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Adventurers Conquer Arctic, and History

Team Guided by U.S. Woman Vindicates Peary by Beating His Time to North Pole

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 27, 2005; Page A01

TORONTO, April 26 -- Fighting a shifting ice pack and open water that threatened to swallow their dogs, a team of five adventurers reached the North Pole at 9:32 a.m. Tuesday, five hours faster than the record claimed by explorer Robert E. Peary almost a century ago.

The exhausted team members, guided by an American woman, Matty McNair, cracked open a bottle of Mumm's champagne they had carried more than 420 miles across the ice in a grueling attempt to clear Peary's name from doubts that he was able to make it to the pole in just over 37 days.

Team members Matty McNair, left, George Wells, Tom Avery, Hugh Dale-Harris and Andrew Gerber celebrate their arrival at the pole with champagne. (Barclays Capital Via AP)

They toasted, hugged and set up their tent to get some desperately needed sleep. And then they heard voices.

"It was very surreal," Tom Avery, 29, the British mountaineer who organized the expedition, said by satellite telephone from the North Pole. Outside the tent were three Russians and a Czech who had sledded only the last 50 miles, he said. "They had been following our tracks."

Then, Avery said, "a huge Russian helicopter came and landed right next to us." It had come to pick up the other team, and it was full of Russian tourists "walking around taking photographs of us. And then they got in the helicopter and flew away."

Left behind was a team of adventurers who had pushed themselves and 16 huskies to the limits of endurance to reach the top of the world. They did so in 36 days, 22 hours and 11 minutes, disproving the critics who said Peary's trip in 1909 was impossible.

Gilbert M. Grosvenor, chairman of the National Geographic Society, said McNair's team had "wiped out 94 years of doubt" about a major aspect of Peary's achievement. The society, and Grosvenor's family, have long been steeped in the controversy over Peary's claims.

"We still don't know for sure" if Peary was where he claimed, Grosvenor said from Washington. "But by God, now we know for sure that it can be done in 37 days."

McNair, 53, was born near Philadelphia but now lives on Baffin Island in Arctic Canada. Her lust for adventure has taken her to the North Pole once before and to the South Pole three times. She and Avery were joined by three men from Britain, South Africa and Canada.

Avery said McNair was "curled up asleep" in the tent while he spoke on the phone.

"We're all . . . very, very exhausted," he said. "It's the most physically demanding thing I have ever done in my life. Lifting a wooden sledge over rough ice and pressure ridges -- it's been very, very tiring. We all have aches and pains and bruises. But it feels fantastic to be here."

The team left the northernmost tip of Ellesmere Island, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, on March 21, passing a sign erected by Peary that pointed toward the pole. They had built wooden sleds to replicate those used by Peary, each of which carried up to 650 pounds of supplies.

The team members reported progress in dispatches to a Web site. Often, they had to pull the sleds over slippery blocks of blue ice as the dogs clambered ahead.

"It sucks all the energy out of you when it is minus-40 degrees," Avery said. "You're trying to get out of your sleeping bag and there is ice everywhere. Getting dressed . . . you really have to concentrate. It was exhausting . . . but we hung in there. We're here now."

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