Published: May 2008
Those Wily Russians!
How an adventure trip became a minor international incident.
Text by Contributing Editor Paul Kvinta

It wasn't exactly the Cuban missile crisis, but when a team of Russian divers plunged 13,979 feet beneath the ice in a Mir submersible last August and planted a Russian flag in the seafloor at the North Pole, it's fair to say that folks on all sides got pretty worked up. An ecstatic Russian media trumpeted the fact that no one had ever journeyed to the "real" North Pole before (they stressed that the alleged "North Pole" sits atop an ever shifting slab of floating ice), and President Vladimir Putin lauded the returning divers with the nation's highest honor, the Hero of the Russian Federation medal. Artur Chilingarov, the expedition leader and deputy chairman of the Russian Duma (parliament), insisted the dive proved that "the Arctic belongs to Russia." Disgruntled Canadian officials responded by pledging to beef up their military in the far north. "This isn't the 15th century," fumed Defense Minister Peter MacKay. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say, "We're claiming this territory.'" As late as March 2008—seven months after the fact—European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana fretted that the expedition foreshadowed future conflict, as the melting ice cap enables countries to grab for Arctic oil and gas deposits. Wrote Solana: "Strategic interests are illustrated by the recent planting of the Russian flag under the North Pole."

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.

From Russia With Love

In a move out of the old Cold War playbook, the Russians abruptly and vaguely announced that they needed their icebreakers elsewhere, thus scuttling the venture. "The suspicion is that they canceled [in] 2006 because 2007 was the International Polar Year, and this could be a neat all-Russia project," says Walsh.

In late 2006 the Russians informed McDowell that they wanted to proceed with a 2007 expedition, but that there would be changes. The new expedition leader would be Chilingarov, Putin's appointed representative for the International Polar Year. Dozens of Russian journalists and scientists would now make the trip. McDowell (the logistics) and Paulsen (the money) would still be involved, but all of McDowell's clients were ousted; the expedition was now funded by Paulsen and two Russian politicos.

The twin Russian-piloted Mirs would make only one dive, with one sub carrying Chilingarov and parliamentarian Vladimir Gruzdev, and the other carrying Paulsen and McDowell. "From the Russian perspective, this was a ready-made suit," says Walsh. "You just go grab the package and change the names. I severed my association with it. Once the Russians hijacked it, I wasn't interested."

McDowell, who calls himself a "pragmatist" and continues to have extensive business dealings with the Russians, is more diplomatic. He concedes that "by the time Chilingarov came in, the plan was in place." But he credits the politician both with "cutting through the bureaucratic BS" to secure the icebreakers and with producing investors.

As for whether the tourism component of the trip kept it from amounting to true "exploration," that question was answered in March when the Explorers Club honored McDowell, Paulsen, Chilingarov, and Mir pilot Anatoly Sagalevitch. The club's flag traveled with the expedition to the Pole. "We had to take into account the uniqueness of the expedition," admits Walsh, who sits on the club's Flag & Honors Committee. "No one had ever seen the Pole before, and it'll probably never be done again. Some members may have wondered about it, but no one voted no."