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Tuesday, 17 February 2004 00:00

The Christian Science Monitor

by R.A.

The Christian Science Monitor

Christopher Sweitzer has been to the North Pole twice. The first time hardly counts, though, since he was only 18 months old. As a fifth-grader last April, he returned with his dad, Rick, whose adventure travel business has been offering North Pole trips since 1993.

 

On his latest journey, a 5 1/2 day trip, he arranged to call his classmates at Highcrest Middle School in Wilmette, IL on a satellite phone. "The connection was pretty good," says Chris, an outdoorsy 12-year-old who likes to play soccer and baseball when not skiing.

Their trip was far shorter than the one Robert Peary and Matthew Henson took in 1909 (see story on facing page.) Chris traveled mostly by air.

He and his dad flew to Spitzbergen, an island north of Norway. From there they took a Russian charter flight (in a special plane designed to land on ice) to a basecamp on the frozen Artic Ocean, 60 miles from the Pole. A helicopter took them to within five miles of the Pole. They cross-country skies the rest of the way. It took three hours.

The skiing was a lot tougher than Chris was used to. He often had to get over tall pressure ridges of ice. Another surprise was where they stayed. "I never thought about having a base there, with big tents," he says.

Tents are used at the oddly namced Camp Borneo (the island of Borneo is very hot and humid). The camp is temporary. The Russians who run it set it up for several weeks, usually in April. The camp requires a large, flat stretch of solid ice at least three feet thick, so planes can land.

The tent Chris and his dad stayed in was about 20 feet long, 10 to 15 feet high, and heated. "It was pretty nice," he says, surely more comfortable than outside, where the temperature was about minus 10 degrees F. (and minus 25 at the Pole).

When Chris called his classmates, they wanted to know what animals he'd seen. On the entire trip, Chris saw only one seal. He didn't see any Polar Bears, which was probably just as well, since they have been known to attack humans.

Chris worked so hard skiing the last miles to the Pole that his perspiration froze on his face, Because it's so cold, rest stops are short and infrequent. On the trips he leads, Rick Sweitzer says the group stops about once an hour just long enough to give you a little nourishment. "Every time you stop," Rick says, "it takes 15 minutes to warm up when you start again."

When the Sweitzers' GPS unit told them they had arrived at the "Pole," (there's no actual marker), they found they had company. A group of runners was competing in an extreme marathon, running (well, mostly walking) around a one-kilometer loop. There was a five-hour limit, and only a few contestants finished the race.

Chris watched - from inside the heated helicopter that shuttled him and his dad back to base camp.


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