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

Although exploration may not make men rich, some rich men do enjoy a bit of exploration. There are dozens of millionaires in the club, and a handful of billionaires. These are the men Fred McLaren, as then-president of the club, intended to tap for funds to help pay for the North Pole expedition. The club set up a travel program whereby passengers could book a spot on the expedition ship for $20,000, or on a submersible dive (after the initial, historic dive) for $50,000. McLaren also wrote to some of the most prestigious supporters of exploration – National Geographic and Rolex, among others – seeking funding. But those efforts were meant to pay only for a principally scientific expedition, and so McLaren wrote up a series of scientific goals alongside a detailed dive plan for safely descending and ascending through a hole in the ice. He particularly wanted to explore Arctic hydrothermal vents, through which superheated water erupts from the Earth's crust, and around which whole worlds of strange creatures thrive without sunlight. The data gathered, he said, might teach humanity about life in much farther-flung locations: Arctic seafloor conditions resemble those on Jupiter's moons.

McLaren's reputation had served to draw in paying passengers during the earlier dives in the Atlantic, and his photo appeared on the partnership's website. Then one day in 2005 he sat down at his computer and checked the site. He was no longer there. His photo had disappeared as completely as those of Cold War apparatchiks who fell from Stalin's favor. After nearly a decade of work, McLaren discovered he'd been dropped from the North Pole project.

An exchange of bitter messages followed. McLaren accused Mike McDowell, the Australian tour organizer, of betrayal. McDowell accused McLaren of not pulling his weight in the fund-raising. The argument highlighted the difference in the two men's natures: McLaren saw the expedition as an old-fashioned science-and-glory endeavor for which money was a necessary trouble, and McDowell saw it as a commercial job that involved adventure.

McLaren felt he'd received the treatment any sailor dreads: He'd been, he says, "tossed overboard."

In retrospect, a few things tumbled into place for McLaren:

McDowell is a businessman, not a scientist.

The fighter jets he charters are MiGs.

The "zero gravity" airplanes are Ilyushins.

The icebreakers. The space shuttle.

All Russian.

Mike McDowell grew up in a working-class home, and his family rarely ventured outside Sydney. In school he studied to become a geophysicist, yet on his first working trip, to an island south of Tasmania, he realized that what he wanted more than anything – more than geophysics, certainly – was to roam the globe in search of adventure. He launched what he calls "a life unplanned" and found his calling as an expedition organizer.

In the early 1990s, McDowell saw an imbalance following the collapse of the Soviet Union. America had tremendous wealth, a surplus of dollars; Russia had the dormant trappings of a former superpower, a surplus of hardware. All he did was bring them together, arranging high-performance field trips for rich Westerners.

One of those rich men was Fredrik Paulsen, a Swedish pharmaceuticals millionaire. In 2005, after the partnership had spent years trying to scrape together the funding for the North Pole project, Paulsen offered to pay $1.5 million – about half the expedition's cost – to tag along. But he wanted control of the other seats on the dive, including the one Fred McLaren expected to fill.

"No one was trying to knife Fred in the back," said McDowell. "He was never kicked off the expedition. He was simply told that he could no longer be guaranteed a seat on the submersible, but he's the kind of guy who has to be on the first submersible or says 'screw it.' "

Then came a second twist: The Russians took over.