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Four hearty hikers plan record-setting North Pole trek

By Lucia MouatStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 1985



Chicago

ROBERT E. Peary, Richard E. Byrd, and . . . Michael McGuire? Mr. McGuire, an experienced mountain climber who has spent the past two springs in the Arctic adjusting to subzero temperatures and testing equipment, is a 26-year-old Nebraskan who has every intention of joining the ranks of record-breaking North Pole explorers.

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In early March he and three carefully selected teammates will set forth from Ward Hunt Island, one of the northernmost land points in Canada, to hike the 475 miles over the thick but constantly moving Arctic Ocean ice to reach the North Pole. In succeeding, they would become the first expedition to walk to the geographical ``top of the world.''

Dressed in bright red wilderness suits and boots made of a synthetic down (real down absorbs too much moisture), the four men will carry about 70 pounds of equipment apiece. Their supplies will include freeze-dried food, sleeping bags and pads to put under them, cameras, communication gear, a rifle (in case they need to fend off polar bears), and containers for collecting snow samples. The latter will be used in acid-rain studies by the University of New Hampshire and Carnegie-Mellon University. The hikers will also collect some meteorological data.

On the journey they expect little snow, but strong winds and temperatures as low as 60 degrees below zero. With the help of a compass, a sextant, and the stars, they will hew as closely as they can to the 74th degree west meridian. Each night they will camp in a special heavy nylon tent designed by McGuire, which can be set up within a few seconds and in which temperatures, with the help of two white-gas stoves, could be raised to a relatively toasty level of zero.

Although the men will cross no mountains, they must often climb 40- to 60-foot-high ice pressure ridges, which form when chunks of ocean ice push against each other. Past explorers, taking dog sleds and snowmobiles, have had to ax their way through these. The McGuire team will take two light sleds to carry some supplies, but they won't try gliding down the ridges, McGuire says. ``It would be like trying to ride over a rock quarry with snow on top of it.'' The sleds will have to be carried over the jagged ice ridges.

The other major physical challenge is occasional ocean water. With a sometimes thunderous roar, ice cracks apart, creating leads -- water passages that can vary in width from one to two feet to half a mile. Hikers must often wait a few hours for large leads to freeze over again. A temperature of 40 below is ideal for doing that job quickly, McGuire says.

Because of the constant movement of the ice and the occasional need to go around pressure ridges and leads, the hikers estimate they may end up walking well over 600 miles before reaching the geographic North Pole. March is considered the choice starting time for such a journey, because temperatures are coldest then and the six-month period of 24-hour daylight is just beginning.

Such a hike over the polar icecap might qualify as every child's dream of the ultimate adventure. But the idea came to McGuire only four years ago, as he was descending from a climb to the top of Alaska's Mt. McKinley. Once home in Omaha and back at work as a free-lance draftsman, he began to read everything he could find on Arctic exploration to see if such a trek were possible.

Once he determined that it was, he realized that the scale and expense of the venture required a thoroughly professional approach. He soon organized the nonprofit group McGuire Polar Expedition Inc. and began knocking on doors and writing letters in search of individual and corporate sponsors.

``I talked to everybody from senior citizens to kindergartners -- anybody who'd listen,'' he recalls. Long-sleeved blue T-shirts were sent to $10 donors. His persistent efforts have resulted so far in raising about $90,000 in cash and equipment. Among the products donated to the team were long underwear by Damart and 10,000 feet of film from Westinghouse TV.

McGuire also passed the word that he was looking for qualified hiking candidates. Of 80 applications received, he chose four, on the basis of not only experience and interest but attitude.

``If they said they wanted to do it because it had never been done, that wasn't good enough,'' he says. ``The reasons -- and satisfactions -- have to go deeper than that.''

McGuire says he looked particularly for a willingness to work together as team members. That quality, he notes, has already been tested in a ``shakedown'' expedition the group conducted on Washington's Mt. Rainier in December. The team of McGuire, Alaskans Bob Jacobs and Dick Ellsworth (navigator for the coming expedition), and Steve Tabb of Tennessee did not make it all the way to the top of Rainier. They met up with unexpected 100-mile-an-hour winds that McGuire says literally pinned them to the slope. But by linking arms and working together they made it safely down.