Overcoming the odds in ‘Race to the Pole’

Area high school graduate recalls epic journey to North Pole during special event at RC library

One slide Tyler Fish showed depicted a hand-crafted 'ice compass' built by the Arctic team during their 55-day North Pole '09 Expedition. Photo by Melanie M. Hedberg
One slide Tyler Fish showed depicted a hand-crafted ‘ice compass’ built by the Arctic team during their 55-day North Pole ’09 Expedition. Photos by Melanie M. Hedberg

Tyler Fish took his audience on a virtual Arctic journey during a special presentation March 19 at the Rush City Public Library.

Seasoned outdoor adventurer Fish and his expedition partner, John Huston, departed from Ellesmere Island, Canada, on March 2, 2009, with a single goal — to be the first successful unsupported, unassisted American expedition team to reach the North Pole.

“No American has ever done this expedition,” explained Fish, a 1992 Chisago Lakes High School graduate.

The challenge was to be the first to do it unsupported. Compared to Everest and K2, very few unsupported teams succeed on this type of trek. Fish noted that compared to Americans, Norwegians and Canadians are very good at cold survival. He and Huston are now the 41st and 42nd in the world to successfully accomplish that goal.

“It’s a very small club,” Fish grinned.

After college, Fish pursued a career with Outward Bound and traveled to places including Mexico and Hudson Bay, Canada. He learned to take care of himself, to acclimate himself to hot, cold, wet and dry conditions. He never dreamed of going to the North Pole but constantly learned “you can do more than you think you can.”

It was at Outward Bound where Fish first met Huston, who was two years younger and had previously completed a South Pole expedition. After talking to numerous personal connections, the once-in-a-lifetime possibility became a reality. The timing was right, said Fish, and they needed to seize the opportunity.

The Arctic Ocean, though mostly frozen, changes on a daily basis. Inspired by Will Steger’s North Pole expedition using a team of eight people and 50 sled dogs, Fish pointed out there was more ice on the Pole in 1986. Prior to their own expedition, Fish learned it was important to ask their mentors many questions and “write stuff down.”

Tyler Fish
Tyler Fish

The team prepared to take on Arctic challenges and remain adaptable throughout the 55-day journey. Wanting to create their own good luck, Fish and Huston focused on three main rules: 1. No complaining, 2. The body can achieve a lot if the mind will let it and 3. Say nice things to each other.

“Trust is everything,” Fish said. “Relationships are important.”

In 2007, the grueling job of training began. Miles apart, Fish lived and trained in Ely, Minn., while Huston lived and trained in Chicago. Fish pulled a large skidder tire belted around his waist, and Huston pulled a set of smaller tires behind him. The team was well matched in size and speed, but the mental training comprised a much larger percentage of their preparation time. Specific routines were created in advance, so they did not have to think about them later.

“Thinking less is doing less,” noted Fish.

Since there would be no outside assistance, Fish and Huston planned to use their own power by skiing and pulling sleds over 480 miles. Fish left behind 4-month old son Ethan and his wife Sarah, who had been part of a 2004 Arctic Quest expedition.

On Day 1, temperatures lingered at nearly 40 below zero. The men wondered if they had left anything behind as they began to maneuver their 300-pound sleds filled with survival gear (a total of 600 pounds of supplies) through the jumbled ice fields of the Arctic. During the first few days of the expedition, they found themselves walking and snowshoeing, without much skiing. Fish recalled that pulling the sleds was the ‘fun part,’ but he also remembered a day when it took seven hours to go a single mile through the ever-changing landscape.

“Ice Armageddon” was how they described the demanding terrain. Hard packed ice would have been ideal, Fish said, but instead it felt like dragging the loaded sleds across sand. The Arctic Ocean wants every small problem to become a big problem, he continued, adding, “When it’s almost 60 degrees below zero, all you do is run around and get blood to your feet.”

Fish pulling a large tire on a run in preparation for the expedition.
Fish pulling a large tire on a run in preparation for the expedition.

The daily schedule was grueling – 5 a.m. wake-up, out of the tent and bags packed by 8. Travel began at 8:30 a.m. The team had the daily routine down pat — ski or walk for two hours, then a 15-minute break. For navigation, the number one instrument used was a compass. A GPS unit measured their ending point each night and starting point each morning, and the sun helped visually gauge the longitude while trekking north.

Noses ran all the time, since Fish and Huston spent the majority of their time at 42 degrees below zero. Sometimes the sun felt like “the weakest little orb” in the sky, Fish described, and they didn’t feel its warmth at all. Setting up camp included positioning their tent with skis and poles. Inside the tent, Fish and Huston used two stoves to cook meals and melted snow in a teapot. A shower kit consisted of a bag with soap and a tiny towel.

A needle and thread became essential supplies. A single pair of boots lasted Fish the entire expedition. Several types of medications were packed, but none were used, because the team remained healthy. Brushing their teeth was also part of the daily routine. “If you’re not brushing once a day, you’re out of control,” Fish explained.

To fuel their bodies, the team burned up to 8,000 calories per day. Their diet consisted primarily of deep-fried bacon, hunks of butter, thick pemmican stew and fudge. Huston cooked every dinner; Fish cooked every breakfast. Fish emphasized, this was part of the routine. He weighed 200 pounds on Day 1 and had shed 25 pounds by the time they reached the North Pole.

Pulling the sled while trekking to the North Pole.
Pulling the sled while trekking to the North Pole.

The team looked forward to “Family Day” once a week and kept in contact with family via satellite phone. During those brief conversations, Fish’s wife Sarah would tell him two things: Be smart and safe, and have vision.

During the expedition, the team took turns swimming with wet suits to cross stretches of open water. Fish swam first, pulling his sled behind him. As a high school swimmer, he smoothly navigated the Arctic waters. The hardest part, he said, was to find the best place to get out of the water.

Polar bear and arctic fox tracks were spotted along the trek, and from time to time seals would poke their heads up through the open ice. Fish explained they carried a loaded shotgun, along with M80’s, birdshot and slugs, in case an Arctic animal became an issue.

On Day 51, the men discovered they were losing hours of distance due to an Arctic movement known as Sea Ice Drift. There were definitely “tears in the sleeping bag” that night. This difficult challenge pushed their bodies and minds to overcome the odds, and it became a “Race to the Pole.” Fish and Huston committed to skiing almost nonstop during the final few days, only stopping every 12 hours to eat and sleep for one hour.

“We did not want drama,” Fish said.

Rather, they wanted the trip to be successful for each other. The goal was to move faster toward the end, having fewer supplies in their sleds. With a total of three hours of sleep over the final four days, Fish became fatigued while Huston became famished.

"Forward" is the newly released book about the incredible North Pole expedition and has been nominated as a 2012 Minnesota book of the year finalist.
“Forward” is the newly released book about the incredible North Pole expedition and has been nominated as a 2012 Minnesota book of the year finalist.

On Day 55 (April 25) of the Victorinox North Pole 09 Expedition, at 4:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, GPS coordinates told Huston and Fish they had reached their final destination. A weary Fish announced they had “traveled a long ways to find this thing (the North Pole). We’re here now.”

Though completely exhausted, the big moment included a hug and a celebration meal. “Do I want it to be over?” Fish thought. He realized in that moment he was not ready to return to his “real life” just yet, pondering there was nowhere else he would rather be, and deep down, knew he would never be again.

After their departure by helicopter on Day 56, the team noticed they couldn’t taste food and figured their taste buds had frozen at some point during the expedition. The only flavor they could taste was sweet, and as Fish recalled, “a tasteless banana is really bad.”

Looking back at the Arctic journey, planning was the hard part, according to Fish. The biggest fear? At one point, Huston fell through the ice but made it out safely. Fish explained they were most afraid of losing a ski, since that would bring the expedition to an end.

The team’s three specific core values during training — optimism, humility and responsible action — played a significant role in guiding the North Pole expedition team to success.

“Forward” (or “Who’s Livin’ Better Than Us?” as Fish likes to call it) is the newly released book about the North Pole expedition and has been nominated as a 2012 Minnesota book of the year finalist.

The event was funded in part by the Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage fund.

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