North Pole Gear Test

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

From a starting point on Canada’s Ellesmere Island, it took two long months of skiing, hauling, cooking, camping, scouting lines, and meandering steadily north on fractured ice.

But on April 25, 2009, John Huston and Tyler Fish reached the North Pole by ski — the first Americans to pull off the unsupported feat, which at 475 miles has been dubbed “the hardest trek on the planet.”


Tyler Fish navigating with a DeLorme PN-40 GPS en route to the Pole; Photo © Forward Expeditions
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Indeed, to cross the arctic void, Huston and Fish, from Chicago and Ely, Minn., had to haul 650 pounds of food, fuel and gear. Each man pulled two sleds and trudged for hours a day, leaning into wind and bearing temps as low as minus-60 degrees F.

Like all polar trips, Huston and Fish’s Victorinox North Pole ’09 Expedition necessitated some unique gear. The pair cherry-picked from standard outdoors-industry items, including a DeLorme PN-40 GPS unit and, from their sponsor, the Victorinox Swiss Tool Spirit Plus Rachet, a $145 multi-tool that served as their repair kit.


A camp on the way to the North Pole; Photo © Forward Expeditions
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But they also brought unexpected things like a teapot. “We called it the Fat Lady,” Huston said. They bought the bulbous stainless steel pot in the village of Iqaluit, Nunavut, before departure. It is a $40 item Huston said was essential on the trip.

The teapot is big and moderately heavy at about 26 ounces. But Huston — who stored it during transit each day wrapped in his sleeping bag with a satellite phone inside — swears by the seven-liter pot for melting snow blocks and boiling water in some of the worst conditions on the planet.


Esoteric polar gear made in Norway comprised a bulk of Huston and Fish’s haul. The Alfa Mørdre Extreme Boots, sold only at the Sportsnett outdoor store in Oslo, according to Huston, are a simulacrum to footwear worn a century ago by explorers like Roald Amundsen.

But the Alfa Mørdre Extremes, which are handmade and cost $1,000 a pair, employ modern materials alongside leather and wool.


Huston and Fish bought their boots a couple sizes too large. They added three insoles and wore three pair of socks. In more than 3,000 miles of use, in training and on expeditions, Huston said the boots have resulted in just one tiny blister and zero frostbite.

For skis, the pair strapped into the Åsnes Amundsen Smørefri model, another esoteric item from Norway. The 187cm skis have full-length steel edges and a “skin lock system” that facilitates a short, removable adhesive skin that locks into slits on the ski base.

Telemark bindings from Rottefella — the Super Telemark model — served to mate the pair’s odd boots to stout skis below.


Åsnes Amundsen Smørefri skis
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Bergans of Norway supplied outerwear, sleeping bags and backpacks. The main parka for the trip, Bergans’ Antarktis Jacket, comes down long over the legs. It has large mesh pockets inside, a baggy fit, and fur on the hood. Just in case the main zipper breaks on a trip — a potentially game-over gear flaw — Bergans includes strong Velcro as an alternate way to seal out the cold.


Studio shot: John Huston in Bergans Antarktis Jacket and Bergans pants
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The Bergans Helium Backpack doubled as a piece in the team’s hauling system. Huston and Fish had the pack’s harness modified and reinforced. Tow ropes were custom-stitched onto the backpacks’ hip belts, and they used the system for pulling the sleds, which weighed about 150 pounds apiece at the start of the trip.

Huston said he wore his pack for up to 17 hours some days. Inside the pack he stashed items including survival gear and bags of freeze-dried cheese.


Bergans Helium Backpack; hip belt modified for pulling
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Most of the expedition’s gear was stowed in the four tow-behind sleds. The Acapulka Arctic Challenge sleds, which slide on snow as well as float on water, are made for expeditionary settings. They cost about $4,000 apiece and are constructed with Kevlar shells.


Acapulka Arctic Challenge sled
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The polar choo-choo train that was the Victorinox North Pole ’09 Expedition — two men on skis, tow ropes, and four sleds behind — chugged at a pace of less than one mile per hour many days. But add up 55 of those long polar days — battling the elements, fighting drifting ice, scouting for bears and open water — and Huston and Fish made it into the history books. Old-school boots, custom-stitched pack belts, and a big teapot helped out along the way.

—Stephen Regenold writes about outdoors gear at www.gearjunkie.com.

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