Adventurous Couple Skis, Swims Towards North Pole

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 21, 2002
It began on an airplane: A long, exhausting human-powered odyssey over
hundreds of miles of ice was born in the relative comfort of a
commercial airplane seat.

Years ago, Tina and Thomas Sjogren were flying across the North Atlantic en route to Europe. Tina opened her window shade and was dazzled by the immense expanse of Greenland. "The sky burst in a brilliant dance of colors," she remembers. "Auroras soared all around us, like vibrant ghosts thrown at earth by the sun.

"I imagined what it would be like to step down there and start walking endlessly, all alone in such a majestic place. What would it be like—and what would I be like in it? If this is what Iceland and Greenland are like—how marvelous then must the arctic [regions] be?"

She turned to her husband Thomas, shook him awake, and said: "Honey, let's go to the Poles!"

Back-to-Back Poles

Tina's idea would not be the couple's first demanding adventure; they had already summited Mount Everest on Tina's birthday in 1999. With that accomplishment under their belts, the pair soon concocted a plan to visit both the North and South Poles on skis, traveling totally unsupported by outside aid.

They also planned to do the two trips back-to-back.

On February 2 of this year, the couple reached the South Pole after 63 exhausting days of skiing. Their journey covered 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers). After allowing just 35 days for recovery and preparation, they set out again on their quest to reach the North Pole.

If they succeed, Tina will become the first woman to reach all three of Earth's poles (Mount Everest is sometimes referred to as the "Third Pole").

"We're very tired, as you always are toward the end of an expedition, but we're doing OK and we have no doubts that we can make it," Thomas said May 15 via satellite phone from the shifting icepack near the North Pole. If all goes well the pair expects to reach its goal in another week.

The obstacles they face are typical for a polar journey: polar bears, thin ice, rubble, tricky navigation, and bitter cold temperatures. The Sjogrens were prepared for the cold, having seen temperatures of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius) on their recent South Pole journey. That valuable experience did not come without a price, however. Thomas actually began the journey to the North Pole with a small bit of frostbite on his toe, a holdover from the South Pole trip.

Traveling Over Ice

The Sjogrens ski while pulling buoyant sleds, which they have learned to sometimes use as precarious boats. Without the aid of dogs or vehicles, they labor to pull the 150-pound (68 kilogram) loads across the rugged landscape which can include pressure ridges that are 15 feet (five meters) high or more. They began the expedition to the North Pole with four sleds, moving them forward in shifts.

Ten-hour days can sometimes yield little progress, especially when the moving icepack is working against them. The drifting pack can retard progress and challenge navigation. "Last night we drifted about 5 miles (eight kilometers) toward Greenland," Thomas reported during the May 15 satellite call.

The biggest problem the adventurers are facing, however, is the tremendous amount of dangerous thin ice and open water they are encountering. The icepack is unstable at this time, and shifting ice is creating "problems with huge amounts of open water," said Thomas.

The channel of open water created by a break in a mass of ice is known as a lead; the Sjogrens plan to go around the leads when possible. When it's not, and the leads are small enough, the alternative is to swim them. That's right, swim them.

The Sjogrens have trained to wade right into the narrower leads and swim, while pulling their sleds.

"We have specially made dry suits," Thomas explained. "They are thinner and weigh about four pounds (1.8 kilograms). What we do is just swim the short leads, or sit on the sled and just kind of paddle—there are no style points for this kind of thing."

Despite their extensive training and recent experience in Antarctica, the North Pole experience has still held some surprises for the couple.

"We did a lot of research but never imagined all that we would encounter up here," Thomas said. "The Arctic can be like a kind of horrific amusement park—but it's not really funny."

Although the challenges are great, the end is in sight. On May 15, Thomas estimated that they have seven days of travel left. They also had seven days of food and fuel at full rations, so he feels that they might have to go to half rations for four or five days to build a margin of safety.

Even with such concerns, the mental challenges are the hardest for the team right now, so they must fight through them and continue onward. They do so by repeating the mantra that has sustained them for 110 days of nearly continuous exploration: "Don't think, just go!" If it works, they might just celebrate Tina's next birthday at the North Pole.

For updates on the progress of the expedition, and dispatches and images from the previous expeditions, visit the Sjogrens' Web site: Go>>

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