Expeditions: The Iceman Conquereth
Richard Weber and Misha Malakhov skied to the top of the world and then skied home, without help of any kind. Can anyone top that?
By Jon Bowermaster
It must have been quite a sight. After 123 days spent trudging to the geographic North Pole and back, dragging everything they needed behind them, Richard Weber and Misha Malakhov were running for the coast of Canada's Ward Hunt Island. Oddly, considering the hullabaloo that often surrounds modern polar expeditions, no photographers were on hand to document their last steps. No champagne was waiting. There were only two sleepdeprived men, coated with frost, thrashing through knee-deep slush, desperately trying to reach land before the Arctic Ocean ice melted under their boots. They stumbled ashore at 8:30 A.M. on June 16, and went straight to bed.
The scene, if somewhat lacking in fanfare, unquestionably ranks as one of the most significant moments in the history of polar expeditioning, marking the first time since Admiral Robert Peary's famous 1909 trek that anyone has traveled overland to the North Pole and back under his own power without resupply. In fact, there's some reason to believe that Weber and Malakhov may be the only team ever to have pulled off the feat. For 86 years, controversy has hovered over Peary's claim. Believers say he made 90 degrees north on his seventh and last Arctic expedition; detractors insist he fell short and, knowing at age 52 that he'd never return, decided to fake the results. Whatever the case--the dispute won't be settled anytime soon--Weber and Malakhov's accomplishment isn't hard to appreciate.
"Peary aside, every other expedition has used an airplane to get home," says Weber, a 35-year-old mechanical engineer from Chelsea, Quebec. "I think that's like climbing Mount Everest and then taking a helicopter off the top." Malakhov, an engagingly brash 41-year-old surgeon from Ryazan, Russia, toots the team's horn somewhat more bombastically: "Going one-way to the Pole is like circling the earth in the space shuttle. What we did is go to the moon, land, and come back."
Whatever comparisons one chooses to make, the Weber-Malakhov expedition was an impressive exercise in simplicity at a time when polar activity seems to be dominated by big dollars and bizarre stunts. Take, for instance, the "expedition" last April in which a record-setting 120 sky divers parachuted onto the North Pole all at once. More legitimate, but showy nonetheless, was last spring's International Arctic Project, an attempt by Will Steger and five teammates to make the first dogsled traverse of the Arctic, from Russia to Canada via the Pole, in a single season. With 33 dogs, 60 corporate suppliers, a half-million-dollar budget, and plans for frequent resupply, it was an epic undertaking. But hopes for a "first" were dashed before the trip even got underway: Plagued by storms and thin ice, the whole operation had to be airlifted northward the first 200 miles. It went ahead, however, and reached Ward Hunt Island on July 3.
The Weber-Malakhov expedition, by contrast, was unusually straightforward: start on solid ground, ski to the North Pole, and then ski back, with no assistance or resupply along the way. Its budget was a modest $200,000. Of course, Weber and Malakhov are both long on Arctic experience. Weber was a member of Steger's 1986 North Pole team, and Malakhov has been to the Pole three times with Russian expeditions. During the eight years they've known each other, they have spent the equivalent of a year together on the ice and tried the Peary route together in 1992. That trip ended after 105 days because of deteriorating ice conditions, but its lessons paved the way for this year's success.
This time they left in the middle of February, even though that meant landing their plane in winter's total darkness on Ward Hunt Island. They spent the first two weeks shuttling gear and goods some 50 miles out onto the ice. Then they set their sights on the Pole. Each pulling his own 300-pound sled, the two men skied day after day into the teeth of blowing snow and minus-50-degree temperatures. On May 12, they approached the Pole. Resisting the temptation to set up camp for a night at the top of the world for fear that a storm might blow in and trap them, they skied until their global positioning system units read 90 degrees, took a few photographs, and turned around.
With the Pole behind them, a new problem set in: lack of sleep. The ice started melting earlier than usual, and by early June Weber and Malakhov were sleeping just a couple of hours a night. "Our dreams were not about finishing," says Malakhov. "They were about sleep."
With less than ten miles to go, they reduced their loads to two small backpacks. They spent their time detouring around parking-lot-size stretches of open water--in the last 30 miles they didn't see a piece of ice bigger than 100 yards across. When at last they sighted Ward Hunt Island, they abandoned still more gear. Then things nearly came unraveled.
"One mile before we finished," says Weber, "Misha went into the water. And he's yelling at me to hurry and help him because his feet were freezing. So I lay down on the ice and pulled him out." When they made it to shore, about an hour later, all that remained in their packs were a few scraps of food. "I don't think we had a day to spare," says Weber.
And what about the Peary question? "We came to the conclusion that Peary never got anywhere near the Pole," says an unapologetic Weber, explaining that Peary's team relied on a sextant and the primitive navigational technique known as dead reckoning and probably never had a very accurate idea where it was from the time it set out. Still, Weber and Malakhov seem respectful and a little in awe of the fact that Peary undertook the project at all. "On the ice, everything looks the same," says Weber. "I'm afraid we'd have been lost without a global positioning system."