Arriving at the North Pole is kind of like arriving nowhere.
"There is nothing at all about the nature of the ice that distinguishes the North Pole. Nothing at all. No brass plaque. No summit. It's a moving surface [of ice], and if you put up a plaque one day, the next day it would be umpteen miles away," says Paul Schurke.
And Schurke should know. On May 1 he, five other adventurers and 20 dogs became the first unsupported expedition to reach the North Pole by foot and dog sled since Robert E. Peary's arrival on April 6, 1909.
Eight people and 49 dogs had begun the 800-mile trek from Ward Hunt Island at the northern tip of the Canadian archipelago eight weeks earlier.
Others have gone to the North Pole before. Just getting there isn't the problem. The Pole has been reached by plane, snowmobile and submarine. It also has been reached on skis and by dog sled, but supported by airdrops of food and supplies.
Schurke and his team wanted to do it on their own, like Peary.
Schurke, 30, was in Washington yesterday recounting the expedition for reporters gathered at the National Geographic Society. With him were Ann Bancroft, a 30-year-old teacher; the expedition's senior leader, Will Steger, 41; and Zap, Steger's 9-year-old husky.
Zap didn't make it to the Pole, though he tried. The husky injured its foot and had to be airlifted home along with trekker Robert McKerrow, who broke his ribs in a sled accident. Throughout the trip the only assistance the group accepted were airplane pickups of injured team members and dogs that were no longer needed because the load lightened as provisions were used.
For those who did make it, getting to the Pole was sort of a technicality that had to be confirmed on a sextant or with satellite or airplane sightings.
"The biggest misconception the public has," Steger says, "is that there's something there . . . It's a very beautiful, subtle area, but basically there is nothing there. You have to use your instruments to figure out that you are there, and it's what you make out of it . . . It's not like climbing a mountain."
So the expedition's visit at the North Pole was, in some ways, pretty simple: They determined that they were there, made radio contact with "home" and waited for the airplane to pick them up. All in all, they spent about 36 hours at the North Pole.
Anything can sound easy; but, in fact, the expedition was one of risk and hardship.
*The risk: Of all the risks perhaps the worst emotional one for the adventurers was the possibility of having to give up. It was in some ways a race with time.
When they began their trip March 8 the sun had just returned to the Pole, which is light for six months, then dark for six. The temperature there was 70 degrees below zero. By the time they reached the Pole, it was already 15 degrees above zero. Cold, the Arctic threatens frostbite (which is what pulled trekker Robert Mantell off the expedition in mid-April); warm, the Arctic becomes a sea, not of solid ice, but of ice and water.
*The hardship: "There was no slack in our daily routine. You worked hard all day, pushing sleds; made a beeline for the tent when the sledding hours were over -- because it was cold; made your meals as quickly as possible -- to conserve fuel and to avoid sitting idly in a tent with your body not generating much heat; and then you dove in that sleeping bag and slept hard, hopefully," Schurke said.
Fun was not the operative word. "I don't think we ever sat down for a cup of tea in the whole 55 days," Steger said. There would be rest breaks to untangle the dogs or to take a reading with a sextant (a navigational instrument that Schurke described as "a fancy protractor that measures the angle of the sun above the horizon").
Some days their progress across the ice was dishearteningly slow -- as few as 1 1/2 miles; other days they logged 38 miles. Most days, Steger recalled, they unjammed the dog sleds from ice snags anywhere from 100 to 150 times. It was mostly a matter of "prying, pushing and cursing," he said.
And every day it was the same old food. Breakfast: oatmeal with butter. Lunch: their own self-styled "high calorie bar," which consisted of nut butter oil, milk, butter and little chips of fruit jerky. ("The fruit jerky saved the bar," said Bancroft.) Dinner: a New Zealand pemmican (a high-fat meat pressed together) with egg noodles, cheese and butter.
Their sleeping bags started out weighing 12 pounds and ended up weighing 50. Basically, said Steger, it was because of moisture, not from rain or snow, but from their own perspiration. Eventually they had to unload a few sleeping bags, and sleep three people to two bags zipped together.
Bancroft wanted to bring a book along, but even a simple paperback book becomes a matter of some complexity. After all, it has weight.
"It was something that we brought up beforehand," Bancroft said, "because weight was obviously a big deal. We were all kind of allowed a little personal weight . . . We could kind of choose what went and what didn't, and in terms of your little cubbyhole -- it had to be kept to a minimum.
"In order to talk these guys into letting me have a book, I had to cut off the covers and trim it right down, and as I read it, it was destroyed."
"A book has a dual function, once it is read, of being toilet paper," Steger said lightly.
"That was my selling point," Bancroft continued. "And I discovered as I would discard the pages, throw them away, Schurke was picking them up, saving them, reading them himself and then 'discarding' them. The book got a lot of mileage."
The book was Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning."