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North Pole hike "unworldly” adventure

Oklahoma physicians, including doc who climbed Everest, take adventure hike on the arctic ice toward North Pole.

BY David Zizzo Modified: May 18, 2010 at 9:48 am •  Published: May 18, 2010

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.

Climber, adventurer says he's not a risk-taker

Doug Beall has climbed Mount Everest and has hiked on the polar ice cap. He rides motorcycles, enjoys out-of-bounds downhill skiing and is thinking about long-distance off-road rally racing.

Beall isn't fearless and he's no risk-taker.

“It's not really that at all,” the Oklahoma City physician says.

Like many adventurers, Beall, 43, is simply drawn to exciting, fulfilling pursuits and wants to experience them. If that takes a certain amount of risk and fear, he's willing to face those.

“The goal is to do it and come back,” he said. “Having the fear and mitigating the risk, that's what it's all about.”

For Beall, that means using the right gear, making exhaustive plans, practicing skills and maintaining peak physical condition.

“The fear is always there,” he said. “There's a difference between being foolhardy and trying to meet a challenge, mitigating that risk and taking a controlled risk.”

To Beall, risk-taking is going to Las Vegas, where the odds are stacked against you.

“I don't gamble,” he said. “I don't do anything I don't have a firm expectation I'm going to walk away from unscathed.”

“I just want to do it and have fun while I'm still able to,” he said. “Anything that comes easy is not very fun.”



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