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Woman Who Loves To Mush

"The wind was breathless and the sky an endless watercolor changing from pink and gold to shades of lavender. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of euphoria," she wrote in her diary on the beginning of the 74-day march. "I feel at home. I am in my element: ice, snow, cold, and limitless horizons."

McNair's latest trek began when Tom Avery, 29, a British mountaineer, approached NorthWinds Arctic Adventures, the outdoor expedition company she started with Landry. Avery wanted to test the controversy that has swirled for years over whether Peary was first to reach the geographic North Pole.


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)

Peary, with aide Matthew Henson and four Inuit men, made a meticulously planned assault on the pole in 1909, using sled dogs and four supply drops. With a stunning final dash, he was alleged to have reached the pole in just over 37 days. But his rival, Frederick Cook, grabbed the headlines by claiming to have arrived first. Cook was found later to have falsely claimed the first ascent of Mount McKinley, thrown in jail for business fraud and discredited.

Peary's claim, too, was viewed with suspicion, especially for the fast pace he would have had to set in his final five days on the ice. No modern expedition has done it that fast. A British explorer, Sir Wally Herbert, made a painstaking review of Peary's journal in 1988 and concluded that his claim was exaggerated.

But McNair said she had no doubts that Peary can be proved correct.

"A lot of those people who say he made it too fast have never dog-sledded before," she says. McNair is an ardent fan of dog travel. If Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the Arctic, cooperates with smooth ice, she says her 16 dogs will prove the trip can be completed at Peary's pace.

"He made absolutely great time," she says. "It adds to the challenge."

McNair agreed to guide Avery's expedition. The two were joined by Andrew Gerber, 29, a London management consultant; George Wells, 28, a British property developer; and Hugh Dale-Harris, 32, a Canadian dog-sledder from Thunder Bay, Ontario. The trip picked up sponsorship from Barclays Capital, the investment banking division of Barclays Bank PLC. It also received a formal send-off in London from Prince Charles, who exhorted the team to solve "the greatest polar mystery of all time."

They set off March 21 from Cape Columbia, the northernmost point of Ellesmere Island on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. They passed a signpost erected by Peary that pointed across the frozen ocean. "North Pole -- 413 miles," it read. Although Peary had erected the sign 96 years before, Avery wrote in his Web site dispatches that "it feels as though they left only a few weeks ago."

The McNair-Avery expedition is in much better touch with the world than Peary could manage in 1909. They have posted regular updates of their progress on a Web site and sent photographs as they went along.

The Web site includes snapshots, biographies and personality profiles of the expedition's 16 sled dogs. They include Raven, 5, the "driving force on the team" who "inherited his mother's steely determination"; Denali, the trek's only female and "a bit of a flirt"; Ootah, a giant who "eats unimaginable quantities of food"; and K2, a "troublesome teenager" who is "always getting into fights."

Aside from modern communications technology, the team has tried to replicate Peary's conditions. They built two wooden sleds like his. They arranged for a resupply plane to meet them at four places, just as Peary sent teams ahead to drop supplies.

And just as Peary did, the expedition faces a dangerous maze, navigating constantly shifting ice over the polar ocean. As team members described it, they drag their sleds over slippery blue ice jumbled into looming walls. They leap over "leads" -- cracks in the ice that can suddenly widen into fissures as wide as rivers -- and ski with exhilaration as the dogs sprint ahead of the sleds over a flat "pan" of frozen water.

As the ice moves, it cracks with a mechanical sound. Ice blocks the size of cars can rumble past at incredible speed. The danger of falling in the water, or being crushed by the sudden movement of the floes, keeps excitement high.


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