The untold story of the boldest polar expedition of modern times

Two of the greatest living polar explorers went to investigate the extent of the melting Arctic for themselves. It almost killed them.

Borge Ousland and Mike Horn leave their sailboat Pangea and begin their 87-day ski traverse of the Arctic ice cap.
Video by Etienne Claret

Somewhere near the North Pole, in a small tent staked to a plate of floating ice, Børge Ousland’s satellite phone buzzed. It was November 20, 2019, and Ousland, the leading polar explorer of his generation, and adventurer Mike Horn had set out two months earlier with an audacious goal: to ski across the top of the world. They’d been in total isolation ever since, making their way, stride by stride, along the increasingly fragile ice floes that form a floating cap over the Arctic Ocean.

It was one of the most daring polar journeys in history—and the men were in trouble.

The ice was fracturing around them, opening in gaping cracks. Slowed by the poor conditions, the sleds they pulled were nearly empty of food. Horn’s frostbitten hands, virtually useless in the cold, were dangerously infected.

Now their expedition manager, Lars Ebbesen, was on the phone from Norway with a lifeline. A passing Norwegian icebreaker happened to be in the sea north of Svalbard and would briefly be in position to serve as a refueling platform for a helicopter to reach them. For one day only, they could be rescued. Should he give the ok to start the rescue?

Ebbesen, who had worked with Ousland for years, had never heard him so exhausted and “into his resources.” Yet the legendary Arctic strongman, speaking in a weary monotone, did not hesitate or consult his ailing partner, “No, we will continue.”

Ousland powered off the phone, stowed it near his revolver, and the men lay in their tent atop the ice, once again profoundly alone. Strong winds shook and bowed the shelter’s red nylon walls, a speck of color amid a thousand miles of blackness. It was 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Ebbesen, himself a polar veteran, was deeply uneasy from the start about this expedition. He says, “This was free-soloing El Capitan.”

But Ousland has been pulling off things like this his entire life—feats never done before that people immediately label unthinkable—and has become an icon in Norway. Norwegians have long been the Earth’s premier polar adventurers, and in Ousland they see reflections of their most legendary explorers: Leif Ericsson, Fridtjof Nansen, and Roald Amundsen. Over his storied career, his expeditions have been chronicled in magazines, television, and film, and he’s celebrated as a national hero on his return. Which is why, with the men’s fate in doubt, Norwegians were on edge.

Newspapers splashed the men’s plight across front pages and TV news broadcast regular updates. Ousland’s son was having trouble sleeping and mused to reporters that at 57 his father was “not as young as he was before.” Ousland’s mother, who had never before felt the need to call Ebbesen and check on her son during expeditions, rang over and over. Horn, 53, has two daughters who grew up accustomed to their father’s dangerous pursuits, but now they were desperate for him to be rescued.

But all the two exhausted men could think about in that moment was that the ice fracturing beneath their tent was drifting in the wrong direction. They had food for 13 days. At their current pace, the ship they needed to reach at the ice cap’s edge was still a month’s journey away.

The expedition begins

On August 28 of last year, with little fanfare or media hype, Ousland, Horn, and their crew set sail from Nome, Alaska, in Horn’s 115-foot sailboat Pangaea and headed north into the Arctic Ocean. They saw whales and birds on their annual migrations south.

Horn admits, “It felt like we were going the wrong direction.”

Soon, the ocean began to freeze. There is no land in the high Arctic—the ice cap here floats atop an abyss of frigid seawater. Exploring the ice’s farthest reaches, teeming with polar bears and peril, has provided explorers one of the Earth’s ultimate challenges for over a century.

But now, with the Arctic warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, everything is changing. For the first time since records have been kept, temperatures reached 100 degrees this summer in the Siberian Arctic. Wildfires erupted on thawing permafrost. And the unyielding ice cap that has held the top of the planet in its frozen grip for 15 million years is melting.

Scientists use an array of satellites and sensors to feed computer models that provide a picture of this changing realm. Ousland and Horn had a more direct experience in mind—they were returning to the heart of the high Arctic to witness the changes at ground level.

They aimed to ski 1,000 miles across the entirety of the ice cap, each pulling sleds with 410 pounds of supplies, enough to keep them alive for 85 days. If they encountered trouble in this void—polar bears, falling through ice, frostbite, or any debilitating illness—they would be on their own.

In the East Siberian Sea, they steered Pangaea into an embayment in the ice cap that Ousland, who closely studies satellite images of the Arctic, had observed growing for years. Threading a maze of ice-walled passages through the freezing sea, they navigated to 85 degrees and 34 minutes north, the farthest north a non-icebreaking vessel had ever reached. Here, Ousland and Horn stepped onto the ice’s surface and their adventure began.

Their spirits were high as they skied away from Pangaea, even as they strained to pull sleds more than twice their body weight. The boat and crew would now thread through the Northeast Passage and aim to meet the men in two and a half months on the far side of the ice cap, in the waters north of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

The explorer’s gene

Inspired by the accounts of polar explorers his father read to him as a child, Ousland has had a lifelong love affair with the Arctic and, in his words, “creating new history.” In 1990, at 28, he embarked on his first historic challenge, skiing unsupported to the North Pole. Until then, the idea of skiing to the center of the vast frozen wilderness at the top of the planet, relying solely on the gear and supplies one could carry, was considered impossible. As many as 700 people had already died trying to reach the North Pole—more than twice as many who’ve died attempting to climb Mount Everest. But Ousland and another Norwegian, Erling Kagge achieved the feat in 58 days. Four years later, Ousland dramatically ramped up the danger and risk by repeating the trip alone, which garnered him international acclaim. Three years after that, he became the first person to ski across Antarctica alone.

None other than Reinhold Messner, the famous Italian alpinist who made the first solo ascent of Mount Everest, promptly labeled Ousland, “The supreme polar traveler of our time.”

But Ousland wasn’t done. Other Arctic coups followed, including an expedition in 2010 when he led a crew in a small trimaran sailboat on a circumnavigation of the Arctic Ocean through both the Northeast and Northwest passages, the first crew to do so in a single summer season. Two years later, he even married his wife at the North Pole.

Horn, from South Africa, is a kindred soul also seemingly born for an earlier age of exploration. At 31, he river-boarded 4,000 miles down the Amazon (which involves lying prone atop something that resembles a boogie board and alternately paddling and riding the currents). Along the way he hunted snakes and caiman for food. Then he circumnavigated the planet at the equator without motorized assistance, crossing jungle and sea and narrowly escaping Congolese firing squads. He speaks seven languages and is the rare person who can, and frequently does, spout motivational slogans without sounding ridiculous. His favorite: “If you live to 82, you have 30,000 days, so you owe it to yourself to live each one to its fullest.”

In 2017, after Horn completed a daring, 3,100-mile solo kite-ski crossing of Antarctica, Ousland called with congratulations. Horn promptly invited him on his next adventure: a traverse of the Arctic ice cap on skis.

After they hung up, Ousland considered the prospect. It would be perilous, he was sure of that, even more so with rising temperatures weakening the ice sheet. And there was the matter of age, with both men now on the far side of 50. Ousland’s biggest history-making trips had been decades earlier. Yet all his life, he’d dreamed of “a classic north pole expedition where we sail in with boats,” like the stories his father read him.

Minutes later, Ousland texted Horn a two-word reply: “I’m in.”

After nearly two years of preparation and three decades wringing some of the final great geographical feats from this planet, the veteran explorers were now headed out for a final Old-World expedition. Somewhere, 1,000 miles away on the far side of a frozen jigsaw of shifting ice, they hoped to see Pangaea again.

Thinner than ever

To give themselves the best chance of success, they’d timed the trip at summer’s end when the ice sheet shrinks to its smallest extent, but from the outset the men were stunned by the fragility of the ice beneath them. Spreading their skis wide to disperse their weight on ice that bowed beneath them, they moved as quickly as their elephantine sleds allowed.

In extreme cold-weather environments, adventurers cite the maxim: Get wet, you die. They’re referring to sweat, which can freeze to skin, or perhaps to a spill from a water bottle, which can cause flesh-killing frostbite. The Arctic elevates this danger to an almost absurd level: The mortal threat of submersion looms constantly underfoot.

“When we did our first trips, the ice was three or four meters thick,” Ousland says. “But now we were skiing just a little crust basically, with 4,000 meters of sea underneath our feet.”

In places, the ice offered a gin-clear view into the void. Ousland says, “Sometimes we couldn’t even stop, or we would have gone through.”

Across the sea

Not long after leaving the sailboat, Pangaea, the men came to a channel of hissing green-black water, 100-feet wide. They would have to cross it.

Thirty years ago, these fissures, called “leads,” were small and sporadic enough simply to ski around them. But as temperatures rise, leads have grown larger and more common. Over the years, Ousland has devised new ways to adapt, including by donning a waterproof body suit of his own creation, climbing in the icy water, and swimming across—or as he describes it, “thinking like a polar bear.”

With the ice sheet now even more riven with leads (some a quarter mile across and 40 miles long), Ousland needed a new strategy. He found it in small, one-person, inflatable boats called packrafts. Primarily used by summer backpackers in temperate regions, they had never been tried in the Arctic, so Ousland cold-tested them in the freezer of an ice-cream producer in Oslo.

Climbing from the ice’s often unstable edge into the unsteady packrafts and paddling while pulling the heavy, but buoyant, gear sleds across open water proved effective, if nerve-jangling. Wind and waves lashed the vessels; capsizing could be fatal. The proliferation of leads, a dozen or so a day initially, shocked the men. Worse, the frequent crossings slowed their pace to a mere three to five miles per day, less than the half the 11-miles-per-day pace they were counting on.

Their ultimate success hinged on a simple equation: They had food—mostly oatmeal, nuts, and dried meat, individually bagged by Ousland—for 85 days, 10 more than they expected to need. That was their window to cross the Arctic Ocean.

“Time was our biggest enemy,” says Horn.

Life on the ice

Being in a hurry is easier said than done when you’re towing hundreds of pounds of food, stoves, 56 liters of fuel, spare skis, a tent, sleeping bags rated to minus-40, and a single nail, a seemingly odd choice that would prove crucial later in the trip. Even selecting a safe place to sleep was time consuming—and critical. More than one polar adventurer has been swallowed by the frigid sea in the night, never to be seen again.

After finding a solid floe to camp on, Ousland hand-bored ice screws at the tent’s corners and set trip wires around its perimeter that would trigger a deafening explosive shell. This was the plan to deter the giant white carnivore that roams here and leaves patches of blood-stained snow wherever it dines.

“Polar bears will eat you if you let them,” Ousland says. “If you just sit there, they will come and they will eat you. Which is an honest thing. They are hungry.”

After encountering more than 50 polar bears in his journeys, Ousland has developed a suite of strategies to repel them. He and Horn carry bear spray and flare guns, which typically scare them off. If that fails, Ousland incorporated a holster for his .44 Magnum on the waist belt of his sled harness (along with knife sheaths and personal flotation devices he sewed into the harness’s shoulder straps).

Once in the tent, it could take an hour to brush the day’s accumulated ice off clothes and gear. To keep their sleeping bags from absorbing perspiration, which could accrue into pounds of ice, they lined them with custom-made plastic sacks that Horn likens to body bags and Ousland describes as “a big condom.”

Every morning, Horn spent 30 minutes scraping ice off the tent walls from the night’s respiration, a frigid, tedious task that he came to see as another step on his extreme quest for enlightenment. “I hate this job,” he told Ousland. “But at the same time, I like it. Because I have to learn to like what I hate.”

They quickly adapted to life on the ice. Ousland was pleased. His body responded well to the strain, falling back into familiar rhythms. “It was just like the old days,” he says. “I was surprised—the body remembers what it has done before.”

Soon the men were polar machines, pushing forward into the teeth of the Arctic.

The sun sets for good

Eleven days after setting out, the men caught their last glimpse of our planet’s star as its final molten flicker melted into the horizon. The sun would not rise again in the Arctic for six months.

Now they skied through an extended sunset, the ice’s rosy glow cooling into a million shades of blue and shadow, the colors of cold and night. Temperatures plummeted, yet fragile ice still slowed their pace.

But something else was now impeding their progress: The ice plates they were skiing on were drifting backward. Ousland had hoped to gain two to three miles per day thanks to the ice drifting in the direction they were headed, but now the men found themselves being blown the wrong direction. Ousland had planned their route to capitalize on two predictable Arctic Sea currents, the Beaufort Gyre and Transpolar Drift. But now, with its lack of submerged mass, the thin, light ice was more susceptible to wind. Suddenly those currents, used by explorers since the 1800s, weren’t so predictable. During the day, the wind blew the plates in reverse as they skied atop them. They even lost ground while sleeping.

On a dimming day in mid-October, shortly before reaching the North Pole, Ousland and Horn switched on headlamps that they would not turn off in any waking hour for the remainder of their journey. Their life was engulfed in darkness, their headlamps—and the 22 pounds of batteries they carried to keep them burning—became indispensable extensions of themselves.

With the disappearance of light, something shifted in the men’s minds. They instinctively switched to what Horn calls, “survival mode.” During the day, they rarely spoke. They didn’t say much in the tent either. As Horn wrote in a social media post, “We are not here to talk, we are here to ski across the Arctic Ocean.”

“On expedition, we become like the elements,” Horn says. “We become like the world we evolve in. Børge and I become like the ice.”

The men occasionally had their differences, typically over the ever-looming issue of safety. Ousland, a meticulous planner, works to mitigate risk and create a bubble of security. Horn thrives on the edge. When he charged across an area of ice so thin it fractured under his skis as he passed, Ousland angrily asked why. Horn replied, “I like it when it’s dangerous.”

Sign of life

They’d been skiing for an entire month without seeing a trace of humanity when the lights of an airplane blinked across the starry canopy. They watched in silence as it flew above the pole, turned back the way it had come, and disappeared into the night.

Who was up there? Were they enjoying a glass of wine and a meal in unimaginable warmth? Did they have any idea there were two men down there, skiing across the abyss?

The men did not appreciate the plane’s presence. “You have to be focused on what you are doing and not be distracted,” Ousland says. This is why he limits calls with his wife and daughter to once every couple weeks. “I want to be in the ice mentally ... it’s about safety.”

Yet it’s also something more, he admits. “It’s a little bit difficult to suddenly be ‘home’ speaking to my wife and my daughter. I picture myself back home instead of on the ice, and maybe I start questioning myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

Which raises a good question: Why were they doing this?

“That is the question I get most, but I can’t answer it myself,” Ousland says. “I never ask ‘why’ to myself. I ask ‘how.’ If I feel like I can do it, that for me is enough motivation.”

For both men, expeditions are tests, as much internal as external, and they’re eager to see what can be found at the outer boundaries of their self-mastery.

“It’s where my senses come alive ... you become, in a way, a complete human being” says Horn. He once told National Public Radio, “If we can progress in computers and building cars, we can progress by exploring the human mind and body and soul.”

Top of the world

As they neared the North Pole, the ice finally thickened and there were fewer leads. They should have been making good time, but each day the winds continued to blow the ice backwards like a treadmill under their skis. The last degree of latitude, from 89 to 90 degrees north, or 69 miles, took the men 11 days. It was the longest Ousland had ever taken to travel one degree.

When they reached the pole, Horn took a picture to commemorate the moment. It shows the light of two headlamps in the dark. Horn broke out tiny bottles of Armagnac and “Mike Horn Cake,” a rum-soaked fruit cake created for him by an admiring three-star Michelin chef.

They’d been skiing for 36 days and weren’t yet halfway, but they’d reached a psychological tipping point. As they hooked up to their sleds the next morning, a couple hours later than usual, they said, as they would every day in those subzero mornings, “We’re going home.”

For most adventurers, simply reaching the North Pole in these conditions would mark their greatest accomplishment—indeed, skiing to the North Pole is considered by many the most difficult expedition in the world—but for Ousland and Horn, the hardest part lay ahead. Though a week behind schedule, they were confident. They had 49 days of food in their sleds when they set out on the morning of October 18.

They needed to cross a degree of latitude every six days to reach the ice edge to meet Pangaea before they ran out of food and fuel. They didn’t say it, but Ousland says they both knew, “Now the serious stuff begins.”

Alone in the cosmos

Adding an additional hour of skiing to each day, they charged ahead, reaching 89 degrees, then 88 degrees, in five days each. At each degree they celebrated with Mike Horn Cake.

The darkness was total now. Under an overcast sky, Horn clicked off his headlamp and held his hand in front of his face. He couldn’t see it. It was as if they’d ceased to exist.

When the clouds cleared, the icy world was revealed in starlight. They followed Jupiter arcing across the southern sky, adjusting their bearing as the Earth spun beneath them. The moon rose and cast a cold glow across an empty world. Ousland described it as “Day One on Earth.”

The wind was strong when they came to the largest lead yet, the far side lost in blackness. Normally, the first to cross would take a rope to the far side and then pull the gear sleds, lashed together, across the open water. This way, only one person was in the water at a time. But the lead was longer than their 350 feet of rope, forcing them to cross simultaneously, a much more precarious maneuver.

Horn paddled first, without the gear, until the rope neared its limit, when Ousland eased into his packraft bobbing on black water. He steadied the food and gear and began paddling alongside it while Horn pulled from the front. When Horn reached solid ice, he yelled back into the inky channel, toward the light of Ousland’s distant headlamp, “Can I pull?”

“What?” Ousland called into the wind.

Horn pulled the rope. It yanked the sled-raft which collided with Ousland’s ice-rimed boat, tipping him sideways. For one eternal moment, Ousland stared into the unsympathetic depths of the Arctic Ocean and his own mortality. “If I had capsized out there, I would have never survived,” he says. “You can’t swim 100 meters with all the clothes in that cold water and ice.”

In a social media post soon after, the Norwegian wrote, “It’s a fragile life we live, so easy to miss the small details in the dark. We remind ourselves every day that we must be even more careful as tired as we are now.”

Things fall apart

Still the aberrant winds came, blowing them toward Greenland as they tried to ski toward Svalbard. They muscled over countless jumbled ridges of ice, with blocks as big as cars. Their exhalations formed freezing mist and knotty horns of ice grew from their faces and beards. The cold caused the snow crystals to become sharp and grabby, preventing their skis and sleds from gliding. It was November now, Arctic winter was descending.

The mercury fell to 40 below zero Fahrenheit. The air itself turned hostile. Inhalations were sharp in their throats. Their noses and cheeks wore away into open wounds that wouldn’t heal in the razored air. Exertion kept their vascular networks coursing with warm blood; when they paused, cold seeped into their chests.

Horn’s hands began to break down. They’d been badly frostbitten on a previous Arctic expedition when he made the mistake of removing mittens to tie a ski boot in a windstorm, killing the tissue in his fingers. Doctors told him he would lose his hands. Eventually several dead tips were amputated. They’d been vulnerable ever since.

Both of his thumbs were now painfully frostbitten, and the open sores became infected. “Basically, I couldn’t touch my thumbs,” Horn says. “When it got to the stage where my thumb was double the thickness it should have been, I said to Børge, ‘I think I need antibiotics.’”

If the infection infiltrated his bloodstream it would be more than just the expedition in jeopardy. Fortunately, Ousland, as ever, was prepared.

Horn’s social media posts, sent every few days from the ice to his daughters for posting, had been his standard founts of inspirational-poster positivity. Now they turned darker. “It is as if all of the odds are against us,” he wrote. “We never thought we were capable and prepared for such mental and physical fatigue.”

Third time’s the charm

On November 14, a storm arrived, and the men scrambled to find a secure floe. Screwing the tent down, they sheltered as gale-force winds of 50 miles per hour, strong enough to uproot trees, blew them backward—two men in a rippling tent on an ice plate—for a spirit-clobbering 28 miles. For the next three days they skied with Sisyphean obstinance into the storm, crossing the 86th parallel by day, blowing back over it each night.

When they crossed for the third and final time, there was no celebrating. They did not eat cake. They weren’t even setting up polar bear tripwires anymore. They had energy only for moving forward.

With Horn’s hands failing, more duties fell to Ousland, who was being pushed to his limits. The Norwegian was struggling to sleep as he worked through strategies and scenarios and drift angles, trying to map every possible eventuality. Where must they reach to be accessible to Pangaea? What happens if they run out of food? What must they do to stay alive?

The detonation

Though they were halfway from the pole to their hoped-for pickup latitude, people back home were alarmed.

“Their daily distances were going down. They weren’t performing,” Ebbesen says. “It was so borderline—we were so afraid they were going to do a big mistake. And that was in territory where there wasn’t any chance of rescue.”

Horn’s daughters had never perceived their indomitable father’s voice so listless. “What a miserable life we have here,” he pecked into his sat phone. The men were used to pushing the boundaries of what was possible. Perhaps they’d finally gone too far.

Then word came from the Norwegian rescue center offering their one chance for a helicopter pickup. They were well behind schedule and the equation was stark: with their remaining food, reaching Pangaea, says Ebbesen, “looked impossible.”

Meanwhile, a Norwegian reporter heard chatter of a possible rescue for the country’s polar legend. The front page of the Norwegian newspaper Nordlys promptly read: “Polar Hero in Trouble. Norwegian authorities prepare a rescue operation for Børge Ousland.”

“After that,” Ebbesen says, “the whole thing detonated.”

Soon nearly every outlet in Norway, the BBC, and media across France, Germany, Switzerland, and much of Europe were reporting breathlessly on Ousland and Horn’s plight and imminent “rescue.”

Ousland, however, had other ideas. “We can’t stop here,” he told Ebbesen, dismissing the notion of helicopters out of hand. “We have to take that chance.”

“Should you talk with Mike about it?” Ebbesen asked.

It was fine, Ousland assured him. He and Horn had an unspoken understanding, what Horn calls "a general feeling between us," that after everything they'd gone through, they wouldn't give up now. After all, Ousland felt he’d solved the “running out of food and starving” thing. He called his Norwegian friend Bengt Rotmo, an experienced Arctic guide. He was slated to be a crew member on Pangaea, which had returned to Norway after dropping the men off and was now waiting to set sail for the pickup. Ousland asked Rotmo if he could ski toward them with extra provisions, if needed. The aesthetics of this human-powered support strategy pleased Ousland, who points out it was “how they did it in the old days.”

Meanwhile, two of Horn’s teeth broke when he bit into frozen chocolate, and Ousland, now forced into the role of emergency dentist, repaired them with temporary dental filling material he’d packed in his seemingly bottomless med kit.

In his journal, Ousland wrote, “Yes it is a struggle. Not that we complain, we take that fight.”

The cavalry debate

The men charged forward … straight into another storm. With wind chills of 50 below zero or colder—their spittle freezing solid in mid-air—they sheltered a day in the tent. Ousland was acutely aware that they were still 200 miles from their hoped-for Pangaea reunion with only 10 days of food remaining. On the storm’s second day, he insisted they ski.

Horn agreed to try but felt leaving the tent with his cold-damaged hands was courting disaster. “Accidents happen quickly,” he says, “and it’s usually in bad weather when things go completely wrong.”

Even staying close, the men periodically lost sight of each other’s headlamps in the blizzard. Pummeled by wind, they skied into the maelstrom for two hours, but blew backward at the same speed. When they crawled back into the tent, spending over an hour scraping ice from their clothes, they were no closer to their goal.

That night, Horn once again used a safety pin to drain the pus from his deteriorating thumbs. He was on his second round of doxycycline and barely had the dexterity to clip into his harness each day.

It was perhaps no surprise then that in their discussions about how this would end Horn was content simply to ski until the two men ran out of food, whether they made it to the boat or not. As long as they reached 84 degrees, they would be in range of helicopters from Svalbard. But Ousland wanted no part of any rescue. It would be a mark of failure.

Calling it a “difference of opinion,” Horn says he was fine with a helicopter rescue, if it came to that, and didn’t care if people considered it a failure. “I know what I’ve done, and I know what I’ve accomplished. I crossed the Polar Ocean.”

A change in plans

Meanwhile, Pangaea’s captain, Bernard Stamm, was reporting unusually hazardous ice conditions in the seas north of Norway. He was losing confidence the boat could reach 82 degrees of latitude safely, as intended. They needed a new plan.

From the tent, Ousland messaged Rotmo, who used his deep network of Arctic connections to secure a former polar research vessel named Lance. Ice-class with a steel hull, it stood a better chance of reaching 82 degrees.

Given the danger of potentially heading onto the ice to meet Ousland and Horn alone, Rotmo recruited another Norwegian polar heavyweight to accompany him, Aleksander Gamme, who’d once skied 1,400 miles alone across Antarctica.

In the calm after the storm, Ousland and Horn knew their only hope of reaching the boat was to cover the biggest distances of their trip. It was the last week of November, and they’d been on the ice for 77 days. They had food for 85. They needed to get creative.

When a day is more than a day

They’d steadily increased their skiing to 10 grueling hours per day. But given the time needed for nightly tasks—melting snow for water, scraping ice off everything, and sleeping—there were no more hours to wring from the day. So they changed the definition of a “day,” lengthening it to 30 hours.

“It’s interesting, that progression we have in our mind," Horn says about facing intense bodily pain and staggering fatigue. "We can go further, we can hang on a little bit longer, we can fight harder.”

Near the end of one of these super-days, after Horn says they’d “walked themselves to smithers,” an alarming sight appeared in their headlamp beams. Polar bear tracks. A mother with cubs. The edges were crisp—the bears were close. And they were meandering, which meant they were seeking prey.

Normally the men wouldn’t sleep near fresh bear tracks, but they were self-described “stumbling zombies.” Inside the tent, Ousland asked Horn to keep his ears attuned. The Norwegian’s hearing was damaged from his younger years working with heavy machinery as a cold-water diver. Horn prided himself on his ability to hear threats outside the tent, a skill honed over decades in wild places.

“I’ve got my ears open while I’m sleeping,” Horn told Ousland. “I don’t want to be eaten by a bear either. We’re 10 days away from the end. I want to make it now.”

In their giant condoms, both men fell asleep almost instantly.

A new crack-up

A few days later, Ousland’s sled became increasingly difficult to pull. That night he found a jagged crack spanning the sled’s polyethylene base. They’d been saved by blind luck: If they’d crossed open water that day, the sled would have filled, soaking Ousland’s sleeping bag and other essential gear. It might have even sunk. It had been one of their only lead-free days.

Ousland’s heart sank, “all the way down to the basement.” It couldn't end like this so close to the finish. But then his thoughts shifted to possible solutions—what he calls “moving up that ladder from the basement”—energized the Norwegian, renowned for his skill and ingenuity in field repair.

With the seven-foot sled half inside the tent, Ousland took a four-inch formwork nail, chosen for its double-head that makes for a surer grip with a Leatherman, and heated it over a stove flame. Pushing the hot nail through plastic, he created hundreds of holes along the sled’s crack. Then he and Horn scavenged every fastener they could find—shoelaces, parachute cord—and lashed the sled back together.

“He has things no one else thinks of in his repair kits,” Ebbeson says. “Who else brings the nail? No one does.”

After a “harrowing night” and five hours of dexterous work with discolored, swollen fingers, Ousland produced a functioning sled. But it had come at a cost—he’d only slept two hours. In his overwhelming exhaustion, he began falling asleep and stumbling while skiing the next day. Yet he was happy: He’d solved the problem. He and Horn skied for 12 straight hours.

The sky was clear that day, an oval moon illuminating the landscape. A glowing band appeared, then another, and the men staggered to a stop and turned off their lights. For some time, exactly how long neither can say, they stood in silence and watched the Northern Lights cast emerald ribbons across the cosmos. It was, Ousland says, “a moment I will always remember.”

Help on the way

Meanwhile, Lance, with Rotmo and Gamme aboard, was struggling to navigate the ice maze. A day was wasted following a lead that wandered far off course. Heated disputes broke out between the adventurers and the boat’s crew over the best route. Norwegian journalists were on board to cover the story that seemingly half of Europe was now following, and Rotmo and Gamme were feeling the strain. Their friends were somewhere out there in the darkness.

After finding a better lead, Lance lodged on ice 20 miles shy of its goal. But another storm was blowing in—Rotmo and Gamme couldn’t wait any longer. According to Ousland’s last report, he and Horn were still 60 miles away and nearly out of food.

They left Lance at seven in the evening and headed onto the ice with sleds laden with food and armed with .44 Magnums and a rifle. Though both men were highly experienced polar veterans, it was their first time on the ice in the dark. Cameras flashed. The world watched. Everyone was drifting on the ice. The crew on the Lance, Ousland, Horn, and now Rotmo and Gamme, pieces on a moving chessboard in the Arctic night.

In the meantime, Ousland and Horn, straining at the limits of their strength, miraculously covered nearly 20 miles in a day. Rotmo and Gamme were moving toward them cautiously, on newly formed ice so thin it was clear as glass. As they struggled to find a secure place to pitch their tent, they realized they were on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by black ocean. They turned around and when they returned to their tracks from an hour earlier, they found them overlaid by polar bear tracks. They were being followed. Gamme suddenly regretted bringing fresh sausage.

Disaster strikes

On day 86, when Ousland and Horn wrenched their aching bodies from the tent, they believed they were a mere 20 miles from the ship. Rotmo and Gamme were out there somewhere. Then the sky lit up with a streaking flame. A flare.

“It was so amazing to see the light of people,” Ousland says. They did not celebrate. They put their heads down and skied. Then, far in the distance, Horn noticed the faint light of Lance on the horizon. The end was in sight.

They grew quiet, feeling many things at once. Horn spoke first, “In a couple of hours, our expedition is finished. It won’t be me and you anymore. I will be me, you, and them.”

Then the bottom fell out.

“We were distracted,” Horn admits.

Like a trapdoor, the ice broke under Horn’s skis and he plunged into the Arctic Ocean.

“Water! Water!” he cried. Ousland whipped off his skis and moved as quickly and carefully as he could. If he fell in, it would be over for both of them.

“It’s very difficult to get up in places like that, and we were so weak,” Ousland says. “You don’t have much time. I mean you could survive 15 minutes in ice-cold water no problem—it takes a long time to die. But you lose the strength in your arms and your muscles. You have one, max two tries and then all you can do is just think of all the good things you have experienced.”

Horn remembers being more deflated than afraid. “The disappointment of actually falling into the water and that it could cost me my life,” he says. “We knew we shouldn’t make those mistakes. We knew that from day one. For 86 days we were fighting that specific moment.”

As Horn bobbed in half-frozen slush, Ousland—careful not to get his hands wet, which could flash-freeze them into uselessness—reached from the edge of the ice and desperately grasped his partner’s harness and pulled. But Horn’s submerged skis were catching on ice, trapping him in the water. Slush dragged him down like quicksand. Horn stretched his arms onto firmer ice while Ousland reached and got hold of his skis. With focused desperation, Horn heaved himself from the water.

To keep Horn alive, they had to move quickly. Ousland erected the tent while Horn rolled back and forth on the snow, allowing it to absorb water from his clothing. In the tent, Ousland fired both camp stoves with the last of their fuel. Using his knife, Ousland sawed off Horn’s sled harness, which was encased in ice. Horn leaned over the stoves to thaw zippers, his clothes frozen solid.

“I can deal with all types of things—wind, cold—but going through the ice and into the water, that is the most dangerous thing that can happen in the polar ocean,” Ousland says. He was certain his partner had suffered cold injuries that would require immediate rescue.

Inside the tent, Horn took a thermos of hot drinking water and poured it over himself to rinse off the salt. Then he crouched naked over the stoves, steam rising from his skin. Fortunately, he had a spare set of thermal underwear. For six hours they dried Horn’s pants, jacket, and boots while Ousland sewed up the sliced harness. Against all odds, Horn escaped serious injury.

Humans, again

In the distance, Rotmo and Gamme could see the men’s lights. Ousland messaged with news of the accident but assured them, “We have control.”

The Norwegians were alarmed. They knew Ousland and Horn were exhausted. Temperatures were dropping. Wind was building. There was still a large lead between them, and it was expanding.

“Everything was escalating, and margins were getting smaller,” Gamme says. “Things were adding up on top of each other—this is the picture you see before accidents. Conditions were not made for flying or rescue. We knew we couldn't handle very much more at that moment.”

They called Ebbesen to offer an update. After hearing their news, he told them media coverage was at a fever pitch and he was being chauffeured to television studios to give live on-air reports. People across Europe were watching hourly updates.

Close to midnight, Ousland and Horn began skiing again. Horn was cold to his core. Crossing the gaping, wind-whipped lead was not an option. After some exploration, Ousland found a place where it narrowed. He yelled across to the other two men, who were now only 100 feet away.

Horn was first to paddle across to Rotmo and Gamme. He summoned a greeting: “Hi guys, how are you doing?”

Ousland followed. He reached the ice shore, carefully stepped from his packraft, and embraced Rotmo. There on the ice the polar hardman wept.

Rotmo likened the emotions he felt then to getting married or having children. “It was one of the biggest experiences of my life.”

Gamme joined the hug and the three Norwegians wept together on the ice. “We were crying like babies,” Ousland says. “That was one of the strongest moments I’ve ever experienced.”

Horn, however, kept to himself. “I was emptied of emotions,” he says. “I was in a different state of mind because I’d just survived something I shouldn’t have survived.”

Rotmo and Gamme had loaded their sleds with food and delicacies: chocolate, fine liquor, red wine. “It was both Christmas and New Year’s at the same time in our sleds,” Rotmo says. But when they offered their bounty to Ousland and Horn, the men refused. They wanted to complete the expedition with their own supplies, on their own terms.

In his journal, Gamme wrote facetiously, “Two ungrateful shit sacks, here we drag lots of goodies! Then they don’t want anything.”

They skied for hours into the early morning, “four ice trolls on the ice,” as Gamme described them. At one point, Ousland, feeling every one of his 57 hard-won years, sat on his sled and announced through an unruly gray beard dripping with ice, “This is my last long trip.”

Gamme had long idolized Ousland. “It struck me what an honor it was to be allowed to spend the last days with two such legends,” he says, calling those moments very personal “but also quite historical—we knew we were part of some kind of a bigger picture.”

At 4 a.m., they camped for their final night on the ice. Ousland and Horn took the remaining dinner rations from their sleds. To their profound joy, they discovered a bag of dried salmon sticks given to them by a friend in Nome and devoured it in short order.

To Lance

The next day—Ousland and Horn’s 87th on the ice, two more days than they’d brought food for—the men awoke eight miles from Lance. Ousland led the way to the edge of the Arctic ice cap.

Some inner resolve in the men had now slackened. Horn was surprised to see Ousland wear his heavy down jacket. “Børge’s hands were cold, and his hands are never cold,” Horn says. “He told me three or four times, ‘Mike, I’m cold, I’m cold.’ So I said the only thing I could say, ‘Let’s just go, let’s get to the boat. We’re going to make it.’”

“I have never been so cold, I think, in my whole life,” Ousland says.

Lance appeared before them, its powerful beams flooding the horizon. Its blob of light splintered into a constellation as they drew nearer, the obverse of how the lights from Pangaea had dwindled in their wake three months before.

Journalists rushed onto the ice as the adventurers emerged from the polar night with cold-scarred faces and ice beards. A video camera was thrust in Ousland’s face and after 87 days in Arctic isolation he delivered a television interview.

In his sled, Ousland had one lunch (a mixture of dried fruit, nuts, oatmeal, oil, and sugar) and a small bag of dehydrated fish soup. Horn had a lunch and a couple of dried salmon sticks. In all their years, neither man had finished an expedition with so little food remaining.

As soon as they boarded the ship, Horn says, all of the energy left their bodies. Ousland climbed the stairs from the ice to Lance at a sloth’s pace (and would later fall descending the stairs from the bridge). “It’s like a valve opened,” Horn says, “and all of a sudden everything you do is difficult—lifting your arm, taking your skis off, lifting your legs.”

They laid their skis and sleds on the deck and left them for the first time in a quarter of a year.

Each man had lost more than 20 pounds. They gorged on ox steak with potatoes and gravy, creamy spinach soup, and chocolate, so much chocolate. Besides the glorious food, perhaps nothing was as welcome as a shower. “Hot water against our skin felt incredible!” Horn wrote.

Back in Oslo, a relieved Ebbesen says, “I had a very, very big glass of wine.”

The men had finally reached the ship, but the ship wasn’t going anywhere. The ice had closed in and frozen it firmly in place and it would take two weeks of working with chainsaws before Lance finally could set sail for home.

End of an era

Some weeks later, Ousland would be honored as the Norwegian Adventurer of the Year, his mother watching proudly from the audience. Horn bounded over rows of chairs when Ousland called him to the stage, and the two adventurers stood arm-in-arm in a sold-out Oslo concert hall to a prolonged standing ovation.

Of Ousland and Horn’s accomplishment, Rotmo says, “It’s so totally insane in terms of complexity and difficulty. This is one of the hardest polar journeys that ever has been made.”

Even if there were other explorers in this world willing to try, it’s unlikely ever to be repeated, due to the Arctic’s shrinking ice cap. Polar experts believe it's likely that within the next 20 years Septembers in the Arctic Ocean will be entirely devoid of ice, even at the North Pole.

Says Gamme, “The great modern polar exploration era ended with that trip.”

Aaron Teasdale is a writer based in Missoula.

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