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Locals seek top of the world

Tim Mutrie

For many Aspenites, spring off-season is a time to retreat to warmer climes, but for John and Jan Walker and their daughters, Hailee, 15, and Bree, 13, it’s high time to trek toward true north.

The Walkers left Aspen this morning for an 11-day, 3,000-plus mile expedition to the north pole.

If successful, Aspen Middle School seventh-grader Bree will be the youngest female ever to reach the destination long sought after by intrepid arctic adventurers, many of whom paid the ultimate price in trying to reach that northern-most point on the globe.

For John and Hailee, the pending experience won’t be too foreign. John traveled to the north pole once before in 1989, and in November 1997, he and Hailee trekked to the south pole, making Hailee the youngest girl ever to reach that frigid landmark.

“Where we’re going to be, there won’t be a single human being in 700 miles – not one human being,” John said Wednesday. “And there’s only one group in world going to the north pole this year, and it’s us.”

The northernmost point of the earth’s surface, located in the Arctic Ocean and usually ice-capped, can only be safely accessed during a six-week window each year, John said. That time is now. Perpetual daylight and minus-thirty-degree Fahrenheit conditions await them, he added.

The Walkers will journey with eight other adventurers, including an 82-year-old tax attorney. The expedition is organized by Seattle outfitter Arctic Odyssey, he said.

“The only way you can go is through them,” John said, and, of course, by dog sled.

The Walkers’ northward journey begins today with a 1000-mile flight from Denver to Edmonton, Canada. After a night in the Alberta capital, they’ll catch another plane to Yellowknife, located some 600 miles north of Edmonton on the northern shores of the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. From there, the group will fly to Resolute Bay, a community of about 200 year-round residents, located to the northwest of Baffin Island.

“We need to catch that plane,” John explained, as the flight is made but once a week.

From Resolute, the group will fly north by small seaplane to Eureka, situated near the magnetic north pole. After refueling and delivering a gift of a caribou to the residents, they’ll continue northward, but more fuel will be necessary to get them to the true north pole. They plan to put down on a ice cap briefly, where at this very moment, a man is camped out guarding some precious barrels of gas, John said.

“He’s all by himself out there,” he said, “now that’s a job.”

Finally the group will reach the pole, where they’ll spend about two hours exploring. Then the expedition heads on to to Qaanack, Greenland, where the Walkers will stay with an Inuit family and explore the nearby glaciers via dog sled. Then, finally, they’ll begin the journey back home.

“I’m excited,” said Hailee, a freshman at Aspen High School. “And I’m not as nervous at all this time, because I basically went through it before, but my sister, she’s pretty nervous. My Dad has basically done all the talking about preparation – he doesn’t want me to scare them.”

“I’m so ready,” declared Bree. “My best friend – Mary Jane – got me prepared. She’s so encouraging. I don’t like it that cold, but I’m going for it.”

It was just Tuesday that Jan decided she’d join her family for the journey.

“She realized, `What if?'” John said of his wife’s thoughts of her husband and the two girls in the arctic.

“I’ve never done anything quite like this,” Jan admitted. “I was really undecided until I read this article about the Northwest Territories [in Canada]. When I saw that pristine landscape, I said, I can’t let them go without me.”

“For ten years, none of those images have ever left me,” John said of the awe-inspiring scenery.


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