Four hearty hikers plan record-setting North Pole trek

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Throughout the planning McGuire has been consulting closely with Ralph Plaisted, the Minnesotan who on his second try completed the first snowmobile expedition to the pole, in 1968. He holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first person verified as having reached the pole. For a fee, a US Air Force weather reconnaissance plane confirmed Mr. Plaisted's position at 90 degrees north.

Plaisted admits he's had a lot of calls since then from would-be polar explorers. He once advised a caller to try hauling 500 pounds of cement blocks on a sled over a sandy beach if he wanted to get a feel for what it was like to pull equipment across the ocean ice. But he says he soon realized in talking with McGuire that he was both serious and sensible in his plan of action. ``I told him if he did his homework and went up and spent some time on the [Arctic] ice, that he could probably do it,'' Plaisted recalls.

In addition to serving as the expedition's official Arctic adviser, Plaisted, along with alternate team member Andy Miller of Colorado, will monitor the daily progress of the team from the group's base camp in the Eskimo village of Resolute, on Canada's Cornwallis Island.

The two parties can keep in touch directly by two-way radio. And the base camp can also receive information from satellites that pass over the pole every 101 minutes. By turning on a transmitter for two hours every night when they set up camp, the hikers signal their location to one of the satellites. A thumbwheel on the transmitter and a coded number system would enable the expedition to send an emergency message if its radio went out and a need arose. The satellites will also be used to verify that the McGuire team has reached its goal, just as they did in 1978 for Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura, who with a dog team was the first to make it to the pole on a solo expedition.

McGuire says his parents as well as his fianc'ee, a Nebraska social-studies teacher whom he will marry next summer, have been ``100 percent supportive'' of his plan, despite a number of low periods in fund raising, when he thought he might have to give it all up.

He concedes that the prospect of setting a pole record in 1985 has made it far easier to interest others in supporting the expedition. But he says that for him, the reward lies more in the thought that natural science may be advanced by the data the group collects, as well as in the adventure of it all. (McGuire is a former Eagle Scout with a love of scuba and sky diving.)

Pushing and testing one's own capabilities, he says, helps a person not only to know himself better but also to develop a sense of inner strength. ``I like to collect experiences the way other people like to collect coins and stamps,'' he says.

It was that same zest for learning that led McGuire to one of his most potentially dangerous adventures in the Arctic, two years ago. He was staying unarmed and alone at a bush-pilot shelter at Lake Hazen and decided to take the camp's snowmobile to a mountain 25 miles away. After his climb to the summit, he came upon a herd of snoozing musk ox, which immediately stood up protectively. He photographed them and returned to the snowmobile, feeling very pleased with his day. Within minutes, however, two Arctic wolves were close on the heels of his machine and chased him all the way back to camp. He hit the kill switch on the snowmobile and jumped inside the shelter with his legs still shaking, he says. The wolves appeared immediately at the hut's plastic window. Man and beast watched each other closely for the next three days.

``I don't honestly know what would have happened,'' says McGuire, who had seen the movie ``Never Cry Wolf'' and read the book. ``I think now the wolves were probably more curious than anything else. They may have been more intrigued by the movement of the machine than interested in attacking me . . . but it was definitely an experience.'' Map: Highlights in North Pole exploration

April 21, 1908: Dr. Frederick Albert Cook (US) and two Eskimo team members reached pole by sled (unconfirmed and widely disputed).

April 6, 1909: Comdr. (later Rear Adm.) Robert Edwin Peary and four Eskimos, traveling by sled, established Camp Jessup in vicinity of the pole (unconfirmed).

May 9, 1926: Robert E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett flew over the pole (unconfirmed).

Aug. 3, 1958: US submarine Nautilus, under Comdr. William R. Anderson, completed first pole crossing beneath the Arctic ice.

April 19, 1968: Ralph Plaisted (US) and three companions arrived at pole after a 42-day trip in snowmobiles. Confirmed by US weather reconnaissance aircraft.

Aug. 16, 1977: Soviet nuclear icebreaker Arktika became the first surface ship to break through the Arctic ice pack to reach the pole.

May 1, 1978: Naomi Uemura (Japan), traveling on sled drawn by 17 huskies, made the first solo trip to the pole.

April 11, 1982: Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Charles Burton (Britain) became the first to circle the Earth pole to pole, reaching the North Pole after a three-year journey.

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