Sledgepuller, P.I.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, May 1999


Sledgepuller, P.I.
Toting 300 pounds and a love of the arcane, a Canadian explorer attempts to unravel an Arctic mystery

When Hans Kr’ger set out to explore a desolate stretch of Arctic ice and rock called Axel Heiberg Island in the spring of 1930 with two companions and 15 huskies, the seasoned German expeditioner tucked a series of letters under the piles of stones he used to mark his route. The last of those notes, which was placed in a tin container beneath a cairn along the island's rugged northwest coast, indicated that Kr’ger and his group were heading south and offered no hint that they were in any danger. But somewhere along that austere Canadian shoreline, aptly nicknamed Starvation Coast, the party vanished without a trace--leaving only its path of paper, the anguish of the inconsolable fianc‰e Kr’ger left behind in Darmstadt (she committed suicide in 1946), and the lingering questions surrounding one of the high Arctic's most intriguing and resilient mysteries.

"They were essentially leaving a trail of cookie crumbs," says veteran explorer and amateur forensic archaeologist Jerry Kobalenko, 42. This month Kobalenko will complete a 600-mile solo search for Kr’ger's remains--the first attempt of its kind since a Canadian Mountie conducted an investigation in 1932 that turned up a few of the notes but yielded no further clues as to the fate that befell Kr’ger and his men. The quest to unravel this mystery will force Kobalenko to spend more than two months skiing across frozen fjords in the shadow of ice-capped valleys while towing a 300-pound sledge loaded with food and gear. With a dozen previous trips to the region already under his belt, he is apparently unfazed by the prospect of braving one of the world's largest uninhabited islands in minus-30-degree temperatures without a satellite phone or radio. "I'm as confident out there," he declares, "as I am on a country road."

Kobalenko's brashness may be unique, but he's hardly alone in his sleuthing. If this summer's expeditions offer any gauge, Sherlock Holmes?style exploration, long a staple of the adventure world, has attained an even greater voguishness of late. Among more than a dozen projects currently in the works are two especially notable ventures. This month, a 14-member team lead by Washington climber Eric Simonson will climb Everest in an attempt to locate the remains and equipment of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. They hope to determine whether the two men perished in June 1924 while ascending the Northeast Ridge, as is generally believed, or after having actually attained the summit. And in July, Boston-based explorer Gregory Deyermenjian will embark on a journey through southeastern Peru in the hopes of finding evidence of Paititi, the mythical Incan city whose ruins explorers have sought for nearly 500 years.

Typically, riddles such as these can be tough--if not impossible--to crack. Kr’ger's is no exception. Decades of speculation have yielded two theories about what happened to him and his men: either starvation or asphyxiation from cooking fumes. Any scrap of evidence Kobalenko can turn up on the 16,651-square-mile island could offer a key to the puzzle. "You're very lucky if you solve one mystery in a lifetime," he says, acknowledging the difficulty of his quest. "After all, if they died on the ice, one warm summer would put them at the bottom of the sea." --KIMBERLY LISAGOR

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