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Dark Alliance: Two Explorers Trek to the North Pole in Complete Darkness Text by Brad Wieners

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ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: 
Listen to an audio interview with Børge Ousland on National Geographic's World Talk. 
Download the interview >>

[To play MP3 files, you'll need a free media-player software, such as Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, or iTunes. For help with audio files, click here >>]
The suburban district of Oslo, Norway, where Ousland lived until very recently, Nordstrand, or "north beach," is less a beach than a terraced bluff. From his driveway, you can see the midnight blue waters of the fjords that his predecessors, the famed Norwegian polar explorers Fridjtof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, sailed as they left on their voyages of discovery a century ago. The shores are all lined with tall trees, and the air is so fresh it takes some getting used to. It's a bit like Seattle, only more beautiful.

Given what he's endured, many expect Ousland to be a Viking colossus. While tall (he's six foot three or two meters), he's slender, light on his feet, and far from imposing. He has kind eyes, a quick smile, and strawberry-blond hair that is thinning at the crown. On expeditions, photos reveal, his beard grows in thick and fiery red. Around town, he's clean-shaven, and there's little hint of a skull-splitting berserker about him. Nor is he the emotionally stunted, stoic Scandinavian male that I've heard described as "dry ice on the outside and raw meat on the inside." He's almost American in his informality, if a bit preoccupied. He's also content to let his achievements speak for themselves.

Unlike mountaineering, there are few official associations that chronicle polar exploits, but among the loose affiliation of polar geeks there are certain contemporary expeditions that all agree set the standard. The Arctic short list includes Weber and Malakhov's North Pole-and-back jaunt in 1995; the crossing of the Arctic Ocean from Siberia to Canada in 2000 by Ousland's countrymen Rune Gjeldnes and Torry Larsen; and Ousland's solo unsupported trek to the North Pole in 1994. The latter was to polar travel what Reinhold Messner's 1980 solo climb of Everest was to alpinism: an awesome feat, sure, but also a revelation—adventure as a bravura performance.

In 2001, following the route Gjeldnes and Larsen forged the year before, Ousland pulled off the first solo crossing of the Arctic Ocean, an 82-day trip he described as "a triathlon from hell: a 1,240-mile (1,996-kilometer) ski, walk, and swim from Russia to Canada."

And he meant swim, too. In the Arctic, Ousland pioneered the use of a full-body, waterproof suit for open-water cracks in the ice where there's no ice bridge to make a safe crossing. "Everyone tries to make their equipment lighter and better, but no one has been better at this than Børge," says Tom Sjorgen, the Swedish co-founder of Explorersweb.com, an expedition tracking Web site based in New York City. In Antarctica, Sjorgen notes, Ousland popularized the use of a sail to propel oneself on skis. He jury-rigged his first from a parachute back in 1995, well before commercial ski-kiting rigs took off. (It will be too dark to use the kites on the winter trek.)

"I have been to Cape Arkticheskiy, and I can vouch for what Børge has ventured and accomplished," Messner writes in an e-mail. "He has not merely tackled the impossible, he has broken with accepted wisdom and done that which was supposed to be unattainable. What has this Norwegian not achieved on the ice!"
"Børge is a real adventurer," attests Sir Edmund Hillary. Ousland met the first man to summit Everest by chance at the New Zealand research base in Antarctica in 1997. The two got on well, and Hillary later wrote a preface for one of Ousland's books. "He isn't doing it for the money or even for glory," Hillary writes. "He is not trying to defeat nature, but only himself."

I asked Ousland if he knew what Hillary meant. "Not exactly," he says. "I am not trying to overcome myself. I'm more trying to overcome my fears. I want to broaden my experience as much as possible." For the man who thinks of everything, what is he most uncertain of this time out? "What the dark will do to our minds." 

Ousland and Horn first met more than ten years ago at a party in Genoa, Italy, when they shared the same sponsor. Since then, both have managed to remain full-time professional explorers, which is to say that they earn their livings as book authors and photographers, but most of all as motivational speakers for business audiences. They each command fees exceeding 6,000 euros (about $7,000) per appearance and, once or twice a year, serve as highly specialized adventure guides.

Aside from going it alone on incredibly long expeditions and making their livings off of them, Ousland and Horn have a great deal else in common. For starters, they're both middle children from nonmilitary households who went on to serve in military special forces—Ousland in the Norwegian equivalent of the U.S. Navy SEALs and Horn as a commando in South Africa. Horn saw combat in Angola, where he was sent to fight Cuban-backed guerrillas in the late 1980s. Ousland and Horn are also both on the cusp of middle age, and both sense that time is running out for expeditions on the level of the ones they've completed thus far. They are devoted family men who've been accused of being selfish, even reckless fathers. And they're both refreshingly candid about their motives.

"Anyone who does what I do and says it's for science or for the blind or deaf, they're full of it," says Horn. "It's just an excuse. Really, you can't keep yourself alive out there for charity. You do it for yourself. You come back for family. But you go out for yourself."

Ousland similarly avoids attaching his name to research goals or, say, the debate about the impact of global warming on sea ice. "I have never made claims for science," he says tersely. Pressed for more of a purpose, he adds that he can already imagine some of the moments he'll be grateful for this winter, such as the aurora borealis above a limitless plane or the first twilight of spring. But, he says, it comes down to this: "I want to see if it's possible. And I want to be the first to do it. That's good enough."

And yet, for all they share, the two are, as Ousland readily admits, "very, very different" in their expedition styles and as men.

As noted, Ousland is a planner. His genius is for anticipating all that he might encounter and having a solution for it. He painstakingly prepares, down to every gram he will carry, every calorie he will need to consume. He has the reserved, observant cool of a maverick architect, someone who, beneath the visionary hype, is always in exquisite control.

Horn, on the other hand, gives the impression of a barely contained ruffian, a rogue who cleans up nice for company. Where Ousland's imperturbable, Horn's obstinate, even a bit pigheaded. And while it's not fair to say Horn doesn't plan carefully—he must—he's by nature an opportunist. As someone who's lived off the jungle for months, he's forever hunting his next meal, even when he's not.

Their differences extend to their appearances, too. Whereas Ousland has the lithe physique of a swimmer, Horn is thick-bodied, more in the mold of a rugby player.

Along with carefully measuring them out, Ousland sticks to his rations, even if he gets ahead of pace. He's a disciplined "less is more" guy, and consequently rarely in need and able to stretch his reserves. Horn? He's a "more is more" guy. If he covers more ground, he rewards himself with a few more slugs of olive oil or bites of butter or chocolates (essential sources of fats for cold-weather travel). If he's running low on fuel, he pushes himself that much harder to reach safety. Thirteen weeks ahead of departure, they'd already agreed to pack their own food.

"I was a prospective third for this trip," says Thomas Ulrich, 38, Ousland's partner in Patagonia in 2003. "But we determined that three is not a good number, because it too easily can become two-to-one on decisions." Of course, two-to-one voting can break up a one-on-one stalemate. "Well, also, Horn didn't want me," Ulrich says.

Ulrich, who lives in Interlaken, Switzerland, has decided instead to attempt a solo trans-Arctic trek starting in February 2006. "Horn and I have different approaches," he explains. "I am more like Børge; I want to follow a plan. Horn likes to go right for the edge and to sort out the problems as he has them." If he and Horn weren't a good match, what about Ousland and Horn? "Someone will have to be the boss," Ulrich says. 

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