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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In all the appearances, parades, parties and interviews, Steger knew that somewhere along the line he was bound to be asked the question, What next?

Steger knew. One day, in the middle of the North Pole expedition, Steger spotted the ghostly outline of a man on skis in the fog ahead. "Jean-Louis, I presume?" said Steger, paraphrasing the famed Stanley-Livingstone greeting.

"And you're Will, of course," came the reply.

Jean-Louis Etienne, a French adventurer, was in the process of becoming the first person to ski alone to the Pole. Steger had known that Etienne was on the ice, and Etienne had known about the Steger expedition. "But the meeting was fate. It was not accidental," says the epiphany-seeking Steger. He and Etienne shared some tea, and they found that they shared an interest in Antarctica. They agreed that someday they would pursue a joint venture there.

"Once I started thinking about Antarctica, it was clear that this expedition had to happen." says Steger. "It's a critical time for that continent. We'd like to bring attention to the ozone hole over Antarctica, but even more important is the treaty."

In 1959, 12 nations, including the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., signed a pact declaring Antarctica a nonmilitary zone that would remain free of national sovereignty. That treaty expires in 1991. Steger believes it's essential that it be renewed. To underscore his concern, he assembled a team that includes representatives from the five countries that signed the treaty, plus China. Joining him and Etienne as coleaders of the expedition is Victor Boyarsky, 37, a Soviet radio scientist. The other members are Geoff Somers, 39, a carpenter from England; Keizo Funatsu, 32, a Japanese businessman and dog trainer; and Qin Dahe, 42, a glaciologist and cartographer from China.

Whether the expedition draws attention to Antarctic geopolitics remains to be seen, but Etienne and Steger have done a bang-up job of drawing attention to their trip. The 1990 International Trans-Antarctica Expedition's backing comes from two "lead" sponsors (the French insurance company UAP and U.S. fabric manufacturer W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc.), five "major" sponsors (Du Pont, Hill's Pet Products, Target Stores, The North Face and SAFT batteries) and more than 100 "support" sponsors and suppliers (including a utility, an overnight courier and an oil conglomerate). There are enough logos on display to make you think you're on the starting grid of the Indy 500. Even the dogs will wear Gore-Tex jackets, which Patti stitched together.

All told, the sponsors have contributed some $10 million. "That's what big-time adventuring is about these days," Steger says. "We need food, we need flights, we need a command boat in the ocean for seven months. That costs money. The problem is, it puts a lot of pressure on us."

Last week, as the expedition entered its final preparations, it suffered its first serious setback. The Soviet Illyushian cargo plane that was to transport the team from Minnesota to Antarctica developed mechanical problems during a stop in Havana, Cuba. A planned 12-hour layover turned into four days of tension and tragedy. After the plane's air-conditioning broke down, it became apparent that the dogs could not stay on board. Arrangements were made to take them to the Havana zoo. During the several hours it took to transport the animals, two died in the tropical heat—one was a standby, but the other was a sled dog named Godzilla, who was scheduled to make the trans-Antarctic crossing.

But Steger, if anyone, knows that setbacks are inevitable in this type of expedition. It was Steger's continued calm in the face of difficulties that may have been the difference between success and failure for the 1986 expedition. Still, Steger says, "I'll tell you very honestly, I preferred it before—solo, no radio, just out there alone."

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