IT SEEMED LIKE A LARK. The idea was to spend seven days and six nights in April skiing the Last Degree to the North Polethe last degree being latitudinal, from 89 to 90 degrees north, roughly 60 miles. When I heard that the plan was to spend a week doing it, I almost laughed. Nine, ten miles a day? I'd been an avid cross-country ski racer for years, and even a long race like the Swedish Vasaloppet57 milestakes no more than six hours. This pace was a piece of cake.
"We will be pulling sledges," Børge reminded me in his understated way when I tracked him down on his cell phone in the mountains outside Oslo, Norway.
Børge was Børge Ousland, the Norwegian polar adventurer who would lead the trip. Just 40, he'd already made a name for himself as one of the all-time greats of polar endurance, with feats that were nothing short of staggering. Børge (pronounced "BORE-gay") was the first person to ski solo to the North Pole (in 1994), the first to ski solo across Antarctica (1997), and the first to ski solo across the entire Arctic ice pack, from Siberia to Canada through the North Polea 2001 feat that put him on the ice for an astounding 82 days. He almost always did it without resupply, eating and wearing and burning only what he could drag. Just him, alone on the ice. With one big mother of a sled.
"When I started from Siberia," Børge said, "my sled weighed 170 kilos." One hundred seventy kilos? That's nearly 375 pounds. I couldn't drag that much across a hockey rink.
"But for this trip, the sleds are only 35 kilos or so. Not so bad."
Seventy-seven pounds. That was probably enough to be really annoying by the end of a day, but still manageable. Which seemed to be in keeping with the spirit of this trip. It was Børge's idea to lead a small group to the pole, making the journey just hard enough to give people a taste of what he goes through, but not so hard as to terrorize everyone who might sign up.
"I suppose it's a good idea to train for this," I said. Børge laughed. "I go hiking with tires. I drag them behind me."
"You hike dragging a tire?"
"Three tires, usually. All in a row. That way the tires get better traction and it's harder. I like tractor tires. I do it for several hours a day. You should try it." "Sure," I promised, knowing hell would freeze over before I hit the trail with three tractor tires scraping behind me.
Still, I did need to get a feel for this towing-a-sled stuff. So I went to the place I ski every season, the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont, and borrowed one of those kiddie sleds parents use to pull their tots around. Where the kid is supposed to go, I strapped in a very cold 45-pound weight. The sled was attached to my waist with a padded beltjust like Børge does it, but where he uses ropes to drag his sled, this one had long metal bars, intended to make the whole arrangement more stable.