BÝrge, 43, lankily erect, fair-featured, and self-possessed, with long, ropy arms and cinnamon hair, was known, among other things, for his obsessive preparedness; he was a study in Nordic cool. Mike, 39, a dark-featured, dimpled South African-born Swiss, tightly muscled and with gigantic thighs, had a zesty kinetic spirit that gave the impression of a bull in a china shop; he thought of himself as a hot Latin and was more inclined to wing it. You could see the stamina shining out of his eyes. Thomas, 39, a compact and talkative Swiss, quick to laugh, with twinkly blue eyes and an underlying edge, was fastidious about safety and had a professional alpine guide's love of detail. At one point, he was a prospective third partner on Mike and BÝrge's trek to the Pole in the dark, but, for reasons which will be explained later, they went their separate ways.
This is how they went about things: Both expeditions were unsupported. No dogsleds or airdrops of equipment or food or fuel along the way. They had to be as prepared as was humanly possible for circumstances that promised to be wildly unpredictable: biting headwinds and whiteout conditions, 40-below temperatures, polar bears, pack ice, open water. The ice often presents itself as a mosaic of islands, separated by canals of water. These canals are called leads, and leads can be a big part of an Arctic explorer's life. When you come to one, the first thing you do is look for a crossing where the two ice fields meet; otherwise you have to hop across, paddle across in an inflatable rubber dinghy (if it's really far), or swim across in a waterproof suit, a big one-piece polyurethane thing that fits over your clothing and boots and traps air in such a way that you float: BÝrge's invention.
They did their walking on skis, and dragged anything they might need behind them. Each man wore a harness, and the harness was roped to two single-file capsule-shaped sledges weighing a total of several hundred pounds that would get gradually lighter as they used up supplies. The sledges could float and had runners for the snow. Their gear included tents, stoves, sleeping bags, and vacuum-packed food, of course, the inflatable dinghies and waterproof suits, and also flare guns, the .44 Magnum revolvers, satellite phones, backup batteries, pocket PCs, and global positioning system (GPS) units. Mike and BÝrge had lithium-powered headlamps to light their way in the dark. They were all working with the same Russia-based expedition planner, Victor Boyarsky, and every day, a guy in Switzerland, Hans AmbÝhl, passed on information about weather conditions and how things looked up ahead, based on satellite images provided by the Canadian Space Agency.
So this is who they were and what they were doing up there. BÝrge and Mike set out together first, in the dark of January. Thomas followed alone, in March.
This is their story.