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Northwestern Alum Recounts North Pole Adventure

John Huston overcame polar obstacles to become first American to ski unsupported to the North Pole.

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August 17, 2009 | by Sean Hargadon
Video produced by Matt Paolelli
John Huston thought he had failed.

Fifty-one days into the “hardest trek on the planet,” Huston and his arctic-expedition partner Tyler Fish realized they might not make it to the North Pole after all.

After three years of planning and preparation, “that was a really dark night in the tent,” Huston recalls. “We just thought, ‘What have we done wrong?’”

With an April 26 deadline looming, Huston (WCAS99) and Fish had less than four days to travel 60 miles to the pole before a Russian helicopter would come to retrieve them.

Near the end of the 480-mile journey across the Arctic Ocean, Huston and Fish realized that wind and ocean currents were causing the ice sheets to drift to the southeast at eight to 10 miles every 24 hours. “It became really stressful to figure out how we were going to travel fast enough to overcome this treadmill of drift that we were on the wrong end of,” Huston says. “Basically we ran out of time.”

They committed to one intense final push, skiing almost nonstop for 3 1⁄2  days. They paused every 12 hours to eat and sleep for an hour.

“We decided that if we slept we would lose,” says Huston, who napped for just three out of 66 hours in those final days. They finally reached the pole — with 10 hours to spare — and celebrated with a single-malt scotch and some leftover fudge before collapsing in exhaustion.

“It was a big achievement and a really blurry time as well,” says Huston. “We were sleepwalking sometimes, for sure.”

Pulling 300-pound sleds full of food and gear, Huston and Fish became the first Americans to ski unsupported and unassisted, without sled dogs or food drops or other outside assistance, to the North Pole. (They chronicled the entire journey on their blog www.northpole09.com with daily audio and text updates.) Before Huston and Fish, the North Pole has been reached unsupported and unassisted only 40 times since the first successful mission in 1994.

“For anyone who knows the polar world, it’s quite an accomplishment,” says Will Steger, an American polar explorer who has led expeditions to both the North and South Poles. “You’re up there in the big leagues when you do an unsupported trip like this.”

The journey began from the northernmost point in North America, Canada’s Ward Hunt Island, more than 1,600 miles north of Hudson Bay. “The most exhilarating thing is to see that plane fly away,” Huston says, “because from then on you’re severed from all civilization. And I think my immediate reaction was I really hope we didn’t forget anything.”

Early in the trip Huston and Fish skied in twilight and didn’t see the orb of the sun above the horizon until the third or fourth day. They covered just a few miles a day for the first few weeks as they snow-shoed through a surreal landscape of rubble — “from car-size boulders to house-size boulders to boulders the size of a shoebox and everything in between, in all different formations,” Huston recalls.

“The main thing I remember was how loud it was, not the ice itself, but us moving on the ice. Because at 40 or 50 below the ice has so much friction when you step, it’s like cr-crunch. Everything is so brittle.”

Along the way Huston and Fish consumed up to 8,000 calories per person per day, mainly in butter, bacon, fudge, nuts and pemmican — a concentrated mixture of fat and protein made of lamb, chicken, lentils and spices. Still, Huston lost 30 pounds on the excursion.

They came across polar bear tracks — from a mother and two cubs — that were less than 48 hours old. They also saw arctic fox tracks, and once when they came to open water, a few seals popped their heads up.

Nearly a dozen times the duo had to don their dry suits and swim across open water, their floatable sleds in tow. Huston also took an unintended dip in the Arctic Ocean.

“Falling through the ice was probably the most traumatic day of the expedition,” he says. “Almost all expeditions on the Arctic Ocean, no matter how experienced the people are, will have an expedition member fall through the ice to varying degrees. And I went all the way through, up to my neck.”

Huston says he and Fish approached a newly frozen lead (a fracture between sea ice floes) around mid-morning on a sunny but breezy day.

“I checked the ice, and I should have checked it more thoroughly, obviously. Tyler and I talked about it, and I started skiing, and it felt like I was skiing down an escalator into a Slurpee, which is what happened.

“At first I was not that cold. I was more worried about losing my skis — if my skis had come off, the expedition would have probably been over — and then it was just extreme cold. I was probably only in the water for a minute or a minute and a half, but my fingers and feet got just extremely cold.

“The coldest part was when we stripped me down naked right there on some good ice at the edge of this open lead and put me in dry layers. Otherwise I could have turned into a brick of ice.”

Huston points to the “treadmill of drift” they encountered as a sign of climate change.

“People always say, ‘Did you see evidence of climate change? Did you see dead polar bears?’ Huston says. “It’s more comparing what we saw to the record 20 years ago. Climate change is one of the reasons we were drifting so much — the ice is so much thinner. It’s a lot less resilient to wind currents and ocean currents and melt than it was 20 years ago.”

Huston estimates that within a decade it might be impossible to ski to the North Pole due to melting on the Arctic Ocean.

The climate change research was one small part of the expedition’s mission. Huston, a history, anthropology and geography major and Project Wildcat co-founder at Northwestern, is fascinated with the pioneering polar explorers of the 19th and early 20th century. With his interest in polar exploration and experience at the wilderness school Outward Bound in Ely, Minn., Huston saw the North Pole trek as an opportunity that “would challenge me to my fullest.”

“The expedition was a personal challenge and an inspirational challenge,” Huston says. “Tyler and I are lifelong educators, and we saw this as a way to have a captivating experience that people could follow online during our journey and, if they chose to, be inspired to follow their own dreams and to hopefully embrace challenge as a way to live life to its fullest.”

Still, Huston says he won’t be repeating the North Pole unsupported expedition anytime soon.

“You’d have to pay me a lot of money to do this trip again,” he says, laughing. “It was so hard mentally. It was completely unrelenting. We were always occupied with staying safe and warm. I’d put it as a 10 on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the hardest and one being the beach.”

Huston hasn’t ruled out other expeditions, though he has two stipulations: the next trek won’t be to somewhere cold, and it won’t last two months.

Now that he’s off the ice, Huston has been sharing his experiences at schools, corporations and other organizations. He and Fish plan to write a book, and there’s talk of a documentary film. They took more than 2,000 photos, as well as video, on the trip.

Huston, who calls himself a reluctant star, threw out the first pitch at a Chicago White Sox game in late May and paraded through his hometown, Glen Ellyn, Ill., on the Fourth of July. He also made an appearance with Fish on the Today show and was interviewed on NPR and Chicago’s WGN-AM.

They are also continuing to raise funds for CaringBridge, the expedition’s charity beneficiary. Huston and Fish raised nearly $10,000 for the Minnesota-based international nonprofit, which provides personal and private web sites for patients and caregivers who are dealing with a health crisis to connect with family and friends.

“The expedition was a huge challenge,” Huston says, “so we had to break it down. We had to get through day-to-day activities to reach the big accomplishment. The patients on CaringBridge are on an expedition in their own way.”