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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 >>]
"I'm afraid there's a bit of tradition for first-time visitors to this shed," Horn says, all mock apology as he pulls a bottle of Grand Gruyère liqueur from a cubby just inside one of his three gear caches in Château-d'Oex. He unscrews the cap on the bottle, fills it, and says, "First, we must offer one to Mother Nature because she has treated me so well," and he flings the hooch on the mud and grass outside. "Now we must have three," and sets to pouring the liqueur, which tastes of herbs and flame.

In the shed are what look like thousands of different closed cell and Therm-a-Rest–type sleeping pads. "It took a long time for me to find the right one," Horn says, laughing at the ridiculous quantity he has on hand. "Want one?" Also in the shed are various trophies and banners and logo'd merchandise from his Arctic circumnavigation.

Did he ever wish he'd had company on that tour? Only once, he replies, did he waver in his determination to finish the entire journey solo. "In Tobseda I met a man who had been left by the Russian government when it abandoned the town and its gulag prisons something like 15 years before," Horn says. "His name was Vasya, and he could remember the day the last helicopter had left, and there wasn't room for him. They waved that they'd be back, but they never were. Somehow he had survived alone with his dog ever since."

Horn himself was marooned in Tobseda because a storm had wrecked his catamaran. While he made repairs, he and Vasya became fast friends. Then Vasya suffered a heart attack. Horn resuscitated him and remained in
Tobseda for a total of three weeks, until Vasya was well enough to look after himself. When it came time for Horn to leave, he invited Vasya to join him. Vasya said he couldn't, but then, as Horn boarded his boat and pulled up his anchor, he waded out into the freezing bay. "I can still see him in the water," Horn says, "and I'm asking him is he sure? Does he want to go? And he tells me, 'No, Mike, you stay!'"

One key item in Horn's kit that is not in the shed this afternoon is his Argos beacon. The beacon has 16 settings, each corresponding to a distinct radio frequency. He and Cathy have worked out a code for each frequency. Zero means something on the order of "All OK," while each higher number specifies something else a little less peachy. Six, for example, signals "Lost; standby."
Ten, "Problem; criminal." Number 16 is the end: "Expedition aborted; beyond rescue. I love you; love to our daughters. Good-bye."

He has dialed 16 only once, in the Amazon jungle in 1999, but he didn't turn the beacon on, giving himself a few more hours to recover from the bite of a venomous snake he never even saw. After finding the wound on his finger, and bleeding it as best he could, he went blind. For two days he lay in his hammock, prone, sightless, the feeling gone from his face. By the third day, he'd set the beacon, because, he thought, There is no light at the end of this tunnel; this is it. On day four he felt even more ill, but he also had some sensation. By the fifth day, he had regained his vision and could walk, though tentatively.

Given the trouble Horn gets into, has Cathy ever wanted to tell him not to go? "Asking him not to do this would be asking him not to be who he is," she says. "It'd be futile, anyway." With a smile that betrays that, sure, she's run out of patience at times. She adds, "It hasn't always been easy. But when is it ever? You know, we have a really good life."

"I have the best wife," Horn announces. "Without her, none of it would be possible."

Horn and Cathy met in 1990, shortly after he arrived in Château-d'Oex. Cathy had come to spend the winter with her French beau, a skier who dreamed of one day living in New Zealand; Cathy's from Dunedin, on the country's South Island. Horn was so broke when he first hit town, he swept the floors at the youth hostel in exchange for room and board. He hadn't yet learned to ski, but he still managed to steal Cathy's heart. 

Horn's the second eldest of four kids. His father, who had been a world-class athlete, died suddenly of stomach cancer at 43, when Horn was 18. His father's parting advice, Horn recounts, was "While you're alive, live. Don't live half a life."

Horn says his family gave him all he's ever needed. "They gave me roots and they gave me wings," he says. People think of explorers as misfits and outcasts, he explains, but he's found that the successful ones come from close-knit families that provide the platform from which their sons and daughters may confidently stray. 

Ten A.M. and already it's been a busy morning for Børge Ousland, Ltd. While Horn's off finding sponsorship—the two are hoping to raise 350,000 euros (about $415,000) for the expedition—Ousland's been focused on what he knows best: gear. This morning, he has taken delivery of some custom boots, built from a 1911 design by Amundsen. FedEx also brought a new set of ski poles he wants to try out. And he met with the fabricator who's building the Kevlar sleds he and Horn will pull for those 620 miles (998 kilometers). Naturally, Ousland has novel tech for this trip. Instead of one, each man will pull two smaller sleds that will toggle together and, he hopes, snake through uneven snow and blocks of ice.

Working with Ousland on the sleds is Kjell Ove Storvik, 53, who lives in Spain and the United Kingdom. Storvik is Ousland's coach over the radio or satellite phone when he's on the ice. How, I asked Storvik, had Ousland rebounded from his one major defeat—his first failed attempt to cross Antarctica, in 1995? Frostbite and bleeding blisters forced him to call for an evacuation a bit beyond the South Pole, his halfway point. "He was almost shocked by what happened to him in '95," Storvik says. "I met him a few months later. He had simply gone home and started to train really hard."

Ousland perseveres when most mortals would quit, Storvik says, "because he hates to lose, he hates to disappoint both himself and others, and [he knows] that 'tomorrow I will move on a bit more.' It is not like a big battle in a war; it is like many small battles. You fight and you win a little bit every day. I think that in today's world this way of thinking is no longer obvious. We do not want to fight. Børge is a warrior. He likes the fight."

"I think the way he is meticulous with everything came from his father, and he got his impatience from me," says his warm, self-effacing mother, Ingrid. "A few years ago, I went through a lot of the kids' stuff, and I noticed that Børge's crafts from school were always among the best made."

Born in Oslo on May 31, 1962, Ousland grew up outside the city, on the opposite side of the fjord from Nordstrand. His father was a graphic designer, his mother a painter. The Ouslands were active in the outdoors, skiing in winter, hiking and sailing in summer, but nothing out of the ordinary for a middle-class Norwegian family. Ousland knew about Nansen and Amundsen, of course, but it isn't as if he read Nansen's classic Farthest North as a kid and got religion. "There really was no indication he'd do this," his mom says. "Growing up, he was not as tough as he seems now."

While Ousland read widely, he never attended college. Instead he found work as a  professional scuba diver. After fulfilling his mandatory military service in 1991, he resumed work on a deep-sea oil platform as an underwater pipeline repairman. He frequently went below in a diving bell. "It's one of the most dangerous jobs there is," Ousland notes. "What I do now is really much, much safer than my old job."

Showing me around his workshop, he picks up the page proofs of Skrubbsulten, his first nonexpedition book, off his desk. The title translates to "very hungry," or "ravenous," which is a pun, given that the book is a cookbook with recipes by his wife. In the book, Ousland calls for a return to hunting and gathering—foraging for mushrooms, skin diving for abalone—as a way to take pressure off industrial agriculture.

Next he demonstrates the use of a compound bow, better than a coffee break for clearing his mind. (There's a makeshift archery target at the far end of the studio.) Then he holds out the skis he used to cross Antarctica. They are covered with pirates, suns and moons, trees and little houses of the sort a child draws. When Ousland began his successful second attempt to cross Antarctica, in 1996, his son, Max, was eight. Max's artwork, Ousland says, kept him focused on the need to make it back when the going got desperate or when he was so exhausted he wanted to take a little nap in the snow, a potentially fatal temptation.

Eventually Ousland wanders off to contemplate a list three typewritten pages long that is posted on a bulletin board behind his desk. It's the winter trek packing list. The crux of the journey, he says, will likely come in the first two weeks as they struggle to get free of Cape Arkticheskiy. "It's horrible there," says Gordon Wiltsie. A leading expedition photographer for National Geographic, Wiltsie chronicled Will Steger's dogsled trek to the North Pole in 1986. "All the ice comes swirling around on the current," Wiltsie says. "It's like the irresistible force [of the ice] meets the immovable object of [the mountains of] Severnaya Zemlya, and the ice literally explodes." Cape Arkticheskiy is a "hateful, haunting place," Ousland agrees. "If we make it for two weeks, then I think our chances are very good to make it the rest of the way."

On the other hand, if the desire were no longer there—and there's nothing better for squashing idle desire than a relentless subzero wind in your face—both men are resourceful enough to find other income. Something else calls them on, and during our conversations, a few themes come up repeatedly. To wit, seeing something familiar in a different light (or lack thereof); witnessing Mother Nature at her most merciless, but also her most sublime; and what I nicknamed in my notebooks "naked," short for peeling back the layers of civilization to confront their true, naked selves. More so than most, these two cannot abide society for long without an extended stay in the wilderness, where they feel lucid and restored to themselves.
 
"I love nature when it is at the peak of its violence and its splendor," writes Horn, explaining himself as best he can in Conquérant de l'Impossible, "because when . . . it forces me to undergo the worst pains imaginable, it nonetheless allows me to be a part of it, and that is a real privilege." Compared to war zones, Horn says, the Arctic is a piece of cake because there's no deceit. It can be very hard, but you always know what you're up against. "If a polar bear wants you for dinner, he'll come for you," he says. "The sneakiest he'd do would be to stalk you. Only men tell you they will do one thing and then stab you in the back."
 
Much of what Ousland does, he reflects in his book Alone Across the Arctic, "matches up with sports psychology: training, psyching up, winning, and losing. But there are considerable differences: the very special surroundings, the enormous distances, and the loneliness and lengthiness of the attempt." And, he might have added, the custom equipment makes it different, too. One senses that Ousland's ingenuity may also push him back into the field, so he can test his latest designs.
 
Some will no doubt say of their winter expedition that it is so uncalled for it's hardly worthy of comparison to the journeys of discovery by Nansen, Amundsen, or Robert Peary. Or that, as Horn and Ousland are well aware of the risks, their potential loss would not qualify as tragedy, so much as hubris or even stupidity.
 
And yet, as their departure nears, I picture them under way, two pinpoint lights in the dark void. Beneath their headlamps, they can't see where the ice thins or a cornice of snow hides a fissure that's as deep as they are tall. But they're hearing the ice only too well, their minds racing to place the low groaning, the apocalyptic grinding, in relation to themselves. And, as I imagine them, I find I'm anxious that they make it back alive. That they can confront one of man's primal fears, the dark, head on, I think, signifies exactly what a feat of daring ought to. We needn't be afraid of the dark, after all.

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Pick up the February 2006 issue for 36 amazing Hawaiian adventures, the most spectacular treks in Australia, 11 weekend escapes near you, and more.







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