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Woman Who Loves To Mush

"I would not call myself an adrenaline junkie, but this sure breaks the monotony," McNair wrote in her book, "On Thin Ice: A Woman's Journey to the North Pole." The shifting ice creaks with "the freight-train-like sounds of screeching brakes, crashing cars and slow rumbling," she wrote.

The labor is daunting. "It's hard to make this trudging and hauling fun," she wrote in a diary during the 1997 trip. "My knees are burning out from the pulling. The small of my back is on fire and screams when the [sled] slams to an abrupt halt. And my face hurts from the frost-coated fur around it. Of late, my thoughts have gotten stuck, on a monotonous patter: 'right ski, left ski, right ski,' or 'Go to North Pole, Go to 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)

After that, McNair's son says his mother decided she would never make such a trip again without dogs. "She really loves running the dogs," he says. "She didn't think skiing the whole way was that cool."

The snippets of video footage they have sent show that even when the dogs are straining in their harnesses, the 650-pound sleds bob over the bumpy snow like boats in rough water. The sleds can overturn, and their riders can fall into water, as the approaching summer begins to melt and crack the ice pack.

Gerber fell on April 14. As he started to jump across a narrow lead of open water, "the lip of the ice gave way," says McNair. "We fished him out very quickly. But it was definitely a shocker." In the bitter cold water, death can come fast.

"We've had a couple dogs in almost every day," McNair adds. "They get out and shake it off, look a little miserable, and start running again."

When everyone is exhausted, the team pitches a single tent -- a purple octagon designed by McNair's son -- and hangs up sweat-soaked clothes to dry over the stove. The dogs curl up outside, as the snow drifts over them, and sleep peaceably in weather as cold as 40 degrees below zero.

With only a few days to go, the expedition is ahead of Peary's pace. It must finish by Tuesday at 4:21 p.m. to match his record. That requires a run of nearly 20 miles a day. It's possible, but only with good weather and smooth snow.

"We're exhausted and aching all over," Avery writes in a dispatch to the Web site. In the final push, he says, the team was trying to keep moving for 13 hours a day, a grueling pace for both humans and dogs. "The dogs are showing the first signs of fatigue," he says. "We don't want to burn them out."

At the pole, dogs and humans will be picked up by airplane -- a far gentler denouement than the practice in Peary's day of feeding the weaker dogs to the stronger ones to survive the return trip.

"We think we have a good chance," McNair says. "We need to get the dogs refueled so that we can start pushing."

Her son Eric, following the team's progress by the Internet, admits to feeling "a little worry" about his mother, as the exhausted team presses hard to meet the deadline. But if anyone can meet the challenge, he adds, "It's Matty. She knows how to get herself out of just about anything."

To follow the progress of Matty McNair and her team, go to www.barcapultimatenorth.com/expedition/route.php.

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