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It's a spring night in Northern Minnesota, dark and cold—perfect for Will Steger. He quickly makes his way through the trees down toward a small lake. His destination is a shoreside sauna. He stokes the wood stove that heats the sauna, closes the sauna door behind him and begins to let the pressures of the day drain from him.
He's planning a trip, the trip of a lifetime, and that's saying something, because Steger has become the most famous American Arctic adventurer since Robert Peary, who in 1909 reached the North Pole. In early August, Steger and five teammates will set out from the northwest tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and attempt to mush 42 dogs nearly 4,000 miles across the continent (map, page 47) on a journey that is expected to take seven months. If successful, Steger & Co. will become the first to traverse Antarctica on foot.
In 1986 Steger led an eight-man team overland to the North Pole. Two members of the expedition dropped out along the way—one because of broken ribs, the other because of severe frostbite—but it was the first confirmed expedition to reach the Pole without getting resupplied en route. That trip rated cover stories in National Geographic and Outside magazine, and the latter named Steger Outsider of the Year. He also made appearances on countless radio and TV talk shows.
Now Steger sits motionless in the sauna, his eyes closed. At 5'9", 142 pounds, Steger, 44, looks more like a meditating mystic than an adventurer. When his eyes open, he says, "I don't relate well to the stressfulness of the situation I'm in. I had a dream the other night. I was running on a diving board, and suddenly I stopped to look at where I was. I couldn't tell, but I knew people were watching me. I panicked, but the only thing I could think to do was to keep on running at the same pace. I woke up drenched. I can't think of success or failure, but just of going forward."
After sweating for a half hour, Steger emerges into the 30° night and walks to the lake. He stands for a moment before the star-filled sky and takes a deep breath. Then he plunges into the water, which is still covered in spots by ice. After a quick swim, he sits on a wooden bench and drinks in the cool air.
This man who seems so at home in this isolated spot is just as comfortable in paneled boardrooms, talking million-dollar deals. Steger, it turns out, is an individual of contrasts. Taciturn and remote, he is also an inspiring leader and inexhaustible promoter. The holder of a bachelor's degree in geology and a master's in education from the College of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, he has also studied Zen philosophy at a monastery in Southern California. A ceaseless fundraiser for his heavily publicized adventures, he longs to be alone with his dogs.
Steger puts on his boots and walks, otherwise naked, to the cabin he built on land he owns north of Ely, somewhere in the Minnesota woods. Steger, the loner who also revels in fame—he sees himself as the latest in the line of preeminent modern-day cold-weather explorers beginning with Peary and running through Amundsen, Shackleton and Byrd—doesn't want the whereabouts of his home disclosed. He asks visitors not to divulge even the latitude and longitude of his spread, which he calls the Homestead. The last thing Steger wants is a bunch of granola-crunching gypsies—people not unlike himself in past days—showing up, pitching their tents, patting his dogs, wishing him well and distracting him from his plans.
Inside the cabin, Steger turns on a gas lantern. He climbs the ladder to the loft and crawls into his sleeping bag. He always sleeps in a bag. Finally relaxed, Steger falls asleep—hoping he will not dream.
Steger says he doesn't want to be considered a hero or a guru, but he talks in heroic terms, and his speech has a mystic's intensity. "I was born to roam," he says as he sits sipping tea the next morning. "I felt an urge logo when I was very young. I was climbing trees as soon as I could walk to them. I'd never want to come in when dusk came."
The tree-climbing wasn't in the wilds but in Richfield, a comfortable suburb of Minneapolis. Steger is the second of nine children born to Bill Steger, a water-filtration engineer, and his wife, Margaret. The kids were all energetic, resourceful and individualistic. Steger credits his parents with encouraging these attributes. "It was a challenge to find something they might say no to." he says. "It's not accidental that we all turned out different. One of my brothers works in computers, one's a cabbie, one's a commander on a nuclear sub, one's a male nurse in an AIDS ward. And then there's me."