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Field Notes
Thomas Ulrich
Photograph by Thomas Ulrich
Thomas Ulrich

What was your best experience during this assignment?

I lived to tell my story. The ice had broken up under me, and I was stranded on a small ice floe for four days, waiting to be rescued. When I finally heard the helicopter in the distance, I lit a fire and shot a flare. Since there was no way the crew could have landed on that miserable piece of ice, they had to hover so close to it that the chopper was actually touching it. At last, some hands reached down and dragged me up to safety. At first, I felt a little guilty that these brave men had to risk their lives to save someone like me, who was asking myself, Is it necessary to cross the Arctic Ocean? But when I went into the cockpit to shake the hands of the pilot and co-pilot, I could see on their faces that they were proud and happy to have done such a terrific job with me. That was a great moment.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

It was the second night of my trek, and I knew something was dreadfully wrong. By 3 a.m., the ice under my tent was heaving, and so was my stomach. I unzipped the tent and looked out. The ice was breaking up all around me. Moving out of the tent, I could see the Arctic Ocean through the breaks and feel water splashing against my face. I was in the middle of a huge storm, and the waves under my feet were breaking my huge ice floe into small pieces. I grabbed the bag of survival gear I'd prepared the night before and pushed off on my skis to find some sturdier ice. I was operating on pure adrenaline, which somehow got me through it. Looking back, I'm amazed that I'm still alive.

What was the oddest experience that you encountered during this assignment?

It was very strange being back in the everyday world. Suddenly, I was at the Cape Arkticheskiy weather station with the same people who had helped me prepare for my great trek to the North Pole. And, less than a week later, I was knocking back vodkas with them and the rescue crew. I had psyched myself up to be away from everybody for three months of solitude. That same sense of strangeness would stick with me back home in Switzerland, even among my family and friends. The only thing I wasn't prepared for was returning home with no success.

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