Let’s All Chill
There are easy ways to reach the North Poleby plane, helicopter, or icebreaker. And then there's the Børge Ousland way. A super-tough son of Norway and the greatest living Arctic explorer, he likes fellow adventurers who ski hard, pull their own weight, and can take a touch of frostbiteno whimpering allowed.
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IT SEEMED LIKE A LARK. The idea was to spend seven days and six nights in April skiing the Last Degree to the North Pole—the last degree being latitudinal, from 89 to 90 degrees north, roughly 60 miles. When I heard that the plan was to spend a week doing it, I almost laughed. Nine, ten miles a day? I’d been an avid cross-country ski racer for years, and even a long race like the Swedish Vasaloppet—57 miles—takes no more than six hours. This pace was a piece of cake.
“We will be pulling sledges,” Børge reminded me in his understated way when I tracked him down on his cell phone in the mountains outside Oslo, Norway.
Børge was Børge Ousland, the Norwegian polar adventurer who would lead the trip. Just 40, he’d already made a name for himself as one of the all-time greats of polar endurance, with feats that were nothing short of staggering. Børge (pronounced “BORE-gay”) was the first person to ski solo to the North Pole (in 1994), the first to ski solo across Antarctica (1997), and the first to ski solo across the entire Arctic ice pack, from Siberia to Canada through the North Pole—a 2001 feat that put him on the ice for an astounding 82 days. He almost always did it without resupply, eating and wearing and burning only what he could drag. Just him, alone on the ice. With one big mother of a sled.
“When I started from Siberia,” Børge said, “my sled weighed 170 kilos.” One hundred seventy kilos? That’s nearly 375 pounds. I couldn’t drag that much across a hockey rink.
“But for this trip, the sleds are only 35 kilos or so. Not so bad.”
Seventy-seven pounds. That was probably enough to be really annoying by the end of a day, but still manageable. Which seemed to be in keeping with the spirit of this trip. It was Børge’s idea to lead a small group to the pole, making the journey just hard enough to give people a taste of what he goes through, but not so hard as to terrorize everyone who might sign up.
“I suppose it’s a good idea to train for this,” I said. Børge laughed. “I go hiking with tires. I drag them behind me.”
“You hike dragging a tire?”
“Three tires, usually. All in a row. That way the tires get better traction and it’s harder. I like tractor tires. I do it for several hours a day. You should try it.” “Sure,” I promised, knowing hell would freeze over before I hit the trail with three tractor tires scraping behind me.
Still, I did need to get a feel for this towing-a-sled stuff. So I went to the place I ski every season, the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont, and borrowed one of those kiddie sleds parents use to pull their tots around. Where the kid is supposed to go, I strapped in a very cold 45-pound weight. The sled was attached to my waist with a padded belt—just like Børge does it, but where he uses ropes to drag his sled, this one had long metal bars, intended to make the whole arrangement more stable.
Which worked, sort of. Going uphill was fine, but when I turned around, the weight of the sled started pushing me downhill like a big hand. In a heartbeat, I was flying, desperately trying to hang on. I blew past an astounded family, who scrambled for their lives, and then I wiped out in a sharp turn. I felt the sled roll and I was jerked and twisted in a jumbled, snow-flying-everywhere mess.
I got up, cursing.
“What are you doing?” A woman was screaming at me from down the trail. Doing? I was falling on my ass. Wasn’t it obvious?
I jerked the sled upright. “Be careful with that baby!” the woman yelled. I gave the sled a good whack with my pole.
FOR THE FIRST PORTION of my journey, I would fly eight hours from New York to Oslo, and then nearly three hours north to the island of Spitsbergen, an isolated mining outpost far north of the Norwegian mainland. Three hours north from Oslo? I would have assumed you’d wind up in Russia. And Spitsbergen was merely the jumping-off point, as Børge informed me when I finally stumbled off the plane.
“From here it’s only two and a half hours more by jet,” he said reassuringly. “Then a little by helicopter, then we ski.” I just nodded. Sure. Whatever. “We go in that plane.” He pointed to a stubby, strange-looking twin-engine jet that sat on a runway bathed in the perpetual far-north twilight. “Antonov 74. Short takeoff and landing. Russian.”
Børge was less ferocious than I expected: tall and handsome, with a quick smile, a soft voice, and the easy physical grace of a professional athlete. As I’d learned more about him and his preposterous feats, I’d envisioned a Nordic superman, heir to all those Viking badasses who charged out of longboats cleaving skulls with bloody axes. And he was a tough guy, all right—though he’d grown up in a family of artists and intellectuals in the Oslo suburbs, he’d always been drawn to risk, working as a professional diver in the North Sea and as a Norwegian navy commando before becoming a full-time adventurer in 1994. He and his longtime partner, Wenche Spange, have a 14-year-old son, and Børge came across more like a hipster dad than a Viking warrior.
“There is just one problem. Not such a big problem, but…” He shrugged, conveying the ridiculousness of trying to do anything on schedule in the Arctic. “The runway up north, it has cracked. Cricket will explain.”
Cricket was a Frenchman named Christian de Marliave, 51, one of the four French polar junkies who run a small private outfit called Cerpolex that specializes in logistics for Arctic travel. Every April, with help from a couple dozen Russians, Cerpolex creates a temporary ice-pack air base some 75 miles from the North Pole. For fun, they call it Barneo, making it sound like a transplanted South Seas never-never land: the Barneo Ice Airport.
I met Cricket after a short drive that took me to a small guest house in Spitsbergen’s main town, Longyearbyen, where the trip’s four clients had already arrived. None of us knew the others yet, so we exchanged vague hellos, glances, and nods, everybody trying to look unflappable as Cricket calmly related the absurd-sounding situation. “The runway has cracked, but the Russians are filling the crack with water and it should freeze the repair, no problem,” he told us. We nodded. Of course.
Before making the Arctic his life, Cricket had been a mathematician. He still looked like a professor: wiry, intense, and chain-smoking, with a perpetual air of fatigue. “We should be able to leave in a day or so,” he promised.
It took three. Every morning there was more delay as the Russians used ice axes, shovels, and a bulldozer to repair the runway. “The water fix, it didn’t work,” Cricket explained. “I’m not sure why. So now they just extend the runway another 500 meters in the opposite direction. It’s hard work.”
Børge told us not to worry. “I know they are French,” he said of Cerpolex, “but they have always come through in the end.”
Eventually we took off, temporarily parting ways with Børge, who took a different plane with a group he was guiding on an overnight trip to the pole. (Børge had guided with Cerpolex since 1998—two trips every April.) After a long flight over the frozen polar ocean, we landed and stepped off the plane at Barneo. Suddenly I couldn’t stop laughing. It was a giddy, senses-overwhelmed, nearly hysterical laugh. At minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the air was so cold it felt like pure refrigerant. Everything was brilliant white and busy and confusing. The engines of the jet were screaming and the Russians were shouting and the Ukrainian pilots were passing out bottles of vodka from a hidden compartment.
We landed amid what looked like a frigid outdoor aviation museum. An old biplane was sitting off to the side, as if awaiting its next bombing run over the Somme, and a faded pair of blue-and-orange Russian helicopters, big things, sagged on the ice. One side of the runway was lined with large, posh tents, while on the other, about a hundred yards away, stood a motley collection of multicolored tents that looked ready to blow away in the wind.
“Does anybody know where we are going to sleep?” someone in my group hollered over the noise.
“Cricket said we could sleep in the mess tent,” I yelled. We started walking to the large tent closest to the runway. It was banquet-sized, and I figured it had to be the right place.
“No, no!” Cricket shouted as he rushed ahead of us. “That’s the Russians. We’re over there.” He gestured toward the smaller tents that were now barely visible in the blowing snow. They seemed a long way off. We started walking.
What followed was the coldest night of my life—if night is the correct word for the pole’s 24-hour sunlight. We ended up not in the French mess tent, but in an unheated supply tent, where we pushed aside frozen loaves of Russian bread and loose heads of cabbage that rolled around like cannonballs, clearing space for our bags, the five of us piling together like so many bear cubs. Helicopters seemed to take off every few minutes and dogs howled constantly, competing with the screaming wind.
By a stroke of luck, my bag ended up next to a huge box filled with frozen but tasty French cookies. I’d doze a little, wake up shivering, eat some cookies, listen to the dogs, and doze again. Every now and then, I’d bolt up, convinced I was freezing to death, and then I’d drag myself over to the mess tent and talk to Brigitte Sabard, a 40-year-old Frenchwoman who ran Barneo’s kitchen. Somehow she conjured up an incredible meal: vegetable soup, crepes, and a reindeer stew. I would spend a lot of time in the next few days thinking about those crepes.
“HOW WAS IT AT THE POLE?” I asked Børge the next morning as we got ready to board a Russian helicopter that would ferry us the 30 miles or so to the 89th degree.
“Cold,” he said, looking tired. I started to tell him about our supply-tent nightmare, but then it occurred to me that he had actually slept at the North Pole, while I was eating cookies and hanging out with Brigitte.
“We leave right after lunch,” he said. I felt like saluting. North to the pole!
The martial feeling intensified when our little group nervously piled in for takeoff. It was an eclectic bunch. There was Carlijn Hoekstra from the Netherlands, a 22-year-old medical student who hoped to become the first Dutch woman to ski to the North Pole. She was tall and athletic and had been dragging tires for months alongside a canal in Holland, an experience she described as “fun.” She had never—ever—been on cross-country skis before trying on a pair at Spitsbergen, but she was smart and quick to laugh and had a perpetually upbeat manner that I doubted would crumble.
There was one other woman, a South African named Correne Erasmus-Coetzer, 44, who was determined to become the first South African woman to ski to both poles. Back in December she’d made it to the South Pole, which meant that she had a very clear idea of what we were in for. A tiny but incredibly strong person, she didn’t try to hide her apprehension. “You have no idea,” she’d say, smiling, almost shuddering.
Two Norwegian guys completed our band. Jan-Erik Warbo, 50, was an ebullient former Oslo ad executive turned real estate magnate who spent a lot of time pursuing new challenges like sailing across the Atlantic. Per Helgesplass was a quiet 33-year-old who had just spent a year in China at some godforsaken place near Mongolia, managing a factory for a Norwegian company. He’d never done anything like this. So why this particular trip? “It’s the North Pole,” he said when I pressed him. “I’m Norwegian.” As if that explained it all.
The flight from Barneo to just past the 89th degree was a quick, noisy trip over the ice. As we landed in a whoosh of white, it seemed terribly important to the Russians to get us and our gear off the helicopter ASAP, as if we might come under mortar attack at any second. We frantically hurled our sleds out the door while the Russian crew chief scowled and yelled, “Go! Now!”
Then we were standing on the ice and the helicopter was taking off and we all waved, aware of the cinematic melodrama of the moment. Børge looked at us and grinned. “Always north,” he announced, quoting a famous line by his countryman Fridtjof Nansen, the 19th-century Arctic explorer.
We nodded. Then we awkwardly strapped on our waist belts and headed in the same direction.
“I HATE THE SENSATION of being cold,” Børge said. “It is so painful.”
I looked to see if he was joking. We were skiing together on our first full day, a few hours into what would be our standard eight-hour slog. “What?” he asked when he saw my amazed expression. “I like the cold, but I hate being cold. Don’t you?”
A few days earlier I might have said yes, I like the cold—but that was before I’d been immersed in temperatures that ranged from a high of minus 22 to a low of minus 40. Until then, I thought “cold” was zero degrees Fahrenheit. But that was nothing. I was coming to grips with the horrible realization that when you spend days and days skiing across the polar ice cap, the only time you get warm is when you’re actually skiing. But even then there is the constant struggle to wear just the right combination of clothing so you never sweat. Once you get wet, you either stay wet or find yourself in a cocoon of ice.
“This is like jogging in a meat locker all day,” I said as I kept fiddling with different layers.
“No, no,” Børge said. “A meat locker is much warmer.”
That first day fell into the pattern that would repeat itself without variation. We got up around 8:30 a.m. (Norway time), ate Børge’s special mix of sugary instant porridge with added oil, packed the sleds, and then we’d ski, with the eight-hour day punctuated by four 15-minute breaks that mainly served to make me stiff. At some point Børge would pick a campsite—always on old, stable ice near pressure ridges, small hills of ice formed when huge sheets are forced together by polar ocean currents. The ridges provided shelter from the wind (though the winds were never strong) and broke the monotony of camping on open ice. It took us an hour to set up, another to melt snow and cook. We’d talk and do gear repairs, and then try to sleep.
Børge was a great believer in strict routine. He had spent a good portion of his life contemplating the factors affecting risk, and to him routine was a matter of sanity and safety in a place where the basic constants of life did not apply. Here you moved and slept and ate not on earth, but on drifting and shifting ice, which at any moment might split, spilling you into the Arctic Ocean, more than two miles deep.
On the ice, Børge did everything, large and small, exactly the same way, every time, so that each moment was built around procedures he’d internalized to maximize efficiency. He and I were tentmates, and one morning I backed out of our tent, which prompted him to gently scold, “Never turn your ass to a polar bear.” He meant it. Børge had a precise method for exiting a tent. First he’d open the flap a bit and peek around, then he’d stick his head out and survey the campsite. Finally he’d move out quickly, turning a quick 360, his hand never far from the pistol he carried at all times. He’d encountered polar bears on many trips and had been forced to kill one that charged.
The carefulness extended to Børge’s sled—his sled “system,” he called it—which was meticulously organized and packed. He’d created a self-contained life support vehicle, like a miniature space capsule. It was molded with a gently sloping nose, to ride up and over obstructions in the ice. The sled converted into a strange little pontoon boat, so that Børge could paddle across open areas of water. Or drag it behind him when he swam across cracks in the ice.
Yes, swam. This last was another Børge concept: Instead of skiing miles and miles around a break in the ice—or being stranded waiting for the ice to move together—he had come up with the notion of swimming across, using a specially designed survival suit that fit over his ski clothes. Børge had hit the water 23 times during his adventures. “The water is warmer than the air,” he reminded me.
“That’s insane,” I said.
“Maybe we will come across some open water on this trip,” he said hopefully.
“You just want to show off.”
“Of course. It is a great system.”
I’D ENVISIONED SKIING to the North Pole as a long race over a bumpy course. But it was more like backpacking on snowshoes. The hardest part wasn’t the moment-to-moment cardiovascular challenge, but the cumulative effect of exerting yourself in such extreme temperatures. That and doing everything and anything wearing several layers of thick mittens. And while Børge was relentlessly organized, I was… Well, I was not.
The first night we made camp, I unzipped the plastic cover of my sled. Børge looked inside and flinched. “What has happened here?” he demanded.
My sled looked like a teenager’s closet floor, with junk just thrown in at random. “What are these?” he asked, picking up a bag.
“Hand warmers. Lots of them.” He stared at them like they were shrunken heads. “Do they work?” he asked.
“Hell, yes, they work. Here.” I handed him one from my pocket. He took his mitten off and held it.
“It’s warm,” he marveled, smiling. Then he handed it back quickly. “This is dangerous. If I got used to hand warmers, it’s one more thing I’d have to carry.
“This sled,” he decreed, “is a disaster.” br.
So were my hands. No matter how many gloves I put on, or what kind, they would not stay warm. By the second night on the ice, my fingers had started to blister.
“How did this happen?” I asked Børge, staring at them.
“You are in the Arctic,” he shrugged.
“Børge,” I sighed. “I think I’m going to kill you.”
“Ahhh, mutiny on the ice! But Børge has gun. Børge trained killer.” He laughed, reaching into his medical kit for tape.
“You think this will be a problem?”
“Only if you need your hands,” he said. “If we have to amputate, we can always tie a fork to your stump, like they did on the Greely expedition.” He was referring to the 1881 American expedition to Ellesmere Island led by Adolphus Greely, a famous Arctic disaster in which only seven of the 25 explorers survived a long winter on the ice. ” ‘We are dying like men!’ ” Børge cried, recounting their words when they were finally rescued.
Within a few days, we all began to show the red blotches of minor frostbite on our faces, but it was remarkable how well everyone held up. No one complained, ever, and I was the only one with a serious problem. At first my fingers just hurt. Then each fingertip swelled up with a mushy blister. Then the blisters popped and skin started peeling off. I ended up with second- and third-degree frostbite on both hands, and spent two weeks back in New York walking around with mummy-wrapped mitts.
My hands made me eager to reach the pole quickly, but our progress seemed unalterably slow. Every night in the tent, Børge would take us through a little ceremony of checking our position on the GPS. First he would move the stove—”the little glow of happiness,” he called it—from the cooking vestibule of the tent to inside. Then he’d pull out a small yellow GPS and rub it vigorously between his hands, finally announcing how much ground we’d covered that day.
“Sixteen kilometers,” he’d say. Or 10, or 22. Never more. These announcements filled me with disbelief. We skied all day and only traveled 16 k? I fantasized about dropping the sleds and making a mad dash for the pole.
“It’s only 36 kilometers farther,” I said to Børge on our fourth night. “We could do that in one long day without sleds.”
Børge perked up at the notion, as if I’d described some delicious meal. “Four k an hour—we could do that easy,” he agreed. “I think the French are at the pole now. We could meet them.”
A French team had constructed a wacky “drift station” that looked like the Apollo 13 capsule. A French polar explorer named Jean Louis Etienne was planning to get inside it and drift on the ice for three months. We’d run into this group at Barneo, and when Børge had asked how well the capsule floated, one of the French scientists had shrugged and said, “We’re not sure.” Børge just nodded, but I think I saw him biting his lip not to laugh.
“If the French are there, they’ll have heated tents,” I smiled.
Børge agreed. “And wine. And real food.”
We both thought about it a moment. “But without your sled,” Børge finally said, “you have no security.”
“I’d take my chances on the French.”
“That they would put on your grave,” Børge said, rolling over to sleep. ” ‘He took his chances on the French.’ ”
THE NORTH POLE has been called “the horizontal Everest,” which is a clever way of disguising that it’s just a point on a map—an idea more than a geographic reality. On the fifth night, our last before we reached the pole, the drifting ice carried us a half-mile north.
“We are surfing toward the pole,” Børge announced happily. “I think the weather is changing.”
“I hope the French aren’t there,” Correne said wistfully. “I’d really like to have it to ourselves.”
“Not me,” I grumbled. “I hope they’ve opened up a bistro. With a wine bar.”
That final day, the sky clouded over and the wind increased. I was skiing along in my typical daze when Børge suddenly stopped, pulled out his GPS, and started rubbing it. He looked down at the screen and motioned us all ahead. “Line up,” he said. We shuffled forward. My hands hurt so bad that I’d given up holding the pole grips and instead just looped the straps around my wrists.
“Two hundred meters,” Børge said.
Ahead, the landscape looked exactly like it had when we started. For all I knew, we could have been skiing in one big circle for the last week.
“What is that?” Correne asked, pointing to tents in the distance.
“A Russian group,” Børge said. The French had apparently drifted away. Correne frowned.
“They’re not on the pole,” Børge assured her. “Just near the pole.”
We skied on slowly, with Børge counting down the meters. “Ten, nine, eight…”
And then he held up the GPS. Ninety degrees. We were on the North Pole!
Everyone whooped and hollered and did their best to look triumphant. Mostly, though, we were just tired and relieved. I took off my skis and started walking toward the Russian tent.
“Where are you going?” Børge asked.
“To the Russians,” I said. “They will have vodka.”
“Good idea,” Børge said.
THE WEATHER CLOSED in just as our helicopter was landing back at Barneo. I was shocked that it could fly at all, but as Børge reminded me, “They are Russian.”
We were stuck at Barneo for days, waiting for the weather to clear enough that the jet from Spitsbergen could land. We were caught in a furious Arctic storm. (“If the ice cracks under the tent,” Børge said casually one afternoon, “just run. Don’t try to save anything.”) We all slept in a big Russian military tent with a kerosene heater. We read, played cards, ate, and slept. And drank. French wine and Russian vodka—quite a bit, actually.
On our last night, the usual after-dinner drinking turned into a party that went on for eight hours. Brigitte hung towels over the windows and we lit candles and soon it felt just like our own very special, very selective Arctic nightclub. U2 was on the boom box, and we all started dancing and suddenly it seemed very hot and layers of clothes began to come off—lots of layers, since we all had a half-dozen or so. We were sweating, and the men were shirtless and the women mostly, too, though some wore bras or Norwegian fishnet underwear. We laughed and danced and toasted and then we all dashed outside. Half naked, we pranced in the Arctic, then scrambled back inside to start it all over again. Gradually, we staggered back to our tents, dragging our clothes.
We were still sleeping the next afternoon when one of the Russian airport personnel burst into the tent. “Come now! You must help with the runway!”
Everyone at Barneo was turning out to form human lines that would mark the runway for the pilot. “Line up!” the Russians shouted. “Every 20 meters!”
I was standing there, huddled in my huge down coat, when I heard the plane. I looked up and suddenly it exploded through the clouds, so close that I think I saw tire treads. In a flash it was past, screaming down onto the ice.
“Excellent!” one of the Russians declared, slapping my back, as we hurried to the mess tent. My heart was still pounding. “Now we must drink vodka!”
And so we did.