Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
March 23, 2006
The first ever winter trek to the North Pole reached its goal today despite setbacks from weather, equipment failures, and polar bears.
"It's great to finally be standing on the North Pole," South African explorer Mike Horn wrote on his expedition Web site. "This mystical place is all that it is made out to be. It's incredible out here!!"
Horn and Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland conceived the trip because they wanted to see sunrise from the North Pole. And to get there, they wanted to trek overland—or more specifically, over ice.
Although dawn has illuminated the region with pastel light for at least a couple of weeks, official Arctic sunrise happens only once a year: on the vernal equinox, when the sun crosses the equator.
That means that Ousland and Horn had to do something nobody else had ever attempted: ski, drag sleds, and occasionally swim through the heart of the Arctic winter.
Atrocious weather held them back, but they still managed to reach their goal this afternoon 60 days and 5 hours after setting off.
"This is a fantastic thing—a first," said photographer Kjell Ove Storvik.
Storvik, a personal friend of Ousland's, watched the pair's departure on January 22 and then tracked their progress via satellite-phone conversations.
Thinking Like Polar Bears
Winter travel in the far north poses a host of problems not encountered by prior expeditions.
To the uninitiated, the worst of these might seem to be the cold. And that has indeed been an enemy, dropping the mercury as far as -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees Celsius) and frostbiting Horn's fingertips.
But the extreme cold is also a friend, because it freezes the ice more solidly and reduces the number of open-water gaps, or leads, between ice floes that the travelers had to navigate.
To cross these leads Ousland and Horn used a bold but simple method: swimming.
After all, Ousland reasoned when he came up with the idea, that's how polar bears get across.
When they came to open water, the adventurers donned insulated drysuits and swam across stretches as wide as an eighth of a mile (about 200 meters).
In the water the trekkers towed their equipment sleds behind them, or when necessary, pushed a sled in front to break through thin skins of ice.
Once across they took another hint from polar bears and rolled in the snow to dry the moisture off their suits before taking them off and packing them away.
Loss of Perspective
But leads weren't the only problem: Until approaching spring brought endless dawn, the pair also had to contend with darkness that ate their headlamp beams and made it difficult to figure out the best way around obstacles.
That forced them to use a tactic Horn developed during a previous trek through the trackless Amazon jungle.
If you can't see well enough to pick the best route, go as close as possible to straight ahead and bull through whatever lies in your way.
Traveling in the dark is worse than simply not being able to see where you're going, said Gary Dunkley, a mountaineer, arctic traveler, and spelunker.
The explorer once spent 12 consecutive days underground on a National Geographic Expedition in Belize.
When you're working by headlamp, he said, there's no light directly beneath your feet. That forces you to remember what you're about to step on.
The straight-ahead illumination of the headlamp also appears to "flatten" the landscape, robbing you of perspective and making it hard to recognize bumps and dips.
Ousland and Horn traveled on skis, which made it a bit easier not to trip over things, but the same problems still applied.
"Sometimes we feel that we're skiing to the North Pole inside a tunnel," Ousland wrote in the expedition's blog.
Wind is also an obstacle, because it not only increases the risk of frostbite, it causes the ice to move.
"You can drift [backward] five kilometers [about three miles] at 'night' while sleeping, then have to walk that five kilometers again in the morning," Storvik said.
"Their first month was an endless story of walking and drifting back."
Wind also delayed the expedition's start from Siberia's Cape Arktichesky by nearly two weeks. Strong gusts blew the pack ice out to sea, creating an uncrossable expanse of open water between the shore and the ice.
During that time Ousland and Horn's camp was twice raided by polar bears, including one that attempted to break into their tent while they were sleeping.
Luckily, they were able to scare the bear away with a flare gun.
From then on the delays continued to mount: frigid headwinds, Horn's frostbite, broken tent poles, broken skis, and ultimately a mysterious illness that robbed Horn of much of his energy.
But conditions improved and the expedition got back on track to reach the pole today—its initial target date.
As of yesterday the trekkers were a mere 13 miles (21 kilometers) shy of their goal.
"I am really looking forward to finishing this journey while enjoying the light of the midnight sun," Ousland wrote in his blog.
In addition to their record-breaking voyage, Storvik says, Ousland and Horn's journey represents the triumph of two explorers from different cultures who are each accustomed to working alone.
"Everyone doomed them in the beginning," Storvik said. "But it turns out they've become really good friends."
And the triumph of that "human factor," he says, is at least as important as the completion of their expedition.
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