Married Couple Conquers All "Three" Poles

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 31, 2002
The top of the world can be a pretty desolate place, but the North Pole
was a sweet sight for Thomas and Tina Sjogren as they skied and swam
their way to 90ºN latitude without any external support.

The triumph makes the Sjogrens only the fourth and fifth people to reach Earth's three poles (Mount Everest, which they summited in 1999, is sometimes known as Earth's third pole). Tina is the first woman to achieve the feat.

"It's really incredible and we can hardly believe that we're here," said Tina via satellite phone from the couple's North Pole camp. "We have been sleeping here for about 17 hours straight. In the last week we were pushing hard, going about 17 hours at a time, so now that we are at the final camp, we have been exhausted."

The Sjogrens have been picked up and are now being airlifted back to Eureka, a weather station on Ellesmere Island in northern Canada.

Tom, 42, was born in Sweden and Tina, 43, is from Czechoslovakia but went to Sweden at age 9 as a political refugee. The couple now lives in New York.

Food and Fuel Ran Low

The last days of the journey became a sprint for the pole as both food and fuel began to run low. The weary explorers pushed themselves hard, racing onward for 34 hours of the last 50. On these final days the pair encountered tough weather and lots of open water; in some stretches leads (water openings in the Arctic ice) appeared every ten minutes. These stretches of ocean water often necessitated swim/paddles, a method the couple devised by donning a lightweight drysuit and plunging into the water, or lying on the sled and paddling it like a surfboard.

The pair was also beset with injuries, both routine and scary, that tested their resolve and resourcefulness. In one bad fall Tom badly bruised his neck. To continue he had to fashion a head stabilizer from a mattress and duct tape. Numerous unexpected dunkings and leaks often left the couple soggy and converted their tent into a "dark, clammy grotto."

But at 3:17 p.m. on May 29, as the couple watched with bated breath, the numbers on their GPS unit revealed that their goal had at last been attained.

Without the aid of dogs, sails, or supply drops, it was only their strength and willpower that allowed them to ski, paddle, and swim their way to both the North and South Poles—which they visited back-to-back.

On February 2, 2002, they reached the South Pole after 63 exhausting days of skiing. The journey covered 1,250 miles. After allowing just 35 days for recovery and preparation, they set out again, this time on their quest to reach the North Pole, although at times it seemed an impossible task.

"You are so wasted, so skinny and tired after an unsupported expedition to the South Pole," Tina remembered, "you don't know if you could do another one right away." A lot of people thought the back-to-back feat was not possible, and as the couple acknowledged, "deep inside we too knew our lousy odds all too well." Their philosophy, however, means pushing the limits of what can be achieved. "We had to try at least," they said, "and what do you know..."

Awaiting a Plane Home

Since the 29th they had been in camp at the pole, decorated with national banners and prayer flags from their Everest climb. There they were enduring whiteout conditions and awaiting a break in the weather that would allow for an airplane pickup and a welcome end to a successful expedition. The pickup could not come too soon, as conditions at the pole are less than comfortable.

"It's still whiteout conditions, very dense clouds so there has been no chance for a pickup," said Tina via the satellite phone prior to the airlift. "We're pretty much out of food. We're having our last dinner tonight, which is half-ration, and then we have a few puddings. If they can't reach us they will have to try to drop some food through the clouds, but the worry is that with no visibility the GPS might not be exact enough for us to find what they drop."

The explorers had been in contact with First Air every third hour, and reported that the pilots have been great. "They've been not sleeping, and just staying ready for an opportunity to get us," said Tina. The airplane made about a six-hour flight from Eureka weather station on the west coast of Ellesmere Island. The Sjogrens located a suitable airstrip and moved their camp there to await the welcome sounds of aerial transportation.

New Yorkers Remember 9/11 on the Roof of the World

During their trek across the last degree of latitude to the pole, the Sjogrens, who are New Yorkers, unveiled a special symbol—a ragged American flag from September 11. "We live down in SoHo, and a friend and training partner found this tattered flag on the street on 9/11," Tina explained. "He gave us the flag when we were leaving New York, and we decided to bring it with us to the poles. We raised it down in Antarctica in the purest snow, in one of the purest places on Earth, and now we've raised it at the North Pole. It means a lot to us, and it's a small thing we could do in this situation."

Now that the long skiing slog is over, the pair has had a bit of time to reflect. "It's been grueling," they reported. "We've lost so much weight, we've been telling each other how great we look, how slender and fit we look. Then when we reached the pole and set up the last camp we looked at each other and said, 'we really look kind of horrible.' So we're ready to enjoy some rest and some great food."

While some well-deserved relaxation is in the Sjogrens' immediate future, other challenges surely lie ahead.

"Life is so short and there is so much to do," Tina explained. "People ask, 'what else could you do?' But there's almost too much." Trackless deserts and remote oceans may beckon, but for now it appears that the Sjogrens have their eyes set upon the most distant adventure of all—a trip to space.

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