Ski trek to North Pole is an American first

A lengthy journey
For 55 days John Huston and Tyler Fish skied, snowshoed and swam their way across the Arctic Ocean sea ice on a 500-mile journey to the Pole
Photo Courtesy of Forward Expeditions LLC

Tyler Fish and John Huston were standing in Minneapolis' Loring Park amid much of the 700 pounds of gear they had hauled more than 500 miles to the North Pole. As they finished a television interview and ambled over, the essential question seemed to be "Why?"

"We're addicted to challenge in that it makes us engage life to the fullest," Huston said. "This challenge was everything we hoped it'd be and a bit more."

Tyler Fish and John Huston
Tyler Fish, left, and John Huston became the first Americans to complete an unsupported ski trek to the North Pole on April 25, 2009.
MPR Photo/William WIlcoxen

Tyler and John worked together for six years at Outward Bound. The wilderness school has a camp near Ely where Tyler still works. John has returned to his native Chicago. Once their mutual addiction to challenge became evident, they spent nearly three years planning and training for their Arctic Ocean crossing.

It ended successfully a couple of weeks ago when a Russian helicopter picked up the two exhausted adventurers at the North Pole.

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Tyler said the Arctic Ocean is covered with huge pieces of floating ice. Where those pieces have crashed into one another, they've created big fences or walls of broken slabs of ice. Skiers hauling sleds of gear must choose between going over or around this ice rubble.

In other places the pieces have floated away from each other, creating spaces of open water called leads. This is where Tyler and John became arctic swimmers. Or sometimes, Tyler said, human icebreakers forging a path through an inch or so of ice that formed a shelf on the water's surface.

"The most common stroke as we're floating there in our dry suits -- and that's important to understand: we're floating in dry suits like little bobbers," Tyler said. "And those dry suits go over all of our clothing. So, we're floating there and the most common stroke was an elementary back stroke.

Trekking to the North Pole
John Huston and Tyler Fish each carried and pulled 300 pounds of gear for 500 miles
Photo Courtesy of Forward Expeditions LLC

"You're heading backwards using your arms and legs and you sort of get up on it and break it, go back a little further, get up on it and break it, go back a little further."

John said the water was warmer than the air - sometimes as much as 30 degrees warmer. The air temperature, he said, ranged from 60 below in the early days of the expedition to a couple degrees above zero by the end. But John said even as the temperature warmed he and Tyler felt colder.

"We felt warmer at 50 below zero in the beginning, wearing less clothes than we were at minus ten Fahrenheit or zero degrees and a bit of wind at the end," John said. "Because at the beginning we were a bit fat and we could deal with the cold physically a bit better. Toward the end of the trip we were super thin, we'd each lost 20 to 30 pounds. We were worn out and tired. And we were wearing more clothes to stay warm in warmer temperatures because we just couldn't generate any heat anymore."

As they became skinnier and more tired, the adventurers also began to feel deadline pressure. Each winter Russia operates a floating ice base on the Arctic Ocean, serving scientists and others traveling the polar region. But that ice base is dismantled in late April, when the ice gets less stable.

Standing at the North Pole
John Huston and Tyler Fish finally reach their destination, the North Pole.
Photo Courtesy of Forward Expeditions LLC

This year, the last flight out was set for April 26. As the expedition wore on, Tyler and John realized they would have to race the clock in order to catch that flight. Their pattern was to ski for 90 minutes to two hours, take a 15-minute break to eat and drink, and repeat. During their sprint to the Pole, John said, they slept for only about three hours of the final 66 hours of their journey. They reached the Pole about eight hours before the deadline.

Tyler said the physical demands of the trip were relentless. But even so, there were moments of beauty and wonder he won't forget.

"You have to grab your moments when you can," he said. "Maybe it's 'Wow, look at the patterns in the snow,' or 'Wow, this is an incredible rubble field I'll never see again.' Really, like I said, grabbing those moments and appreciating them."

Tyler and John documented their trip through photos, video and on a Web site. A book and documentary are in the works. The men say the experience will help them convey a message to students in the Outward Bound wilderness school, or any school: with focus, discipline, and motivation you can meet the challenges in your life. Even if you don't become addicted to challenge.