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Blink and your eyes freeze shut

One OF WAVE VIDMAR’S FINGERS HURTS. FROSTBITE. Also, he has frostnip on the side of his nose and a torn shoulder muscle. “And blisters on both heels,” he added the other day. “Lots of things hurt. I fall down all the time.”

When last seen in this column, Vidmar was standing before the Adventurers’ Club in Los Angeles on a December night, explaining how he expected to make his way from the edge of Siberia to the North Pole, crossing nearly 600 nautical miles of flat, stacked and fractured ice. He figured he’d start, alone and unsupported, in February or March.

Now here he was, at the other end of an eerily clear satellite phone connection. It was March 23 and he’d been up there on the ice, trudging, climbing and skiing -- and briefly swimming from ice chunk to ice chunk in a drysuit -- for 18 days. He was behind his target pace, having hit snowstorms and headwinds. Most ominously, another solo expeditionist, who started when he did, was missing.

“She had food for a week,” said Vidmar of 43-year-old Dominick Arduin, of Finland and France. “That was almost three weeks ago, and she hasn’t been heard since the day she left. So logic says that she’s not alive anymore. She might be found in a few years in ice.... You accept it, like frostbite on your finger. You can’t dwell on it, you can’t afford to. Not out here.”

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Vidmar, a 39-year-old old athlete whose home is Fremont, Calif., is the lone American among five adventurers who started toward the pole from Siberia in early March. From the start, they’ve faced trouble.

At the customary land’s-end starting point of Cape Arctichevsky on March 5, he and the other expeditionists found that more than 30 miles of water had opened up between land’s end and the beginning of the dense ice.

Two adventurers chose to start at the cape and find a way across or around the open water, thereby meeting the purist’s standards for a full polar trip. But within 48 hours, Arduin was missing in her kayak and Frenchman Frederic Chamard-Bouday had fallen into the sea and been rescued and flown home.

The others, including Vidmar, took a more pragmatic approach and had the helicopter pilot drop-off, that same day, at the beginning of the solid ice. Since then, you could say his life has been simpler: one 6-foot-2, 200-pound man, 360 pounds of supplies and equipment on a pair of custom sledges, and ice for days and days and days.

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The only living thing he’s seen is a single ring seal, which bobbed from the 28-degree sea during his first week to check him out. He catches himself seeing Bart Simpson in an ice jumble or a Tyrannosaurus rex, or “a white-washed Indiana Jones Temple of Doom set.”

Most days, “I start waking up around 3 a.m., and I finally crawl out of my bag around 6,” said Vidmar. “This morning I woke up with the theme song from ‘Three’s Company’ in my head.”

He figures he’s sleeping about four hours a night, but he spends five more hours in the bag awake, savoring the warmth while the landscape groans, cracks and booms -- the sound of ice shifting as the daylight hours lengthen.

Though Vidmar planned to average 10 nautical miles a day for two months, he has been doing less than half that, which would leave him well short of the pole on the mandatory pickup date of May 3. (Helicopter flights are suspended after that because melting ice makes takeoffs and landings too dangerous.) Yet the longer days and flatter ice near the pole are expected to make the going easier in weeks ahead, so nothing’s sure.

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On the morning we spoke, Vidmar had 420 nautical miles to go. As of Monday, his daily report

(www.worldwidelearn.com/northpole/news/live-date.htm)

shows that he’s covered 20 more miles.

On good nights, he dines on freeze-dried honey-lime chicken and then the wind nudges his ice north while he dreams (he doesn’t know why) of sushi. Then there are days like March 14, when the wind reversed and stole back three days of progress. Or the day after that, when he realized he was running out of eyelashes.

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“They freeze up (it’s around minus 35 Celsius most days) and if I close my eyes for even a second I run the risk of having them frozen shut. Opening them rips out lashes and eyebrow hairs.”

Yet if his equipment is working, even a lone and icebound 21st century adventurer also swims in a sort of data sea. He passes those five waking hours in the sleeping bag by firing off e-mails (about five a day), adding to his trip log and making a phone call or two.

“This is Wave, calling from the frozen Arctic,” he chirped, greeting me.

These contacts make him safer but connect him to woe too. By his sixth day on the ice, Vidmar was fretting that fellow expeditionist Ben Saunders’ location-indicator beacon was showing him farther north than he really was. And he knew the search for Arduin was a bust, no beacon signals, no sat phone contact, no kayak sighting.

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Vidmar “is doing OK,” says his advisor Tom Sjogren, who completed a Canada-North Pole expedition with his wife, Tina Sjogren, in 2002. “The most important thing is being able to withstand the first two weeks.”

And one of the most difficult things, Sjogren adds, must be Arduin’s disappearance. “When you’re all alone there, you get extremely sensitive. You have lots of time to think about things like this,” says Sjogren. “It must be absolutely horrible for all those out there now, thinking about Dominic.”

In fact, Vidmar has written a song about her. But then he’s also written four other pieces on his PDA, lyrics and music, on such subjects as the sun and 50-foot shadows."I should easily have a CD by the time I reach the pole,” he said, just before we signed off. “Every day is something new. The important thing is to keep positive mentally.”

And then it was time to climb out of the bag for another day of the 21st century polar adventurer’s life. Icicles, intimations of mortality and multi-tasking without end.

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To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or to read his previous Wild West columns, go to latimes.com/chrisreynolds.


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