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Reaching the North Pole

by Murray Lundberg

Dateline: August 14, 1998

      What is it about the North Pole that continues to attract adventurers from around the world? Unless someone finds a way to get there on roller-blades, there are no more "firsts" to be accomplished. But that dot on the map has a magic that is irresistible to some. Undoubtedly that magic is much enhanced by the journals of early explorers, particularly those of the explorers searching for the elusive Northwest and Northeast Passages.

      Despite many attempts, some which seem now to have been more foolhardy than brave, it wasn't until April 6, 1909 that the first expedition reached the top of the world. It was led by Robert E. Peary, who 7 years earlier had made the closest approach yet to the Pole in the American Arctic, when he reached 84°17' North; during that expedition, he lost 8 toes to frostbite.

      The North Pole attracted only sporadic attention for many years, particularly during the heady years of the space race. But in 1968-69, an expedition led by Wally Herbert is reported to have successfully crossed from Point Barrow, Alaska, over the North Pole, to Spitzbergen by dog sled. This incredible journey took 476 days, and although supported by air drops, it must surely rank as one of the most arduous of recent Arctic journeys.

      On April 29, 1978, Noami Uemura became the first person to complete a solo dog sled journey to the North Pole. In the previous 12 years, he had accumulated an impressive list of solo mountaineering "firsts" - on February 13, 1984, he disappeared on Denali (Mount McKinley), the day after achieving the first winter solo to the summit.

      While a few skis and dog-sleds were challenging the elements on top of the ice, military vessels were fairly common visitors to the North Pole throughout the Cold War period - one of the earliest was the submarine USS Skate, which arrived on March 17, 1959, in charge of Commander Charles Calvert. Polar arrivals were always a very special occasion for the crew members on such vessels, and special ceremonies were often held.

      In May 1989, Robert Swan became the first person to walk to both the South and North Poles. In 1985, he, with Roger Mear and Gareth Wood, had made the first unsupported journey to the South Pole.

      One of the most active and determined of recent Arctic adventurers is certainly Will Steger. In 1986, he led an expedition to the North Pole by dog sled, becoming the first confirmed expedition to do so on with no outside support. He must have enjoyed it, because in 1995, he spent another 3 months on a dog-sled journey from Severnaya Zemlya, Russia, across the North Pole to Canada. Pushing the limits ever further, however, he was stymied by thick fog and unsafe ice in a 1997 attempt to make a solo journey on foot from the Pole to Canada, and had to be rescued. His tales of adventure have been published 3 times in National Geographic, and his love of the polar regions is apparent in any discussion with him.

      Although her 364-mile trip was a stroll in the park compared to some of the other journeys on this page, in 1988, Helen Thayer, at the age of 50, became the first woman to complete an unsupported walk to the magnetic North Pole. She skied and walked for 4 weeks, dragging a sled, accompanied only by Charlie, a dog who she brought for protection from polar bears.

      In 1989, Japanese actress Izumi Masako started off for the North Pole on a Yamaha snowmobile, but I've been unable to find any more information on the journey or its outcome.

      In 1995, Richard Weber, from Canada, and Mikhail (Misha) Malakhov, of Russia, completed the first unsupported trek to the North Pole and back. Weber has now been on more than 30 Arctic expeditions. He and Malakhov have written a book (Polar Attack: From Canada to the North Pole, and Back) on their experiences, and now operate an Arctic tour company.

      Also in 1995, M. Kaminski and W. Moskal, both from Poland, skied to both the North and South Poles unsupported.

In 1996, Marc Fafard and Yvan Désilets made a successful 600-kilometer ski journey to the magnetic Pole. Carrying all the latest satellite communications equipment on their sleds, they were able to post daily updates and photos to a special Web site (no longer posted).

      The year 1997 was a busy one on the routes to the Pole - David Hempleman-Adams and Rune Gjeldnes were unsuccessful in their attempt to reach it, but Hyoichi Kohno's solo bid was successful, as was the team effort of Nobu Narita, David Scott and Acchan Miyagawa.

      Update: In 2000, Gus Mcleod proved that one of my opening statements was incorrect, when he achieved a "first" - he was the first man to fly an open-cockpit plane to the Pole.

      With the rapid growth of adventure tourism, it seems like a sure bet that the most remote parts of the world, including the North Pole, will continue to grow in popularity. What was once the exclusive domain of massively-funded government expeditions has now come within reach of many.

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