Crossing the Arctic Ocean on Skis
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 3 Dec 2002, p. 180-191
Ousland, Borge, Speaker
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Personal reminiscences accompanied by a slide show of the speaker's trips.
Date of Original
3 Dec 2002
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Borge Ousland

Fridjtof Nansen Institue and one of Norway's best known explorers
Chairman: Ann Curran
President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Doug Morris, President, Morris Glass Inc. and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Ranch McQueen, Senior Student, Parkdale Collegiate Institute; The Reverend Kim Beard, Rector. Christ Church, Brampton and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Rita Hoff, Director, Canaccord Capital Corporation and Wife of Eivind Hoff, Consul General; Martin Kuster, President, Hunter Straker Ltd.; Dr. Johann Olav Koss, four-time Olympic Gold Medallist, President and CEO, Olympic Aid and Chairman, MOT (Courage--an organization that mobilizes Norwegian athletes in the fight against drugs and doping); His Excellency Mr. Ingvard Havnen, Norwegian Ambassador to Canada, Royal Norwegian Embassy; The Reverend Dr. John Niles, Rector, Victoria Park United Church and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Professor Franklin Griffiths, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto; Eivind Hoff, Consul General, Royal Norwegian Consulate General, Toronto; and Erin Adams, HR Specialist, Policies and Programs, The Dominion of Canada General Insurance Company.

December 3, 2002

Introduction by Ann Curran

The Empire Club has been fortunate to hear from a variety of distinguished speakers over the last century and a few have discussed their Arctic expeditions.

One of the first was in December 1909, 93 years ago, when Captain Bernier discussed "The Arctic Regions of Canada," and more recently in February 1976 when Dr. Joseph Maclnnis discussed "Diving Under the North Pole."

All this to say I think we are clue for an update.

In a world that seems obsessed with the paper risk of the New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ or the Toronto Stock Exchange, it is refreshing to hear from someone who takes a different type of risk--a physical risk.

Where would we all be today if explorers did not take physical risks to discover new lands, new seas, our environment and the solar system?

In a day and age where "off-road driving" means turning into your driveway, it is inspiring to hear from someone who truly has a vision and has tested it under severe physical, emotional and financial straits.

No one has completed more solo expeditions in the Arctic and the Antarctic than Barge Ousland. Having reached both the North and the South Pole on his own, he will speak about his personal experiences from his recent trip alone across the Arctic from Russia to Ward Hunt Island in Canada in May 2001, including flashbacks from his earlier trips.

These expeditions represent a long process involving many aspects. The execution itself is one thing, but just as important are the preparation, motivation and mental part. He will emphasize some interesting barriers that need to be overcome to be able to achieve such a goal. Courage and willpower are just a few of the criteria needed.

Originally Mr. Ousland was going to share the podium today with Willy Ostreng, a Norwegian professor and scholar who has published some 130 research papers on topics such as polar politics, ocean law and politics, resource management, security policy, international regimes and interdisciplinary topics. Unfortunately, ill health prevented Mr. 0streng from being with us today. I wish him a speedy recovery and I'm sure all of you do too.

Mr. Ousland has worked for many years as a deep-sea diver in the North Sea. His fourth book, "Alone Across the North Pole," was published earlier this year. He has also written "Alone Across the Antarctica" (1997), "Alone to the North Pole" (1994) and "Umanak" (1986).

He has published several articles in publications such as National Geographic, Gen and Outside Magazine and has received several international prizes for his expeditions.

Without further aclo I give you Mr. Ousland.

Borge Ousland

Thank you Chairman. Your Excellency, ladies and gentlemen:

I'm going to show you some slides. They will be shown at the end of the hall so I hope you can all see the photos of my experiences in the Arctic and Antarctica.

I have done quite a few solo expeditions, but they all started in 1986 when I crossed Greenland. I was 24 years old when I did my first expedition. There has been no other expedition where I have been so cold and so hungry as on that expedition across Greenland. But at the same time there has been no expedition where I've learned more. To be able to learn from your mistakes is valuable.

In 1990, Erling Kagge and myself became the first persons to reach the North Pole unsupported. That started what we have seen for the past 10 to 12 years--light, fast unsupported expeditions to the North and South Poles.

In 1993 I skied across the Franz-Josef Land in Siberia and in 1994 I did my first solo expedition. It was to the North Pole-skiing from Russia all the way to the North Pole and being picked up at the North Pole. For me personally that's probably my most important expedition. I had to break a lot of mental barriers trying things that had never been done before.

In 1995 I had my first go at the South Pole. My task was to cross the Antarctic continent from one coast to the other but it didn't go very well. I had some injuries and had to abandon the expedition after the South Pole. But I didn't stop. Next year I went at it again and crossed Antarctica from Berkner Island to the McMurdo on the

Ross Sea and managed to do that in 64 days. I'm still the only person who has managed to do that.

After Antarctica I had been one time alone to the South pole, one time alone to the North Pole and one time alone across Antarctica. Of course there was only one pole left to cross and that was the Arctic. But the Arctic is quite special. It's just a thin layer of ice moving with currents and is pressed together, so you have a lot of pressure ridges and pack ice. It is very, very hard to cross. When the pressure on the ice is released, you have open water, which of course is impossible to cross. We have to go a long way around it. Another difficult task at the North Pole is taking all these photos when you are by yourself, especially when you go through the ice.

The North Pole is therefore different and I wasn't really sure if I could make it all the way across the Arctic. On my trip to the North Pole in 1994 I lost 22 kilos. I was 62 kilos when I came back and then I had only gone half-way across. So I wasn't really sure if it was possible to do the whole trek all the way across.

So I went to the mountains, to Bolivia, where I climbed a few high peaks and also to Tibet where I climbed the sixth-highest mountain, 8,200 metres, but still deep down I felt I was an Arctic and Antarctic explorer. I think it's important to take a long time to make big decisions. When I started to question myself whether I should dare to do it, I tried to look at myself 10 years ahead to see if I would regret it if I didn't do it. And the answer was: "Yes I would regret it." Even more important I felt it was better to have tried it and failed than never to have tried it at all, because at least I would know if it was possible or not. If I didn't try it I would always blame myself for not trying. As the chairman said, it is very important to do your best.

Here is a map of the Arctic Ocean. I decided to start from the right side of the map on the Severnaya Zemlya Islands in Siberia and go through the North Pole all the way to Canada. After I had made my decision, it was time to start training. The preparation involved pulling rubber tyres, which I did when it was dark so nobody could see me because I looked like an idiot and felt like an idiot. It's important training because this is what builds up the right kind of muscles. Training and preparation are necessary for going into a dangerous situation and doing it in a safe way. Training is a very important part of my preparation.

After one year of training and planning it was time to go. We flew from Oslo to Moscow on February 19 last year and from Moscow to a place in Siberia called Khatanga. Outside Khatanga there are still people living as they did in the Stone Age. It's very interesting that these kinds of people still live on this earth. But we were going farther north to a place called Sredny, which is one of the northern-most stations in the world.

There I did the final preparations before I went by helicopter the last few miles to my starting point. I packed my sled at the back of the helicopter and started on my most difficult expedition ever. One of the big challenges is just to get on to the Arctic Ocean because the pack ice moves around and it is just like jumping onto a carousel at full speed. And the ocean is actually pulsating. It is opening, it's closing and it is very important to get across this transition phase before it gets dark. But my sled was 170 kilos, which is something like 450 pounds, and I didn't manage to cross this area. I had to camp on thin ice and it was quite calm when I camped, but during the night the ice started to grind. It was grinding all around me the whole night. I had all my clothes on ready to rush out and save my most important belongings and my life. When the morning came the landscape was totally different. All this ice had crashed up against my campsite and the only reason my campsite wasn't hurt was because I put my tent on thicker ice than the surrounding ice.

I survived the first night but I had a very, very hard start because when the second night came I saw that the sled was falling apart. Something had gone totally wrong with the the molding process. That was the biggest shock I had ever encountered and it had never happened to me before. But I was determined to reach my goal so I spent the third day in my tent repairing the sled, drilling over 200 holes in it, and fixing it with parts from my fuel bottles. When I was finished I was quite satisfied with myself but when I see these photos now I know that it would never have lasted all the way. But I was very focused and I didn't want to give up so I kept going with this sled.

Here is the track of a polar bear. Outside Siberia I saw four or five tracks of polar bears every day. There were lots of polar bears and I started to wonder if one was going to show up and of course it did. Here is a mother with two cubs that came sneaking up behind me. I saw them at a distance and I have a gun so I could scare them away. During the day I was not afraid of polar bears but during the night it was different when you are in a tiny little tent and listening for those padded steps outside. You don't really sleep that well when you are out there by yourself. That is why I rigged a trip wire around my camp to scare the bears away. I slept much better. I really needed my sleep out there to be able to perform the day after.

In the end the sled fell apart on me. It was not holding together and my team back in Norway had produced a new sled. L was faced with a very big decision. Should I get a new sled in and continue or should I give up? I must admit that I was much closer to giving up at that stage because getting a new sled in would mean that I would be getting support so I had to find a new meaning for the whole expedition. I was very close to giving up but told myself to think about it for one week. After one week I could give up, but not before.

I knew that when you are really down you don't have a good overview of the situation and you have a tendency to make mistakes. I said to myself to give it time and I would see things in a different way. Things might change. So I decided to get a new sled in and continue and see what happened after one week. If I hadn't done that, I would've been in that helicopter on my way home.

But it was a hard week for me. I really had problems finding a new meaning for the whole expedition after receiving support. I wanted to complete the expedition without support like I had done in Antarctica. How I dealt with my surroundings was very important. The easiest thing was to say it was hard, it was cold, it was a horrible place, but you could also try to make the experience positive. It was beautiful out there and I was privileged to be able to be skiing there. I actually turned the ice from being an enemy into a friend and I had a competition with myself to find at least one piece of art in the snow every day. And I did. There are so many different shapes and colours in the snow. By doing that I managed to get on top again and managed to get back my self-confidence. I managed to lift my head and think about the goal on the other side of the Arctic. I needed that week to be able to do that. I needed to get distance from the problem to make clear sensible decisions.

One of the biggest problems in the Arctic Ocean is the water. I knew that if I was going to accomplish this expedition I had to really go back to nature. I had to more or less think like an animal and act like an animal. Before I went I looked into what animals did to survive out there. How did they do it? What do polar bears do when they come to open water? Well they swim across it and so I thought that I could do the same.

I developed a suit, which was just a thin layer of water-proof material that I could pull over all my clothing and I jumped into the water. I swam across a lead pulling my sled behind me. I must admit that I was a little bit nervous the first time I tried it, but after doing it a few times I knew that I had a very, very important piece of equipment and would always be able to move forward. Nothing was going to stop me. I started swimming across open water and really got my motivation back on top again.

The suit actually made the trip safer because previously I had jumped across very big leads and skied on ice too thin. I had taken too many chances. Now I could travel in a safe way. Even if the suit looks very fragile out there in the water it actually made the expedition safer. You don't have too many friends out there so the friends you get you take good care of. I baptized my suit Captain Nemo.

I talk a lot about the water but 90 per cent of the problem is pressure ridges and pack ice. That's where motivation comes in and why it so difficult to ski across the Arctic or ski to the North Pole. That's why it is so important to take a long time making the decision to do it. You know why you are there. You can have a hard day or a hard time, but still you know where you are going and why you are there. It's a gradual process. Willpower is acquired gradually. If someone had said to me when I skied across Greenland in 1986 that I would ski across the North Pole alone in 14 years I wouldn't have believed him. It was too big a step between my experience at that time and this kind of challenge. But gradually, step by step, I got more willpower, so I think willpower is something you can grow.

Closer to the North Pole strange things started to happen. I ran into drifting logs, that were just sticking up on the ice like toothpicks. A few days after that I met another expedition and that was even stranger--meeting people after being alone for such a long time. On that expedition there were two beautiful girls so for me it was a challenge to leave but I didn't stay there for more than a couple of hours. I think that was good because I had been alone for such a long time and when you suddenly meet people strange things happen to you. You get off balance if you know what I mean. So I was glad I didn't stay there too long.

But the strangest thing of all happened when I reached the North Pole. I arrived at the North Pole on the 23rd of April. I was quite satisfied with myself. I decided to have a rest day and I was in the tent when I heard a helicopter outside. The helicopter landed. I went out to meet it and out of the helicopter came a real Arabic sheik. So the North Pole is not like it was when Amundsen and Peary were there. It was a big circus. I had to share it with many people. When I was at the North Pole, there were about 25 people there at the same time. There was nowhere for me to hide. I had to be social. I had to meet people even if I preferred to be alone. I wanted to be alone with my North Pole but I couldn't. It was nice to meet people but it was so nice when everyone left and I was suddenly alone again.

You could choose the positive side of this experience or the negative side. I chose the positive side, which was that I was more than half-way and if I had made the first half there was nothing stopping me from making the, second half.

Now I could turn south for the first time and change course for Canada. After the North Pole the ice actually got much better. The terrain was much better after the North Pole than before the North Pole. This was also the place where I could use my sail. To sail on the Arctic Ocean is not easy and everybody thought it was impossible, even myself. To sail at full speed through the pack ice will result in damages, a broken leg or damaged equipment, so I decided not to use maximum speed. I decided to have as little speed as possible so I developed a sail that I could make bigger or smaller when the wind came with different strengths. It actually worked very, very well and was a breakthrough. I gained more kilometres and also saved a lot of energy this way.

Using all the elements to always be able to move on was my philosophy with this expedition--to work with nature not against it. Other explorers who went to the

North Pole said they were going to ski to the North Pole. I wanted to use all the available elements to reach my goal. Skiing was number one, but swimming across the water and using the winds also helped me move forward.

Sometimes I went through the ice without the suit. I still have nightmares about those experiences. You can be fooled by the ice. I went through three times. Luckily I managed to get up again partly because of my training and partly because my equipment was specially made. I could use my ski tips as spikes to pull myself up. I also had a floating device at the back of my pulling belt so that I would be a little bit higher in the water, which helped me to get out of it.

In May the temperature rose and that is really not good because you need the cold. The cold is the glue that binds the ice together and when it got milder by just a few degrees Celsius the ice started to break up. I got a very powerful storm from the south and four big leads, channels of open water, between Canada and me. Everyone thought I was going to give up when that happened. But I had been out there for so long I was now part of nature and I had developed a kind of skill to read nature and penetrate this white desolate place and to be able to read in the sky where the leads were. This black water was reflected in the sky so by looking at the sky I could find my way across the leads.and closer and closer to Canada.

Skiing like this is hard work and hard on the body and injuries I received early on in the expedition just didn't heal. They got worse and worse and my physical condition deteriorated. I skied 12 to 14 hours a day the last part of the expedition to be able to reach Canada before the ice broke up. My body was wearing down and down and nothing was healing. My wounds were getting worse and worse. But mentally I was functioning well and an expedition like this--solo across the Arctic--is 70 per cent mental. The body can be very weak and tired but you can still work if you have the mental capacity And mentally I was in a good mood. For me the most important part of the whole expedition was the mental part. After being out there for one or two months I got into the depths of myself and had a much better dialogue with myself and nature, when I was alone and didn't have anyone to relate to. For me personally that's the biggest and most important experience and I became the Stone Age man, if you want to call it that, where time more or less ceases to exist. You are just there. You are a part of the universe. You are part of nature. It feels like you've never done anything else in your whole life and for me that was the biggest experience. You don't need answers to the big questions. You are just there, a part of it, working on instincts.

But I did belong somewhere. I didn't belong to the ice and of course I wanted to finish. I wanted to go home and to have my family with me. To have my friends and other people thinking about me and wanting me to succeed was really an important part of my motivation so even if I was alone I never actually felt lonely out there.

Very close to Canada the ice got very bad because the current was pushed up against the land and the ice was thick, three or four metres, crushed over big areas. When the sky cleared I could see land in Canada and that was one of the greatest moments of this trip.

After leaving Siberia 82 days ago, I finally saw land in Canada. That was just a great, great moment and I must admit that there were some tears coming out of my eyes at that moment. When I skied the last day, day 82, towards my goal and knew that this was the day when I was going to finish the expedition I was thinking that what I said to myself outside Siberia was really true. If you could just put one ski-stick in front of the next enough times you would make it. And that was true. I couldn't really understand it but it was really true and it was the last day.

Those kilometres outside Siberia when I wanted to give up and managed to get on top again were the most important kilometres I have ever skied and they sum up what this expedition is really about. There's always a possibility to find a solution to a problem. There is always a way out even if you need to find a new track to reach your goal, as long as you keep on going and don't give up. Thank you very much.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by The Reverend Dr. John Niles, Rector, Victoria Park United Church and Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

Richard J. Hanchar, President, Too Fast Consulting and Professional Race Car Owner, Ann Curran, Director, Corporate Development International and President, The Empire Club of Canada and Vic Bernardim, President, Ashton Martin Jaguar Land Rover Canada.

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Crossing the Arctic Ocean on Skis

Personal reminiscences accompanied by a slide show of the speaker's trips.