Norwegian explorer dares to do what others dream
Borge Ousland is the first man to trek across Antarctica alone
By TOM DIEDERICH
Blast Tokyo Bureau
Just weeks after becoming the first person to cross Antarctica on foot, alone and unaided, Norwegian explorer Borge Ousland is on another exhausting journey -- an international public relations tour.
"This (trip) is obviously more mental," a weary-looking Ousland said recently in one of several back-to-back interviews with the Japanese media. "Maybe life is simpler in Antarctica -- sometimes I long to go back."
Ousland, 34, made history Jan. 17 when he arrived at New Zealand's Scott Base on Antarctica's Pacific coast, 64 days -- and 2,850 kilometers -- after leaving Berkner Island in the Weddell Sea.
His message for aspiring Japanese explorers: "Dare to do things. We are living in a very regulated society, and many people don't learn to go out and burn bridges because they get more and more secure. I think it's important, as a counterweight to this security, to dare to do things and live out your dreams."
A professional deep-sea diver, writer and photographer by trade, Ousland was the first person to reach both of Earth's poles alone and without dogs, motorized transportation or air-dropped supplies. He made the trek to the North Pole in 1994. The following year he reached the South Pole, but frostbite and an infection forced him to abort his solo attempt across the world's coldest continent.
"I learned a lot from that trip and went into this last one with a different attitude, a more humble attitude, and took much better care of myself this time," he said. "One of the most important things about my victory was that I dared to do it again. I dared to take the chance of failing a second time. And I won."
Following some of the route taken in 1911 by fellow countryman Roald Amundsen -- the first person to reach the South Pole -- Ousland wore skis and harnessed the winds with a parachute-like sail that enabled him to cover as many as 220 kilometers in a single day while dragging a 180-kilogram sled.
A cracked sole on one of his ski boots threatened to cut his expedition short, but he managed to mend it with parachute cord. "I was very worried," he admitted. "When something like that happens, your whole world is falling apart."
As he made his way across the continent amid temperatures as cold as minus 55 C, Ousland said he had to keep his mind focused at all times to avoid danger. Shifting ice. Vast crevasses. Frequent whiteouts. Even the occasional polar bear.
During a whiteout, the horizon is invisible and only dark objects can be seen. A wrong step in such conditions can mean death because "you can stumble into a crevasse or ski across a bad snow bridge and it will collapse." He was sometimes forced to pitch his tent and wait for better weather.
"I spent Christmas on the ice; somewhere out there in a very lonely place. It was very bad weather, a storm, and the gales where shaking the tent," Ousland said. "It was little bit strange. But it was good to be there. To have it simple, no fuss -- all the stress you normally have in connection with Christmas -- all the shopping."
Ousland's diet consisted of freeze-dried meats, porridge and other basic foods. He treated himself to a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner of smoked and salted lamb, which he had freeze-dried for the trip, and a small almond cake baked by his common-law wife, Wenche.
He even had presents to open on Christmas morning -- chocolate, cards from his mother and sisters, and drawings from his 8-year-old son, Max.
Like all good explorers, Ousland kept a journal. "I wrote in it every day," he said. "The journal was more or less like Father Confessor to me, and I tried to work out my feelings by writing them down. I think that gave me a better overview of the situation. If I was confused about something, or afraid, or whatever, I could write it down and maybe see the problem and find a way out of it."
He will use the journal to write a book later this year, tentatively titled, "Alone Across Antarctica." An Italian firm is also putting together a documentary from video footage Ousland shot during his trip.
Although space on the sled was limited, Ousland brought along some books and several music cassettes. Armed with a Sony Walkman and plenty of batteries, he spent many hours listening to Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
"I like to have rhythm and music that is not too slow -- you want something that will keep you going," he said.
Meeting Sir Edmund Hillary at Scott Base was one of the highlights of his adventure. "It was good to speak to someone who knew what it was all about, after just having come from the middle of nowhere. Since he had been on very difficult expeditions himself, he could understand."
Hillary, 78, was the first man to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, the world's highest mountain, in 1953. The New Zealander also led a British expedition across Antarctica in 1957.
"I think he has the same attitude as me," Ousland said. "It's not about conquering nature: it's about working with it. (Hillary) told me that he didn't conquer Everest -- Everest let him achieve his goal."
Ousland said he had no immediate plans for future polar expeditions. "I think I've probably closed the chapter when it comes to long, sledge-hauling journeys," he said. "I've figured out that I've done about 8,000 kilometers pulling sledges of more than 100 kilograms. But hopefully I will visit the areas again (as a tourist), because I love the nature; I love the feeling of being out there."