Lost in the geopolitical hullabaloo, however, was a curious detail: The contentious Russian expedition was in fact a one-of-a-kind adventure travel tour organized by an Australian businessman. This tidbit hardly takes away from the Fitzcarraldo-esque feat of getting two submersibles to the undersea Pole, but it does beg a couple of interesting questions. First, how did an adventure tour with seats going for $95,000 morph into an exercise in Russian nationalism? And second, in an age of extreme expeditionary travel, is there really any way to distinguish commercial adventuring from true exploration?
North Pole for Sale
The key agent in the 2007 North Pole expedition wasn't Russia's military or its scientists or the KGB or Putin or even Chilingarov. It was Mike McDowell, the Australian owner of a travel company called Deep Ocean Expeditions. McDowell's extensive connections to Russia go back to 1990, when, as then owner of an adventure travel company called Quark Expeditions, he began hiring nuclear icebreakers to transport high-paying tourists on trips to the North Pole. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, McDowell, as much as anyone, gave purpose to the creaky Russian war machine. He sent customers screaming above the clouds in Russian MiGs. He sent them down to the Titanic in Mir submersibles.
It was on a North Pole trip in 1997, during a vodka-fueled dinner in the captain's quarters, that the notion of diving to the Pole surfaced. "We were enjoying a few toasts," recalls Don Walsh, a consultant to McDowell and a former U.S. Navy captain. "We were pretty lubricated. Someone mentioned that no one had ever been to the actual North Pole. We all knew what that meant."
McDowell and his team began coordinating the logistics, raising money, and trolling for clients. They contacted the P. P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Moscow and lined up use of the institute's twin Mir submersibles. They secured two icebreakers and signed up ten paying customers, who would take turns riding in the two-passenger subs to the Pole. But they were still short of funds.
"I was willing to cover part of the shortfall," says McDowell, "but we were a million dollars off." The $2.5 million expedition was canceled in 2001. But in 2005 McDowell met Frederik Paulsen, a Swedish-German pharmaceuticals millionaire and polar enthusiast who ponied up more than $1 million in exchange for a seat on the first dive. Everything was set for a 2006 expedition.
Then the Russkies changed the game.