TOPICS > Science

British and American Team Completes 37-Day Journey to North Pole

April 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: It was a trip many thought impossible. But Tuesday, five explorers reached the North Pole in record time: 36 days, 22 hours, and 11 minutes, completing a 475-mile trip that began at Cape Columbia in northern Nunavut, the Inuit territory of Canada opposite Greenland.

The idea was to retrace the famous but disputed 1909 expedition of American explorers Robert Perry and Matthew Henson. For decades, skeptics said Perry, Henson and four Inuit men could not have made the trip in just 37 days. But 29-year-old British explorer Tom Avery organized an expedition to prove it could be done.

Guided by an American woman, Matty McNair, Avery and three men from Britain, South Africa and Canada traveled in a style similar to Perry, using Inuit huskies and wooden sleds, called sledges. In their trek to the top of the world, the adventurers beat Perry’s party by nearly five hours.

Fifty-three-year-old Matty McNair is an experienced trekker, including a previous trip to the North Pole. She spoke to us by phone from there this afternoon. Matty McNair, welcome and congratulations to you.

MATTY McNAIR: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read of ice ridges 30-feet high and temperatures 40 degrees below zero. Tell us what it was like to make this trip.

MATTY McNAIR: Well, it was hard. With the wind chill, which really has a lot more to do with feeling that cold, temperatures were down to minus-50 Celsius; so Fahrenheit, more than that, in the beginning. Now, of course, it’s warmed up, and we get 24 hours of light. But as soon as that ice fog rolls in, whoa, it’s cold again. The cold has been a big one, and lots of pressure ridges to push our sleds up and over, and dealing with open leads, and ones that are frozen with thin ice. Those have been the challenges for us.

JEFFREY BROWN: I gather that once you made it up there and were settled in, you suddenly realized that you weren’t alone. Tell us what happened.

MATTY McNAIR: Oh, we had been at the North Pole for maybe an hour or two, we had a camp set up, we had dinner, and I was just looking forward to crashing, when I heard voices and I thought, “Oh, that’s really odd.” And along come three Russian guys. They had come from Borneo, which is a research station about 60 nautical miles away.

And they came tromping along. And we invited them in to the tent, and they said “No, the helicopter comes for us soon. We must be ready.” And within five minutes this huge, big Russian chopper comes, and it lands beside us. And the dogs are kind of looking at it like, “What’s going on here?” and out jump a bunch of tourists that have just flown in to be at the North Pole, and it was quite bizarre.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you can’t even be alone on the North Pole anymore, huh?

MATTY McNAIR: That’s right. That’s right; a pretty crowded place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why was it important for you all to try to retrace and match this 1909 trip that Perry and Henson made?

MATTY McNAIR: Well, there’s been a lot of controversy as to whether Perry could have made it in that time, and there’s been lots of talk of, “Well, that’s too fast; he couldn’t have done it; he must have lied about having reached the North Pole.” So for us, it was walking sort of the footsteps of history and proving that, yes, you know, when you’re out here, you realize the type of planning that he did and the amount of dogs and men he had to support him, those mileages are very doable. And it really enriched our experience, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know you had some modern communications equipment with you, but you tried to make it as much like his trip as possible?

MATTY McNAIR: Well, certainly within means. We used the same style of sled that was built on — from photographs of sleds that he used and projected up on the wall and traced out. So we built sleds that are Perry sleds, and they handled beautifully — using the same kind of dogs that he used; running them in a fan hitch instead of a two-by-two tandem– each dog’s on their own line– means that if they go through the water, they could climb out.

Just they don’t drown by putting their collar over their necklines. They don’t have necklines in this instance. We had –. the approximate weight in the sleds were 500 pounds each on them, which is what he carried, carrying two pounds a person a day of food. So, yes, we had a lot of similarities. Our equipment was different — I mean, our clothing. We were using more modern clothing, but other than that, I mean, the challenges are the same.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally, a personal question. I was reading about you today and many of your other adventures. Why do you do this sort of thing?

MATTY McNAIR: Well, if you have to ask the question, you might not understand the answer.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Matty McNair, again, congratulations, and thanks a lot.

MATTY McNAIR: Okay, thank you. Bye-bye.