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Solo Across the Arctic
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Børge Ousland


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By Børge Ousland



With animal instincts and high-tech gear, a Norwegian adventurer skis—and swims—from Russia to Canada.



The first week of the last big solo expedition of my life nearly defeated me. I had prepared for two years. I was in top shape. I was motivated. I was battle tested (I had trekked alone to the North Pole in 1994 and across. Antarctica by way of the South Pole in 1997). I was ready for a triathlon from hell: a 1,240-mile (1,996 kilometer) ski, walk, and swim from Russia to Canada, making me the first person to cross both Poles alone. But only days after pushing off, the sledge with all my supplies began to break; its runners came loose, and its Kevlar coating cracked and was worn by the sharp edges of new pack ice.

I’d already survived one brutal night when the Arctic Ocean nearly swallowed my first camp (below). The next morning I couldn’t find snow to melt for fresh water. Finally, I spotted patches of frozen condensation on the leeward side of some sea ice blocks and scraped together enough for a cooking pot. A close call.

But what about the sledge? I spent day three trying to repair it with improvised tools, hand-drilling 262 holes and sewing damaged parts together. It didn’t work. I was torn: Do I call in a chopper from Siberia to fetch me and try again next year? Or do I order another sledge? I wanted to complete this trek without support.

I called for a new sledge, and on day 12 it arrived. The delivery unsettled me. The helicopter crew represented home and warmth. I had to steel myself not to go back with them. Over the next few days I struggled to regain a sense of purpose. I set small goals, trying to move at least six miles (10 kilometers) north each day with a minimum of drift, checking off the degrees of latitude as I counted up toward the 90th parallel. I tried to find joy in solitude again: That’s the key to success on the ice.

The right equipment also helps. I use a mix of the traditional and the high-tech. My boots are copies in synthetic materials of those worn nearly a century ago by my Norwegian countryman Ronald Amundsen, I navigate with the help of GPS, and most days I call home on a satellite phone. My sledge weighs 365 pounds (166 kilograms), loaded mostly with food (divided into 90 three-pound (41 kilograms), fat-rich daily rations) and fuel bottles. And everyone asks, so yes, I’ve brought only one change of underwear.

This time I’ve also packed two items no one has used before on an expedition like this: a dry suit so I can swim across leads and a sail to let the wind pull me along on my skis when conditions are right. On day eight I had the sail up for ten hours. I fell while maneuvering around pressure ridges—crests of ice forced up when ice floes collide. If I’m not careful, I could break a bone, the second big-gest risk out here after falling through the ice.

That’s what makes the Arctic so much more forbidding than the Antarctic: I’m always walking on frozen seawater. There’s no land anywhere beneath me. Skis help distribute my weight, and I can put on my dry suit to give me a sense of security on thin ice, but whiteouts—snow blowing like frozen fog—often make it hard to see where ice is safe. Even when visibility is good, the ice has been so brutally chopped up I seldom get uninterrupted smooth stretches. Winds and currents conspire to smash floes together with such force that blocks are thrust 25 feet (8 meters) into the air.

I have to take off my skis and walk through rough sections. It’s like scrambling through bomb wreckage. When I find fresh pack ice, I measure its thickness with marks on my ski poles. The data I collect will help the Norwegian Polar Institute study global warming. I measured ice in ’94 too; it’s thinner now.

I’ve started to feel the layers of civilization peeling away; it takes weeks to find your animal self. I wake up, grunt at the sun, perform the day’s chores, sniff the north wind, and automatically pick out the best route and the safest campsites—all without thought. I’ve found the rhythm. I think I can do this.

Day 2 - Night of Terror

In the middle of the night I heard screams, squeals, deep grumblings. The ice was packing, and the sounds crept closer. Little sleep; got up several times to check. Woke to changed landscape —only a small patch of slightly thicker ice around my tent was untouched. I chose this site well.

Day 11 - Unwanted Visitors I see polar bear tracks almost every day, so I’m in the habit of looking over my shoulder. Good thing: Today I saw a mother and two cubs in the distance. They walked straight for me. I pulled my gun, fired a warning shot into the snow, and they fled.

Day 41 - Milestone I celebrate my son Max’s 13th birthday with a slice of home- made almond cake.

Day 44 - The Big Hurt Leaning forward to pull my sledge through pack ice strained my Achilles tendons. After days of agony I wrapped my feet and calves tightly in three layers of tape. It’s working. Less pain—for now.

Day 52 - The North Pole, Solitude’s End I arrive at the Pole, and I’m not alone—a jarring change There are 25 others here, including Ibrahim Sharaf of Dubai, who dropped in via helicopter. I chat with him; a few pictures are taken. When his chopper leaves, I’m caught off guard by my feelings: They’re going home, and I’m only halfway there.

Day 69 - Unforgiving Somehow I pushed for 12 hours. Balance not good, stressed, too tired. I need a rest day. The second half of my journey is more dangerous: The ice is softer, and fatigue affects judgment. Saw fox tracks. On pack ice I must think as they do. Foxes never waste a step. They take the easiest path, not the shortest.

The finish

Most Days - More Tracks

Bear footprints again.When I skied to the Pole in ’94, I saw only two tracks. Why so many bears far out on the drift ice, where food is scarce? Is it a climate-change effect? Must be careful. My son’s paintings on my skis remind me: Get home alive.

Day 81 - End in Sight

Clear weather after weeks of whiteout. I walk into unpassable peaks of thick, old, compressed ice. Then I find a channel that winds through the labyrinth—an old lead. I’m through, and I can see Canada’s mountains like a row of teeth in the sun. Only five miles (8 kilometers) from land.

Day 82 - It’s Over

I crossed from sea ice to land ice in the bright polar night. Farewell to the Arctic Ocean At three in the morning I approached a small group of figures. It was my girlfriend, Wenche (right, in blue), my mother, and my old friend, photographer Kjell Ove Stor- vik. They had arrived by plane to meet me. “You look great,” said Wenche. I felt great, but when I stepped onto a cargo scale at a weather station on Ellesmere Island, I saw the truth: I had lost 37 pounds (17 kilograms). Bandages covered raw frost bite wounds on my thighs. I think of the first week, when the sledge fell apart. This final trek’s lesson: Never give up, even if all seems hopeless. Never give up.

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Børge Ousland
VIDEO Hear why photographer/author Børge Ousland is addicted to Arctic expeditions and how he prepares to live in freezing conditions. Click here.

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Audio
Listen to Børge Ousland’s audio diary and hear about the triumphs and trials of his trek.


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To cross the North Pole alone, Børge Ousland suffered through damaged equipment, blinding whiteouts, physical injuries, and loneliness. What drives adventurers to risk their lives to explore hostile terrain? Tell us what you think.


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Nature reveals its remarkable artistry in this month’s desktop wallpaper.




In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.


When explorer Roald Amundsen left Norway in June 1910, the world—including his ship’s crew—thought he was headed for the North Pole. Amundsen, however, had other plans. After learning that American Robert Peary had already realized his dream of becoming the first person to reach the North Pole in April 1909, Amundsen set his sights on the South Pole. With the exception of his brother, he told no one of his decision. It wasn’t until his ship, the Fram, had reached Madeira island that Amundsen announced his real destination to the world. On December 14, 1911, Amundsen achieved his goal and researched the South Pole, narrowly beating English explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who arrived on January 17.

—Cate Lineberry


Børge Ousland
www.ousland.com
Learn more about how Børge Ousland prepared himself—both physically and mentally—for his trek to the North Pole.

Pathways to Achievement: Børge Ousland
www.nationalgeographic.com/pathways/profiles/ousland.html
The explorer shares insights on personal motivation, ambitious goals, and the need to risk losing if you want to win.

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Nyitray, Keith. “Alone Across the Arctic Crown,” National Geographic (April 1993), 70-93.

Ousland, Børge. “The Hard Way to the North Pole,” National Geographic (March 1991), 124-134.

Herbert, Wally. “Commander Robert E. Peary: Did He Reach the Pole?” National Geographic (September 1988), 387-413.

Etienne, Jean-Louis. “Skiing Alone to the Pole,” National Geographic (September 1986), 318-323.

Steger, Will. “North to the Pole,” National Geographic (September 1986), 287.

Fiennes, Sir Ranulph. “Circling Earth From Pole to Pole,” National Geographic (October 1983), 464-481.

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