Sunday, 11 August 1996 00:00

To The End of the Earth

By Bob Weinstein

The Boston Globe

The Boston Globe

Burt Meyer and Jim Gieske have a lot in common. Both belong to an elite group of travelers who have journeyed to the North Pole. But they didn't reach the top of the world in the same way.

In April 1995, Meyer, 70, a retired toy designed from Downer's Grove, IL, subsisted on a spartan diet as he traveled 11 miles a day for 15 days behind a dogsled in biting, sub zero temperatures.

And if the daily discomfort wasn't enough, there was always the danger of falling through ice, succumbing to frostbite or attracting polar bears.

But Gieske, 58, a retired surgeon from Easton, MD, expended little energy on a 15 day cruise that departed from Murmansk, Russia, in August 1995. Warm and snug on a Russian nuclear powered ice breaker, Yamal, he ate like a monarch and slept like a baby.

Meyer paid $25,000 for his torturous ride. Airfaire from Illinois to Resolute Bay in Canada's Northwest Territorites, where the trip originated, was extra. Geiske faired a lot better; he agreed to be Yamal's medical director, so his trip was a freebie, and he saved about $18,000 for the cruise as well as the cost of his flight to Murmansk.

Yet, both men joined the ranks of adventurers and explorers who can boast they visited the North Pole. Unlike the South Pole, which is land mass covered by ice, the North Pole is nothing more than moving ice, a longitudinal marking on a map.

But that has never stopped explorers from trying to get there. And with the tries came dissapointment, tradgedy and conflict. For example: in 1879, an attempt to reach the North Pole by US Navy Lt. George Washington DeLong, ended in starvation.

Then, in April 1909, a jubilant Robert Peary, thought he had reached it overland and exclaimed: "The Pole at last! The prize of three centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last. I cannot bring myself to realize it." Some others couldn't bring themselves to realize it, either, and eventually it was determined that he had never reached the actual North Pole.

Then there was the American polar explorer Adm. Richard E. Byrd, who, in 1926, was thought to be the first person to fly over the North Pole. Today, critics discredit the deed, contending that Byrd altered the data and was actually 150 miles short of his goal.
Let the debate rage over who was first to reach the North Pole - Meyer insists he holds the distinction of being the oldest person to trek there.

And Geneve Hein, 17, of Oakbrook, IL, says she's the youngest. Hein, then 16, accompanied Meyer and 12 others on last year's dogsledding trip to the Pole, an expedition by The Northwest Passage, a Wilmette, IL based adventure travel company.
Records aside, just saying you've been to the North Pole is an accomplishment in its own right. For openers, it's cold, very cold. And it's far. But the killer problem in getting there is the expense.

The folks who set off for the coldest spot on earth are typically well-heeled adventurers who have been just about everywhere else. After experienceing the North Pole, there aren't too many travel thrills left, say Pole conquers. To use Meyers words, "It is the ultimate travel experience" and is gaurenteed to turn heads at coctail parties.

Even if you have the time and money, there aren't too many ways to get to the North Pole. There's the brave-the-wilds route offered by The Northwest Passage; the cruise-approach sponsored by Quark expeditions, based in Darien, Conn.; or you can hook up with one of several companies that will fly you to the Pole. The Northwest Passage has an 8-day air tour, which leaves from Resolute Bay and includes stops at islands along the way. It costs $9,480.

The first two options are drawing the most takers. Quark has signed up passengers for it's nuclear-powered cruise to the North Pole this month; and The Northwest Passage is taking applications for two dogsledding expeditions in April 1997. One is coed, the other is the first all-women's dogsledding expedition.

If you have an aversion to discomfort and no desire for physical overexertion, a comfy ice breaker should be just right for you.

However, Meyer and Hein insist The Northwest Passage's expedition is not half as bad as it sounds. "They are a class act," says Meyer.

Founder Rick Sweitzer of Wilmette, IL, 42, a former Peace Corps volunteer, has devoted his life to wilderness travel. Besides the North Pole trek, The Northwest Passage offers a smorgasbord of adventure travel trips, including dogsledding in Canada's Northwest Territories, cycling and rafting in New Zealand, and whitewater rafting in Cost Rica.

Putting romatic notions aside, Sweitzer says dogsledding to the North Pole is not for the average traveler. "You don't have to be a professional adventurer, but it is clearly not for everyone," he says.

The Northwest Passage's expedition requires physical prowess, athletic ability (you had better bve a decent skier), team work and a good attitude, which means no complaining or temper tantrums when you are half way there. Once the Arctic is reached, there is no turning back.

So, to weed out weaklings and stragglers, The Northwest Passage stages a shakdown trip in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, a week long simulation of the North Pole trip. It gives takers a preview of what to expect and, most important, to see if they can cut it.
That whopping $25,500 price tag (it has inched up another $500 for next year's North Pole trip) includes boots, skis, rations, sleeping bags, team jackets and airfare, accounting for 70% of the cost.

"Prior to the shakedown trip, people don't have a clue what to expect," sayss Sweitzer. "Once they see videos and preview what they can expect, they see it as not as intimidating as they thought. They also gain confindence in our experience."
Even with the shakedown trip, videos and pep talks, the real thing is still light years away from a stay in a five star hotel.

Meyer says he did it because he's always had an appetite for off beat travel adventures. He's already been to Africa, and, a couple of years ago, he biked 3,500 miles by himself from San Francisco to Charleston, SC, in 41 days. "It was no big deal," Meyer says. "It was a tough trip, but I just took it one pedal push at a time."

Despite his age, Meyer insists he had no problem keeping up with the rest of the group on the dogsled trek. "It wasn't easy," he confesses, "but you get used to it pretty quick."

Most days went like this: wake up, fix breakfast (oatmeal), break down camp, get the 20 dogs and 800 pounds of equipment ready, ski until lunch (beef jerky, nuts, chocolate, cheese). Then, ski until dinner (stew with rice or spaghetti). Eat, sleep, get up and start over. The goal was to do at least 10 miles a day - no easy feat traveling on ice at 5 degrees below zero, which Meyer swears is warm for the North Pole.

"The hardest thing was getting moving in the morning," he says. "Crawling out of a warm sleeping bag at 7 AM was the toughest part. There was a lot to do. It took about two hours before we got going."

There wern't any major mishaps: Meyer pooh-poohed a temporary case of frostbite he got when his gloves got wet.

But there were those barren fields of blue ice crashing together, forming pressure ridges up to 30 feet high, which had to be negotiated. "You have to either get around them or across them," Meyer says. "You can shoot an entire day dealing with the pressure ridges."
"Day" and "Night" became meaningless terms for the trekkers because the North Pole has 24 hours of sunlight. Nevertheless, no one in the group had trouble sleeping after their long days.

There were also some minor problems caused by moving ice. If it was drifting south - the wrong direction - the trekkers lost ground as they slept.

And while the trip was all about reaching the treacherous North Pole, Meyer and Hein said reaching it was no big deal.

Says Meyer, "It was almost a ficticous goal. The Pole is nothing. It's just another chunk of ice. You're only standing at the North Pole for a few minutes and then it moves. The whole thing is the trip, not the goal. It is not like climbing Mount Everest or traveling to the South Pole, where you go to a place. There is no place at the North Pole."

There aren't any signs to announce that you've arrived. Only a handheld Global Positioning System, a high tech devise about the size of a desk calculator that takes satellite readings and is accurate up to 140 yards, tells you that you are there.

Hardships and all, Hein and Meyer swear the trip was worth the trouble. "It changed my life," says Hein. "When I think back at what we accomplished, everday hassles seem insignificant," she says. "Getting to the Pole represents a major mileston in my life."
Beyond a feeling of accomplishment, Meyer says the trip taught him a lot about group dynamics. "There are no grandstanding heros when you are on an expedition like this," he says. "Even though you have to be self sufficient, each person must learn how to succeed as part of a team. Besides the personal triumph there is also a wonderful feeling knowing you did it as a team."

Hein said that she would go to the Pole again if she could find a sponsor. Her parents footed the bill the first time; next time, she's on her own.

Meyer says he'd pass on another trip. It's not because he's not up to it, it's that "life is short and there are other travel adventures to taste," he says.

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