From the National Geographic Blog. By Dave Freeman
Twenty-five years ago Will Steger led the 3,471-mile International Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the first dogsled traverse of Antarctica (1989–90). Six men from six countries set out on this audacious, seven-month expedition across the harshest continent on the planet. Their goal was to “make Antarctica famous” in order to protect if from development. The Trans-Antarctic Expedition received over two billion media impressions and captured the world’s attention. After the expedition, the team traveled the globe to meet with world leaders, urging them to ratify the 1961 Antarctic Treaty—which they did in 1991, protecting Antarctica from oil and mineral exploration, and preserving it for science.
In 1995, National Geographic awarded Steger the John Oliver La Groce Medal for “accomplishments in geographic exploration, in the sciences, and for public service to advance international understanding.” The award has only been given 19 times since National Geographic was founded in 1888, and Steger joined Roald Amundsen, Amelia Earhart, Admiral Robert Peary, and Jacques-Yves Cousteau in receiving this honor. In 1996 Will Steger became National Geographic’s first explorer-in-residence.
Will has compiled a humbling list of accomplishments during more than 40 years of exploration, but he continues to push himself through creative and challenging wilderness adventures. On April 9, Steger completed a 22-day, nearly 300-mile solo trek across the vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageurs National Park, and Quetico Provincial Park. Steger chose a route that followed rapid-strewn river systems during the spring break up. Far from the path of least resistance, Steger drew on 50 years of experience traveling over thin ice to complete a bold route that he didn’t think was possible a few years ago.
“I consider it important to challenge myself and do things I couldn’t imagine doing a couple years ago,” explained Steger. “I navigated around 20 waterfalls and rapids. I was very fearful of these waters, but this year I went where the action was.”
I run into Will on occasion while running errands in Ely, Minnesota, the end of the road town on the edge of the Boundary Waters where we both live, but our conversations are usually brief exchanges in the produce isle. It was a real pleasure to talk with him in more detail about his polar expeditions, what drives him to continue to explore, and his most recent solo trek.
What made the Trans-Antarctica Expedition your most challenging project? What did you learn in the process?
We crossed Antarctica by the longest possible route (3,741 miles) over 222 days. Organization alone was as big a challenge as the expedition itself. We had to raise $8 million and there were lots of logistics.
It was a really a tough go. There was no Internet back then and we relied on radio for communication, which usually didn’t work. The sheer distance—and having to leave in mid-winter—made it especially difficult. At one point we had 60 days of storms that we barely survived. It was physically really challenging. At the end our team were the best of friends; the forged friendship and love that came out of the expedition was quite remarkable.
What were your main goals for the Trans-Antarctica Expedition?