Freezing fog belched from broaf cracks in the shifting ice. On March 11, 1909, after waiting huddled in an igloo for four days, watching the water freeze over, listening for the telltale grinding of the ice, the American explorer Robert Edwin Peary and his five companions picked their way over rafts of young ice that shuddered, tilted and crushed into piles. It was "like crossing a river on a succession of gigantic shingles", Peary wrote.
"On the polar ice," Peary explained, "we gladly hail the extreme cold, as higher temperatures and light snow always mean open water, danger and delay. Or course, such minor incidents as frosted and bleeding cheeks and noses we reckon as part of the great game. Frosted heels and toes are far more serious, because they lessen a man's ability to travel, and travelling is what we are there for."
Surviving the Arctic conditions
For nearly 20 years Peary had wanted to be the first man to reach the North Pole, and he had already spent nine winters in the far north, befriending the local Inuit. They taught him the secrets of Arctic survival, and he learnt how to hunt in the snowy wastes, how to build a snowhouse and how to handle a team of huskies. Now, at the age of 53, the tough US naval officer was playing what he called his "last game on the Arctic chessboard".
The expedition - numbering 22, including Matthew Henson, Peary's black servant and right-hand man-sailed in the Theodore Roosevelt, a 150-foot schooner-rigged steamer. They travelled up Smith Sound to arrive at their base at Cape Sheridan in time for the winter of 1908-9. There they hired Inuit sledders and a short route across the ice to the Pole was decided on.
Peary relied on the muscle power of humans and huskies to reach his goal. The expedition's main source of food was 3,600 kilograms of pemmican - a nutritious, if unappetizing, mix of
dried beef, fruit and suet - which was eked out with biscuit, tea and tobacco. Fresh meat was supplied mainly by hunting, although the Inuit sledders ate any dogs which died along the way.
Moving closer to the Pole
A small advance party on snowshoes led the way at every stage, supported by sledding-parties, each of which carried 227 kilograms of provisions. At each halt, superfluous mouths were sent back to keep the trail open and to build snow houses for the return
journey. On April 3, beyond 86°N, with the weather temperatures rising to 8°C below freezing, Peary decided to dash for the Pole with a single unsupported sledge and a picked crew of five men four Inuits and Henson. The last 133 miles (214 km) were covered in five bursts before the party finally arrived at what they thought to be the North Pole at 10 AM on April 6, 1909.
Later explorers have doubted the accuracy of Peary's calculations, and Peary himself had trouble believing that he had fulfilled his dream - "The prize of three centuries," he wrote in his journal. "My goal for twenty years! I cannot bring myself to realize it. It seems all so simple." Nonetheless, it was an epic trek and one that took Peary close to the North Pole.