Wind... where on earth was the wind? I stopped, my labored breath crystallizing instantly in the freezing air, and for the hundredth time that day adjusted the harness connecting me to the 250-pound fiberglass sled I was dragging. It was late afternoon on January 10, 2001--the tail end of Antarctica's all-too-brief summer, when for a few months temperatures at the bottom of the world rise to comparatively survivable levels.
Liv Arnesen, my expedition partner, pulled up her sled beside me, and together we gazed at the landscape before us. The sun, hovering just above the horizon without ever rising or setting, cast a golden glow across a field of sastrugi- rock-hard waves of ice that cover much of the continent's surface, sculpted and smoothed by month upon month of strong steady wind. But today there was not even a hint of a breeze.
"How's your wrist, Liv?"
"Bad. Your shoulder?"
"The same," I said. "Should we just make camp here?"
"Maybe we should try to get in at least a few more miles," she said.
"Yeah, you're right. I don't want to tell the kids that six miles was the best we could do." We fell back into step, leaning against our harnesses like a pair of mules plowing an endless white field.
In about a month the perpetual daylight of summer would give way to the long, black, unimaginable frigid night of Antarctic winter. February 15 was the last day any pilot would be willing to risk an ice landing to pick us up, and we were hopelessly behind schedule. Once again I asked myself the question: Where, oh where, is the wind?
Liv and I carried hand-controlled sails designed to let us hitch a ride with the powerful air systems that sweep over Antarctica. A skier clipped to a sail could go 20 miles an hour, even dragging a heavy sled. But for more than a week now there had been no wind at all to fill our sails. We'd had to power our sleds with sheer muscle, burning so much energy that we'd already gone through most of our rations and lost a lot of weight. Sleep deprivation didn't help, every night spent half-awake, ears pricked for the snap of tent fabric signaling that a breeze had come up at last.
Bad as things were, all of it would still have been bearable if we didn't have to report back to the kids. Packed in Liv's sled was a laptop computer and satellite phone. Each night in out tent, we posted a progress report on our Web site- www.yourexpedition.com- and communicated with the other "partners" in our journey--over three million school children and adults in almost 50 countries. They e-mailed back questions, words of encouragement and stories of their own challenges. These kids were a major reason why failing our quest would sting so badly. We would be dashing not only our hopes but worse, those of all these young people. And both Liv and I knew how important it was for a child to have a dream, a goal to work toward.
"Your daughter has dyslexia," a doctor finally told my parents. "She doesn't process information the way other children do. Learning for her is always going to be a struggle, I'm afraid."
One day not long after my diagnosis, I opened a book called Endurance about an explorer named Ernest Shackleton, who in 1914 had set out with a crew of 27 men to cross the Antarctica continent. Their ship was locked in the icepack all winter, then chewed to pieces in the spring thaw, forcing Shackleton to lead his men on a 10- month odyssey of unimaginable hardship. Ultimately, he brought every last one of them to safety.
The book had lots of photographs, but before long I started reading, and soon stopped caring that I could only make it through a few pages an hour. That winter, I insisted on camping out in our backyard during the first big blizzard. As the snows whipped around my little tent, Shackleton's dream became my own. One day, no matter the odds, I told myself, I would go down to Antarctica. And I would cross it.
I learned everything I could about polar exploration. Meanwhile, I found ways to cope with my learning disability. It affected my auditory as well as my visual perception, so I sat at the front of class to read the teacher's lips. At the University of Oregon, I taped lectures so that I could listen to them again later. Sports, especially cross-country skiing, helped me sharpen my concentration and develop my stamina.