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

Such spontaneous moments punctuated the crew's otherwise claustrophobic and isolated life beneath the ice. At the North Pole, the sub had surfaced long enough for the crew to clamber out on the ice and take a photograph with an impromptu Santa Claus while McLaren sent a pair of scuba divers to examine the ice from below. On a previous trip he had made to the North Pole, 10 years earlier, his crew played the first game of baseball there, in which a batter could knock the ball into tomorrow, literally, and circumnavigate the globe on his way around the bases. The one thing they didn't do either time – couldn't do, because McLaren's sub was not built to handle the pressure at such depth – was touch down on the North Pole seafloor.

McLaren now lives in a cabin tacked onto a mountainside in central Colorado, up a dirt – often mud – road that folds itself upward in a series of tight turns and requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle. His home is above the snow line, at a lonely height that squeezes the breath from any unacclimated lungs, an interesting choice for a man who has spent a whopping five cumulative years of his life under the sea.

He showed me to his library, where two functional, quarter-scale biplanes hung on cables from the ceiling, and books, photographs, and paintings covered the walls. He pointed to one. "My great-grandaunt," he said. "When she died in 1911, she was the wealthiest person in all of California." He grinned. "And she died without a will, which created pandemonium." McLaren comes from a long line of warriors, thanks to a meeting of Scottish clan chiefs on one side of his family and Spanish conquistadors on the other. "A very long family tradition of military," he said. "I was told from a very early age that the family considered that the most honorable occupation."

After his adventure under the Arctic – for which he won his second Legion of Merit – McLaren pursued more academic and scientific interests. He earned advanced degrees at George Washington University, Cambridge in England, and the University of Colorado, where he became a professor in the geography department. But his work always drifted back to the Arctic, because his heart remained under the ice. During a lunch meeting with colleagues in early 1997, for instance, McLaren developed an idea to return to the North Pole – the true underwater pole – and touch the spot of Earth that had eluded him on his previous visits.

The most prominent feature of his library is the Arctic submarines. They present themselves in photographs, paintings, and models. They're shown swimming beneath the ice and smashing through it. McLaren pointed out each with tremendous affection, as though describing one of his four children, and talked about life under the ice until his wife, Avery, appeared with a glass of apple juice and a slice of banana bread. She touched his bare head briefly – the head of a bald eagle – and asked him about his cough, which she could hear in the next room. She knows he gets wound up when he talks about "the betrayal."

"Thank you, dear," he said.

Over the creak and groan of the nuclear icebreaker 'Sovietsky Soyuz' ("Soviet Union"), the sound of laughter escaped from the captain's cabin. The comrades inside, American and Russian, told salt-crusted stories and drank enough vodka to float their ship. It was mid-1997. An Australian expedition organizer had chartered the ship and its crew to make a trip to the North Pole – not the underwater one but the traditional, above-the-ice pole. The company had brought along two Americans as lecturers – McLaren and a colleague named Don Walsh – and when the crew of former Soviet sailors heard who was on board, these legends of the sea, they invited the Americans to a private fete in the captain's cabin.

Australian Mike McDowell, who had chartered the ship, was there as well. He's a remarkable adventure entrepreneur who arranges for wealthy clients to fly fighter jets, observe rare wildlife, and even – most expensively – fly aboard a rocket to the Space Station. "Used to be $20 million," he told me. "Now it's $30 million and climbing." In the course of that evening, while crashing through the Arctic ice and "getting merry," as McDowell put it, someone brought up the true geographic North Pole. No one remembers who mentioned it first. "By the time we got around to talking about the North Pole, we'd inhaled a lot of vodka," Walsh says. "So my memory of the details is fuzzy." Regardless, by the time the men staggered back to their quarters that night, something had happened. The two Americans and the Australian had formed a partnership on a handshake. Not a partnership in something as secular and passing as mere business; they wanted to enter the cathedral below the ice and touch the northernmost piece of land on the planet, before any other human in history.