ML 137963


Interview 1:00 - 31:05 Play 1:00 - More
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Will Steger  






North Pole expedition  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
7 Aug 1997

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NPR/National Geographic Society

PB 1:05 (asks if it was a hard decision to end the expedition)

WS 1:12 It was a hard decision but it was a real easy one to make. What happened is the long journey, the 2 week journey from Minnesota to the pole was really a stressful one especially the ice breaker. We hit the roughest ice the captain had ever seen in 18 yrs which meant on the ice breaker we were continually crashing forward going backwards, hundreds of times and I thought the ice breaker was going to be a real rest for me but it was a sleepless journey w/ no appetite. And by the time I got to the ice I was really totally run down. And once on the ice, the moisture got into my lungs and I got pneumonia like symptoms which was quite serious out there being alone. But on the 5th day I decided to start hauling, just to get out away from the campsite and test my strength and so forth. But hauling for just a hundred yds I knew that this effected me too much. My health had get(?) down to almost 80 - 20% down. I knew - it wasn¿t a decision I had to talk w/ myself or use logic. It was obvious that I would have to turn back. I knew the ice breaker was coming back in another 2 weeks. And if I went forward I could pos. get myself into a serious rescue situation where land based helicopters 500 miles would have to try to come and pluck me out of the fog and this would be a very dangerous mission for these men that would have to come up. And that was really the decisive point there was a dangerous rescue. So I decided to come back to my camp and made procedures for the rescue thereon. It was extremely disappointing but it was one ¿I knew it was the direction to go. 2:53

PB so it was sort of a now or never situation in terms of rescue more or less.

WS 3:00 Yes it was. I was drifting east as I was laying on the ice, trying to recuperate for the 1st days. I was drifting off course slowly and in the fog. It was really a mental game¿ I was anxious at the beginning of the expedition. I couldn¿t loosen up and get the proper rest¿.. mentally the whole game is 85/90% - I used to think it was 80% mental. It¿s 90 I found out. And w/¿ the touch of pneumonia that I had, it was just too risky b/c being close to the pole is the most dangerous part of the expedition for rescuing. So I opt to go back - in the 30 yrs I¿ve been doing expeditions I¿d never had a situation where I turned around. This decision was made¿ it¿s pretty obvious. It was disappointing. 3:58

PB (do you think it might have been different if you had adhered to your original plan of goin south to north.)

WS 4:07 Yeah, if I - my original plan was going from Ellesmere to the pole. The only flaw w/ being dropped off at the pole was that 2 week rough travel period of jet-lag and ships and so forth from Minneanapolis to the pole. B/c I was in good shape when I left on the 30th and I was in the most stressful situation I think I¿ve ever been in, in my life 2 weeks later. Whereas if I would have went from Ellesmere, I would have trained for 3 weeks. We had a regular short expedition beforehand. And the plan there was to gradually to get in shape and then leave from there. Ellesmere would have been a different situation. The difficulty of that original plan of leaving from Ellesmere was being picked up at the pole. The charter pilots would not pick me up from Canada b/c they wouldn¿t fly a plane out there. It was a Russian helicopter. I was concerned about not being located there in Sept. when I reached the pole w/ winter coming on and darkness. It would have been a difficult situation. So it seemed like the ice breaker was an easy way. I liked the idea also of being dropped off and being totally committed to a plan at the pole. I actually like that and I accept what happened. Actually it was a really good experience in itself; something I¿d never experienced before. 5:24

PB (makes the comment that Steger is in tremendous shape and almost couldn¿t be in better shape)

WS 5:35 That¿s the sad thing about it b/c if I was in that type of shape when you were up there in the winter¿ I would have made it. my strategy was really correct. The conditions improved, I was on the ice for almost 2 weeks. Snow melted down, the conditions were faster for hauling the canoe sled. And I got really accustomed to being out there, very comfortable w/ myself and the wet conditions. I could have made it if I wasn¿t as in top physical condition as I was in the winter. But it was the travel journey that really jarred me. Coming back here¿ it¿s comforting that I made the right decision, but a lot of times I wish I was out there. But I don¿t think back too much. I¿m going forward w/ my life. You have to make an opportunity out of the crisis. You set goals and our goals don¿t always work out the way we want them to do. I think the important think is journey to the goal, of making an effort of doing something whatever the goal is and a lot of times you have to alter whatever it is your aiming at. And this is a really big case of that happening. 6:48

PB (comments that this is very unusual for Steger and people expect him to get it done)

WS 7:03 I think that being back now for awhile, friends of mine saw that the situation was quite serious b/c ¿ I quit. ¿.on an expedition you really need to know when to quit and when to be responsible. You can risk your life out there, that¿s one thing, that¿s your option. But in this case, if I went on, I would risk the lives, possible risk the lives of rescuers and I just couldn¿t - I couldn¿t take that risk. It was very obvious. There¿s a point of responsibility, of being 1st of all aware of the situation. It¿s not right that you better, no, back off. And then making the responsible decision from there. 7:44

PB (asks what it was like to wave good-bye to the ice breaker and be there alone)

WS 7:54 ¿. Leaving the ice breaker, I was helicoptered off b/c it was too rough of ice around there. And I got this burst of energy when I was on the helicopter. I didn¿t know where the energy was coming from b/c I hadn¿t eaten for 3 or 4 days and slept for about a week. And I felt, when the helicopter dropped me off the weather was good and the mood is a lot of times based on the weather there. And I just felt so lucky, and so fortunate to be on this expedition. Finally after 2 yrs I had, everything was there. It was one of incredibly gratitude. I didn¿t know how I would feel when I was dropped on the ice but it was gratitude and it was feeling fortunate. Although I had no idea what was in store for me. I thought I would just sleep, lay down on the ice, and sleep for maybe 24 hrs and get rested up but what happened I couldn¿t sleep. I was off on the wrong time zone and my body didn¿t know when to eat when to sleep. I spent about 5 days mandatory forcing myself to eat and forcing myself to lay down so I could get back into the central time zone. 8:58

PB (asks about the conditions and how it felt to be out there)

WS 9:03 It was when I was dropped off it was very foggy, thick heavy fog. It was the most silence I¿ve ever heard. It was just incredibly silent. And I was extremely, you know, stressed out and pneumonia so my mind wasn¿t in the best of condition. I was aware of the condition that I was in. I was making small little errors. For example for the 1st 3, 4 days I didn¿t like my stove in the tent b/c I knew it was too dangerous. Making errors like this I could burn the whole tent up. I was aware of these slight errors. That¿s always a symptom of be careful, move slower. And I start to just concentrate more on 1 job at a time to try to get my mind settled down and slowly organize my gear. The more tasks I could give myself rather than thinking and worrying. The worst thing I did is I started to worry. Then I started to organize my tent, organizing my gear taking inventory. I gave my mind something more constructive to think about and to pass the time. And from there I slowly got my head back together. But w/ the symptoms in my lungs, I had pneumonia ¿95 expedition when we crossed the arctic ocean. Actually all 5 - 6 of us had pneumonia at the time. I knew the symptoms and I knew when to call it quits. 10:29

PB (asks to explain the rescue)

WS 10:36 the rescue actually was a lot of fun once I got the telecommunications gear working. I had some breakdowns of the telecommunications gear which was all user errors. And I¿m working w/ state of the art equipment and when you¿re on the state of the art equipment, especially when you¿re dropped off in the field there¿re always problems. But here I didn¿t have the technical expert that I could call up on phone and ask: okay what do I do now. Push this and this happens. I had to figure out myself. And when I had decided to turn back, I wrote up this rescue plan, I typed it up in the computer and then I went to send it up and my transmission sys., whole transmission sys. failed; it froze up. And I checked it and checked it and re-checked it and a couple more satellite passes and it was an absolute blank. And I felt like the if anyone saw the 2001¿ the computer taking over the spaceship¿. I just couldn¿t believe this was happening. No one knew the situation; they thought I was heading for Ellesmere. They didn¿t know I was going to call in a rescue. Worst of all they didn¿t know my location and I was in a fog, but they could search and search for me but w/o knowing my location they couldn¿t find me. It was really pretty scary for a little awhile there for an hour or so. but then what I did was I kind of got into the game of trying to figure out this thing. I couldn¿t figure it out that night, so I laid down for 6 or 7 hrs just to kind of stop. And as I was laying there I start figuring and brainstorming and I got up in the morning and start doing various checks. What turned out the problem was that the computer and transmitter were run on separate power unites and those power units failed at the same time. And I introduced a new battery sys. which I thought was a new battery but It was a dud¿.. very gradually I was able to narrow down the problem¿.. once I had my communication out by the (?) sys¿. I set up w/ communication w/ the ship so I knew where the ship was coming, the ice breaker that was returning. They knew my location and I had an argo-speak and another satellite sys. that gave my location 24 hrs a day that the world was receiving. And then I figured that the ice breaker would be there the 24th of July and that¿s when I got my urgent message from the ¿Helsat¿ on m computer that the icebreaker was at 89 degrees and at that moment the helicopters were going to take off I used a small little VHF radio to contact the ship then. I managed to contact my partner Victor. We just made voice contact. We couldn¿t get any info. up. But then 20 min. later when they were in the helicopter I got very clear contact w/ them and I gave them my exact location w/in a couple yards and then the helicopter came close and I used a flare and smoke signals to bring it in¿. I could have been still drifting out there. It was a modern expedition that relied totally on telecommunications. 1st of all I would have never started on a journey like this. You couldn¿t have done it 10 yrs ago b/c it was too isolated. And then the rescue part of it was all relied, my life depended on the telecommunications sys. 14:08

PB (asks how much his success in making it out alive comes from his experience in dire situations)

WS 14:21 Well I was totally prepared for emergencies. 1st of all I had all backup sys. the beacons, the smoke flares the radio. I had a thorough sys. that replaced another sys. in case I got into a rescue and parts of the equipment went out. I went there prepared for the rescue, for a rescue situation. What happened is when I got really sick and when I was kind of overloaded stress-wise I wasn¿t quite thinking clear during that 3 day period. But I¿ve been in those situations before, let¿s say in hypothermia when your body temperature drops and you start making mistakes. It¿s kind of an overall awareness that you develop that you¿re aware of the situation. As long as you¿re aware of your errors and you¿re kind of watching over yourself unconsciously you¿re totally okay. It¿s when you start making the error and you¿re not realizing that you¿re making these errors. That¿s when you¿re in a situation where you could easily die. But through my past experiences and having emergency plans A through D set up, I was able to extract myself. And it had to do w/ just being ready and prepared for any type of emergency that would come up. 15:37

PB (comments about having enough wits about him not to bring the stove into the tent)

WS 15:53 I had kind of awareness, not a thought type awareness or analysis type awareness that you do in your thinking, but I¿ panicked over the telecommunications sys. when it failed¿ the message went up and I¿d be real happy and the next time it failed again I might be angry at the computer or some silly thing like that. But I was able to see this almost humor to my actions. But that is a very safe sign. When you see that you¿re all right. 16:27

PB (asks WS to describe anticipation while waiting for the helicopter)

WS 16:37 ¿. I heard that the ship was on its way and we didn¿t know for sure, it was scheduled to be a the pole a little earlier than expected. And for a couple days there I kept thinking I heard the helicopter. I would stop the stove and listen and listen¿ you set up since your mind is thinking or making an effort to hear, you start hearing things so you have a way of kind of fooling your own thinking. I¿ve been in these situations b/f but once you relax you can pretty well¿ trust your hearing. But when I got the message on the telecommunications, the urgent message that the ship was near by and went to this ice ridge to do the radio contact. My friend Victor was on board and I was going on the radio: ¿Victor, Victor, Victor over. Do you read. Do you read.¿ I was waiting about 5 min. a lot of static and all of a sudden, my best friend¿s voice is: ¿Will Will I hear you over. I hear you.¿ And then is was blank after that. So I made this contact, live contact w/ the outside world and I knew from there it was just a matter of time. But it was really being in this fog bank for 2 weeks and then all of a sudden hearing the voice of your best friend out there who was quite concerned for you¿. It was an incredible, incredible experience. 17:55

PB (mentions a seagull in one of WS¿s dispatches)

WS 18:02 Yeah. This happened, but I don¿t put too much weight on omens. When I landed on the ice, when I was dropped off, the weather cleared up which was quite rare and Victor, my friends were there and a seagull circled around us. And we said oh good luck. I said oh great I¿m on my way to Ellesmere island. And on the 4th day out there¿ I got sick after that from the pneumonia. And the 4th day, my health started coming up and it started to clear and I heard the one sound of a seagull, just a sound. I knew it wasn¿t playing tricks in my ears. And that really psychologically just having a contact w/ life or another spirit out there pulled me through, really helped pull me through on that 4th day. When I made that radio contact w/ Victor, right after I¿d made that 1st contact and heard his voice through the crackling static, the seagull flew around me¿ it was a coincidence. I don¿t put a lot of effort into an omen like that, but it was really unusual for something like that to happen. It was good to sea the seagull, I mean just the life and the soaring bird and the touch. B/c you¿re alone, and you¿re about alone as you could possibly be out there in this wet, soggy ice, slush and water. It¿s a mental challenge b/v you¿re always encapsuled in the silence and the fog and there¿s no sign of any life. You could be anywhere in the universe actually. You¿re totally cut off from he rest of the world and this contact that I had at those 3 times w/ the seagull; the spirit of the seagull was really, really lifted me up. 19:41

PB (asks if that was the only wildlife seen)

WS 19:43 Yeah, the only wildlife we saw. On the ship we saw seals and bear and walrus. This area near the pole there are not too many bears. Fortunately I didn¿t see any bears there. It would have been a big problem¿ since I was not moving a bear would stay in the area and keep checking out which would have caused another problem. 20:02

PB (comments that it seems like a situation in which you mind would play tricks on you)

WS 20:20 ¿and in the mean time you¿re drifting off course. At the beginning there, that 1st 3 days, I wasn¿t looking at my GPS, GPS is a satellite sys. that gave my exact location b/c the news was always negative¿ I didn¿t want to start anymore negative output. Yeah it was a real test of mind. However, I was in such good shape when I left; it was the 1st time in my life that my body said no to my mind. I¿ve always been able to drive myself. But my body refused to get sick. This pneumonia was entering my lungs... Basically I was in, fortunately in very good shape. If I wasn¿t in that good of shape I could have been seriously really seriously sick. The conditioning helped out but the body said, no as strong as the mind was, the body told the mind basically that I was not going to get sick and I started to recover. But it was a mind problem b/c if I landed on the ice and if I totally relaxed and sleep and 8 hr day or 8 hr night I could have made this journey quite easily. It would have been a struggle but I would have made it. but I couldn¿t crack this problem I had of my rhythms, my sleep, and not eating and it took a toll on my strength and that¿s when the decision came to turn around. 21:39

PB (asks how he thinks abt the experience now - if it is something he needs to do again or doesn¿t really matter)

WS 21:56 ¿coming back now, and I made the decision on the ice that I would not try this again b/c there¿s no easy way to the pole and I wouldn¿t go through another 2 yr. effort. Coming back to the States and I was really out of touch w/ the websites and the media that was following me. I was really pleasantly surprised that I made a common sense decision and that responsible decision was applauded. I thought maybe people ¿oh you lost your goal¿ and I thought it might be a negative situation and the press was - people shaking my hand and 100% positive which was very reassuring to me. I think the Everest incident a yr. ago has kind of set a very bad ex. for adventure and there¿s been a few other bad ex. and you don¿t always make your goal and I think people can relate to that. I think having made the right decision people understood that and it was okay to come back and in my mind I am totally fine w/ it. I can accept it. once in a while think, I wish I was out there exercising. I miss the exercise more than anything but I just accept it and will go on now. 23:11

PB (mentions WS will be 53 and asks when his b¿day is and WS responds that it is Aug. 27)
PB (asks what his next adventure will be)

WS 23:21 I haven¿t - it¿s too soon. I rather doubt if I¿ll get involved in major expeditions like that. What¿s weighed on me over these yrs. is the responsibility. I worked w/ teams of 6 people, 50 dogs and being responsible always for everybody¿s health and life and that was part of the challenge; I enjoy that, but after awhile it sort of wore on me. And I thought on the solo expedition I could just be responsible for myself. But I got myself in a situation where it was again the responsibility of a rescue or a responsibility of my generous sponsors that have invested in me and all of a sudden I¿m home a month early and the whole program has totally shifted. There¿s a tremendous amount of preparation and stress involved in putting these expeditions together. It¿s a huge financial risk and if you fail you¿re in really seriously deep trouble. What I want to do know is to dedicate a lot of my energy I have now into online, educational online websites. I¿m going to start writing books on the Arctic too. I won¿t give up expeditions of course but these major sponsored ones I think I¿m going to back down on. I¿ve been very fortunate and fortunate to be successful these last 20 yrs. And it¿s time for a slight career change. In ¿95 I gave up my dogs and I planned to give away my dogs at that time and I¿ve never looked back from that decision and I can, I¿m a person that can make these right hand turns and just go on. I¿m actually kind of excited at a career change and starting over and started of working myself out of this one. 25:04

PB (asks abt. A general thought abt. Polar exploration over the past 100 yrs.)

WS 25:51 Well the last 100 yrs. in exploration, I¿ll use the polar regions as an ex. 100 yrs ago they were just discovering the poles for the 1st time. This was a real frontier, totally unknown and of course at that time there was no such thing as radio or airplanes and that was true discovery. This all changed in the 20s when you had radio and exploration changed and what I¿ve been doing the last 20 yrs. I couldn¿t compare myself to Scott and Amundsen. It was just a totally different league b/c we¿re traveling in a known region, especially now as exploration has been revolutionized in the last 3 yrs. b/c of the telecommunications gear. You can¿ locate yourself w/in feet. And in another couple of yrs. you can easily transmit out and talk to the world or whatever. It¿s a different frontier now. It¿s changed and it will never be like it used to be when we were filling in the blanks. It¿s amazing how far we¿ve gone in the century if you look back at the automobile and the discovery of the poles just less than 100 yrs ago. But what I¿ve discovered is the power of telecommunications and what this represents for our civilization. For the 1st time I was sending up digital photographs I was taking and w/in a day I don¿t know how many hundreds of thousands of people were viewing those. And this was an incredible demonstration to myself. I really saw where telecommunications is going. It¿s going to revolutionize our thinking process, our entire world. There¿s a real cutting edge to that. There¿s a real boom, and that is a great benefit. But there is a downside to that. There¿s a tendency of overloading the human mind to a point where it¿s not human in a way. I reached that stage out there when the telecommunications failed and I started getting email and all sorts of cluttered up things that took over my life and almost killed me out there. But there is a double edge to technology and I think managing that technology is going to be a challenge. And I see an education and my main goal here was an educational project and education is going to really literally revolutionize it. There¿s a real real plus to that. 28:17

PB (asks if we can rely to much on techonology)

WS 28:23 I think we can overload ourselves. We can add on too much w/ emails. I think upper management in these big companies are facing that. What happened to the 40 hr. week? If we don¿t go home anymore at 4:30 and be w/ our families, we don¿t have the full weekend off, it¿s dominating a lot of people. this happened to me on the ice breaker on the way up. And it was really, truthfully one of the reasons why I lost my health out there. It was stressful and I was in a situation of figuring this stuff out. But this caused a tremendous amount of anxiety for me. In fact I emailed my wife from the ice asking her when we get back, make a list of the people who are friends and also business people. I want to change my email and my phone number. I want to back off a here little bit b/c all of a sudden I¿m flooded w/ requests. I like talking to people one to one, but it¿s just too much. You get 15 responses, some of them are impt. responses you have to communicate but others are friendly responses that if you don¿t answer, you¿re almost emotionally obligated. But the key here that I see though on the plus side in education that w/ telecommunications it¿s possible to show perspective. It¿s possible to show relationships. Our education is always in the way we think, usually in an isolated sense. But by using telecommunications in an educational project like we were doing, you can get a sense of relationships of why the Artcic why the arctic is related to us. This type of education would be impossible to do in a classroom. And in a classroom you don¿t even reach 30 people. but here you can do it almost in mass. And I¿m talking possibilities here. My main purpose all along is to demonstrate these new technologies in educational programs and I ended up demonstrating it to myself actually. I really saw some really really good possibilities here in education. My exploration now is going to be - what I¿ve learned here in telecommunications, on websites and education - I will always keep up¿ my spirit up on expeditions. they may not always be the highly publicized ones that I¿ve done. But the frontier for myself is what I¿ve learned in technology and applying that and demonstrating that in this period and education. It¿s really nice to be on the cutting edge of a frontier. We always think: oh the frontier¿s over; they¿ve discovered everything. We¿re right at the very edge of a frontier in technology. 31:01

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