Modern-day adventures don't get much more harrowing than the drama that has been unfolding in the Canadian Arctic this spring.
In mid-March, a British polar explorer, Pen Hadow, set out to become the first person to reach the geographic North Pole by the hardest route, without a resupply of rations. For 64 days he skied, walked, and swam 478 miles, arriving at the top of the world on Monday, May 19.
"Hello, it's me. I'm here," the ecstatic but exhausted Mr. Hadow told his wife, Mary, in a brief telephone call.
But exultation turned to worry and despair as bad weather prevented a rescue plane from picking him up. His satellite phone failed, ending communication. His food and fuel are running out, and he is marooned on drifting ice. No wonder Mrs. Hadow, home in Dartmoor, England, with the couple's two children, ages 1 and 4, told a reporter, "It is very hard to sleep at night."
Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Mt. Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Last week, as Hadow made history at the North Pole, other adventurers were breaking records on Mt. Everest. A Chinese team beamed the first live pictures from the top. A 70-year-old Japanese man became the oldest climber to reach the summit. And on Monday a Sherpa raced up the mountain in an astonishing 10 hours and 56 minutes, becoming the fastest climber.
As the ranks of extreme adventurers increase, a question hangs in the thin mountain air: How many wives are, like Mary Hadow, waiting at home, worrying and praying for their husbands' safe return? The unsung heroes of these expeditions may be the spouses caring for children and trying to maintain a normal life as days and sleepless nights stretch on.
In Greek mythology, the long-suffering Penelope waited two decades for her husband, Odysseus, to return from the Trojan War. Before he left, he warned her of the perils he faced and said, "I leave everything here in your charge."
Perhaps it is time to establish an award called the Penelope Prize, named after Odysseus' wife. It would honor the modern-day spouses of explorers and adventurers who keep the proverbial home fires burning while their partners fulfill dreams of taming mountains or polar ice.
Through the centuries, real-life Penelopes have endured other challenges. Think of the immigrant husbands who sailed to the New World, promising to send for the family later. Or the men who kissed their wives goodbye and raced to California for the Gold Rush. Or the seafarers who left on whaling expeditions for several years at a time. Widow's walks atop seacoast houses in New England attest to the waiting game those 19th-century Penelopes played.
Mary Hadow, who met her future husband 11 years ago last week, presumably knew she was marrying an adventurer and was willing to accept the risks. In other families, one partner's adventurous spirit may not show up until much later. Think of the middle-aged men who eagerly pay $60,000 or more to be escorted up Mt. Everest, in a form of adventure one-upmanship. Their wives and families might never have imagined waiting out this kind of danger.
In a few cases, even men sometimes play Penelope. Last year a young Englishwoman, Debra Veal, rowed 2,290 miles alone across the Atlantic after her husband quit the race they had entered as an amateur team.
Those of us who like our adventure on the tame side can marvel at the courage and strength Hadow displayed during his heroic journey, as detailed on www.polartravel.co.uk/pensolo.html. As the world waits anxiously for word of his rescue, who can fail to admire the courage and strength the ordeal has also required of his wife? Left like Penelope "with everything here in your charge," she is now trying to answer a 4-year-old son's plaintive question: "When is Daddy coming home?"