Arctic Wisdom: 'If No One Dies on an Expedition,Then It’s Already a Success'

PHOTO by pilipenkoD / Depositphotos
A renowned Russian polar explorer shares his story of surviving at the North Pole

Yuriy Nasteko

Captain of the icebreaker Georgy Sedov, formerly captain of the diesel icebreaker Mikhail Somov, a decorated polar explorer, and an advisor on the movie Icebreaker

I wanted to work on the Arctic ice caps even when I was a kid. My friends and I ventured out on ‘expeditions,’ crossing the frozen Dnepr. Back then, being a sailor had a certain romantic appeal, it promised adventure and discovery. The government was also investing in popularising the profession: there were sea-based movies, books. These days, films like Icebreaker are few and far between.

You meet all sorts of people in the Arctic. Although these ‘all sorts’ don’t stay here for too long – the environment weeds them out. Only those who really love this unforgiving continent remain here. I’ve seen plenty of physically strong people crack under the pressure here and just as many outwardly weak people get by thanks to sheer willpower.

It’s not quite appropriate to call us a “closed society.” It’s more like natural selection. We are united by one passion: coming back here. One of my acquaintances, a seasoned, but now retired polar explorer, said: “I would have given anything to come back to the Arctic one more time, even just for an hour – that's where life is true.”

A Day in a Life at the Pole

A typical day on an expedition starts and ends with everyone doing their job. Everything depends on the routine, as it guarantees that the ship moves forward and that the burden is spread equally among the participants. Although everyone on the expedition is on friendly terms, the captain is the boss, and his decision is final.

Russia polar explorer
Yuriy Nasteko

The food is nutritious and hearty. There may be problems getting fresh produce, but what are you going to do? We deal with it. A lot rides on the cook. A tasty meal sets the mood and eventually results in increased productivity. A good cook is an important asset for both a ship and an expedition.

You have free time – lots of it, in fact, for example, when the weather is bad and all you can do is wait. It’s important to keep busy at such times. We usually have lectures from the interesting personalities who come along on expeditions. They talk about their scientific research. We also play games and craft little knickknacks. Movies are popular too, naturally. Interestingly, towards the end of the expedition, the mood shifts from action movies to romance.

Seagulls resting on an iceberg in the Franz Josef Land archipelago

Conflicts do happen onboard. The important thing is to deal with them through humour. If something serious does happen, then we use financial disincentives. Troublemakers don't stay for long and tend to leave of their own volition. The ship has the usual bans on alcohol abuse and smoking outside of designated areas. Fire is the number one enemy – there’s nowhere to run here. And, of course, there’s chain of command – it must be followed at all times.

The Sea and Superstitions

Polar explorers are a superstitious bunch. You never talk about the “last one” in a group – call them the “outermost” instead. You don’t spit on the deck either. Personally I prefer not to set off on Mondays. Otherwise you’re in for big trouble, you even risk losing someone from the team. I'm speaking from experience. I have my own ritual. As soon as we set off, I play The Show Must Go On by Queen. It’s my lucky charm.

Force of Nature

The Aurora Borealis is the most picturesque part of any polar expedition. It’s an awe-inspiring sight. As far as destinations are concerned, I’m particularly fond of Franz Josef Land – those landscapes are unforgettable. Sometimes I dream of sailing along the archipelago. The thing I’m most scared of is having to live without the Arctic – even with all its dangers. I can deal with everything else – or I'll try to, at least.