Cape to Cape Expedition
To experience at first hand the conditions on the straits in winter and with that benefit consider the method and timing of a crossing attempt.
Wales 65º 37’N 168º05’W
Personnel: Steve Burgess and Nicky Spinks
The few days that we spent in Wales were considered “stormy and rough” by locals. Our arrival and departure was subject to many delays and postponement, a gusting 30mph wind whipping up snow into often whiteout conditions. Keeping the airstrip open was almost a full time job. Drifts were cleared and the plane given the ok to land but by the time the plane arrives ribbons of snow would be building up again making taxiing difficult needless to say turnaround was instant.
Daylight was limited to a few hours of dusk but occasionally the wind did ease and the sky cleared enough to allow a hazy sun shine through. One such occasion we climbed the very start of the continental divide and looked out over the straits towards the Diomedes and Russia.
The temperature fluctuated little between ‾ 25 and ‾ 28°C but combined with the wind gave a wind chill of ‾ 80 to ‾ 90°C.
Nome although isolated from the Alaska Road network by some 500 miles has good local roads, cleared of snow in winter – both taxi and car hire are available. Outside of Nome winter transport is snow machine and summer transport is A.T.V.
Nome is served by Alaska Airlines. Outlying areas, including Wales are well served by a number of the following companies and probably more:
Arctic Transport Services (freight only)
Cape Smythe Air
In winter flights are not timetabled – purchase your ticket and manifest then wait for a weather window. Some airlines fly in smaller and less clear windows than others – its very much dependant on the experience of the pilot! Most people just go on a first available basis, changing to another company doesn’t seem to be a problem. We flew into Wales on Bering Air but left on Cape Smythe. At the time Cape Smythe had a reputation for flying in less clement weather than most.
If you have made prior arrangements with your destination someone will meet you with a snow machine as landing strips can be some distance from the communities that they serve.
To join the unofficial club of adventurers and gold diggers we stayed at the Nugget Inn but there are quite a few cheap alternatives.
We stayed with Daniel Richards or AlaskDan who has accommodated most of the expeditions who have come to the Strait.
The clothing we took was, with the exception being our footwear, regular available, UK, Outdoor clothing and all performed exceptionally well in extreme conditions:
Patra silks – vest, leggings, glove liners, balaclavas
Damart – thermal vests, leggings, socks
Gelert – fleeces
Lowe Alpine – gloves
Extremities Clothing – mitts
Vango – outer jacket and fleece lining.
Local hats and “Kamik” felt lined boots were bought from REI 1200 W Northern Lights Boulevard, Anchorage. Ski goggles and neoprene face masks were borrowed from locals and made being outside more bearable but were considered absolutely essential for riding snow machines. Northern Outfitters was the preferred outdoor clothing manufacturer of people working outside in the region and we were very impressed by it.
It is now widely accepted that due to global warming winter is coming to the straits later and later and it is less cold than in the past. A tradition has grown up in Nome that after Christmas householders take their Christmas trees and plant them in the ice – thus creating a temporary forest on the ice. We were in Nome on the 15th January and still no fixed shore ice had formed thick and fast enough for anyone to venture out; the trees were piled up and waiting. Further examples: firstly Channel 4 TV wanted to host millennium celebrations on the ice straddling the international dateline but there was insufficient ice. Secondly, in winter mail is usually delivered to Little Diomede by Plane. As soon as the ice forms the islanders construct a runway on the sea and thus a plane can land. January 2001 during our visit mail was having to be brought in by helicopter, much more costly, as there was insufficient ice.
The ice usually starts to form in early December, the wind and currents constantly breaking it up and pushing it towards the land, blocks are pushed both above and below the skin on the surface. What is above forms a random pile of ice blocks and what goes below builds up until it wedges firmly and freezes to the shallow sea bed and shore. Only when this has taken place is it safe to venture onto the now land locked ice. This takes place on both Russian and Alaskan coasts but it only accounts for a relatively short distance over the strait; after that it is a constantly moving patchwork of slabs and leads. Locals feel that if shore ice didn’t build within the next two weeks i.e. By mid January it may not happen at all that year From the shore the dark outline of open water was clear to see..
Considering firstly the effect climate change is having on the area coupled with the inconsistency of the surface we (and expeditions previous, (Land Rover)) easily concluded driving over the ice is not our option. Constructing a one-off machine with a capability to clamber through and over ice flow whilst remaining buoyant has been the preferred option of some; Richard Creasy, Ford Overland Challenge and Steve Brooks Ice Challenger, but that did not comply with our overall objective of driving Cape to Cape.
Springtime May / June is considered to be an extremely dangerous time to be on the straits. The ice is breaking up in the thaw and is much more free to move about in the open water creating a high risk of getting crushed between the blocks. The principal hazard in July / August is low sea fog – it is reported you can often see land from the mast head as the fog hangs close to the water surface. There will also be the advantage of longer daylight hours in summer.
The conclusions from this short, costly but valuable recce visit are not hard to draw. Considering our own expedition criteria, the information gathered on this trip and from prior and subsequent research, the expedition must arrive on the straits before the Siberian spring. It will then probably wait until July / August before converting to its amphibian state and crossing in relatively ice free and favourable sea conditions.
Accurate weather predictions and a thorough understanding of the prevailing sea currents will be crucial.
Some 30 years worth of data is available from various sources for the area Uelen – Kotzbue – Nome, though some seems contradicting. Apart from obvious seasonal differences the unique position of the straits and the local topography conspire to create almost any weather condition at almost any time. Analysis of data, some examples given below, wind speed, direction, storm probability and extent of pack ice indicate July / August to be the most favourable time to be on the straits.
Wind Direction + Speed - Bering Strait
Limits of Sea Ice
End of June End of July
End of August