National Geographic : 2007 Jan
It isn't a desire to be closer to death that attracts them--it's a desire to be closer to life. One last test -------------------------------------------- Around this time, Mike started noticing that 30 minutes of walking was feeling like two hours and that the sleds seemed heavier instead of lighter. He started to shiver, had trouble eating, and blood was oozing from his mouth and nose. Here was a guy who never complained, "the toughest guy" Borge says he ever met, and sud denly he was complaining-of back pains, kidney pains, bleeding when he went to the bath room. Generally, Mike thought, people stopped themselves too soon, but he realized that you had to stop in time. Borge asked him if he thought he should give up. Mike said: "I'm never going to give up." They deduced that infection from various wounds and frostbites-pus came out under the nails when Mike squeezed his thumbs-had spread to his whole body. But Mike wouldn't take the antibiotics Borge had with him. He hated pills; the vasodilators he was on to thin his blood so his fingers wouldn't freeze were bad enough. Borge, meanwhile, was having visions of Mike in a coma. He called a doctor in Norway, who told him it didn't sound good, and where was the near est helicopter? (Victor was already looking into having a paramedic skydiver swoop in if Mike got worse.) Finally, Mike agreed to take the anti biotics-a double dose three times a day. In the midst of all this, word came from Hans that a storm was brewing, and they had to get to the Pole before it hit. So they decided to make a run-within limits. Borge took over lugging the tent and doing more of the routines and suggest ed that Mike lead to set the pace, though leading is very tiring-making the track, concentrating on the route. Mike didn't want to appear weak, so he didn't say anything. He needed rest, but just days from the Pole, where they would be picked up by helicopter, he couldn't bring himself to ask for it, and if Borge offered, he would have to refuse. So he continued, walking like a robot, 148 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC . JANUARY 2007 stopping along the way to hang on his ski poles. "Borge, does the snow look pink to you too?" "Mike, I think we better camp." "No, no, we'll walk the day, we'll walk the day." And so they did, the full ten hours every day, 15 miles a day at the end, as the antibiotics kicked in and Mike's strength began to return. Two days or so before they expected to reach the Pole, the sun rose in a red glare over the hori zon. It was March 20: Spring had arrived. It would have been nice to get there before that and officially nail the first ever trek to the North Pole to begin and end entirely in winter. They missed that record by a hair. But what they did accomplish stands as one of the most daring polar feats in recent memory: Setting out in total darkness. Navigating off Cape Arkticheskiy, swimming and skiing through that mess. Sur viving physically and mentally. That was the essence of the trip. Mike overcoming his sick ness. Borge breaking both skis and having to create a new pair with what he had. Two high octane guys from different cultures, sharing a vision and becoming a team. Reaching the Pole was a necessary but oddly irrelevant conclusion. Borge checked his GPS. It was Thursday, March 23, 2006. The Pole was a thousand yards away. "I've been there before," Borge told Mike. "You've never been. You go first." "No, no, no," Mike said. "We do it together." In the end, the odd couple approached their destination side by side, banged up and frost bitten but still in one piece. Out there in the elements, the fundamental truths had emerged: The most important things in life really are fam ily, friends, honesty, beauty, and love, and the journey really does matter more than the desti nation-lessons human beings can evidently learn over and over and never tire of. D i Long Cold Night What's worse than the rigors of a Polar trek? Facing death alone in the dark. See the images in our Photo Gallery at ngm.com/0701.