Conquering the Impossible

BOOK: Conquering the Impossible
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Title Page

Copyright Notice





1. Three Frozen Fingers

2. Terra Incognita

3. The Courage of a Bear

4. The Big Chill

5. The End of the Earth

6. Welcome to Russia!

7. To Die Just a Little

8. The Last Man





Dedicated to my wife, Cathy,
and to Annika and Jessica, my daughters,
who give me the freedom to do what I do


We say something is impossible if no one has ever tried it.



The impossible is the only adversary worthy of man.



Nome, Alaska, October 2003

Everything is gray—frozen solid. On the main street of town, as broad as the Champs-Élysées and lined with boxy, prefab buildings, a snow-laden wind batters the few lonely pickup trucks and makes the drunken Inuit pitch and roll. Just a stone's throw away, the Bering Strait stretches into the distance, choppy and gunmetal-gray, an unfriendly expanse of ocean. This is not a sea that welcomes sailors, and it takes cruel revenge on members of the Polar Bear Club when they practice the local tradition of going for a swim in early spring. This is the end of the earth, in a sense. You can't go any farther and still be on the continent of North America.

A hundred years ago, this godforsaken city of saloons, cancan dancers, and shoot-outs with Colt Frontier six-shooters swelled to a population of forty thousand; it was the time of gold fever. Some made their fortunes. Others were swept back south, tossed by the Arctic wind like the gold dust of their dreams. And others are still here, high atop a barren hill, with white crosses planted square in their bellies.

Just over three thousand people still live in Nome, a town whose existence seems forgotten by the rest of the world. There are construction workers, men who work on the oil rigs, and a handful of gold prospectors. The prospectors pitch their tents on rocky beaches and obstinately dig up the sand of the seabed to pick out the last few grains of “beach gold.”

During the late afternoon, this almost exclusively male tribe gathers at one of the town bars: the Breakers Bar, the Polaris, or the Trading Post. With an eye on the television set that features endless games of baseball, these living phantoms tip back their first round of Rolling Rock, the local favorite. It's the first of a long series of rounds.

Every so often I join them because in Jeff, Jerry, and a handful of others, I have found a group of warm and trustworthy friends. And because, let's admit it, I have nothing to do here but kill time.

*   *   *

Unless you've dealt with Russian bureaucracy, you have no idea what it really means to wait. Somewhere, in a ministry building in Moscow, my official authorization papers to traverse Chukotka (the Siberian peninsula just across the water from Alaska) sit on a desk, waiting to be approved and sent out. My permit to import a GPS device, my authorization to carry a satellite phone, and my permit to carry a gun are probably with them. Once I have these documents in my possession, I will gladly sail across the stretch of stormy ocean that is now symbolically blocking my way. Then I can begin the last stage of my round-the-world journey, the stage that will end at North Cape, Norway, Europe's northernmost point. The same place I left on August 4, 2002, when I set out to make a complete circuit of the Arctic Circle, traveling against the prevailing winds and currents. That was fourteen months ago.

*   *   *

Most of the time, I don't even stay in Nome; I live in a modest hut about twenty-five miles away, amid a vast expanse of tundra. Jeff, who runs an auto supplies and parts store, is letting me squat in this old cabin, which he uses as a base camp to go out hunting wolves or moose and where he sometimes barbecues on the weekend. I have fuel to stay warm, plenty to eat, and my satellite phone, which I use to call my wife, Cathy, frequently. With help from my crew, and relying upon a few well-placed connections, she is hounding the representatives of the former Soviet Empire of Red Tape with courage and persistence.

I can't say whether she will manage to wrestle those permits and authorizations out of them. But what I do know is this—if she can't do it, I'll have to go without them.

*   *   *

If this were to mark the end of my adventure, one year after setting out, it would mean giving up before reaching my goal. Everything I have done and endured till now would be in vain.

I've narrowly escaped dying in icy water. I've felt the fangs of polar bears brushing against my face. I've survived temperatures of seventy-five degrees below zero Fahrenheit. I've made 750-mile detours in the blackest night of the Arctic winter. I've had my fingers, my face, and even my lungs frozen. I've battled for five days and five nights running, with my boat's hull, shattered by a floating log, to reach the coast of Greenland, and then gone on to record the fastest time ever in trekking across that country. I've lost all of my gear, almost been burned alive, and all this before reaching the midpoint of my journey! This expedition is proving to be one of the toughest challenges of my career, both mentally and physically—the Arctic is a master that doesn't tolerate mistakes. However, this has also been one of the most enthralling expeditions in my career because each challenge I've faced is new to me.

I freely admit that over the past fourteen months, I mustered the courage to overcome many of the ordeals I faced only because I had no idea how much suffering remained ahead of me. Knowing what I know now, there is no way I would be able to start over.

*   *   *

I am totally determined not to let anything stop me now. To stay in shape during my hiatus, I cut paths through the head-high underbrush with pruning shears; I run across the tundra dragging a pair of 4×4 tires behind me; I climb the mountains all around me, driven by the question that has pushed men forward since the dawn of time: what's over the next ridge? In this case, I find that over these ridges there is nothing—absolutely nothing—for millions of square miles. Just more tundra, barren or snow-covered hills, steel-blue lakes, and not a road in sight in this land where bush planes carry travelers and goods where they need to go. I cross paths with the occasional caribou, that giant member of the deer family that can be found only in the Far North; a grizzly bear comes around my cabin from time to time; the silence is so profound that I can hear my own heart beat.

Not far from here, on a mountaintop, four rough-hewn monoliths extend their claws skyward. They are all that remains of an abandoned citadel, once part of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, whose radar stations and vigilant garrison monitored the slightest troop movements, the faintest sounds of marching boots on the other side of the Bering Strait for forty years. And they, of course, were doing the same thing on the other side. And so the Russians and Americans warily kept an eye on each other, like a pair of fierce warriors, for almost half a century. And then it was over in a flash, as if those decades of madness had been nothing but a bad dream. These vestigial traces of the Cold War remain as meaningless monuments, an American-style Great Wall without the tourists.

It's enough to make you ponder the vanity of all human endeavors. Not that my own endeavors would pass the simplest test of good sense. For more than ten years now, I have been carrying out, in a thoroughly professional, highly organized, and well thought-out manner, projects that most ordinary people would consider symptoms of a psychotic death wish: swimming and paddling down the Amazon from source to mouth and traveling around the world along the equator. But this is what I do; I am an extreme adventurer the way that other people are booksellers, teachers, or butchers. I reject the “superhuman” label that some people try to pin on me. I don't want to be—and I am not—anything more than an ordinary guy who does things that are out of the ordinary. If there is anything that sets me apart from mainstream modern society, perhaps it is my intense determination, my refusal to be hindered by any obstacle. I won't be slowed down by temperatures of seventy-five degrees below zero, the murderous onslaughts of the wild beasts of the ice, or the raging waves of the Arctic seas, much less by the quibbles of some bureaucrat behind a desk.


Three Frozen Fingers

following the equator, I began to look around for my next challenge with three conditions in mind: it had to be something new for me; it had to be at least as difficult as the last challenge; and, most important, it had to be something that no one had ever done before. A physical or athletic exploit is just not enough to motivate me. I need to blaze a new trail, to find my way into new territory. Otherwise, for me, the word
loses its meaning.

I quickly settled on the idea of traveling around the earth at the Arctic Circle. In terms of sheer number of miles, the distance is certainly much shorter than along the equator, but the level of difficulty more than outweighed this “handicap.” The extreme cold, the icy waters, the vast ice fields, the crevasses, and the mountains that lay before me, and the ferocious polar bears all create an environment where the techniques of survival differ sharply from those necessary in the tropical jungle. All of it was totally different from anything I had experienced thus far—and that was a fundamental advantage in my eyes. What's more, many people may have attempted this same feat, but no one had succeeded. Of all the factors that would encourage me to undertake this expedition, that was surely the most important.

The Far North was a foreign landscape to me. But I did have enough experience to know one thing: I didn't have a prayer of succeeding without the kind of rigorous preparation and training that would make me capable of surviving in that environment.

My friend, the Swiss explorer Jean Troillet, had been dreaming for years of beating the world record for trekking across Greenland. He invited me to come along with him on the adventure along with another Swiss friend of mine, Erhard Loretan, who was the third man ever to have climbed, in succession and without oxygen, every mountain higher than 8,000 meters. I accepted the invitation with special enthusiasm because I had been planning to travel to Greenland to familiarize myself with the equipment, techniques, and every other aspect of Arctic travel. This expedition would serve as an initial preparatory stage for my trip around the Arctic Circle. Moreover, to have as mentors two of the world's greatest Himalayan specialists was a privilege that I hoped to make the most of.

BOOK: Conquering the Impossible
11.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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