May 4, 2006

Winter Ski to the North Pole is No Walk in the Park

By James Kilner

OSLO -- Nearly 100 years after explorers first reached the North and South Poles, Norwegian Boerge Ousland believes he too has etched his name into polar exploration's Hall of Fame.

Countryman Roald Amundsen was first to the South Pole in 1911, beating Briton Robert Falcon Scott who died with his team on the return trip after a heroic race. American Robert Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole first in 1909.

All of the men spent years mapping the unknown polar regions.

Ousland's generation of polar adventurers do things differently. They move fast and hard across the Arctic and Antarctic, alone or in small groups, carrying just enough food and equipment to last a few months without support.

And Ousland, a 20-year veteran, is probably top of the pile.

"It will be hard to match my record, if it ever will be done," he told Reuters during an interview at his home on the outskirts of the Norwegian capital.

The 43-year-old explorer had only just returned a few days earlier from completing another "first." This time he and South African Mike Horn had been the first people to ski to the North Pole during winter, a journey nobody had even attempted before.

"People said it was impossible. Too hard, too cold, too dark," Ousland said.

On March 23, the pair reached the North Pole after 61 days dragging their 342-pound sledges across nearly 620 miles of ice and water -- in pitch-black darkness through howling winds and temperatures of around minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit.

"This is one of the greatest things I have done. It creates a new chapter in Arctic travel," Ousland said.


Ousland's list of achievements was already long.

In 1990, he was part of a team that skied to the North Pole without any outside support, four years later he made the first solo unsupported trek to the North Pole, in 1996/7 he beat the British explorer Ranulph Fiennes as the first person to ski across Antarctica alone and in 2001, he crossed the Artic alone.

But this latest trip was his crowning achievement, he said.

"I don't think this will be done again. Somebody may try but I don't think they will succeed."

The harsh winter weather made the risks extremely high.

"It was a one-way ticket, we could not have been rescued. When we started the helicopter pilots did not even want to fly us out," he said.

"When the helicopter left, we knew it would not come back."

Ousland sees himself as a pioneer, stretching the boundaries of exploration and human endurance and flying the flag for Norwegian polar explorers like Fridtjof Nansen, who led a team across Greenland, the first to do so, in 1888.

If Ousland's curriculum vitae is classic polar stuff, Horn's isn't. Before the trip he was best known for traveling the length of the Amazon river on a bodyboard, circumnavigating the equator and then walking, skiing, sailing and kayaking around the 12,430-mile Arctic Circle alone, a trip that took 2-1/2 years.

Their plan was to set their compasses due north and stick to that single bearing. There was no point in trying to blindly pick a way around obstacles as the low-power intensive head torches they wore only gave them 33 feet of visibility.

"It was like walking in a tunnel," Ousland said as he looked out across the Oslo fjord through his wraparound sunglasses, sucking on snus, balls of tobacco placed in the mouth.


Several times during the first few days, Ousland and Horn had to struggle into giant orange waterproof suits and swim across open water.

To fight the cold, they wore double layers of everything and spent 1-1/2 hours every evening wiping the ice from between the two layers where their sweat had frozen. They slept in plastic bags inside their sleeping bags.

Polar bears ripped through their tent at night looking for food and tracked them during the day.

Horn twice crashed through the ice into the freezing Artic water and a few days before the end he contracted blood poisoning, probably through his frost-bitten hands.

"I thought the expedition would be over then. I asked him if he wanted to call it off but he said no and he staggered on like a drunk," Ousland recalled.

The former deep sea navy diver now makes a living from lecturing, giving motivational speeches, writing books and organizing commercial trips to both the North and South Poles.

Sponsors paid the $300,000 bill of the latest trip.

A similar winter trip to the South Pole would be suicide, Ousland said, because of temperatures around minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit. The major title polar explorers are now chasing is to be the first man to cross the Arctic solo and unsupported, he said.

But for Ousland, the challenge is not one he will take up.

"For me it is not interesting enough. I have made the trip with one resupply at the Pole. One less is not stretching myself enough."

He promised his 18-year-old son the winter trek to the North Pole would be his last major polar expedition.

"I am finally satisfied," he said.