— There’s one less great adventure left for somebody to conquer, thanks to two hardy Midwesterners who have become the first Americans to complete an unsupported trek to the North Pole.
Just nine days after completing their historic 54-day journey, John Huston of Chicago and Tyler Fish of Ely, Minn., came to New York to tell TODAY’s Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb how they did it.
The bottom line: It wasn’t easy, even for these two. Huston, 32, has completed a trek to the South Pole and a 1,400-mile dogsled journey in Greenland, and Tyler, 34, is an Outward Bound camp coordinator, elite cross-country skier and wilderness survival expert.
Yet their 475-mile unassisted trek to the top of the world stretched them to their limits. “I don’t know if we would do this trip again — it was that hard,” Huston told Kotb and Gifford. He and Fish dragged their supplies wearing cross-country skis or snowshoes as conditions demanded.
Time was running out
The most challenging part of the journey came at the very end, as they neared the April 26 deadline for reaching the pole. On that day, the last plane out of a Russian base established near the pole would take off for Norway, and if Huston and Fish weren’t at the pole by then, they would have to give up their journey and be picked up by a helicopter to avoid being stranded at the pole with no supplies.
That was unthinkable to the pair, who were using their quest to raise money for CaringBridge, a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization that creates supportive online communities for people facing serious medical conditions. They didn’t want to let down the people counting on them, who included several sponsors led by Victorinox, the Swiss Army knife people.
But with three days to go, Huston and Fish realized that they were not moving fast enough to reach their destination. Not only that: Every time they rested, the drifting polar ice cap was taking them farther from their goal.
“Around … April 21st, Day 51 or 52 of the expedition, Tyler and I realized that the southerly drift of 6 to 8 nautical miles per 24 hours was just too much for our current travel schedule and that we needed to do something extreme if we were going to succeed in our mission of becoming the first Americans to ski unsupported to the North Pole,” Huston wrote on the blog they kept of the trip at forwardexpeditions.com. Another account of their trip is online at northpole.swissarmy.com.
They decided that the only way they could reach their goal was to travel for 12 hours, nap for one, eat, then repeat the process. They made their goal with 10 hours to spare after a 66-hour final push during which they slept just three hours.
A big drag
When the duo set out in February from the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in Canada, the winter sun never rose above the horizon, and Huston and Fish had to pick their way over jagged ice in near total darkness in temperatures that dropped to -60 degrees Fahrenheit. At times they had to don dry suits and swim across open water dragging their sleds behind them.
Huston and Fish planned their expedition for three years and spent two years training for it. They planned to drag sleds behind them full of 650 pounds of supplies. They trained by dragging tires behind them as they went around their hometowns, building up their strength until they were able to drag 250 pounds each.
Their planning, especially their calculations of how much food and fuel they would need, was meticulous.
They allowed themselves 8,000 calories a day, which meant a diet of bacon, butter, fudge bars and nuts. They upped that intake over their final three-day dash to their goal. They ate the butter in chunks.
Gifford asked them to explain their diet.
“Butter holds a lot of calories,” Huston said. “You need as many calories for as little weight as possible.”
Their planning allowed them to eat more during their final push.
“Our food resources, which we had rationed just perfectly, held out and we were actually able to up our calorie intake to 10,000 calories per 24 hours for those last few days,” Huston wrote on their blog. “Our fuel situation, which we were worried about the entire expedition; fuel is our lifeblood, without fuel we can't cook and we can't turn snow into water. Our fuel turned out just perfect as well. We reached the North Pole with over 1 liter of fuel left, which is roughly 2 days of fuel.”
Despite the prodigious amounts of food they consumed, each adventurer lost 30 pounds during the two-month trek. The lost weight depleted their fat stores and made it harder for their bodies to generate enough heat to keep warm during the final push, they told Kotb and Gifford.
Top of the world
The pair reached the pole on April 26 — 100 years and 19 days after American arctic explorer Robert Peary claimed to be the first person to reach the very top of the planet.
The North Pole had become something of a holy grail of exploration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Peary became an international celebrity when his claim was certified by Congress and the U.S. government. But it has since been disputed. The National Geographic Society, which had sponsored his original expedition, acknowledged in recent years that Peary probably did not reach the pole as he had claimed.
Another arctic explorer, Frederick Cook, had claimed to have reached the North Pole a year before Peary. Although Peary succeeded in discrediting Cook’s claim, the Smithsonian Magazine recently concluded that the evidence of his success is better than Peary’s.
The South Pole was not reached until December 1911, when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen won a race with British rival Robert Scott, who arrived at the pole one month later. Amundsen returned to tell his story. The Scott expedition ended tragically as he and his entire party froze to death during their return trip.
Those early explorers had to determine their positions by taking sightings of the sun and stars with a sextant. Huston and Fish had the benefit of a GPS system and a satellite phone that they used each week to phone their families. Had they been unable to reach the pole in time, they would have called for help.
They also had a multipurpose Victorinox tool that came in handy as their gear broke during the trek. “Fixing things is really important,” observed Huston, who added, “We even did sewing.”
His mother, who wasn’t thrilled with his daring adventure, would have approved.