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

It wouldn't be easy, since the floor lies more than 4,000 meters beneath a thick and ever-shifting sheet of ice, and there's hardly a more difficult place on the planet to navigate than underwater at the North Pole, where traditional compasses fail because it lies so close to the Earth's magnetic pole and GPS signals can't reach because of the depth. But the expedition would be not only a display of seafaring and technical prowess; it would be something even more rare. It would be a first for mankind.

Their two greatest obstacles, they realized, were hardware and money.

They tackled the hardware problem soon enough. Only Russia had the equipment needed to reach the true pole – nuclear icebreaking ships and deep-diving submersibles – so about a year after the boozy agreement on the 'Sovietsky' the team brought on a fourth partner, a Russian scientist named Anatoly Sagalevitch, who had access to two submersibles, named Mir One and Mir Two.

Over the next several years, in preparation, McLaren says, for the North Pole dive and to drum up money for the submersible crews, the four-man team organized several less complicated, but breathtaking, dives to the Titanic and the Bismarck. They took along paying passengers, who listened to talks by McLaren and Walsh on the ship, then dove in the twin Mirs to the shipwreck sites. The submersibles each seat three – a pilot and two passengers – inside a sphere of two-inch-thick nickel and steel. They performed beautifully.

The partnership had solved the hardware problem.

That left the considerable obstacle of money.

Explorers and their rich benefactors have carried on a troubled, abusive affair since the first hale fellow struck out for the horizon. Roald Amundsen, the Explorers Club member who discovered the Northwest Passage, begged and borrowed from creditors across Norway in preparation for the expedition. About midnight one summer night in 1903, in Oslo, Amundsen stood in the rain on the deck of the Gjöa, pondering the upcoming trip. His first mate came running to report that one of Amundsen's creditors was approaching on the wharf with a bailiff, planning to seize the boat and arrest Amundsen for fraud. Amundsen acted: He grabbed an ax, cut the mooring lines, and launched himself into immortality.

Not much has changed in the intervening century. Exploration promises glory, adventure, women, and wine; it does not promise cash. But the best explorers have perfected the art of living on wealthier men's money.

The Explorers Club's headquarters sits just off New York's Central Park in a Tudor mansion with twin arches set in a brick-and-limestone facade. The interior is even more impressive, all carved linenfold oak and leaded windows, with six floors so packed with the totems of masculinity that conversation immediately deepens a half-octave from the sheer vigor of the decor: a polar bear, the stiff product of taxidermy, on a stairway landing; wooden ceiling beams taken from the HMS 'Daedalus'; a large bell from the cutter 'Admiral Richard Byrd' used to reach the Antarctic; and the towering portrait of a man who, when trapped in the Arctic, used a hammer to knock off his own frozen toes so he could stump back to civilization.

The idea of it all, this unashamed search for glory, today seems misplaced in time and an easy target for a cynical smile. But maybe that's because now there is so little real glory to go around; for all its swagger, the power of the club's history is best delivered by a small engraved stone near the foot of the stairs, quietly listing the accomplishments of a few members: First to the North Pole. First to the South. First to the summit of Mount Everest. First to the deepest point in the ocean. First to the surface of the moon.