North Pole Ski Expedition

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

One morning this winter, after waking in a tent pitched near the top of the world, Tyler Fish will check a compass and ski north toward mist undulating over open water. He will pull two sleds, each more than 100 pounds, to the water’s edge and gaze at a swath of Arctic Ocean deep and black between ice floes on route to the North Pole.

Fish, 34, of Ely, Minn., will then put on a waterproof suit. He’ll zip it up and ease into the ocean, the crush of cold closing in as he swims through saltwater, air pockets buoying a body backstroking across a void.

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John Huston in Nunavut, Canada, training for the North Pole ski. Photo: Tyler Fish

The Arctic Ocean swim is one challenge Fish and partner John Huston are trained to face this winter on the Victorinox North Pole ’09 Expedition. Then there are the more expected obstacles — polar bears, ice fields, extreme cold — the team may encounter when, beginning in March, they head north from Canada’s Ellesmere Island in attempt to become the first Americans to ski unsupported to the North Pole.

It’s a 475-mile route polar veteran Richard Weber has described as “the hardest trek on the planet.”

“We are fully prepared to be overwhelmed,” said Fish, a cross-country ski racer and Outward Bound coordinator.

Polar Workday
Huston, 32, of Chicago, led an expedition earlier this year on the other side of the globe. He set a daily pace for a team of South-Pole-bound skiers to stride and push for 90 minutes at a time between water and food breaks, a strategy he and Fish will employ on their trip this March.

“You start to think of it as a normal workday, a nine-to-five routine,” said Huston, who successfully completed the South Pole trip after weeks of effort.

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Tyler Fish leans into it during a training expedition on Baffin Island, March 2008. Photo: John Huston

On the North Pole expedition, it might be 60-below zero when the alarm beeps each morning. But Fish and Huston will unzip their sleeping bags and flick a stove to life. They will melt ice to make water, prepare breakfast, then get out of the shelter to start a new day.

An average leg of the journey — which has been accomplished by Russian, Norwegian and other teams, but no Americans — involves endless miles of skiing on a featureless plane. More challenging, immense fields of jumbled ice create a chaotic medium that takes hours to traverse. “It’s like the world’s biggest puzzle,” Fish said.

For open water, the team will pause and pull out dry suits and ropes. They will tether their bodies and four floatable sleds for a swim across the expanse, a process the pair perfected on a training trip last March. “Getting in the water is not as big a deal as it seems,” said Fish.

Arctic Mentality
Understatement is a trait with the Fish and Huston team, both Zen wilderness types who met eight years ago in Outward Bound. Superlatives rarely grace their vocabulary, and they are honest about the realities of polar exploration.

“Plodding on an ice cap can be a very boring existence,” Huston said. “You’re alone in your head for hours at a time.”

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John Huston (left) and Tyler Fish on a training expedition

But the polar existence can produce a meditative state, Huston said. “It’s a mental purgatory where life flows and time passes fast.”

For the North Pole trip, the team will face up to 55 days alone on the ice. They will focus on their schedule and the time put in skiing each day, not on the slow miles gained, as they plod ahead in a white void.

Along the way — in addition to the expeditionary feat — the team is working to raise $100,000 for Twin Cities-based CaringBridge, a nonprofit that provides free websites to families who are going through a medical crisis.

Fish and Huston will travel with no outside assistance and no supply drops, towing all the food, fuel and gear needed to survive for weeks.

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Approximate route of the expedition

Near the North Pole — an unmarked and roving geographic point on ocean ice — they will hold a GPS unit to the sky. They will search to identify 90 degrees latitude, the elusive coordinate that marks the top of the world.

“It could take hours of skiing in circles,” Fish said of the final anticipated task of their journey. “But eventually we’ll find the North Pole.”

See www.northpole09.com for more information on the expedition.

Posted by Joshua Godinez - 12/31/2008 12:08 PM

This is a very cool story. I never knew people could try something like this. How do they get rescued if they’re in trouble? Is somebody monitoring their progress and standing by? Seems like they’re ready to die if things turn ugly. How scary!

Posted by Kristen - 01/02/2009 11:41 AM

Bloody idiots (read: as envious as hell). But what a fantastic adventure. Hope they make it.

Posted by Stephen Regenold - 07/08/2009 02:31 PM

Update from April, 25, 2009. . . Minneapolis, Minn. — Forward Expeditions LLC has announced that John Huston and Tyler Fish reached the North Pole today at 5:30 p.m. CST, becoming the first Americans to make an unsupported ski trek to the North Pole.

Huston and Fish completed what many believe is the hardest trek on the planet on Day 54 of their Victorinox North Pole ’09 Expedition, arriving just hours before the last evacuation flight was to depart from the Pole.

Over the last four days, the Expedition battled fierce winds, low visibility, and a punishing sea-ice drift that acted like a treadmill and moved them further from the Pole whenever they stopped to eat or sleep.

Faced with deteriorating sea ice conditions and an April 26 evacuation deadline, the Expedition team switched to a race-like schedule on April 22, catching one- to two-hour naps between 12-hour skiing shifts.

This means that over the last 72 hours Huston and Fish have slept fewer than 6 hours, spending every remaining moment skiing and snowshoeing across the Arctic Ocean sea ice. At nearly a dozen points they encountered open leads of water where the ice sheet had fractured and pulled apart, and to traverse these leads Huston and Fish donned dry suits and swam across, pulling all of their gear along with them.

Although they are both accomplished Nordic skiers, Huston and Fish felt the effects of this brutal schedule and arrived at the Pole exhausted but exhilarated. Having started the Expedition on March 2 with more than 650 pounds of food, fuel and gear, they had just one dinner, one breakfast, and part of a lunch remaining when they reached their destination.

In a satellite phone call to Expedition headquarters in Minneapolis, Huston had this message for everyone who has been following their journey:

“Tyler and I are having a hard time comprehending the fact that we are finally here at the Pole,” said Huston. “The last two months have been an incredible physical and mental challenge, and over the last few days we have pushed ourselves further than we ever thought possible.”

Congrats, Tyler and John!

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