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Dark Alliance: Two Explorers Trek to the North Pole in Complete Darkness  Text by Brad Wieners 

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ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: 
Listen to an audio interview with Børge Ousland on National Geographic's World Talk. 
Download the interview >>

[To play MP3 files, you'll need a free media-player software, such as Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, or iTunes. For help with audio files, click here >>]

Ousland and Horn's plan is as straightforward as it is over-the-top. They intend to depart Cape Arkticheskiy (a perilous last spit of land off western Siberia) on or about January 15, to switch on their headlamps, and to bust it an average of ten miles (sixteen kilometers) a day for 620 miles (998 kilometers). In theory, they'll reach the pole in 60 days. Adhering to the purist ethic of unsupported polar travel—no prearranged depots or air drops of food and stove fuel, nor help from sled dogs—the two will pull capsule-like sleds containing everything they need behind them, hence the modest daily mileage and Horn's tango with those tractor tires.

At the start they'll each be dragging 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of fuel, food, double-A lithium batteries, and individual sleeping bags. "We are not that close yet," Ousland says, with a nervous laugh, at the prospect of sharing a bag. Ousland has, however, done exactly that on North Pole trips in the past to conserve body heat on the coldest nights.

Each day, the two will ingest upwards of 6,500 calories. Horn will get the extra fat he needs by drinking olive oil straight, and Ousland will beef up his protein intake by consuming his secret weapon: reindeer heart. Despite the dark, the pair won't brew up any coffee. As Ousland notes, "Coffee makes you pee." And you don't want to pee too often at minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 31 degrees Celsius).

If not sleeping bags, the duo will share a tent, even though Horn initially suggested two tents as well. "I didn't think this was a good idea," Ousland says. "A little too solo."

For two-plus months, they will wear the same four layers of clothing. They'll each have one change of underwear, socks, and thick mittens. Through his Russian contacts, Ousland has arranged for the airstrip known as Camp Barneo to open a few weeks early so they can catch a lift home.

In the early going, Ousland says, the ice will be young and therefore thin, making it conceivable that one or both of them could break through and plunge into the frigid ocean below. Underlying currents will make most any campsite they choose akin to sleeping directly on an active fault line. A day that climbs above minus five degrees Fahrenheit (minus twenty degrees Celsius) will feel positively balmy, while winds could drive the windchill to minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 62 degrees Celsius). At those temperatures the ice becomes more abrasive than slick, making it even harder to haul a sled, and exposed skin can become frostbitten within minutes, as Horn found out on his only previous attempt to reach the North Pole, in 2002. Thirty-six days into his trek, he removed his mitts to fix a broken shoestring and developed frostbite. Over the next few days, he had to decide between an evacuation and the loss of several digits. He chose a rescue and was fortunate to lose only the tips of three fingers and a bit of dead bone from his thumb.

"That was a big, big lesson for me and one of the hardest decisions I've ever made," Horn says. "Here I was 10 or 15 days from my goal, and such stupidity cost me the Pole. I was humbled."

Above the Arctic Circle, Ousland generally strings a trip wire with siren flares around his tent as a polar bear warning system. "Only in the direst emergency would I shoot to kill," Ousland has written. "The polar bear is a fantastic creature, and up here [I'm] the interloper." But he told me that he and Horn aren't sure they'll be able to do this on their new expedition, as the darkness is certain to increase the time it takes to set and strike camp.

Ousland will bring his trusty .44 magnum, a weapon, he notes, "that stops most things." He keeps it in a holster on the small of his back so he can draw it quickly. Because polar bears lack natural enemies, he says, they're not used to sudden, startling pain, and generally run off when hit with a special round of the nonlethal birdshot. If this fails and a hungry bear keeps coming, Ousland makes sure to have a lead slug in the next chamber. "I only have a flare gun for Mike," he says, grinning.

Blizzards and fierce gales (which could pin them down for several days), perpendicular pressure ridges (where large ice floes have smashed together like tectonic plates, creating walls of ice up to 30 feet (9 meters) high), ankle-turning or leg-breaking crevasses, and famished polar bears—whatever delights await, they'll have less time to see them coming. During the new moon or overcast skies, it'll be like proceeding into an infinite cave. Visibility could be limited to ten feet. With no dawn or sunset cues, their bodies will become completely unhinged from their normal circadian rhythms. In the dark, they may find they need more sleep or that they become wicked insomniacs.

"Your body just wants to shut down and hibernate," says Lonnie Dupre, a Minnesota-based explorer who has traveled extensively in northern Greenland during winter. "If you don't stick to a rigid schedule, you could sleep for 16 hours at a crack."

"There's really very little good data about what happens to people who have prolonged exposure to the dark," says Phyllis Zee, a professor of neurology and a director of Northwestern University's Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology. "There are a few papers based on people who've hid out in caves, but you can't do new studies in complete darkness, because it's psychologically problematic. You have to use dim light, at least."

What does she mean by "psychologically problematic"? "Let me put it this way," Zee says. "What do you do if you want to punish someone who is already a prisoner? You isolate them, and you leave them in the dark."

Besides the psychological stress, the dark, or rather, the absence of solar energy, will provide another practical challenge: "We won't be able to dry anything out," Ousland says. His and Horn's own sweat and the humidity from their breath could prove their worst enemies. If they're not careful, moisture in the fibers of their clothes or sleeping bags will freeze solid, turning their life-preserving insulation into armor plate.

"There's no question it's a higher degree of difficulty," says Jerry Kobalenko, a Canadian explorer who has crossed both Ellesmere Island and Labrador on his own steam. "It's like the first winter ascent of K2. If they do it, it'll be something really new."

"Børge and I are friends and I know he is strong, but he hasn't experienced the polar darkness," says Malakhov, who was among the 11 Russians who, in 1985, came closest (within 411 miles or 661 kilometers) to the North Pole in winter. "The dark," he confirms, "is very hard to get used to."

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Pick up the February 2006 issue for 36 amazing Hawaiian adventures, the most spectacular treks in Australia, 11 weekend escapes near you, and more.






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