article-imageSir Edmund Hillary (second from left) with Neil Armstrong (far right) at the North Pole (via smh.com.au)

It sounds like the plot of a comic book — Sir Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong at the North Pole — but in fact it was one of those spectacular crossroads of history. In the lonely, desolate arctic, these two great explorers — who had never met before — got in a tiny bush plane and took off for the top of the Earth in 1985. Here's how it happened.

One morning in the mid–1980s, professional expedition leader Mike Dunn decided he wanted to take the day’s greatest explorers to the North Pole. According to Sir Edmund Hillary's son Peter, himself an accomplished mountaineer who came on the trip, Dunn was a colorful character, the kind of man who didn’t mind ringing up people like first man on the moon Neil Armstrong and saying, “How about this?” 

article-imageEdmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 on Mount Everest (via Wikimedia)

Hillary, legendary for being the first to scale Mount Everest with teammate Tenzing Norgay, was on board, and Armstrong was, too, saying he was curious to see what the North Pole looked like from ground level, as he'd only seen it from the moon. Astronaut problems.

The party also included Steve Fossett — the first man to fly a balloon around the world — and Patrick Morrow — the first person to climb the highest peaks of all seven continents. 

article-imageSatellite view of the North Pole (via NASA Goddard)

The North Pole, unlike the South Pole, it is not on a solid land mass, and exists in waters covered with constantly shifting ice. It’s tricky to get to at the best of times, and the weather can be dangerously unpredictable. This was no ordinary tour group however, and they had no problems hopping from Edmonton to the Northern Territories to remoter and remoter islands, riding along in tiny planes with Canadian bush pilots. Their last stop was Lake Hazen, the northernmost lake in Canada, on Ellesmere Island. The weather was good so they seized their opportunity, crammed back into their Otter twin engine airplane, and set off for the 90 minute flight to the pole. 

On April 6, 1985, they touched down at the North Pole. Now safely at the top of the world, they popped a bottle of champagne, which froze solid before even two glasses were poured. With this trip, Hillary the elder became the first person to stand at both poles (he went to the South Pole in 1958), as well as the summit of Everest. 

On their return to Ellesmere Island, the weather took a turn for the worse, and the party had to hole up in a hut for what became a three–day whiteout. Temperatures got to 40 below  — perfect for sitting around a table with a cup of tea, swapping amazing stories. Peter Hillary described the experience of being trapped in the middle of the Canadian wilderness as, ''You are virtually in outer space out there.” No reports if Armstrong rolled his eyes at this; he probably didn’t, as he was a quiet, classy sort of man.

article-imageNeil Armstrong on the completion of the Lunar EVA on the Apollo 11 flight (photograph by Buzz Aldrin)

However, during their time indoors, Armstrong did do something he very rarely did — opened up about his experience in space. When confronted with an engineering problem, he did not rattle easily — after all, this was the man who manually piloted the lunar module out of a rocky crater, doing last–minute calculations with a pencil, finally maneuvering to safety with only 17 seconds worth of fuel to spare. Meanwhile back on Earth, President Richard Nixon stood by with a prepared statement in hand titled “IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER.”

But he was famously shy around people and intensely private, refusing all interviews. The two weeks out in the wilderness had built a deep sense of camaraderie that relaxed the famous astronaut, and to the delight of his companions, he started telling stories about his time in space, sharing in philosophical discussions about the nature of exploration.

article-imageAndrée balloon crash in 1897 (via Wikimedia)

Morrow recalled that during their time on Ellesmere, Armstrong read from an account by Salomon Andrée of his disastrous and fatal balloon attempt to reach the Pole, back in 1897, that was retrieved from the lost explorer's diary:

Is it not a little strange to be floating here above the Polar Sea, to be the first to have floated here in a hydrogen–filled balloon? How soon, I wonder, shall we have successors? Shall we be thought mad, or will our example be followed? I cannot deny but that all three of us are dominated by a feeling of pride. We think we can well face death, having known what we have done is not the whole, perhaps the expression of an extremely strong sense of individuality which cannot bear the thought of living and dying like a man within the ranks, forgotten by the coming generations? Is this ambition?'

Sir Edmund Hillary later wrote in a letter to a fan: “I found Neil Armstrong a very pleasant and agreeable person and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with him.”

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