March 25, 2009 / 10:11 AM / 10 years ago

Book retraces an explorer's North Pole steps

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A century ago this April, an American named Robert Peary and a companion either stepped foot on the frozen North Pole, or they didn’t.

The debate over whether Peary became the first person to reach the pole on April 6, 1909 has raged for decades.

Skeptics say Peary lacked evidence to back up his claim that he reached the pole from the northernmost reaches of Greenland in just 37 days of sledding over a mostly frozen ocean, across 413 nautical miles (about 500 miles).

A new book aims to settle the debate. British explorer Tom Avery recreated Peary’s trip in 2005, using methods similar to Peary’s, and beat his time by a few hours.

He describes the journey in “To the End of the Earth: Our Epic Journey to the North Pole and the Legend of Peary and Henson.”

Avery, one of only a handful of people to reach both poles on foot, spoke with Reuters about Peary, the Arctic and what frost bite feels like.

Q: Did Peary reach the Pole?

A: “I’m convinced, more so now than ever, that he reached the pole. We used the same kind of dogsleds, the same breed of dogs, we navigated the same way he did. The crux of the debate was the speed, and we have shown that it is very possible.”

Q: Why does it matter who got there first?

A: “I’d put it up there with reaching the top of Everest, or Armstrong on the Moon. It’s a sign of what mankind is capable of. We’ve been living on this rock for hundreds of thousands of years and only 100 years did we finally manage to reach the end of the Earth. The book’s purpose is to tell people about these incredible men.”

Q: All these achievements were decades ago. What’s left?

A: “My ultimate dream is to climb the highest mountain in the solar system — Olympus Mons on Mars. Reaching Mars will be a huge landmark. In terms of the Earth, we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about ocean depths. There are species out there in jungles that have not been documented.”

Q: Your book has a detail about the Arctic that probably few people know about — that it’s extremely loud up there.

A: “The sound is like being in a building site the whole time. It sounds like a locomotive, and then you’ve got the wind. The Arctic Ocean is a living, breathing thing. All this ice is being moved around by the currents and by the wind. It piles into itself, forms these enormous ridges, and it piles up against the coasts.”

Q: You were underwhelmed by the North Pole itself?

A: “It looks like every other piece of ice we saw. But you could get there and find open water, it could be flat, it could be a pressure ridge, there could be seals there, and that’s the beauty of it. No two North Pole expeditions are the same.”

Q: Your expedition was sponsored by Barclays. How does the financial crisis affect funding for this sort of thing?

A: “Barclays have been fantastic supporters. It’s hard out there to get sponsorship; sadly, the first thing to get cut is the marketing budget. I’ve got friends that had expeditions planned for this year and had to cancel them.”

Q: Did you observe climate change?

A: “It’s happening. The Inuit, the meteorologists, the pilots (all say) there is more and more open water. Within five year it will be impossible to walk to the pole.”

Q: Most of your readers will never get anywhere near the pole. What’s extreme cold like?

A: “Your body shuts down. Your eyes are constantly freezing shut so you’re blinking the whole time to keep them open, your extremities go numb. You’re constantly having to run in place to keep blood circulating. We didn’t sleep well. But it makes you feel incredibly alive, as well. I get a real rush out of these temperatures.

Q: What does frost bite feel like?

A: “At first you don’t feel anything, you don’t know you’ve got it. When you’re bringing your extremities back to life, that’s when it really hurts. Your capillaries reopen and it’s excruciating when you warm up.”

Reporting by Nick Zieminski; Editing by Patricia Reaney

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