Alone Again, Naturally

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, January 1997

Alone Again, Naturally
Bingeing on butter and propelled by acid rock, B°rge Ousland nears the end of his second (and hopefully more successful) attempt to cross Antarctica

By Jack Barth

A year ago, explorers B°rge Ousland of Norway and Roger Mear of England went toe to frostbitten toe in a race to notch one of the adventuring world's last great firsts: an unsupported solo trek across Antarctica, via the South Pole--three months and 1,675 miles. The winner: neither. Plagued by frostbite and equipment problems, Ousland and Mear both abandoned the trek, with 840 and 1,000 miles to go, respectively. Beginning in early November, though, Ousland was at it again, this time competing with Briton Sir Ranulph Fiennes as well as Young Ho Heo from South Korea, Peter Valusiak of Slovakia, and Marek Kaminski of Poland. As you read this, the explorers should be about 500 miles from their goal, looking forward to about 30 more days of looming crevasses, minus-20-degree temperatures, and 150-mph winds before reaching McMurdo Base, the U.S. Antarctic station on the Ross Sea.

Antarctica hasn't seen such heated rivalry since 1911, when Norway's Roald Amundsen first tagged the South Pole, beating Robert Falcon Scott of Great Britain by four weeks. Canny bettors have Norway chalking up yet another polar first. Virtually a folk hero in his home country, the unflappable, stoic 34-year-old Ousland is the only person to have reached both the North and South Poles alone and unsupported. We chatted with him at his home in Oslo on the eve of his departure, as he loaded his skis and GPS and portioned out the freeze-dried reindeer that he hopes will sustain him during his 90-day trek across the great white continent.

Any frivolous things packed in that sledge?

I'm bringing my Jimi Hendrix tapes. "All Along the Watchtower" is my favorite song. And I'm bringing quite a few books from Norwegian writers, like Knut Hansen.

How have you been preparing for the trip?

I've been eating a lot of fat. I eat six tablespoons of olive oil and 100 grams of butter every day. It's important to bulk up, because I'll lose about 45 pounds on the trek.

What are you doing differently this time?

Well, it's the same concept. I start from Berkner Island and travel about 800 miles to the South Pole, from the South Pole down the Beardmore Glacier, and out to McMurdo Base on the Ross Sea. The main thing that's different is I've lightened my load. Last year, my sledge was really, really heavy, and I had to dump some food early on. This time, I've squeezed the weight by about 60 pounds, so I'll be carrying about 330 pounds.

Last year you were going strong until you got a nasty case of frostbite. What happened?

I got the wounds quite early, and they became infected. They were between my thighs, because of all the chafing, so it was difficult to walk. This year I'm taking along some padded underwear, so I don't think it will be a problem.

What do you make of the terrain in Antarctica? Do you find it beautiful, or is it mostly just unimaginably bleak?

You might say it's the most horrible place on earth, because it's all cold and white and lonely. But then you start to focus on little details, like the changing colors of the sky.

You actually enjoy trekking alone?

Yeah. It is, of course, much, much more difficult, but it's also a greater challenge because you have to master all the elements completely on your own. You have no other person or animal or anything to relate to.

What does all that solitude do to your mind?

When you have been out for maybe two months, you are becoming more and more like an animal. You are focused on just the basic needs. This is natural. The senses that we probably had a thousand years ago are coming back. It's like going back to the Stone Age man.

How about imagining things or carrying on conversations with yourself?

No, that doesn't happen to me. I don't hallucinate, and I don't talk to myself. It is a bit strange, though. Last year when I had to talk for the first time, the words were like food in my mouth.

Were you kind of an outdoors loner as a kid?

I was outside, yes, but not alone. I was not any weirdo.

But was being alone for long periods of time something that came naturally to you?

No. In fact, being alone was always a big fear of mine. I didn't overcome it until my trip to the North Pole--that was the first time I was ever alone in a tent.

OK, so you've got five guys all attempting this trek at the same time, basically the same route. Conceivably you could end up passing each other, no?

No, I don't think I will meet any of them. Antarctica is like a big ocean. It's not going to be crowded.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who in 1993 made it 1,364 miles across Antarctica with Mike Stroud, has been boasting that he's going to finish first.

Yes, I heard he was on CNN saying that he wanted to beat that damn Norwegian.

If someone were to get there before you, who would you like it to be?

Well, really, I want to be first.

Besides doing this for yourself, there must be a larger significance to the trek. What is it?

I haven't thought so much about what this means beyond myself, beyond the good feeling of completing something like that and making history. But now that you ask, I think it's important for Norway that I do this because it says that we are still the best when it comes to polar exploration.

What's the first thing you plan on doing when you stumble into McMurdo?

Take a shower. And drink a cup of coffee.

Once you return to civilization, do you ever get the feeling that you want to go back?

Yes, sometimes you really want to go back, because the world out there gets much more pure, and you get a sense of what is right and what it wrong, and what it true and what is not. And you can see very, very, clearly when you come back that a lot of things around you are not part of that. What can I call it... people don't necessarily mean what they say, or say what they mean. If you know what I'm talking about.

I think I do. B°rge, what's next for you? All your treks have been so...icy.

Yeah, they've all been icy. I really have no idea. Maybe I'll do something with oceans.

Jack Barth is a frequent contributor to Outside. He is currently living in London.

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