SI Vault
Robert Sullivan
July 31, 1989
Will Steger, once a footloose north woods hippie, conquered boardrooms and blizzards to lead a historic expedition to the North Pole in 1986. Now he means to traverse Antarctica
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July 31, 1989

The Iceman Cometh

Will Steger, once a footloose north woods hippie, conquered boardrooms and blizzards to lead a historic expedition to the North Pole in 1986. Now he means to traverse Antarctica

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But no man could make a dogsled trek over huge pressure ridges of ice alone. Such a quest would require a team, and a team requires money. "I figured, $600,000," says Steger. "You can't raise that as a wilderness hermit."

He got a haircut, and then he got in touch with executives at Du Pont. He convinced the people at Du Pont that if anyone could pull off this feat, he was the guy. He also pointed out the many benefits the company would realize if he arrived at the Pole wearing clothes made from Du Pont fibers. Du Pont became the principal sponsor for the trip.

The Steger International Polar Expedition caught the public's fancy. Paul Schurke, a wilderness instructor who was coleader of the effort, says, "I figured it would interest the folks in Minnesota because it highlighted a lot of things we're proud of here: the frontier spirit, little people doing something big, winter exploring, and adventuring in general. Lindbergh's still our biggest local hero. I was stunned that the whole nation tuned in like it did."

Says Steger, "The way we were doing it seemed natural and attractive, and also dangerous. Plus, it was 1986. After the shuttle explosion and Chernobyl, I think people were eager for something like our mission to succeed."

Success didn't come easy. The expedition—seven men, one woman and 49 dogs—pushed off from the northern coast of Ellesmere Island in early March, but after a month and a half of fighting—70° nights, they had covered only 300 miles, with at least twice that distance still to go. As will not be the case with Antarctica, where the ice never melts, the North Pole mission was a race against time. In spring the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean begins to melt and shift, and it is impossible to reach the Pole after early May.

The expedition passed the halfway point on April 16, 1986, but Steger knew he was still far behind schedule. "Paul [Schurke] and I discussed making a two-man dash for it, and we presented this option to the team," recalls Steger. The team took the news badly, and Steger and Schurke dropped the idea.

Proceeding with renewed urgency, the team zoomed 80 miles in four days. The last week was frantic. Steger, already severely frostbitten, caught a virus and couldn't eat during the final week. To make matters worse, the spring sun was opening leads in the ice every day. Ann Bancroft had to be pulled from the Arctic waters at one point, Steger himself at another.

On May 1 the team stood triumphantly at the Pole—exhausted, elated and with exactly one pound of food remaining. A plane full of reporters flew in a few hours later, and the world learned of the expedition's rush to triumph.

With a blizzard of attention descending on Steger, the Homestead became less a refuge and more a base of operations. Over the next several months, a staff of 10—cooks, sled makers, dog trainers—took up residence in huts scattered through the woods. Steger wasn't much bothered by this intrusion, because he wasn't there much. His promotional work for Du Pont and other sponsors kept him on the run. Says Patti, who was divorced from Steger in 1986, "When we split, it wasn't that I didn't love him anymore. It was just that he was never around Ely enough."

She moved into town and threw her energies into Steger Mukluks, a footwear firm that will supply the Trans-Antarctica expedition. "We're close friends to this day, but I needed someone who was at home," she says. "That had changed, and it wasn't going to change back soon."

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