Sunday, 08 May 2005 00:00

Vacation with Icy Reception The trip to the North Pole has gripped mankind since 1818

Written by Lew Freedman

Chicago Tribune

Annie Aggens stood at the top of the world marveling at the frozen horizon of white stretching for millions of acres. A step in any direction took he south...

For a moment, until the ice of the Arctic Ocean shifted, she was positioned at the North Pole.

The brief visit to the northernmost spot on the planet culminated a frigid two-week April journey from Chicago. Aggens and six fellow travelers crossed open leads that could plunge them into 12,000 feet of icy water, negotiated rubble blocks of ice on skis and courted frostbite from a deadly wind that threatened to freeze exposed flesh.

The effort expended added to the satisfaction of reaching 90 degrees north. "When we got there," says Aggens, 34, of Wilmette, "it was really sweet."

The idea, the mystique, the romance of the North Pole, has gripped mankind's psyche in earnest at least since 1818 when the British sought a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

During her pause at the Pole, Aggens, a student of Arctic history who trained by dragging tires tied around her waist through city streets, let her mind drift to past explorers who opened the path north. Ships were trapped in cement-like ice and expeditions endured harsh winters while crews perished from scurvy. All the while hardy leaders dreamed of fame, glory and riches, of scientific and geographic revelations and of history writing their names in capital letters.

Aggens thought of Elisha Kent Kane, Charles Francis Hall, Fridtjof Nansen, Frederick Cook, Matthew Henson and Robert Peary, and the controversy of 1909, when the argument over who reached the North Pole first erupted.

Against that dramatic backdrop, it seems somewhat curious that citizen adventurers of the 21st Century, guided by firms such as the aptly named Northwest Passage of Wilmette, now take vacations at the Pole. From the North Shore to the North Pole.

Neither governmentally nor militarily selected as in days gone by, clients willing to spend $15,000-plus and committed to pushing their bodies 78 miles northward in minus-35-degree cold, qualify. This is a holiday for those who would rather recline on the white snow of the far north instead of the white sands of the tropics.

Still, many find it surreal the Pole is visited routinely.

"A lot of people look at you for a while," Aggens says. "'Surely she doesn't mean the North Pole.'"

'What's there?'

The North Pole is a moving target in the Arctic Ocean. Unlike the South Pole, it is not on land. It does not stay still, either, and frequently those who camp near the Pole awake to find they have floated miles backward.

"The average adult question is, 'What hotel is there?'" says Rick Sweitzer, the operator of Northwest Passage who has led groups to the North Pole 12 times since 1993.

Also commonly asked: "What's there when you get there?" Except for flags tour operators raise, it's snow and ice as far as the eye can see.

Sweitzer led the first commercial trip to the North Pole when other adventure travel companies thought the notion was outlandish.

"We asked people to write wills," Sweitzer says. "It cost about $20,000 to get them to trust us with their lives."

Aided by expert musher Paul Schurke of Ely, Minn., Sweitzer mapped out a plan recreating Peary's last two degrees of latitude gain, or about 130 miles. Departing from Resolute Bay in Northern Canada by dog team, the leaders guided 11 civilians to the Pole. It fulfilled a dream of Sweitzer's and nobody died. The group partied with vodka and beer.

"We had a remarkable adventure," says Sweitzer, now 50. "It was one of the finer moments of my life, without a doubt. And I knew I was in business."

He was, but the game has changed. Over the last decade, the starting point has moved from Resolute to Siberia to Norway. The price soared to more than $27,000, then dropped to $15,500 as the location changed. "Champagne flights," taking those who merely wish to stand at the Pole without fighting the elements, were added and cost $13,500.

Iridium phones are carried for rescue protection. The method of approach now is skiing. There are many competing guides of many nationalities jumping off from a communal tent site at 89 degrees north called Borneo Base Camp.

This all reflects the age of the adventurer who wants more from a vacation than a tan.

Bill Burd, 61, a Chicago coin dealer, went north in 2003 because the Arctic fascinated him. He spent six days skiing 60 miles in minus-20 weather and was unfazed. "You start acclimating to the weather," Burd says. "You actually start sweating." His reaction upon arrival at the Pole? "Wow, I'm really here," Burd says.

Burt Meyer, 79, a retired toy inventor from Downers Grove, lost 15 pounds in 15 days in 1995 despite eating 6,000 calories daily.

In his family, he was "kind of a hero," Meyer says. Acquaintances weren't impressed. "They said, 'You're an idiot and you're back and we're glad to see you.' No one else ever went on my recommendation," he says.

Those who go, Sweitzer says of the approximately 80 clients he has guided to the Pole on the ice and about 80 more via champagne flights, are "big adventure type-A's and polar aficionados. There's quite a bug."

April is the safe season. Any stay beyond May 1 risks more spring breakup than is wise.

For those with a polar passion, the ignorance of the many is baffling. Aggens, Sweitzer and Burd all said the average Joe thinks the North Pole is in Alaska. A century ago that geographic blind spot would be less common in the general populace. The nation's biggest news was the quest for the Pole and the competing expeditions of Cook and Peary.

Who's on first?

Nearly 100 years later, no one is positive either Cook or Peary made it.

It is telling that only a few weeks ago a team of adventurers completed a 37-day, 475-mile mush to the Pole five hours faster than Peary to demonstrate it was possible he did it as he said in 1909.

It is telling that only a few weeks ago a new book called "True North" by Bruce Henderson was released, offering a case that Cook might have made it first in 1908. Cook, Henderson wrote, was victimized by a smear campaign.

When Sweitzer heard Henderson's premise he said, "Oh my God." That's because Cook's claim was largely discredited 96 years ago and he has acquired few fresh disciples. Cook's credibility is weakened more because his declaration of climbing 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley first was shredded and years later he was imprisoned for stock fraud.

In his seminal work, "The Arctic Grail," the late Canadian historian Pierre Berton called Cook "a con man" and "the prince of losers" in Arctic exploration. Yet Cook made remarkable forays into the Arctic and Antarctic and is supported by The Frederick A. Cook Society, a non-profit organization aided by descendants. The society believes history has treated Cook unfairly.

Peary's first-to-the-Pole claim initially was applauded as the genuine article, although recent examination of his diaries raised issues.

"I'm a Peary believer," Sweitzer says. "I have always believed it. I believe it on faith."

Bert Peary Stafford, a great-grandson of Peary's, is a 56-year-old history teacher in Portland, Ore. Stafford says he thinks improved scientific sophistication ultimately will prove Peary's assertion.

Stafford says he has been aware of the family fame "since I was conscious. We had relics around the house. We had a polar bear rug. I still have the admiral's sextant."

The Peary name carried weight in Resolute when Stafford and his brother, Gregory Peary Stafford, showed up in 1997 on a Sweitzer-led North Pole dogsled trip. "I was treated like Robert Redford," Stafford says.
Every April 6, the anniversary of Peary's recorded date at the North Pole, Stafford lectures his five classes on his renowned relation. In Stafford's telling, Peary makes it first.

Following in the footsteps

The wind was constantly in their faces, cutting like a too-sharp razor. The temperature plummeted to minus-35 and the windchill to minus-50.

"If you took your mitts off for 30 seconds, your fingers got chilled immediately," says Keith Heger, 29, an outdoor winter recreation instructor from Morton Grove. "It was cold. It was relentless. You're in your tent and it's still cold."

Sweitzer, Aggens, Heger, and four others skied together. Sweitzer, whose fingers annually are frostbitten in the north, called it the coldest North Pole trip he has taken. Even more surprising was the number of leads, or open-water gaps in the ice. Some were 6 to 10 feet wide. They were like fences guarding the Pole, Aggens says. "There was a lot more open water than I thought there would be," says Kevin DeVries, 37, of Pinckney, Mich., who runs a communications firm.

Only 1 1/4 miles from the Pole, the team came upon a lead 100 feet wide. It was 4:30 p.m. and, hoping the water would freeze overnight, the skiers camped. The lead froze by morning. But the ice drifted south and an expected hour sprint turned into five hours of hard slogging.

Heger packed a Santa Claus outfit--hat, red pullover and white beard--to unveil at the Pole, but the cold intimidated him. "It didn't get pulled out of the bag," he says.

DeVries says he could see how Peary or Cook might miss the Pole because a high tech GPS told the Northwest Passage team it was on the right spot only for seconds. "It's elusive," DeVries says.

Aggens knew where she was. Stinging hands and numbness in her face provided a North Pole welcome.

"The [explorers] had it tough," she says. "But we didn't have it so easy either. We had to work for it."

Peary and Cook returned to civilization seeking recognition for eternity. Aggens returned to Chicago with her own Arctic Grail fulfilled and a different reward in mind. "I'm going surfing in Florida," she says.


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