The international Trans-Antarctica Expedition team stay warm in frigid conditions.

Expedition for humankind

November 9, 2021

An interview with Will Steger, leader of the Trans-Antarctica Expedition

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Expedition for humankind

The international Trans-Antarctica Expedition team stay warm in frigid conditions.

Can you introduce yourself?

I'm Will Steger, an educator and explorer. I’ve been leading expeditions for the past six decades, including dog teams to both poles.


How would you define exploration?

That's a hard one. I think, to me, exploring is about curiosity. It's about really exploring yourself and your mind. But that can be on many different levels. I've been fortunate in my life, that there were still some geographical firsts in the polar regions. We crossed the Antarctic, about 800 miles that had never been traversed, or even sensed by another human being. There's also the spirit of exploration, that deep spirit that you feel when you’re exploring, when you're pushing your personal limits. We're all humans first, and we're a collective spirit. It's natural for human beings to explore. To always ask, what is this? Where are we going?

Purifying water inside a campsite on the expedition.
Will Steger and Qin Dahe, 1990 International Trans-Antarctica Expedition

Do you think exploration has changed from the early days of exploration?


Definitely the geographical firsts are finished. You know, there's nothing really left to explore geographically, except maybe at the bottom of the ocean somewhere. But the act of exploring, of being a human and having that spirit of curiosity, that hasn't changed at all. I think it's more alive now than ever. The North Face provides real good models of athletes and adventurers that are very encouraging for people to see and think, “Hey, I can do that, too. I can get out there.” I think that's exploration right there. And it's contagious. The wellspring of the human spirit is exploration.


Talking about the Trans-Antarctica Expedition, how did you end up with this diverse and eclectic international team?


It was 1986, and I was leading an expedition to the pole with my dog team. We were a month out. One day, I was pushing my sled in the lead. I heard the dogs and went over. I looked up and there was this guy. A Frenchman by the name of Jean-Louis Étienne. He was trying to be the first to solo the pole. This chance meeting was one in a zillion. We were the only two people out there. We met that evening in his tent. For explorers, the question always goes to what’s next. I had a map of Antarctica penciled in with red magic marker on the longest possible route. He looked up at me and said, “Will, I think you will need a doctor on this expedition.” So, it was formed on that meeting. Reviewing the Antarctic Treaty in 1990, which was four years after we met, we knew that the treaty nations drew up a formal document to open Antarctica up for exploration for minerals around this review of the treaty. So, we felt right there, we would bring together an international team of six people from the six most influential countries in the treaty, and draw world attention to Antarctica. It was conceived around the ultimate purpose of preservation for Antartica. And it was formed at that moment by two people just accidentally coming together. For the next three, four years, the whole organization turned out that way. Everyone saw it as a piece of history. A dream that had never been fulfilled. Antarctica had never been traversed. And then we did the longest possible route.

Wrangling dogs on the tundra.
Will Steger, 1990 International Trans-Antarctica Expedition

Looking back, tell us more about the Trans-Antarctica expedition...


 I wanted to experience Antarctica every foot of the way. What would be better than trying this impossible route? And then The North Face came on board. Mark Erickson created the designs, and they shut down the whole plant in Berkeley for almost three weeks to make all the clothing for the expedition. I brought a special breed of dogs called Polar Huskies that were really tough. These dogs were really good at 60 below. Really good spirits, a northern breed with longer legs that are equipped for long distances. We trained for a couple of years across Greenland. A lot of expertise went into this expedition. We struck out on a 222 day journey, and just barely survived a number of times. Seven months later, after almost 4000 miles, we all came out on the other side. I tried to repeat that type of feeling again, but I could never even come close. It was just a remarkable moment. I've done many expeditions after that, but never one of this stature. This expedition changed minds. Within a year and a half, Antarctica was set aside for the preservation of humankind.


Knowing relations between the six countries represented weren’t great at the time, how was that reflected in the team?


It was the middle of the end of the Cold War, but it was still the Cold War. Russia and the United States, were not talking to one another. Neither was China. But we needed the Soviet support in order to get the logistics on the last 2000 miles of this expedition, or else we couldn't do it. Jean, my partner, was a diplomat. And he made the contacts with the Soviets and also the Chinese. Putting it all together, we were working nonstop for over three years.


How did you feel in 1991 when the Antarctica Treaty was finally signed?


It was incredible. I was with my dad on a Saturday morning in Minneapolis. We heard a letter dropped in the mailbox. And in that letter, it said: congratulations, the treaty was signed. And this all started with that chance encounter with Jean. It just shows how much we need international cooperation to solve the climate issues of today. As a society, we're dealing with equity, huge social changes, which are disruptive, and very important. And the key to get through our social issues is through cooperation of all races. That was our power. We never looked at another person, another country, as being above or below us. We were all one, all equal. And whenever I get into a challenging situation, like when I started working on the climate movement 18 years ago, I always draw strength from what we did in Antarctica through cooperation. Our viewpoint of the world always has to be challenged. Because it's a personal viewpoint. It’s a cultural viewpoint. And to be a whole person, you've got to always be willing to have your viewpoint in life challenged.


Team members of the international crew smile even in freezing conditions.
Keizo Funatsu, Will Steger, and Dr. Jean-Louis Étienne, 1990 International Trans-Antarctica Expedition

Can you tell us some more about your role with regards to the Climate Change movement?


My call to action was when the Larsen ice shelf, that took us 14 days to cross, collapsed in 2002, because of climate change. So, I packed up my bags in the wilderness, and moved to the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul to help start the climate movement. My approach was first to think, what am I good at? I'm an organizer. We built up a constituency in the Midwest, and that constituency ended up voting for the right policies, mandates that put us at 25% renewables by 2020 in Minnesota. We went way beyond that by 2020. And they said that was impossible 16 years ago. It was through a combination of education, awareness, and sharing our stories. And that’s what we have to do. I don't have to sugarcoat it anymore. We're losing control of the climate. We’re looking at mass extinction. On the other hand, we're looking at incredible opportunities. And what we have to do in order to adapt is create great things. We have to cooperate together, following that spirit of exploration. That's the key.


Can you tell us about your recent Documentary?


It's called After Antarctica and it was directed by Tasha Van Zandt and Don Bernier. It's based around the Antarctic Expedition in 1990, and they've done it really brilliantly putting it all together. A French film crew came in on occasions and they lived in the same situations that we did. And they were able to tell the story, not by me just sitting around talking about it, but they also went through decades of my archival footage. The film also deals with my life as an environmentalist, especially during the last five, six years, where I've been doing these really challenging solo stuff in the Arctic regions, traveling on rivers and lakes, as everything's breaking up. After Antarctica is truly a movie of exploration, why we do it. Explore the film:


What’s next for you?


Another expedition! I have a major solo expedition planned for the High Arctic in the spring. I'm very much looking forward to that. I'm very fortunate at this age that I’m able to find such a challenge physically, mentally and spiritually. It's just like a wall climb where you have to say in the present all the time. You're right on the line all the time. The only way to survive is to be in the moment and at times if your attention goes, you know, it's just like climbing, you probably won't be around, or you're going to take a hard wake up call. That's where exploration takes us. It takes us right to the now. The rest doesn't exist.