Top 10 Expeditions of 2019: #1: Arctic Ocean Epic

Arctic Poles
Ousland: "I couldn't have done this trip with anyone else other than Mike." Photo: VG Direkte
Over the last 12 months, ExplorersWeb has documented incredible adventures in climbing, cycling, running, walking, skiing and anything involving force of will and dedication to a dream in the outdoors. As this year comes to a close, we present our countdown of the Top 10 Expeditions of 2019.

Just a few weeks ago, Borge Ousland and Mike Horn had the adventure world on edge, as they battled to reach safety. For more than 80 days, they had hauled their sleds from the 85th parallel across the North Pole and down to the 82nd degree, close to Svalbard. They did this from the end of autumn into the polar winter and permanent darkness. The Arctic Ocean was just beginning to form its increasingly thin skin of ice. It was a time of year no one had tackled before. As with our top pick last year — Andrzej Bargiel skiing K2 — few will likely ever repeat this Arctic Ocean epic.

The hardy duo set off in Horn’s boat, Pangaea, from Nome, Alaska on September 2. Their aim was penetrate as far into the Arctic Ocean as the ice allowed, then leave the Pangaea and continue on skis for around 500km to the Geographic North Pole. From here, they would ski another 800km to the edge of the ice, just north of Svalbard. Here, they would reunite with the Pangaea.

Ousland arrives in Nome, Alaska. Horn sailed his boat from Hokkaido in Japan. Photo: Mike Horn

As they set off, reader comments of our coverage of their trip were particularly telling. “Sounds like one for masochists” said one. My personal favourite: “This will be more awesome than a full new season of Game of Thrones.”

After moving up the coast of Alaska, the Pangaea headed due north from the Bering Strait. By September 6, they reached the first ice and continued onward through the Chukchi and East Siberian Seas before reaching the Arctic Ocean and the drop off point of 85 degrees.

After hitting solid ice, Horn and Ousland started skiing on September 10. Hauling 180kg sleds over the rough and salty surface, they advanced slowly for the first weeks. Gaping leads, thin ice and mazes of broken ice mixed with water delayed them further. Ousland called travel on the thin, glue-like ice a “battle for inches”. Unseasonably mild temperatures up to -6°C didn’t help.

“The leads are so big that we might start on solid ice, but toward the middle, it can be thin and weak. If the ice breaks and you fall in, there is no chance to get out of the water before you freeze.” Photo: Borge Ousland

Every day, the pair walked deeper into the Polar Night. The glimmer of twilight on the southern horizon at noon grew fainter. Plugging doggedly away, they reached the Pole on October 17 and marked the occasion with a hefty slice of alcohol-soaked “Mike Horn Cake”.

Ousland and Horn continued to inch forward for the next month, battling against a western ice drift that subtracted three to five kilometres from their daily totals. By the end of November, their spirits were ground down by open sores, swelling, broken teeth and prolonged travel in the depressing darkness. “What a miserable life we have here,” Horn wrote.

Borge Ousland shows the strain. Photo: Mike Horn

Imagine, if you will, 70 days of toil on the limbs. You bed down for the night on a mattress of frozen ice, but this is no terra firma. At any moment, the ice could break up underneath your tent, plunging you from pleasant dreams into freezing sea water. At the same time, you’re on alert for polar bears, even when you’re sleeping. The 24-hour darkness worsens the mental strain. Even for world-class polar travelers, the psychological resilience required is huge.

With lighter sleds and somewhat more solid ice, Ousland and Horn charged forward. Between November 20 and November 29, they covered close to 240km, about 30km a day — remarkable on the Arctic Ocean, astonishing in the dark.

During this period, things got interesting. Their support crew sent a sturdy Norwegian ship, the Lance, toward them, with three experienced polar travelers aboard. Food and fuel were running low, and conditions were rapidly deteriorating as they approached the ice edge. The Pangaea would have struggled with the pack ice and likely have become stuck.

Bengt Rotmo (middle) and Aleksander Game (right) ready to go. Photo: Jørgen Braastad

For a week, these grizzled veterans walked a fine line between rescue and success. Rumors circulated of a helicopter rescue or an early pick-up by the Lance. Each day, they moved closer. On November 29, 150km to go; on December 4, 70km.

Meanwhile, Bengt Rotmo and Aleksander Gamme left the Lance and skied toward Ousland and Horn carrying food and fuel, in case they were needed. They arrived just as the weary pair were down to their last day of food and two remaining fuel bottles. It was an incredibly fine line, or exceptionally good calculation.

You only have to watch the videos below to see how much it took out of them. Perhaps the most poignant moment was when Rotmo and Gamme reached the weary veterans out on the ice. “Four men crying at the side of a lead shows what an ordeal it had been,” said expedition manager Lars Ebbesen.

After 1,557km and 87 days, Ousland and Horn finally stepped onto the Lance at midnight on December 7. Even then, the Arctic Ocean was reluctant to release them from its icy grip. For the next three weeks, it held the Lance fast in the ice until the ship was finally able to slip free and reach Longyearbyen, and then Tromso.

Although Ousland and Horn had trekked to the North Pole in winter from Cape Artichesky in Russia in 2006, it seems that the earlier start and a decade of increasing global temperatures rendered the ice conditions truly heinous. The pair are also a decade older now: Ousland is 57, Horn 53.

Detractors may cite the loss of unsupported status when they met up with Rotmo and Gamme (although we understand that no provisions exchanged hands), and the change of ship. Nevertheless, this was a difficult, sustained adventure, competently executed. They were not competing with others for speed records. They made no grand claims of traveling in a certain style. The expedition was sui generis.

Ousland declared this his “greatest achievement”, and Horn wrote that it was the hardest expedition he had ever done. These two men, certainly among the finest living polar travelers, were pushed to their limit and the bounds of safe progression and extraction. You have to ask, what more could they realistically have achieved?

The North Pole unsupported from land is considered one of the hardest expeditions of any kind. Although not from land, Ousland and Horn traveled in darkness over poor ice, on a journey that very few would be willing or able to take on. Their effort almost harkens back to the uncertainty of the golden age of polar exploration. This journey is one for the ages and rightly deserves our top spot for 2019. It is even a candidate for the expedition of the decade.

About the Author

Ash Routen

Ash Routen

Ash is a postdoctoral scientist, globally published outdoor writer and arctic traveller. Ash's next expedition is a 700km trek along the coast of Baffin Island in spring 2021.

Read more at www.ashrouten.com

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4 Comments on "Top 10 Expeditions of 2019: #1: Arctic Ocean Epic"

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damiengildea
Editor

Good article Ash.

“…They were not competing with others for speed records. They made no grand claims of traveling in a certain style. The expedition was sui generis.”

This is a very important thing to point out, and I hope it inspires other expeditions to do new things that aren’t bound by old boundaries, either geographical or cultural.

WandererFakeer
Guest

From the start to the end, I tracked their incredible journey through their Instagram updates. These people are incredible human being. Big salute to them for their courage, determination, hard work.

PolarQuest
Guest
alinsdau
Guest

That is one heck of a trek.