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A Conversation with John Huston, Polar Explorer

Before 69˚S. (The Shackleton Project) comes to the Paramount Center Mainstage FEB 7-12, Emerson College Professor Magda Romanska talks to polar explorer John Huston. John and his expedition partner Tyler Fish are the first two—and so far the only—Americans to travel unsupported from land to the North Pole. This 55-day, 475-mile journey has been accomplished by only 11 other expeditions and has been called the “toughest expedition on the planet.”

Magda Romanska: In your recently published book on your expedition, Forward,you write about the gorgeous landscapes you encountered while on your way to the North Pole. You included many pictures of stunning sunsets, the glorious aurora borealis, and vast, desolate and forbidding frozen landscapes that often look like Dali’s surrealist paintings. This trip was a trial of your will and endurance, but it also became an aesthetic experience. What was the most haunting moment of your trip?

John Huston: The challenge of reaching the North Pole from land while traveling unsupported was the main source of attraction to the expedition. At the same time, living in the otherworldly surroundings of the Arctic Ocean for 55 days gave our expedition a very special quality—total immersion in nature on nature’s terms. A ski trip to the North Pole has been called the “world’s most beautiful ski tour,” but for us it felt more like a long, exhausting dance with Mother Nature. We appreciated the beauty when we could, but staying warm, safe and on schedule preoccupied our minds; we didn’t have a lot of time to sit back and take it all in. For me the meditative quality of skiing hours upon hours through a moonscape of ice bathed in subtly changing hues of light and color was the most indelible vision of the trip.

MR: You also talk about the psychological toll that such a trip can take. The loneliness and isolation can be unbearable if you’re not prepared for it. There is also the fear of not making it, the unpredictability of the environment and weather. You yourself had a few close calls with nature. Phantom Limb’s 69˚S. (The Shackleton Project), was inspired by Sir Ernest Shackleton’s harrowing three-year-long Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition to Antarctica (1914–1917), during which his ship was trapped in pack ice and slowly crushed. Although Shackleton and his team managed to escape, the story is quite chilling. Looking back, what is psychologically most difficult to overcome on a journey like that? What was your most chilling moment?

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