Expeditions: Many, Many Souls on Ice

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Expeditions: Many, Many Souls on Ice

Who's who in 1995's ambitious--and crowded--North Pole season
By Laura Billings

Will Steger called it the biggest coincidence of his life when, during his historic 1986 dogsled expedition to the North Pole, his team happened across the ski tracks of French explorer Jean-Louis Etienne. This month, as the 50-year-old Minnesotan sets out on the International Arctic Project -- an attempt to make the first dogsled traverse of the Arctic, via the Pole, in a single season -- he might well bump into somebody again. While his six-person, 33-dog team makes its push, legendary mountaineer Reinhold Messner and his brother Hubert will be attempting the first unassisted walk across the Arctic, meaning they'll receive no resupply for the entire route, and Richard Weber and Misha Malakhov will try to march unassisted from Canada to the Pole and back. These and other scheduled treks will make for Okie-land-rush conditions in one of the world's most desolate settings.

"No pun intended," says Paul Schurke, coleader of Steger's 1986 run, "but the Pole's a very magnetic place."

Even if the three major expeditions don't cross paths, they share a theme: offsetting the advantages of modern technology by raising the stakes, either through longer hauls or a leaner-and-riskier style. All the trekkers, of course, can radio for help in case of calamity, but all are planning slogs that were unheard-of a decade ago. Weber and Malakhov, polar veterans both, are making their second stripped-down bid to duplicate Admiral Robert Peary's disputed 1909 trip. Messner is forgoing the resupplies he enjoyed during his 1990 traverse of Antarctica. And Steger, a megatactician who flew his team home from the North Pole nine years ago, wouldn't consider such a move today. "Traversing the Arctic is much more challenging," he says. "This is my kind of trip."

Still, compared with the ascetic journeys of Messner and of Weber and Malakhov, Steger's hugely publicized venture -- his grandest undertaking since his dogsled traverse of the Antarctic in 1990 -- is a D-Day invasion. Loaded with supplies (3,600 Shaklee Carbo-Crunch sport bars alone) and humming with media and sponsor interest (the $500,000 expedition has more than 60 corporate supporters), the members of Steger's team -- four men and two women from the United States, Great Britain, Japan, Russia, and Denmark -- were able to chuck their jobs to spend the last two years training off and on in Canada's Northwest Territories. Scheduled to leave March 5 from Severnaya Zemlya, an island in the Russian Arctic, they'll wend their way onto the ice cap, making a mad dash to reach the Pole by Earth Day, April 22. From there, they'll head for the Canadian Arctic, covering ground fast before the spring thaw requires lifting the pooches out by helicopter and finishing up in canoe-sleds that the team members can pull or paddle. As usual, unstable ice is the greatest threat. Giant slabs can thrust together to make 30-foot pressure ridges or shift apart to create leads -- dangerous lanes of open water -- that can appear under sleds or tents.

On a speaking tour last fall, Messner, who in 1986 became the first person to climb all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks, dramatically highlighted the similar range of risks he'll take. "Death is a part of life," he told one reporter. "There is a small chance we will make it." Overall, though, his PR noise has been relatively muffled -- in part, says his U.S. promoter, Clyde Soles, because with the expedition's relatively small price tag, "I don't think he needs the publicity."

What he will need is luck, since the shifting conditions on his 1,250-mile route are more dangerous than those in the Antarctic. He and his brother have been training for the Arctic's challenges -- in 1993 they traversed Greenland on foot -- but Weber, for one, lowballs Messner's chances.

"He's never been on the Arctic Ocean," says Weber. "It's like me trying to climb mountains -- I'd probably get killed." For their part, Weber and Malakhov have learned from their first attempt, in 1992, which was scuttled when thawing ice forced their evacuation by plane. At press time, to outrun the breakup, they were planning to leave a month earlier, in February, from Canada's Ward Hunt Island. "Barring something extraordinary," Weber says confidently, "I don't think we'll fail."

Filed To: Snow Sports

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