Reaching the North Pole
Credit: Fridtjof Nansen / The National Library of Norway Picture Collection

From the start, the grueling race to the top of the world was based on math. The potential for a shorter trade route between Europe and the Orient – and thus, the joys of amped-up profits – pushed the first explorers north in the 15th and 16th centuries. But the mythical Northwest Passage turned out to be mostly that – mythical – so later explorers turned their focus to another number: 90°N, the planet's northernmost point, which promised only glory. A British sailor named Constantine John Phipps made one of the first attempts in 1773; he reached 80°48' before the weather (Arctic temps can plunge to -90°F) sent him packing. Subsequent expeditions yielded harrowing outcomes. Adolphus Greely's 1881 effort saw its few survivors subsisting on boiled rope and boot soles, and an 1879 attempt resulted in a desperate, mostly fatal struggle to get back to civilization, with survivors rowing and wading through mazes of ice and frozen marsh. The beached relics of that attempt inspired a young Norwegian named Fridtjof Nansen, who surmised from the wrecks' locations that a previously unknown current might get him within sledging distance of the pole. With a ship designed to freeze safely into the ice and ride the floe toward the pole, Nansen got within 200 miles – though he only survived thanks to a lucky encounter with another expedition. An attempt led by the Duke of Abruzzi followed in 1899; the Italian team opted to trek rather than ski, wearing reindeer hide boots insulated with dried grass. They made it closer still, setting the stage for two dramatic – and possibly successful – American quests. In 1909 Admiral Robert Peary, along with an African-American explorer named Matthew Henson and four Inuit men, claimed to have reached the pole. Notorious hoaxer Frederick Cook claimed to have reached it one year earlier. Experts are still hashing out each claim. In any case, the equation was ultimately solved. Humans had finally stood, chattering, at that point on the grid where every step leads southward. And it was cold.