White — stark and gleaming white as far as you can see. That’s what first grabbed Doug Beall.
"It’s strikingly beautiful,” he said.
Then the cold hit — minus-40 degrees, so cold that backpack fabric crinkles, drinks freeze before you finish them, and food, such as a candy bar Perry Taaca munched, turns to stone. "It was like chewing gravel,” Taaca said.
That’s just the way it is up in "the last degree,” that final 200-mile-diameter disc of globe, the northernmost sliver of Earth above the 89th parallel. Up there, there’s barely any there there, just an immense slab of ice floating on an ocean. Each spring under an eternal sun circling in the sky, it begins to melt, cracking into huge pieces that bump and grind, forming "compression zones,” jumbles of ice chunks the size of dishwashers, and opening leads of 28-degree salt water that can stretch for miles.
Perfect for a hike.
At least that’s why Beal, 43, and Taaca, 67, both Oklahoma City physicians, recently flew to Norway, then north to Svalbard, north again on a Russian cargo jet to a tent city on the ice cap, and north once more to the 89th parallel. There, along with about a dozen other explorers from around the world, including a film crew, Beal and Taaca stepped from a Soviet military helicopter and into frigid emptiness.
"It is just so totally unworldly,” Taaca said. "It’s in a category of its own.”
After the whump of the rotors faded, the adventurers stood alone among their equipment-filled sleds. "It got real quiet,” Taaca said. "We hooked up our sleds and started walking.”
Adventure and the grit and fitness to pursue it have always driven the two docs. A wrestler at Oklahoma State University, Taaca ran marathons in his 40s and 50s, and in his mid-50s, wrestled in international competitions. A long-distance hiker, Taaca also made a harrowing crossing of the Pacific on a 58-foot sailboat. Beall played team sports in school and transitioned to marathons, triathlons and extreme downhill skiing. In recent years, Beall completed his quest to climb the world’s "Seven Summits,” including Mount Everest.
So, a hike to the North Pole seemed like just the thing. The challenges were clear: Avoid frigid waters and polar bears, endure the cold, and make it to "90-60-60,” the GPS coordinates at the top of the world. Turned out no one fell into the water, except near the end when several hopped in to try their dry suits. "We thought, ‘What the hell, let’s go for a swim,’” Beall said. And motion detectors placed around the expedition’s camps picked up no signs of bears.
But the cold. You never get used to the relentless cold. Even inside the tents it was minus-15 degrees. After weather turned bad on the third day of the hike, one person had to be taken by helicopter to safety because of frostbite.
The others would suffer "frost nip” but pressed on, although Taaca had a close call. Cross-country skiing and dragging a sled across compression zones caused Taaca to sweat profusely, freezing the excessive clothing he wore one day.
"Someone had to break the straps off my back and get the ice off,” he said. Those clothes froze and remained useless for the rest of the trip, and Taaca changed and slipped into his sleeping bag. "... Like crawling into a freezer,” he said. "I laid there and shivered almost all night long.”
The sun would be a rare sight, but when it did show, it appeared with a rainbowlike halo around it. Despite a strong wind and near-blizzard conditions that pinned them down for one entire day, the group managed to move according to plan. After eight days of hiking, the party accomplished its goal — walking about 100 miles, enough to reach the North Pole.
However, that global pivot point remained 50 kilometers away, about 30 miles. Despite crossing latitude 89.7 three times, a strong north wind pushed the ice south almost as fast as the travelers pushed forward, and they found themselves once again at 89.5.
"It was a big treadmill,” Beall said.
Guides called in the chopper, which ferried the party to the pole and left them at that moving "90-60-60” target for an hour. There the travelers pulled out flags and erected a temporary pole to attach letters to Santa written by children back home. Beall posed with small stuffed bears he has taken on many of his treks. Someone broke out 200-year-old cognac.
"It was pretty fantastic,” Taaca said of the trip.
Beall made the journey despite wearing a knee brace because of a torn ACL he suffered in a "yard-sale wipeout” that also broke some ribs while he was skiing out of bounds at Breckenridge, Colo., a few months earlier. He was glad he did.
"It was brutal and great,” he said of the polar trek. "It really was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”