Millionaire's Attempt to Cross the Bering Strait

Oct. 31, 2002 -- There aren't many challenges left for a wealthy would-be adventurer. Millionaires have flown around the world in a balloon, climbed the seven highest mountains, and even been in space.

So British property developer Steve Brooks decided to drive around the world — including the treacherous "ice bridge" that forms across the Bering Strait each winter, joining North America to Russia.

For just a few weeks each year, the 56-mile channel fills with enough ice to make a passage feasible. But the ever-shifting floes, and the dangers of being crushed between giant icebergs or slipping into the freezing waters, have so far defeated every attempt to make the crossing.

Brooks was not deterred, and says that taking risks is part of his makeup. "To risk nothing is to risk a lot more," he told Primetime. "That is a dangerous game. To cocoon yourself up and not to cross the road — that is what death is. That's how you die."

English Farm Boy Comes to America

Brooks says he was restless from an early age. "I grew up on a farm in Staffordshire in middle England ... I was always a bit confused about society. I couldn't quite understand it ... It seemed to be such a regimented, closed, straight rat run."

So as a teenager, he decided to undertake an experiment: "If you had nothing in life, and I mean absoloutely nothing — no family, no support, no money — can you survive?" He came to America and hitched across the country, surviving on discarded McDonalds hamburgers. "If you get in the dumpster, you can usually get some fresh burgers at about 11 o'clock," he learned.

Brooks survived, and with the help of odd jobs he picked up along the way, went on to visit nearly 75 countries. He went diving on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, kayaking down the Zambezi River in Africa and rode a camel through India.

Money Can Set You Free

But he also learned that to keep living a life adventure you need money. "I don't think money is the answer to life, but it certainly frees you up," he says. "On this planet, it goes a long way to creating the ability to be free."

So, at the age of 25, he decided to quit the backpacking life for a while, and went into the real estate business with his brother. They bought an old building in central London, renovated it and sold it for a profit. Then they did the same thing again, and again, until 15 years later, they owned and managed property worth half a billion dollars.

Driving Around the World

Brooks was now comfortable, but by the mid-1990s was looking for a new challenge. He settled on something no one had ever achieved: making the longest-ever overland voyage by driving from New York west around the globe to London.

The biggest hurdle in the 18,000-mile trip would be the Bering Strait. Brooks knew that he needed a vehicle capable of traveling on land, snow, ice and water. His first choice was a military-style Hummer, customized with an air cushion that would allow it to skim over the ice. "We built the world's first hovering Hummer in San Diego," Brooks says. But then his Ice Challenger team took the Hummer to Alaska for tests, they discovered the Arctic snow was so dry and fine that the air blowing under the cushion passed right through the snow, making it ineffective.

Brooks's Ice Challenger team abandoned the Hummer as a concept, and turned their attention to converting a snowcat, a tracked vehicle used by ski resorts. The vehicle would have to be able to float on water and climb up onto ice shelves. After going through four concepts, the team settled on a design that added two huge, 16-foot-long aluminum screws either side of the vehicle. The hollow screws would provide buoyancy in the water, and when rotated would allow the vehicle to haul itself up onto the ice and bore through and over ice ridges.

The team built the vehicle, dubbed it Snowbird V, and took it to the Bering Strait in March 2001. However, the vehicle had too little buoyancy and sat too low in the water, so the team called off their attempt.

Humiliating Headlines

But by 2002, the team had a new version ready, Snowbird VI, and was confident enough to show it off at a press event in London just six weeks before its attempt on the Bering Strait. As journalists and spectators gathered on the banks of the Thames, Snowbird VI made her way down the river for nearly a mile — but then began to list dangerously toward the stern. One of the screws had sprung a leak, and the team was forced to head to shore.

The press were merciless and the fiasco was broadcast worldwide. "Their machine, which was supposed to take them across some of the toughest terrain in the world, had sunk in the gentle tides of the Thames. It was very funny," remembers Humfrey Hunter, who covered the event for London's Evening Standard.

Determined to Succeed

After the failed 2001 attempt and the humiliation on the Thames, the pressure was on for the 2002 attempt to succeed. The team brought Snowbird VI to Wales, Alaska — and then had to wait for days for the weather to clear and to receive final clearance from the Russian authorities.

Then, finally, the weather cleared and the team decided to set off, hoping to hear from the Russians en route. The vehicle performed perfectly, and Brooks and his co-pilot, Graham Stratford, made good time across the ice.

But then, 12 hours into the trip, came bad news from the Russian side: the local authorities said they had still not received a crucial document from Moscow, and told the team that if they landed in Russia they would be arrested.

But after devoting six years and some $750,000 to the attempt, Brooks was determined to go on. Even if he could not make it all the way to the other side, he decided to change course and head for the International Date Line, the official border with Russia. The route to the date line headed across the most dangerous part of the ice, and on one occasion the team had to use chainsaws to dig the vehicle out. But they made it, and held a celebration at the Russian border, the other team members joining them by helicopter from Wales. They raised an Explorers Club flag and a Union Jack, and in a tribute to the bureaucrats who had thwarted their trip, dropped their pants in the zero-degree weather and defiantly mooned the Russians.

They left Snowbird VI on Little Diomede Island, two and a half miles east of the date line, just inside U.S. territory and about halfway across the strait. Brooks does not plan to spend the money to go back and finish the trip — "I feel I've proved the point," he says — but would consider doing it if a sponsor offered to share the costs. "There's no reason why we shouldn't go back, sort out the permissions, and drive on to Russia."

In the meantime, he is gearing up for his next project: flying by helicopter from the North Pole to the South Pole.