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Woman Who Loves To Mush

Matty McNair Sleds to N. Pole 'Because It's Fun'

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page D01

TORONTO -- The dogs had not eaten in two days, and they were getting too weak to pull the sleds. Matty McNair and the four men on the expedition shared their last food in their frigid tent. Fuel for the stove was low and the resupply plane was still socked in.

Their goal, the North Pole, barely 100 miles away, might have to be sacrificed for survival.

Tom Avery, George Wells and Hugh Dale-Harris are part of the team trying to beat Robert Peary's 37-day record. (Martin Hartley -- Barclays Capital)

"Well, this adds a little adventure and stress," the 53-year-old American says with a laugh in a satellite telephone interview from the frozen Arctic. She describes the expedition and its difficulties as the team camped, impatiently awaiting more supplies before they could push on.

Outside her tent, she says before her dwindling batteries cut the conversation, the dogs are howling. She translates their lament: "Feed me, Feed me."

But late Wednesday, the plane got through -- with a daring landing on the windy ice pack. McNair describes how she and the men quickly fed the dogs and their own growling bellies, repacked the sleds, and raced under the midnight sun to make up time in their grueling bid to get to the North Pole by Tuesday.

They hope to prove that Robert E. Peary was telling the truth when, in 1909, the American explorer claimed to have made a spectacular 37-day dog-sled dash, becoming the first to reach the pole. Peary's claim was disputed, and some experts maintain to this day that such a speed would have been impossible.

Several sled teams have attempted to break Peary's record since the 1960s. The closest was 42 days, five years ago. There are usually several expeditions to the North Pole each summer, but most are not trying to keep up with Peary.

For McNair and her team, it will be close. They are battling the treachery of the Arctic Ocean, laboring over jumbles of ice, and picking around sudden fissures of dangerous open water. A day of bad weather, a long stretch of water, or a sharp southward drift of the ice pack could doom their bid. Still, "it's an excuse for a great adventure," says McNair, with another laugh that seems to belie her circumstances. She says she has been toiling in temperatures of 20 degrees below zero, dragging heavy sleds over rough hammocks of ice, and sick with diarrhea.

Rugged adventure has been a way of life for McNair, who was born near Philadelphia but now lives on Baffin Island in Arctic Canada. She led the first all-woman relay team to the North Pole in 1997. She has skied to the South Pole three times, kayaked in New Zealand, climbed mountains in Peru, and led Outward Bound trips for 22 years. Last November, she and her two children, ages 18 and 20, skied to the South Pole, and raised parasails to pull them back before they ran out of supplies.

Now, she is the sole woman guiding four younger men on this exhausting trek. Later this year, she says she may attempt to dog-sled over the Greenland ice cap.

"Mom does like doing things most people think risky," says her son Eric McNair-Landry, 20, in a telephone conversation from their home in Iqaluit on Baffin Island. "We've grown up with Mom or Dad always off on some crazy trip," he says of his mother and her then-husband, fellow adventurer Paul Landry.

McNair shrugs off the question as to why she undertakes such risky exploits.

"Because it's fun" is her brief explanation.

A book she wrote after leading a group of British women in 1997 to the North Pole is more revealing. The British women rotated in groups every two weeks, while McNair and another guide hiked the whole way.

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