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 day—like every day—promises 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 metal—it’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 through—and 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.”
Pratts knows the regimen. Now 25, he graduated in ’96 from Valley Forge Military Academy, where he won Marine Corps PT competitions, against hundreds of other cadets, three years in a row.
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 endurance—rapid push-ups until exhaustion, that sort of thing.
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.
Other skilled mountaineers, like the currently renowned Reinhold Messner, have been forced to give up Arctic efforts. Last year, a Japanese adventurer froze to death after falling into a watery crevasse and failing to get out. Skis help distribute weight on this treacherous ice, and ski poles are used to check for weakness in the ice. Still, while training in Sweden, Tom and Tina practiced swimming in cold waters using dry suits, pulling the buoyant sleds behind them and riding them like boats for longer distances. They also learned the skill of efficiently taking their skis off to lift the sleds over rough terrain. But some things can’t be controlled—like the moving ice, a real morale-killer. Often the flow of the ice works against them, forcing them to cover the same distance two or three times, like walking the wrong way on a moving sidewalk. Progress is slow, and their dispatches aren’t all cheery and stiff-upper-lip.
“T&T are often slow starters, but the expeditions are always rigorously planned, and together they make a great team,” Andreas Anderson, a member of Team Sjogren for seven years, says in an interview from Stockholm. “Once they get their mind set on something, sooner or later it’s going to happen.”
Tina Sjogren was born in the former Czechoslovakia, but she moved to Sweden at age nine, and both are Swedish citizens. Three years ago, they moved to New York, but that’s just their home base; the current expedition is their ninth in the past five years. They’ve backpacked together for two decades, traveling to China in the late 1970s, stalking through jungles in Borneo, and being among the first foreigners in decades to travel in Tibet.
Until their big Everest expedition in 1999, they paid for all their own climbs, using money from a still functioning toilet-paper and powder delivery company they established in Sweden. The Everest trip, and now the journeys to the two poles, are financed by Ericsson, which uses material from the expeditions in road shows, public relations, advertising, and unofficial product testing. (Remember the Simpsons episode in which Homer climbed a mountain at the behest of those fruit bar guys? It’s like that.)
The Sjogrens not only have a flair for the dramatic (such as their use of Columbus’s maps for an Atlantic Ocean crossing), but they’re also plugged into the high-tech age. When they scaled Everest in 1999, they reported via webcams.
Late last fall, they began their polar trips in Antarctica. In February of this year they arrived at the South Pole, the driest place on Earth but considered the easier of the two poles. After 35 days of recovery, they left the northern tip of Canada, near the top of Greenland, on March 17 for the North Pole, the most humid place on Earth. They hope to arrive in mid May.
The Sjogrens’ most recent dispatches reflect realistic worries, such as whether their shotgun has frozen—it’s their best protection against the threat of marauding bears. They worry about the ice, which is subject to the tidal whims of a full moon. Maybe it’ll crack open, and the black water will gulp them down. Whines and whimpers sometimes appear—”Why am I here? Am I poor? Have I committed some serious crime?”—but that’s to be expected from professional dreamers and expert lunatics perched atop the world in isolated agony.
“What they do is extreme—they take it to the next level,” marvels Pratts. “Hopefully they’ll be back. I just hope they don’t get eaten by a polar bear.” Happiness for the Sjogrens would be a warm gun.