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Cold Fires Up Arctic Adventurer

John Huston (WCAS99) thrives on frozen terrain -- and by challenging himself to ski and sled across the coldest spots on earth.

Evanston isn't exactly located at the edge of wilderness, but that didn't stop John Huston (WCAS99) from making the outdoors a major part of his undergraduate education.

Huston, now an arctic expeditioner, discovered his love for the outdoors the summer before college. After arriving at Northwestern, Huston and some fellow students founded Project Wildcat, a preorientation program that sends new students on camping trips across the country.

More than a decade later, both Project Wildcat and Huston are still going strong.

Huston, born in Evanston and raised in suburban Glen Ellyn, Ill., has devoted his life to exploring the coldest corners of Earth, from Antarctica to the North Pole. This November he will guide a small expedition on a 60-day trek to the South Pole, traveling by ski while pulling loaded sleds across the frozen terrain.

That trip will be a warm-up for the expedition that Huston and a fellow explorer, Tyler Fish, will undertake in March 2009: an unsupported ski trip from the northern tip of Canada to the North Pole, a route that only 22 people have ever completed.

Huston and Fish will ski at least 487 miles across the Arctic Ocean's drifting ice floes over about 60 days while towing 230-pound sleds, all without outside assistance or supply drops. If they cannot ski around open water, Huston and Fish will swim between ice floes in dry suits while towing their floatable sleds. Temperatures will be as low as 60 below zero, and the wind chill can make it feel like 80 below. Humidity levels will often reach 100 percent, making it feel even colder.

Should Huston and Fish complete the trip, they will become the first Americans to ski unsupported from Canada to the North Pole.

"Traveling to the North Pole unsupported on skis is one of the ultimate challenges for a person with my interests and experiences," Huston says. "I'm most attracted to the challenge of the whole project — the preparation, the training, the networking, the expedition itself. It's all part of the journey."

In a way, Huston has been preparing for the North Pole expedition since he graduated from Northwestern with a triple major in history, anthropology and geography. Huston's first job was with Ely, Minn.-based Outward Bound Wilderness, where he worked as an expedition instructor for six years, training sled dogs, developing his cross-country skiing skills, researching the history of polar exploration and sleeping outside at least 200 nights a year. Huston, who splits his time between Minnesota and Chicago, says Ely is where he "fell in love with winter."

"For me, cold weather climates represent the ultimate wilderness," he says. "I find the challenge of living and traveling in the cold to be empowering. It gives me a sense of being truly alive. I don't like being cold, but I love being in the cold. Everything is a bit harder and more immediate."

At least Huston will be able to use modern equipment on his expedition to the North Pole. In spring 2005, when Huston joined a team of four Norwegian expeditioners on a 1,400-mile ski and dogsled journey across Greenland in a re-creation of the 1911 British-Norwegian race to the South Pole, he and his team wore seal-skin clothing, slept in reindeer-hair sleeping bags, skied on wooden skis and ate "disgusting" food in an attempt to replicate the exact conditions of the original race. The expedition, filmed as part of Race to the Pole, a documentary aired by the BBC and the History Channel, was held in Greenland because of international laws that prevent the introduction of nonnative animals, such as sled dogs, to Antarctica.

Most recently, Huston served as base camp manager for an expedition to Baffin Island in northeastern Canada's Nunavut Territory. The expedition studied the effects of global warming on the area's environment and the Inuit people who make up more than half of the island's 11,000 residents. Huston coordinated all aspects of the three-month, 1,200-mile expedition, living in several Inuit villages.

Baffin Island is Exhibit A for the effects of global warming. Average annual snowfall has decreased significantly over the last 20 years, while glaciers have continued to recede and sea-ice formation has become increasingly unpredictable.

While Huston's 2009 expedition to the North Pole is intended in part to raise awareness of global warming — Huston and Fish plan to send daily dispatches of audio, photos and text to their web site via satellite phone from one of the areas of the world most affected by climate change, the Arctic Ocean — he points to the limitless optimism of historic and modern polar explorers as his main inspiration.

"I know I'll be continually challenged throughout the journey and that these experiences will push me to grow and change in positive ways," Huston says. "Moving forward and feeling positively challenged is extremely important to me, as I'm sure it is to anyone who is passionately pursuing their dreams."

— Ryan Haggerty (J07)

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Closeup - Huston Dogs
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Closeup - Huston Sled
John Huston and his sled dog team ascend a glacier in the Mount Forel range in Greenland.Photo by Keo Films