A story about fake money, student trips to Poland, a slipped disc and a little ski trip to the North Pole in 1990.
“If you had told us 20 years ago that we would be interviewed 20 years later, we would have laughed.”
A story about fake money, student trips to Poland, a slipped disc and a little ski trip to the North Pole in 1990. The main characters: Erling Kagge, Børge Ousland and a guy named Geir.
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 DISAPPEARED 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 there was a guy with initiative and creativity. I already knew who he was – we were both pretty visible at the 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 sailing 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 outdoor experience 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.
We were looking for a rougher outdoor experience than waltzing over the Hardanger Plateau.
“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 kilometers 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.