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An Indian at the North Pole

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North PoleAs narrated to Ravi Damodaran, by Dr M R Shetty

I had been talking to Dr. M R Shetty for more than 2 days before I caught on that he is an explorer, adventure traveller and wild life enthusiast and has published two books. An oncologist by profession he lived and worked in Arlington Heights, Illinois, before retiring and settling down in Bangalore, where he lives in a sprawling bungalow on MG Road. This is where I met M R S as he will be referred to this article, a very well mannered, soft spoken and humble person who keeps a low profile, typical of old world charm and aristocracy.

Being a writer, naturally the topic turned to writing, but as I took leave of him he ran up the stairs to fetch me a copy of the book ‘North to the North Pole’. Even then I took little note of the facts and it was only while reading the book on the journey back to Chennai that I realised with a start that M R S was on the cover of the book, photographed at the natural North Pole. It is quite revealing that there are three versions of the NP. The Magnetic Pole, geographic North Pole (90 N) and the centre of the ice pack called the Ice Pole.

Until about a decade ago only around 70 trips to the North Pole have been documented in history spanning four centuries of exploration. Shetty evinced more interest in a Polar exploration by air since it was to be made on a Twin Otter built by De Havilland of Canada. DHC 6 the Twin Otter has a cruising speed of 297 kilometres per hour and a range of approximately 1400 kilometres while carrying a weight of 12,500 lbs. Though designed to carry a crew of 2 plus 19 passengers, for this trip only 6-7 passengers can come on board so that extra fuel could accommodated. The production of this particular type of aircraft that could be fitted with skis for landing on ice was discontinued in 1988. Going back 40 years from that date we have the record of the first attempt to land on the North Pole –on April 23, 1948 a Soviet pilot P A Gordienko was the first to land a plane on the NP without any dispute. Others like Byrd in 1926 and Amundsen and Ellsworth also in the same year reached the ice pole which was at 86 N and 157 E. The Russians established ice stations in 1937 and one of their pilots landed on the ice 20 kilometres away from the Pole hoping the drifting ice would take him to 90 N.

For 400 years men had tried to reach the Pole by ship, but with disastrous consequences. Again the Russians took pole position when their ice-breaker Arktika managed the feat on May 17, 1977. The next record was only in 1987 and then in 1990. But by 1993 eight more had made the journey. The saga of man’s struggle to reach the Arctic and the Pole pales to insignificance when compared to what the Arctic Tern is capable of. The Random House Atlas of Bird Migration, by J Elphick, describes this bird’s 25,000 kilometre flight from the Arctic to the Antarctic in search of continuous daylight.

“For my own journey I made preparations in right earnest,” says Mulki Radhakrishna Shetty. “With only 40 lbs allowed as baggage I could take only two pairs of long underwear, wood trousers, two pairs of gloves, mask, scarf and parka, three layers of socks, three shirts, sweater, camera, film and binoculars- not forgetting washcloth, towels, slipper and coffee!” These are the suggested clothing for temperatures as low as -30 degree Fahrenheit plus the wind chill factor.

M R S left home on April 27, 2000 with Edmonton as his first halt. The next day he visited Elk Island National Park and Lake Tawayik nearby. While returning he had to halt before turning on to the main road that runs through the park. So far he had not spotted any wildlife, but now suddenly a large fluffy animal came crashing out of the thick forest right in front of his car and settled to a slow walk. Shetty had just spotted a bison and no guesses who was more surprised, the bison or he. As he drove on to Astonin Lake a ranger at the entrance informed him that near the spot of the sighting exists a loop road aptly named Bison Loop Road where a resident herd lived. He turned around a drove back to discover another car with headlights on with a bison strolling ahead. A little further, he spotted the herd on the right and a lake on the left of the road. The bison one by one they would get up cross the road go to the lake and quench their thirst. He also spotted a moose which kept glancing back nervously.

That evening M R S met the other team members for the first time, at the inn they were all staying in. On April 29, they left for Yellowknife (975 miles away) and on to Resolute Bay via Cambridge Bay. Resolute was a World War II airbase where the Canadian Government moved Inuit families from Quebec and Pond Inlet in 1953 to protect their territory. Located at 74 43’ North/ 94 57’ West, it has a population of just 200.

Settler from Chennai
On arrival at Resolute Bay the team was received by the innkeeper who drove them to her cosy, well-kept inn. It began snowing heavily at the Pole that evening so instead of heading for Beechey Island the team had to be content to do some local sightseeing; whalebones forming the framework for a hut, a church, school and health centre. The highlight of the evening was the sighting of an arctic wolf and a Narwahl tusk that they had missed earlier at the inn. This was topped off by viewing a video that told the story of Bezaleel Jesudason an engineer from Chennai who migrated to Canada and worked with the Inuit, married a girl there and both became guides and outfitters for polar exhibitions. After he died his wife stayed on to take care of the inn. He was probably the first person of Indian origin to reach the North Pole.

Most beautiful sight
On April 30, 2000 the team flew 237 miles to Griese Fiord (Ellesmere Island) in a Twin Otter De Havilland 300 series that can be fitted with skis and floats for landing on ice. The 20-seater plane flew at an altitude of 9500 feet. This island is separated from Devon Island by Jones Sound, which opens on to Baffin Bay – one of the most beautiful spots in the Arctic. A tiny village rests on a narrow beach at the foot of a 2000 ft cliff at the entrance of the fiord. For five months here is total darkness but in February, usually on 9th, 10th or 11th the sun reappears. But, from April to August there is 24 hours sunlight. The temperature in July is around 3.9 degrees Celsius, but on a good summer’s day it can go to 10 C; in January it is minus 30 degrees Celsius. The sea is frozen for 10 months while open waters appear from mid-August through October. The trip so far had been a great adventure, the plane was at their disposal but man and machine were at the mercy of the weather. On May 01, at 11.20 A.M. they took off for Qaanaaq and by 12.45 sighted the Greenland coast, with open water, floating ice, glacier-scarred mountains and some spectacular icebergs. “We had now travelled another 220 miles East and at Qaanaaq (Greenland) almost the entire town had turned out to greet us,” Shetty narrates when I met him in Bangalore on September 1, 2006.
Water costlier than fuel
Their host was there with his family to greet the team and after unloading the baggage they slowly trudged up a hill to their hotel. The town was having a holiday and a sports day and shooting contest, which accounted for the large crowd. In the afternoon the team went dog sledding and saw trucks bringing huge blocks of ice to melt and use as water. This is one of the places on earth where petrol is cheaper than water! 15 miles away were some mountains; one hours sled drive brought the team near an iceberg, and after resting the dogs the team returned to their small rooms provided with two beds. “The broken surface with mounds of ice made it dangerous for us. Between holding the camera and trying to hold on to the sled, I was in an unenviable position, lying on my left side,” chuckles Shetty. “At one point as the dogs picked up speed the sled hit one of the bumps and I was suddenly thrown off. The expert handling of the dog pack by the Inuit in the sled behind me saved me from a nasty accident,” he recollects.

The next stage of the journey was to Eureka approximately 600 miles from the Pole. Here one got to see herds of musk oxen, wolves, caribou and Arctic hare, “to provide a hair-raising experience.” The summer bloom consists of among others, colourful carpets of lichen, red moss and yellow poppies. Polar bears are also seen around the place, not to forget the 30 odd species of birds -the most distinguishable being the red beak black cape over the eyes and red claws, characteristics of the Tern. This area originally of Norwegian sovereignty, was sold to Canada for a mere $ 67,000 in 1930. On arrival the team was received by a very friendly and hospitable gentleman who took them to a comfortable place to stay with bunk beds, four to a room, common bath, video and TV room, billiard room and a dining room filled with memorabilia from past exhibitions. Passports were produced and stamped and the guest book signed. “I was able to glance through entries from November 1973 to May 2000,” says Shetty. I saw names of many famous explorers like Robert Swan (March 19, 1989). This explorer walked to the South Pole in 1986 at the age of 31, accomplishing the feat by walking 1440 kilometres. There were 13 nations who sent representatives to Eureka as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme – the trip was called Ice Walk, and included two India students: Shailendra Singh and Mandeep Singh Soni. A flag signed by the team still adorns the walls. In the billiard room a Steinway piano (serial number 327330) makes its stately presence felt. It was manufactured in a New York factory on November 24, 1948,” recollects Shetty.

On May 4, 2000 they met a group of people who had arrived by a Twin Otter. They had flown out by a tour operator at Wilmette. At 6.30 P.M. the weather at the pole was badly fogged. The pilot of the group had to pick up a seven people stranded at the pole. Going out on dog sleds they had reached 89 41 N but soon ran out of food and battery power, and were drifting back to 89 35 N. One of the apparently fell in to the water and just escaped being drowned, so hey called of the trip.

By May 7 the weather had not improved; the group met and decided to head as far north as possible, where the weather was clear enough to land on the ice. Shetty developed a bad headache and so decided to rest while the others went ahead. On May 6, all of the team members left for the airport on the way to the magnetic pole. The previous night M R S had expressed a wish to at least go there having come so far. “At the airport we were happy to see the other plane with the rescued members. “The magnetic pole at 78.45’N keeps shifting, if possible we would land or else go on to Resolute,” Shetty reminisces. “There is a fuel cache for trips to the Pole that I could see from the sky but it was too cloudy to land,” he laments. The team returned without touching 90 N, but Dr. M R Shetty made another attempt this time on an icebreaker, this time with success. (Read the episode in the sequel).

For those who have the mind body and spirit to visit the North Pole there are tour operators based in USA and Canada. Your passport needs to be stamped with the Visas of Norway, Canada, Russia, Greenland and possibly USA.

“I returned home after a most incredible trip, though we fell short of our goal. It takes more courage to turn back than to move forward.” –M R Shetty, May 9, 2000

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