Captain Alfred McLaren's Fight for the North Pole
Credit: Photograph by John Loomis

The evening appeared untroubled and smooth, on the surface. People in formal dress sailed around the candlelit wings of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, awaiting the start of the annual Explorers Club dinner. Men displayed great medals clanging on their chests and women on their arms. They sampled hors d'oeuvres from around the globe, foods that mocked mere exoticism. A striking woman in a black feather boa tucked into an enormous helping of bovine penis. Another woman, in Manhattan splendor, carried a fried tarantula in a champagne flute. Others – a spectacular mix of mountain climbers, astronauts, deep-sea divers, inventors, scientists, and more – sampled scorpion, yak, and goat's eyeballs. At one point, Buzz Aldrin tried to measure the length of an indifferent live alligator being paraded around the room.

In recent years, the century-old Explorers Club has almost faded into history, along with man's superlatives: the northernmost, the southernmost, the fastest, the highest, the first. But on this March night an expectation charged the air; on this night the club would celebrate a new piece of honest-to-goodness exploration. The club's flag has accompanied trips to the tops of mountains, the depths of oceans, even to the moon. Now it was scheduled for another ceremonial return from another first for humanity: an expedition to the true geographic North Pole. For more than a century men had sledded to the pole on the drifting Arctic ice floes, but never before had anyone reached the actual pole – on the seabed two and a half miles below.

A tall man strode through the crowd, gazing down his prominent nose and wearing medals of his own. His carriage and his very name – Captain Alfred Scott McLaren – spoke of another time, when men viewed the Earth as something to be conquered, not coddled. McLaren had made history during the Cold War by secretly mapping the Siberian continental shelf for the first time, in the submarine USS 'Queenfish.' He's a former president of the Explorers Club, and remains an important figure in underwater exploration. But his presence signaled trouble in the room.

The Explorers Club honorees this evening, mostly Russians, hadn't merely traveled to the true North Pole; they had pulled off an astonishing geopolitical maneuver. They had participated in what may become one of the most important landgrabs in modern history. And, some say, they may have touched off the coldest war of all.

McLaren stepped to address another tuxedoed man, extending a stiff hand, which the other man took. Seventy-five-year-old McLaren held his grip until the friendliness of the act drained away like the blood in their knuckles. He cast a blue-eyed glare at the man.

"I ought to take you outside," McLaren said, "and kick your ass."

Men have struggled to understand the Arctic since nomads crossed its white bridges thousands of years ago. Explorers have tried to chart its geography, paddling and sledding between and across its ice sheets. They searched especially for the elusive Northwest Passage that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific over the top of the world. They failed utterly until 1906, when Norwegian Roald Amundsen – an Explorers Club member – completed the arc in his fishing boat, Gjöa. The journey took three years, with winters spent trapped in ice. In the end, nations found it more efficient to carve a canal through Panama and ship goods the long way around. As recently as Fred McLaren's adventures during the Cold War, the world viewed the Arctic as a wasteland, so dark and frozen it wasn't worth claiming.