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That's how things went for the next couple of weeks, with everything around them opposite from what it was supposed to be. Instead of frigid weather, they got a Siberian heat wave—temperatures in the teens and twenties. Instead of minimal wind, it was harsh, blowing the wrong way, and in their faces. Instead of the ice drifting in a direction that would help them, the floes were carrying them away from the Pole. Day after day, they'd march north, then slip toward Siberia while they slept; it was all they could do to hold their position.

There were only so many weeks before the midnight sun would rise over the horizon and deliver its six months of continuous light to the region. The plan was to get to the Pole before that, but they'd never make it at this rate; they'd run out of food. So they started walking longer and eating less and, consequently, having distracting food fantasies: blueberry crepes with sour cream for Børge and chocolate-covered marshmallows for Mike.

In the beginning, they swam a lot—up to five or six times a day—across canals of water between islands of ice. "We just swam, swam, swam, got out, swam, and kept going north," Mike says. This entailed taking off their skis, packing them up, maneuvering themselves, in all their heavy clothing and boots, into the zippered waterproof suits, sliding very carefully into the water so none would seep in at the neck, then dragging in their sledges, which together weighed, at the start, 340 pounds (154 kilograms). Sometimes they had to break up thin ice on the surface before sliding in. The water was warmer than the air, the sledges could float, and the waterproof suits were buoyant; but still, here they were, "out there in pitch-black water with just a headlamp and these towers of ice moving around," Børge says. Sometimes unable to see either where they were swimming or the sledges they were pulling behind them. "We felt a little bit like Laika in space"—the dog the Soviets sent up. On another planet. It was scary.

When they weren't in the water, they were ski-walking in what felt like a tunnel, everything whited out from the snow except the dimmed cone of a few yards of light from their headlamps. They navigated through thick snow and flat ice fields and pack ice, which is frozen salt water that has broken up and jammed together into varying piles of giant ice cubes.

It wasn't practical to rely solely on the GPS, because it consumed too much battery power, and the display tended to freeze up and had to be warmed up in their pockets. They'd check it once in a while but mostly navigated by wind direction (in part determined from the flapping nylon telltales attached to their ski poles), the moon and stars, and, in particular, Mike's mastery in reading drift patterns in the snow. He had learned "the old way," he says, from an Inuit in Canada's Foxe Basin, named Simon, who "taught me all the different ways snow looks." Falling snow, drifting snow, blowing snow; knee height, shoulder height, head height. A drift starts at the level of the ice, and, as the wind gets harder, the drift gets higher. The higher the drift, the higher the wind speed. Wind speed, in turn, indicates how fast the ice will be moving and how fast it might break up. Mike could follow the wind-hardened ridge of an old drift with the tip of his ski, and in this way the two men tapped their way north in the dark.

Sometimes it was all they could do to keep their eyes focused on the ends of their skis, the next hour, the next minute, the next yard, because it wouldn't do any good to think ahead. It was that rarest of experiences—living completely in the now. Where am I? What must I do? Can I still feel my fingers? Sometimes they were happy just to find themselves alive in the tent at the end of the day.

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