Wondering How to Get to the North Pole? Try a Nuclear Icebreaker

February 3, 2017

Imagine stepping out onto multi-year sea ice metres thick, a glass of champagne in hand, at the one place in the entire world where a look in any direction is a look south. Standing at the North Pole is an epic travel goal only a select few will ever experience in their lifetime.

The geographic North Pole, or ‘True North,’ is located in the Arctic Ocean at a latitude of 90° north, where all longitudinal lines meet (and as a result, the area has no time zone!). The water is over 4,000 meters deep, and is typically covered in ice 1.8 to 3 meters thick.

Where is the magnetic North Pole?"North Magnetic Poles" by Cavit is licensed under CC BY 4.0

So how on earth can you get there? Reaching the North Pole can be a lot more exciting and comfortable than you might think.

How to Get to the North Pole

In years past, attempting to reach the North Pole took years of planning and often meant taking your life in your hands. In a 1910 Boston American article, explorer Matt Henson wrote of his successful discovery of the North Pole with fellow explorer Robert Peary:

“Three times in his company I crossed the ‘Great Lead’ north of Cape Columbia on my way towards the Pole, and three times we recrossed together. The last round trip was the successful one. The North Pole was reached. Three hearty American cheers were given for Old Glory as we waved from an icy pinnacle. It was the culmination of a struggle lasting all those years, in which Commander Peary, the employer, and I, plain Matt Henson, the servant, had worked and starved and frozen together.”

Passengers celebrate reaching the North Pole in a gathering on the thick, multi-year Arctic sea ice.

Quark Passengers at the North Pole

Today, there are a few different ways to get to the North Pole--all are undoubtedly exciting, but some are more comfortable than others.

  1. You can walk to the North Pole.

You could pull a sledge and walk there, like Alan Chambers, one of the polar expert guest speakers at our upcoming North Pole Summit 2017. Alan is a polar adventurer and motivational speaker who led the first successful unsupported British expedition from Canada to the North Pole. It took him and his team 70 gruelling days pulling a sledge 672 nautical miles in temperatures as low as -65°C, but he did it!

Arctic explorer Alan Chambers at the North Pole

So... you could give that a try (actually, I can’t even recommend that in jest. Don’t do it).


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  1. You can fly-fly to the North Pole.

A second way to get there is to fly by plane as far as you can go, then journey by helicopter the rest of the way on the North Pole Express: Barneo Ice Camp expedition. You’ll land in an Antonov AN-74 on an ice runway, stay at a working Russian science and logistics station at 89° north, and meet all kinds of scientists, researchers, engineers and more. Weather-permitting, you’ll take a fully guided excursion to the North Pole in an Mi8 helicopter.How can you reach the North Pole? This Mi8 helicopter can get you there.

  1. You can reach the North Pole in the world’s most powerful icebreaker.

You’re not getting to the North Pole in any old ship… meet 50 Years of Victory, the largest and most powerful icebreaker on the planet. This Russian powerhouse is a surprisingly comfortable way to put you on top of the world.

How an Arktika-Rated Nuclear Icebreaker Powers Its Way to the Pole

Karl Kannstadter, product director here at Quark Expeditions, helped me understand how 50 Years of Victory achieves a trip that would leave most ships crippled (you definitely wouldn’t make it into Tanquary Fiord north of Ellesmere Island without an icebreaker, for example).How can you get to the North Pole? Try the world's most powerful icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory.

Icebreakers require three main components:

  • engines powerful enough to drive the bow up into the ice;
  • a hull strong enough to withstand that force;
  • and a bow shaped to clear the ice, allowing the ship to move forward.

Two nuclear reactor thrusters generate up to 74,000 horsepower to muscle 50 Years of Victory through ice up to 3 meters thick, which it then crushes under its weight. Victory was the first Arktika icebreaker built with a spoon-shaped bow, a design proven so effective at clearing ice that it’s been adopted for new builds.

But what does Arktika mean?

Modern-day explorers and gearheads alike will delight in knowing their expedition vessel is one of only six nuclear-powered Arktika-class icebreakers the Russians built for civilian use. The first of the series passed its first sea trials in 1975. Named Arktika, it became the first surface ship to reach the North Pole on August 17, 1977.

That name became the classification for the five ships that followed, the fifth of which was 50 Years of Victory, launched in 2007. A double-hulled icebreaker, its cast steel prow is 50 cm thick at its strongest point and employs that spoon-shaped curve to apply greater dynamic force for breaking ice. An air-bubbling system (ABS) furthers aids in ice breaking by spraying steam from jets 9 meters below the surface.

Eight bulkheads provide nine watertight compartments, and a helicopter pad on the stern allows for scouting the conditions and sightseeing in the onboard Mi8s (dubbed ‘little birds’ by the Russians).


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Life Onboard 50 Years of Victory

Powering your way to the North Pole in the world’s most powerful nuclear icebreaker, crushing through multi-year sea ice, is every bit as thrilling as you’d expect--and it’s far more comfortable than you might think. The hotel area of the ship was purpose-built for passenger travel and is located in a superstructure above the hull, offering some dampening of the shake and grind of icebreaking. Each cabin offers exterior views, and you’ll enjoy chef-prepared meals in a casual dining atmosphere throughout the trip.

Life onboard an icebreaker en route to the North Pole is exciting and surprisingly comfortable, with open decks to enjoy the spectacle of crushing through the thick, multi-year sea ice.

Like many of our ships, 50 Years of Victory has an open bridge policy when conditions allow, at the Captain’s discretion. This means you can visit the bridge to see the world from the crew’s perspective, even staying to watch, listen, and ask questions about the operation of this powerhouse. You’ll often find expedition staff and the ship’s Russian crew on hand to explain what you see ahead and what’s going on in the bridge around you. Just be careful to stay out of areas marked off-limits!

As with all expedition ships, you’re welcome and encouraged to go out on deck and to the bow when conditions permit, to watch for wildlife and take photos/video. Your expedition team will make announcements when there are things going on around the ship that you might want to see.

Want to learn more about planning your own epic journey to the top of the world? 


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