Interview: John Huston, First American to Ski to North Pole Unsupported

Text by Tetsuhiko Endo

At 5:30 p.m. on April 25th, after 54 days of skiing, John Huston, 32, and Tyler Fish, 34, reached the North Pole and became the first Americans in history do so unassisted and on skis. ADVENTURE caught up with John Huston yesterday as he relaxed in a hotel room on Oslo, Norway, waiting to fly home to his native Chicago.

ADVENTURE: How are you feeling?

John Huston: Great. Tyler and I each got minor frost-bite on our thighs and our fingers are still a little bit numb, but otherwise I’m feeling great.

Can you explain how your Midwestern upbringing affected you as an adventurer?

JH: Both Tyler and I have lived in Eli, Minnesota (Tyler still lives there), where there are more North Pole and Polar adventurers per capita than any other place in the United States.

You mean people who have trekked to the Poles?

JH: Mostly dog sledded, via the expeditions that Will Steger led beginning in the 80s. We also worked at an Outward Bound school in northern Minnesota that does dog sledding and cross-country skiing expeditions. Just being around the culture of Eli, where the older generation is filled with guys like Will Steger, was and is really inspring for us. We looked at what they had done and then set out to do what hadn’t been done yet.

How did you guys train for the expedition?

JH: The training was a three-year process that included other polar expeditions. I skied the South Pole last winter, which is actually a lot easier because it is a stable ice cap (as opposed to a bunch of floating icebergs). We also did several training expeditions on Baffin Island, as well as lots of research and consultation with people in Norway and Canada who have done similar expeditions. Back at home, we pulled 45 pound tires on our skis to simulate pulling sleds.

Why tires?

JH: Because it’s a similar motion. It’s good mental training to make yourself practice with very similar motions to those you are going to use. In that vein, we did a lot of core strengthening, as well, because as we pull the sleds, they jerk around our bodies and move all over the place.

How many calories were you guys eating every day?

JH: We averaged around 7,000 calories a day. Toward the end, when we pushed the last 66 hours and only slept for only three, we ate 10,000 calories a day.

Do you have a favorite arctic expedition food?

JH: Chocolate fudge bars. They are 650 calories per 100 grams. Our diet was very simple and flexible with each day’s food weighing around 2.2 pounds. Within that there is a ton of fat. We want as many calories per gram as possible.

How do you occupy your mind during six to 16 hours of skiing a day?

JH: It was a mental expedition as much as it was physical. How we occupied our minds while skiing really determined our daily happiness and how well we dealt with being on the ice. We spent a lot of time just thinking about the expedition–how things were going, what adaptations could be made. We noticed that the thought processes of our brains really slowed down and time passes in a whole different way than when one is back at home.

A 90-minute ski march can feel like five minutes because you kind of zoned out and think about something. Conversely, it can feel like mental purgatory if you are hungry or uncomfortable and you really want that next break or that tent time to come. So we got really good at zoning out and thinking about topics thoroughly, but slowly. It’s kind of a meditative state where you get into the routine so much that you don’t realize that a full-length movie could have been watched in the time that you skied between breaks.

Can you tell us what it’s like to cross leads?

Ideally, the lead is narrow enough that we can ski across. Even though the ice leading up to the lead might be thin, it only takes two to three inches of ice to support a person on skis. Or, if the lead is too wide, you have to find a place to swim across. We would put on dry suits that fit over all of our clothing and allowed us to float and swim across on our backs with an awkward, floating, reverse doggy paddle. Sometimes we would have to break the ice as we went. Tyler was our lead swimmer, so he would swim across with a rope attached to him for safety, break the ice, then pull the sleds from the other side. Then I would swim across.

That sounds delightful.

JH: Well, one of the misconceptions is that it must be horribly cold. In fact, the water is often 50 or 60 degrees warmer than the air temperature and the dry suit makes it a pretty warm experience because all of the heat is trapped. Of course, if you are in there for a longer time it gets colder. But more than being uncomfortable, it was something that slowed us down a lot. In order to cross a thirty meter lead, it was half an hour between putting on the dry suit, swimming, then getting the sleds across and continuing.

Tell me a little about your last big push.

JH: At 89 degree 5 minutes, we decided that in order to make the North Pole (we were drifting south at a rate of four to six miles per 24 hours) we would have to ski for 12 hours then tent for four hours to eat drink and sleep for an hour, then get up and ski another 12 hours.

What did that feel like mentally and physically?

JH: It worked. It’s a good routine. It was hard the first rotation then got a little better, even though we were kind of sleep walking at times. The one hour sleep really worked because the body didn’t really fully relax so the muscles didn’t really have time to tighten up. After we reached the North Pole, we slept for four hours and we woke up feeling like we had rigor mortis.

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Were there any moments when you thought you might not be able to do it?

JH: Yeah, the moment before the big push. We were two days ahead of schedule until 88 degrees then the tied became high and the wind picked up from five to ten knots to an average of 15 to 20 knots from the northwest. We were being pushed south at a rate of six to eight nautical miles per 24 hours. It was like skiing the wrong direction on a tread mill. We thought to ourselves: “What are we going to do? We are so tied and so hungry and we’ve already been going for 51 days and haven’t slept more than six hours per night in three weeks.” It was a really low moment.

What made you decide to make the push?

JH: We knew going in that it was always a possibility, but we had always sort of dreaded it. However, we realized once we started that it would be successful and that momentum carried us.

Did you guys ever consider giving up?

JH: Nope. We were going to do everything possible to make it there by the morning of April 26th.

What’s the first thing you are going to do when you get home?

JH: I’ve already mapped out my first day back in Chicago, all the way up to the diner where I’m going to eat breakfast. I’m looking forward to a big American breakfast, with hash browns, bacon, and fried eggs at Lou Mitchell’s Diner.

Any plans for future adventures?

Tyler and I are going to write a book, work on a film, and do a lot of public speaking. The next expedition will not be in the cold. It took so much work just to keep our hands warm.

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