If you've been feeling the cold these past few mornings spare a thought for a Northland man who has just walked to the North Pole in temperatures as low as -35C.

Matt Sutcliffe, of Waipapa, endured the lowest April temperatures in the Arctic for 20 years, frostbitten fingers, a 13-hour slog on the last day, and the challenge of night-time toilet calls in multiple layers of clothing and two sleeping bags.

He contacted the Advocate from Svalbard, an archipelago midway between Norway and the North Pole shortly after completing the six-day trek.

Participants in the trek had to drag sleds with 40kg of gear across the ice for six days. Photo / Supplied
Participants in the trek had to drag sleds with 40kg of gear across the ice for six days. Photo / Supplied

It was part of an annual expedition to the pole organised by legendary Norwegian explorer Borge Ousland and led by Thomas Ulrich of Switzerland. There were nine people in his group including two leaders.


While it isn't most people's idea of a holiday, Mr Sutcliffe said he had long been fascinated by polar exploration. In particular he was inspired by last year's tragic attempt by British soldier Henry Worsley to cross the Antarctic unaided. (Mr Worsley was 45km from his end point when he had to call for help. He died a few days later in hospital in Chile.)

Mr Sutcliffe's group, along with members of several other expeditions, crammed onto a Russian Antonov without seats - he had to lie on top of the group's gear - which flew them from Svalbard to a Russian base on an ice floe which is occupied one month a year.

The bitter cold means the aircraft has to take off again immediately; if the engines are shut down they can't be re-started.

They then had a one-hour flight by Russian military helicopter to the starting point chosen by Mr Ulrich, based on satellite images of the ever-moving ice.

As the chopper took off, leaving them in a vast frozen ocean surrounded by pressure ridges and newly frozen fractures in the ice, he thought: "Well Sutcliffe, you've right royally buggered it up this time."

Each person on the trek travelled on adapted cross-country skis and towed a plastic sled called a pulk. Each was loaded with about 40kg of gear, including three-man tents, cooking gear and food.

Mr Sutcliffe said the cold was ferocious, and almost had serious consequences on day two when he was wearing too few layers. Three hot drinks and a half-hour fast pulk pull returned his temperature to normal.

Later he found out the other groups had four separate emergency evacuations. One group, about 15km away, had a close encounter with a polar bear and used a shotgun to scare it away.


Mr Ulrich was equipped with a Magnum pistol and a shotgun but they were still sitting ducks at night.

"But I was far too focused on not freezing to death to worry about bears when I was in the tent," he said.

A looming storm threatened the team's plans to be picked up by the Russians before their base closed for the season, so the last day was a mammoth 13½ hour, 25km slog to the pole. About 3km before their goal they hit an especially tricky ice field and had to manhandle the pulks over broken ice.

Matt Sutcliffe found the energy to plug his wife's charity, Foster Hope, while he was at the North Pole. Photo / Supplied
Matt Sutcliffe found the energy to plug his wife's charity, Foster Hope, while he was at the North Pole. Photo / Supplied

Mr Sutcliffe said they were so exhausted when they reached the pole they had energy only for a quick group photo before putting up their tents. His Scottish and Irish tent mates had thoughtfully brought along a quarter bottle of single malt and a Tesco's chocolate cake to celebrate.

The following morning he posed for a photo with the logo of his wife's charity, Foster Hope, before the team was picked up a Russian Mi-8 helicopter and flown back to the base on the ice floe for a bowl of borscht (Russian beetroot soup) before the flight back to Svalbard.

Mr Sutcliffe said the worst moment of the expedition was realising that gloves and mitts were no use when trying to use his fingers at -35 C, with frostbitten fingers as a result. The best moment was arriving at the pole after the final day's slog.

A director and investor in the resources industry, Mr Sutcliffe prepared for the expedition by using a harness to drag three car tyres around Waitangi Forest as well as going to a gym for strength training.

Asked if he'd do it again, he said: "Ask me again in a few months time." He is due home on Monday.