By Albert Samaha
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These days, Tom and Tina Sjogren wake up in the frozen hell they'd always dreamed of.
The two New Yorkers, in the early stretch of a 70-day, 700-mile trek to the North Pole, greet the morning already suffering. The cold is searing, and the daylike every daypromises only a tired and dangerous march and another restless sleep ruined by the serenade of the massive blocks of unstable ice shifting beneath them, creaking and cracking.
In more comfortable times, they wake up in a sleek loft in Soho. Where they are now, it's 40 degrees below zero inside their tent. So at night they are cocooned in sleeping bags with room enough inside only for a hot water bottle that chills well before morning. Twin burners, the tent's only potential source of heat besides their bodies, lie cold because of fuel rationing.
When they repack their gear every morning, they have to be careful not to touch metalit's frozen and brittle. No sled dogs are around to keep them company and do the work. The Sjogrens are their own pack animals, so they must don their backpacks, strap on their skis, and harness themselves to four titanium sleds laden with more than 400 pounds of essential gear. No sails, no snowmobiles, no air drops of equipment to them along the way. The chilling name for this adventure is a "two-person, unsupported sledging journey."
"We shiver pulling, we tremble stopping," Tina wrote recently in her journal, which they share with the world through daily updates on their Web site, ThePoles.com. If the journal entries sometimes sound melodramatic, the Sjogrens have earned that right. "We are on the Arctic Ocean, the ice builds an intriguing maze around us, but we see none of it. We fight to survive."
They're on the last of three legs of the Triple Crown of adventure sport: Mount Everest, the South Pole, and the North Pole, all on foot, and the polar trips "unsupported." In '99 they climbed Everest. This February they completed a 63-day trek to the South Pole. Now they're on a two-month trek to the North Pole. Tina would be the first woman to get the Triple Crown.
The same day, 5000 miles away at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers, José Pratts is facing a fine spring morning. From the windows of an indoor running track he can see that New Yorkers are enjoying a mild day. But as the Sjogrens' personal trainer in New York, Pratts is thinking about what they're going throughand especially about how they prepared for it.
"I was trying to be light on them at first," Pratt recalls, keeping up a brisk pace as he talks, "but they were like, 'We want pain.' So I gave them pain, and they loved it."
He spent early last fall training the Sjogrens, his task to prepare their bodies for the coming punishment. It became a creative challenge and a personal pleasure, and he says their intensity inspired him.
"I wanted to hang out with these people. They made my day," he says. "As a warm-up we'd jog down to Battery Park. If it was a warm day, we'd just jump in the Hudson and do some laps. It was a cool-down type of thing. . . . I got motivated by them. They kept me going."
Much of the training emphasized endurancerapid push-ups until exhaustion, that sort of thing.
Whee!: Tina Sjorgren training at Chelsea Piers
For the Sjogrens' singular needs, however, a little imagination was necessary. So Platts turned to the volleyball courts at Chelsea Piers, using the sand's resistance to approximate the drag of snow and ice. In between sandy sprints, they attached heavy industrial tires to their packs and dragged them around the courts.
When a heavier load was needed, Pratts transported a massive 16-ply Barum truck tire from Williamsburg to the gym, and Tom and Tina would drag the heavy rubber ring 30 laps, then hoist it over the corner of the volleyball net. This exercise approximated the difficulty of lifting their sleds over the six-foot-high obstacles that block their way, boulders of ice forced up when two thick sheets slowly collide.
Over time, Platts says, he lost any doubt that they would walk to the North Pole.
"Being a couple helps," he says. "One time Tom told me, 'If Tina gets hurt I have to be ready to carry her back.' They have a very tight bond. The whole love thing is a big part of it." It inspired Pratts to start taking backpacking trips with his girlfriend.
Meanwhile, after only one week in the Arctic, Tom and Tina almost burned to death. Thanks to wireless gear provided by Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson, the rest of the world was at least able to hear about it immediately.
According to their Web site, a stove burning inside the tent set fire to Tina's synthetic underwear shirts and leaped to her sleeping bag while she lay in it. Rolling to kill the flames, Tina squeezed out of the tight bag in a panic. The shirts were melted together, but the sleeping bag, her only reliable shield against the cold, was spared. The trek continued.