Polar Exploration

The Vanishing Point

Jun 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

Skiing to the North Pole
OUTFITTER: The Polar Travel Company; 011-44-1364-631-470; www.polartravel.co.uk
COST: $45,000
DATES: Feb 25-May 18, 2001

By the time U.S. Navy Admiral Robert E. Peary boasted of having become the first person to reach the North Pole, on April 6, 1909 (a claim that's still disputed), he had made a total of six attempts, during which he ended up eating his weaker dogs and losing eight toes to frostbite—two of which he broke off while removing his socks. Today, getting to the top of the world isn't nearly so traumatic.Guests on a standard trip aboard a nuclear-powered ice-breaking cruise ship have access to a sauna on the way up, and then they can shake mittens at the champagne-and-barbecue celebration on the ice once they arrive. But for those seeking a more challenging experience that still won't entail dining on doggie or losing digits, British polar guide Pen Hadow's premiere spring 2001 ski odyssey from Cape Arkticheskiy, Russia, to the Pole and a flight back might be the way to go.It'll take you two months and span more than 690 miles. And for every step of the journey, you'll be hauling a 225-pound sledge loaded with fuel, comestibles, tents, and other pieces of gear designed to prevent you from becoming a permanent part of the landscape.

The trip will merge the misery of Sisyphus with the mission statement of a Grand Canyon pack mule. After a nine-hour day hauling your baggage over, say, 11 miles of ice, followed by a night shivering with your tentmates in minus-40-degree cold, you might wake to discover that wind-driven pack ice has transported your heavy kit and your exhausted caboodle seven miles back south—sometimes all the way to where you were the previous morning. Pushing northward again—and again and again and again—takes perseverance.

And flexibility. "The only thing predictable about skiing to the North Pole is that it's unpredictable," says Caroline Hamilton, who collaborated with Hadow on a North Pole trip in 1997. "Just when you start to relax, something happens." A beautiful day transmogrifies into a soul-numbing whiteout; ice ahead of you buckles into an insurmountable ridge. But the blend of uncertainty, hardship, and challenge can offer an elixir far more intoxicating than cheap champagne, says Hadow, a 12-year veteran of polar travel who traces his love of the Arctic to his childhood caretaker, Nanny Wigley, who also looked after famed polar explorer Sir Robert F. Scott's son. The agonizingly slow progress also means you'll have time to discover, digest, and appreciate the Arctic's subtle aesthetics: the vibrancy of total silence, the adamantine clarity of a polar dawn, ice blocks carved into abstract shapes that Henry Moore would envy. "You'd think going to the pole would be all white, but it's not," says Hamilton. "You see so much blue. It's incredibly beautiful, that nothingness."


Skiing to the South Pole
Aventuras Patagonicas; 888-203-9354; www.patagonicas.com
November-December 2000

Although 17th-century mapmakers called Antarctica "Terra Australis Incognita"—the Unknown Southern Land—skiing to the bottom of the world is less of a mystery than reaching its polar opposite. No decisions about which way to go around frigid leads, no drifting ice. Point your skis south, and south you'll go. That's not to say, however, that skiing halfway across the world's highest, driest, and coldest continent is easy. Rodrigo Mujica, the owner of Jackson, Wyoming-based Aventuras Patagonicas, plans to lead a group on a 600-mile, 60-day unsupported ski expedition from the foot of the Ellsworth Mountains to the South Pole during the austral summer. In addition to the continent's ever-present cold (minus 25 isn't rare) and blinding windstorms, clients will encounter a level of bleakness unmatched anywhere else on the planet. "There's nothing for hundreds of miles," Mujica admits. "It can make you crazy."


Only veterans have the experience to overcome the myriad dangers in the world's polar regions, where the learning curve is steep and where falling off it means you'll probably die. Upshot: Go with a guide, or don't go at all.

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