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

McDowell had haggled with the Russians for months, trying to arrange icebreaker ships for the trip. They were consistently "unavailable." Then suddenly Russian politician Artur Chilingarov announced that the dive would indeed go ahead: with Chilingarov at the helm.

Chilingarov is the big-bearded deputy chairman of the Russian parliament who, when he was younger, explored the Arctic and was awarded the status of Hero of the Soviet Union. He held the keys to Russia's Arctic equipment – the icebreakers and submersibles – and saw the expedition as an opportunity.

"The Arctic is Russian," he said. "We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian coastal shelf."

Chilingarov wasn't being romantic or abstract when he said this. He meant it literally. Here's why: In 2001, Russia submitted to the United Nations a vast territorial claim for the Arctic, all the way up to the North Pole. The UN, in a bureaucratic flourish, asked Russia to resubmit the claim; the Russians needed a firmer case for ownership. According to the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea, a country can claim anything within 200 miles of its coast or that connects to its continental shelf. So the Russians set out to prove that something called the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs underwater to the pole, is an extension of their continental shelf. Proving it would, they say, give them ownership of everything within hundreds of miles. Including the oil. According to Russian estimates, a successful claim would add a staggering 5 billion metric tons of fuel to the country's reserves. So on the North Pole expedition, the Russians planned to conduct soil tests to improve their case.

One of the original project team members was the Russian scientist who could pilot the twin Mir submersibles. Anatoly Sagalevitch visited New York recently, and I found out the hotel in which he was staying; after some wheedling, the front desk rang his room, and a heavily accented voice answered.

As a child in Russia, at the height of Stalin's Soviet power and enmity with the West, Sagalevitch had found a copy of Jules Verne's '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,' and it set him on a course toward working as a Cold War submersibles engineer. He agreed to meet me in the lobby of his hotel, where he sat back in a chair, glancing now and again at the waterproof Rolex on his wrist. He acknowledged that the idea of the true North Pole dive came from an American, but he waved a hand as he said it – a hand to say, enough of this.

"I say to you, 'I have idea to go to the sun.' If somebody go to the sun, I don't care," he said.

Last July, two icebreakers rendezvoused at Murmansk, a Russian port north of the Arctic Circle. One, the nuclear Rossia, pushed north through the ice, and the other, the diesel Fedorov, carried the delicate Mir submersibles. The two ships spent a dozen days cracking and splintering their way north. Near the pole they found a relatively tiny hole in the ice, about 50 meters across, where they brought the caravan to a halt. The Fedorov lowered Mir One into the water, and it began its long drop to the bottom. Mir Two followed about half an hour later, carrying the Australian McDowell, the Swedish telecom investor Paulsen (who lost control of the other seats when the Russians took over), and a Russian pilot.

Tellingly, in the first Mir, Sagalevitch steered, with the politician Chilingarov on one side and Vladimir Gruzdev, another member of Russian parliament, on the other. The little submarines drifted downward for three hours. The Mirs used a system of floating transponders to triangulate their position underwater. They touched down on the silty bottom and started moving toward the pole. When they arrived, Sagalevitch used the Mir's manipulator arm to take samples. Then he set a titanium Russian flag in the seabed.

I asked Mike McDowell about that flag.

"If this had been Sweden or Norway, people would be saying, ‘Oh wow, what a great expedition,' " he said. "But since it's the Russians: 'How dare they go and do something new and different?' " He called such talk "claptrap" and "utter rubbish."