 treks completed to 90 degrees  north have been singlehanded and unaided. 

In an unsupported expedition, North Pole travelers must ski, snowshoe, swim, and climb, all while towing a 300-pound sled of supplies approximately 480 miles, which takes about 50 to 70 days. There are mounds of ice as big as houses to get over and stretches of 30-degree water to traverse, which travelers swim across wearing a full-body rubber suit.  Air temperatures often hover around 40 degrees below zero. 

“It’s the most difficult expedition on the planet that nobody really knows about,” says Larsen. 

The window to join this exclusive – if painful – club may soon be closed, sad to say.  In the last five years, only one unsupported, unassisted expedition has completed the journey to the North Pole, compared to seven from 2005 to 2010. 

“They’re done, “says Richard Weber, an Arctic pioneer from Canada who has skied to the North Pole six times, more than anyone in history.  “The future of going to the North Pole is dim,” he added.

And I am happy to write that just before all of the above looming shadow comes to the final countdown, a Filipino…yes, actually a Filipina “kababayan” (fellow country folk) of ours has trekked and reached the North Pole, indeed!

As a child, Samelene “Sam” Bernardo Pimentel had always been inexplicably drawn to the Star. When she got older, she realized that she couldn’t reach that star.  So she settled for True North instead – literally to the “Top of the World,” the North Pole. 

On April 21, 2015 at 5:00 AM (Norway time zone) – she became the only Filipino in a team of 5, who reached the 90 degrees Latitude North.   Pimentel planted the Philippine flag at the spot not knowing at the time she was the first Filipino to conquer the North Pole! 

According to Pimentel, the expedition offered the participants the experience of crossing the massive Arctic sea ice on the Arctic Ocean, with depth of 4,000 meters and constantly drifting. 

To reach the Geographic North Pole, each team member pulled sleds carrying their equipment and provisions that weighed up to 40 kilos.  The takeoff point was at Longyearbyen, Svalbard after which the team was flown to Ice Base Barneo, a floating base camp on the Arctic sea ice where a helicopter took them to the drop-off point at 89 degrees Parallel where they skied for several days until they reach their ultimate destination, the Geographic North Pole. 

To prepare for the epic trip, Pimentel had to undergo weeks of rigid endurance training with Philippine Marines in Fort Bonifacio back in the old homeland.  In Norway, she spent several days training on winter survival and learning how to ski just days before the expedition team set out for the North Pole. 

By the way, the expedition was organized by Borge Ousland’s Polar Exploration.  Ousland is described as “the leading polar explorer of our time.”  He has gone on solo expeditions to both the South Pole and North Pole and crossed both the Antarctic and the Arctic by himself from coast to coast. 

Perhaps by this time, you are now asking the proverbial $64,000 question - why do certain people challenge themselves to such a degree?  

Regarding our “kababayan” Pimentel – I say I am also tempted to paraphrase a famous old advertisement, supposedly used for the Shackleton’s endurance expedition in the early 1900s – “Men and women wanted for hazardous journey.  High costs, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return not guaranteed…honor and recognition in event of success.” 

One of the enduring polar exploration stories of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat is the tale of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew which set off in 1914 with the hope of becoming the first explorers to traverse the Antarctic continent.  When their vessel, Endurance, became trapped in ice, Shackleton and his men set up camp on ice floes; eventually, they reached the uninhabited Elephant Island.  Shackleton and a small crew sailed a lifeboat 800 miles (1,287 km) and returned to rescue the other men with no loss of life. 

The names and achievements of famous explorers of the Polar Regions are well known, and the history of polar exploration is filled with stories of courage and endurance, as well as triumph and tragedy.  From Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose bravery and devotion to his men was exemplary, to the century-long mystery of the ill-fated Franklin expedition, modern-day polar explorers such as our very own “kababayan” - Samelene “Sam” Bernardo Pimentel - truly continue to intrigue us all. 

Indeed, the bragging rights are priceless! 

Her next adventure, if you asked?  I wouldn’t be surprise if it would be the South Pole!

Way to go, girl! 

Mabuhay!!