EVERY YEAR three men gather in Oslo to eat high-fat foods and watch old cowboy movies. We’re talking spaghetti carbonara and Sergio Leone. The desert is a given: “success pie”, made of almonds and egg cream. The annual gathering is part of a pact they made on the way to the North Pole in 1990. The three men are: Børge Ousland, polar explorer; Erling Kagge, publisher; and Geir Randby, cameraman, journalist and editor at Norwegian state television in Hedmark.
“I DISAPP EARED FROM THE STORY,” says Geir Randby by telephone from Gudbrandsdalen. Twenty years ago, on 8 March 1990, he stood together with Erling Kagge and Børge Ousland on Hunt Island, in the far north of Canada, and watched the Twin Otter that had flown them there take off again. The temperature was 52° below zero C. “I remember thinking: What the hell have you got yourself into now, Randby?”
“IS IT POSSIBLE there are no matches here? Aren’t they part of the deal? Did some idiot rip off our matches?” Børge Ousland is standing in his new boat, a trimaran he is going to use to try to sail through both the Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage in a single year.
“Do you have any matches?” he asks me.
No. How many times have you been to the North Pole? “Eighteen.”
How does it feel when the plane leaves? “It’s quite a special feeling. If you’re in a group, it’s fine. But when you’re standing there alone, it’s pretty miserable to watch the plane disappear, I must say,” says Børge Ousland.
“IF YOU HAD TOLD US 20 years ago that we would be interviewed 20 years later, we would have laughed.” Twenty years ago Ousland was a North Sea diver. Randby and Kagge were law students. The expedition itself began 8 March 1990. The idea for it had come to Randby and Ousland independently four years before – from a certain small, yellow, glossy magazine.
“I got the idea from an article in National Geographic in ’86, about someone who had walked solo to the North Pole with the help of air-dropped supplies,” says Randby. “The article said that the next goal – if it was even possible – had to be to go ‘unsupported’, in other words on your own muscle power, without depots and resupplies. That challenge piqued my interest.”
He asked several friends, all of whom wanted to take part. Eventually he realized that he was far more serious than they were.
How did you hook up with Kagge?
“It was a coincidence. I found a fake 100-kroner bill outside the Parliament. It was printed as an ad for Loftet, a club that Erling was helping run. That told me here was a guy with initiative and creativity. I already knew who he was – we were both pretty visible at law school. He joined up, and he was serious.” Erling Kagge, for his part, recalls talking with Geir in early 1988. On a sofa in the upper stories of an office building in Oslo’s Vika district, where his publishing house is based, he thinks back and says: “Since the spring of ’87, when I returned from a sail trip to the Antarctic, I’d been determined to get back to the polar areas.” IN 1986 BØRGE skied across Greenland from the North Sea with three friends. “What a fantastic male adventure,” Ousland says. “We were looking for a rougher outdoorexperience than waltzing over the Hardanger Plateau.”
In the autumn of 1988 he gave a speech on the trip at the agricultural college in Ås, south of Oslo. Randby was there too, drumming up interest in student ski trips to Poland. “Børge came into the room after me,” recalls Randby. “He was supposed to talk about the Greenland trip. I decided to stick around and listen, and thought many of the tactics he had chosen were smart.”
After the speech Randby went up to Ousland. “You don’t just go over to people and ask whether they want to go to the North Pole unsupported,” he says. “So I asked what his next project was. ‘The North Pole,’ he said. I said in that case he might have trouble finding sponsors, since he’ll be two years behind us.”Ousland had read the same magazine that Randby had, and was just as turned on by the challenge. That autumn they teamed up. They continued their strength training, using car tires, and their equipment testing, using the cold chamber at the SINTEF research institute. They developed provisions they would carry on the trek, and they read polar literature. To put it mildly, it was methodical preparation. “Victory goes to the one who plans,” says Kagge today. There was just one problem. They were 500,000 kroner short.
THE TOTAL BUDGET was 800,000 kroner. By comparison, Monica Kristensen’s attempt to reach the South Pole in 1986-87 cost 15 million kroner. “Erling came up with an idea to contact the artist Jakob Weidemann,” says Randby.
“He was the type who either liked you or disliked you. We were lucky that he liked us. He thought artists and polar explorers were soul brothers. What they have in common is the need to express themselves.” Weidemann gave them 50 numbered, signed, hand-colored prints of “Flower in Snow”, which the three would-be adventurers sold for 10,000 kroner apiece. That’s how Weidemann became the expedition’s main sponsor. Ousland shares Weidemann’s view of polar adventures.
“Performance art. That’s what an expedition of that kind is.”
THE PERFORMANCE began on 8 March 1990.
“Nowadays people can learn from what we did,” says Ousland. “Back then no one had experienced such a trip. We took a ton of equipment a month in advance to Baffin Island, where we trained and tried out the various equipment to our satisfaction. We made almost no mistakes. We actually did a lot right on that trip.” Ousland went to the extreme of shaving his rear quarters, so that daily maintenance would take less effort. The same day the Norwegians were flown in, a Canadian team was flown out. After one week on the ice, the Canadians had only progressed a few kilometres north. The Norwegians were determined, no matter what, to do better than that. In the first day they covered 3 km. They were pleased. But what was it really like to ski in a place like that – with pressure ridges, open leads, pack ice and cold and wind? “I say the same thing that the cross-country skier Thomas Wassberg once told a journalist who asked, after a 50-km race, how it felt: TRY IT YOURSELF, YOU OLD BASTARD!” says Kagge.
“It’s a tough slog,” says Ousland. “It’s almost impossible to describe. The cold is the worst. It’s freezing when you start out, down toward minus 50. That’s pretty chilly.” At what temperature does ‘chilly’ begin?
“Minus 30 C. That’s the cutoff. Anything below that is chilly,” says Ousland.
“I froze to the point of moaning,” says Kagge.
“THE OTHERS picked up the routine pretty quickly,” says Randby. “I needed a little time to get into the swing. After a week we knew we had mastered it, that things could go our way.”
Day 9 on the ice, it happened. “I was out in front,” says Ousland. “I was the best at finding a route through the terrain. It was the hardest job – but still, I liked to be up there.”Behind him, in the middle, marched Randby.
“It was afternoon,” he recalls. “You become a little sluggish toward the end of the day. The sled I was pulling slipped on an ice chunk and pulled me down into a crack in the ice. The sled came in after me, and the corner of it hit me in the small of the back.” The sled weighed 130 kilos. “I didn’t notice how bad it was right away. When I lay down later, it only hurt a little. The next day it was excruciating.”
Before the trip, he had made an agreement with Scandinavian Airlines, or SAS. The adventurers would stay in touch with the world by calling up SAS passenger jets a route from Scandinavia to Alaska. Using the VHF radio, he reached one of the jets and explained the situation.
“It was a huge defeat,” says Randby.
“The trip was my own initiative, and I had been ready for it in every way. My whole life crumbled.”
Four days later, the Twin Otter arrived. Since the plan was to be unsupported – without resupply of any kind – the two remaining skiers declined to take over any of Randby’s equipment, with the exception of the radio.
“As I was flown out, I wondered if I shouldn’t just jump out of the plane,” says Randby.
“Nothing had any value to me. I had a pretty screwed-up sense of reality. I’d been so set on that goal. You have to be.”
“YOU CUT OUT everything else in existence,” says Kagge. “You have only one focus: getting north.”
Only two men remained in the shared sleeping bag. In their quest for the pole a century before, Nansen and Johansen had had the same sleeping arrangement. In addition to their individual bags, the skiers slept together in a large common bag. Every day it was the same routine. For lunch, high-fat blocks of oats and raisins, a concoction of their own design. For dinner, lard-and-potato rations made by the Norwegian military. As Ousland says: “The object is to spread the fat across every meal.”
“Routines are good,” says Kagge. “There are enough decisions to make as it is. Anything you can decide ahead of time is good – how long to pause, what time to get up, et cetera.” Most of the time, Børge was the duo’s spearpoint.
“Børge made a better scout than I did,” recalls Kagge.
“He was smarter at finding the best routes through and over the ice blocks. It was fine with me to go behind and make sure we were moving as much as possible in a northerly direction. As the daily stages grew longer, we would switch off.”
In his book on the expedition, Kagge writes that skiing across sea ice is like walking “on a water bed”:
“Saltwater ice is much more elastic. It sways.” As they proceeded Ousland would make food recipes in his head. Most involved bacon and sour cream. For Kagge, it was bacon and cake. Sometimes each item alone, sometimes in combination, he writes in his book. Occasionally they linked together their pull-sleds, called pulks, and paddled across open leads. They skied up to 15 hours a day. On a good day they might put 30 km behind them. On a bad day they covered 12 km in 12 hours of difficult skiing. The ice, moving beneath them, followed its own directional needs. At night the men could easily drift several kilometres south.
“You can’t let things like that break you,” says Ousland. Almost every night they lied awake listening to the ice churning outside the tent.
“When it churns you never know how close the movement is,” he says. “It’s stressful when you’re trying to sleep. You are never safe on the Arctic Ocean.”What is the sound like?
“Anything from a rubbing or a murmuring to thunder.”
“WAS IT A RACE? Of course it was a race!” says Kagge.
At the same time that the Norwegians were on the ice, there were Canadians, Koreans, British and Russians on the same errand.
“Obviously, some reasons for going on an extreme journey are more admirable than others,”Kagge admits.
“The fact that no one has done it before is a big motivation,” says Ousland. “I love the feeling of overcoming challenges in a good way. Everyone needs that feeling of accomplishment. Our arena happens to be the North Pole.”
On 19 April the Norwegians learned by radio they are a four-day march behind the Brits. They decided to treat each 30-hour period like 24 hours – it’s daylight the whole time anyway. “We were skiing for the fatherland,” says Ousland.
From that point on, each day was even longer, even harder. When they stopped to make camp one day, they got a visit.
“IT HAPPENED at 88 degrees and 20 minutes north. I had been carrying a revolver until the day before. I finally figured there was no more point, since there are no polar bears so far onto the ice,” says Ousland.
“Then I called out: ‘Hoi!’ I don’t know why I said that. I almost never say ‘Hoi’.” In any case, there was a polar bear standing 20 metres away. The two men dove for their pulks and pulled out their revolvers. The polar bear came closer. Ousland fired a warning shot.
“The bear came at pretty good speed, with its head held low,” says Ousland.
“Both of us had guns and both of us shot. If only one of us hit, I would bet on Børge,” says Kagge.
They couldn’t eat the animal. That would have violated the rules defining “unsupported” that they had negotiated with the British before leaving. They did pack some meat into one of the sleds.
ON 4 MAY they found themselves at the North Pole. “Nothing beats that virginal first-time feeling,” says Ousland. The Brits had given up long ago. Kagge and Ousland were first. On the victory menu: polar bear fillet, boiled in salty meltwater. (Kagge would spend the night after the feast “in the foetal position, with cramps”.)
In the airplane that picked them up a few days later was none other than Geir Randby. Have you been back to the North Pole since then?
“Yes, a couple of years ago,” says Randby. “It was one of those tourist trips with Børge. That’s when I understood how important the mental part was. People who were in much better shape than I was were struggling. I had no fear. I had been there before.”
How’s your back today?
“My back – it’s fine. I’ve been to a chiropractor and done a lot of working out. When I got home in 1990, I took daily ski trips to train myself down, even with a slipped disc.” Do you ever think how life might have been if the accident had not occurred?
“You think about that at the beginning,” says Randby. “Eventually I got to where I wouldn’t change places. You never know what would’ve happened, of course. But now I have three great kids and a fine life. I wouldn’t exchange it for anything.”
In addition to interviews with Kagge, Ousland and Randby, this account is indebted to Erling Kagge’s book Nordpolen: Det siste kappløpet (Cappelen 1990).