Exclusive: Borge Ousland on Crossing the Arctic Ocean in Winter

Just over two months ago Borge Ousland and Mike Horn appeared out of the darkness on the southern reaches of the frozen Arctic Ocean. Their weary faces testified to 87 days of toil, 57 of those in permanent darkness. These hardy veterans had walked, skied and paddled some 1,557km across paper-thin sea ice and open water. In a contemporary adventure world awash with marginal record claims and endless chest-beating, Ousland and Horn’s journey stands as a beacon of pioneering hard travel with limited associated fanfare.

To find out more about the journey we decided to catch up with Ousland, the man with more polar firsts to his name than anyone alive.

This seemed a lot like the First Fram Expedition, a Nansen/Johansen re-do. But didn’t you already do a Nansen tribute along those lines some years ago?

Yes, of all the explorers of the golden age, Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen’s trip, when they left Fram in 1895 to try to reach the North Pole, is the one that has inspired me the most. In 2007, Thomas Ulrich and I followed their route from the North Pole, through Frans Josef Land, and all the way to Norway. The trip we did last year was quite a bit different, but also very much inspired by the old way of exploring. We simply wanted to do a classic polar expedition, where we entered and exited the ice by boat. When we saw Pangaea become smaller and smaller in the distance behind us, we said to each other that this sight hasn’t been seen since Nansen and Johansen left Fram. That moment was our Rubicon.

Mike Horn’s boat, the Pangaea, heads north in the East Siberian Sea. Photo: Dimitry Sharomov


Were you Nansen and Mike, Johansen?
Ha ha, no, I was Borge and Mike was Mike.

You two have shared a couple of extremely hard expeditions together. You know each other’s strengths and weaknesses very well by now. How are you different from Mike, and how is he different from you?

I think we fulfill and compliment each other through the differences. My responsibility on this trip was equipment and route planning, while Mike was responsible for the boat and getting us to the starting point. I think I am good with equipment and detailed planning, I like to be in control. Mike doesn’t like to be in control, that’s part of the adventure for him. He just goes, with no fear and very few limits, he deals with the challenges as they happen. With me, Mike knows what he gets and vice versa, and with all our experiences combined, we were the right team for this trip. What we have in common is the same drive and passion for adventure, and the stamina. We don’t need to ask why we do it, how is enough.

Happy campers. Photo: Borge Ousland


There’s an old saying in adventure that everyone has a fixed number of really hard expeditions inside them. You’ve done so many already: Do you feel that this might be the last at this level of difficulty that you want to do?

I haven’t heard that one before, but yes, I think this was the crux. It’s always difficult to rank my own expeditions, and it is special to be solo, but I still think this was the hardest. To try to top this would be extremely difficult for me, if not stupid.

You’re 57 now. Did you feel old or tired at all on this expedition, compared to earlier endeavours?

I was a bit worried before I left, how would it be, would my body hold up? A 185-kg sled is extremely heavy, but to my relief, my body was working well. I think the body “remembers” what it has done before, and after a couple of weeks, I was well into the good old art of manhauling. I had, of course, trained hard prior to this trip, and also skied across about one big glacier a year for the last decade.


Hauling a mammoth payload over pressure ice. Photo: Borge Ousland

You both had trouble at various points with the cold, yet one would think that the Arctic Ocean is not as cold in Oct-Dec as it is in Feb-March. Was there something about this particular expedition that made the cold harder to deal with: wind, for example, or having often to go slowly over thin ice and so not generate enough warmth?

We knew from the temperature charts from the Sabvabaa research expedition (which drifted across the Arctic Ocean in 2009) that we most likely would have some cold spells in November-December. Down to minus 30° is more or less ok; when it gets -40° or colder, everything becomes just so much more difficult. We had three periods with temperatures dropping to -40°C. Mike has previously had problems with frostbite on his thumbs, so that’s his weak spot. And also this trip resulted in frostbite and infections on his thumbs, which he had to drain of pus every night. Meanwhile, beforehand I was worried about my feet and had brought extra-large boots and thicker socks plus full-size gaiters, and that did the job.


Crossing a lead by raft. Photo: Borge Ousland

You have said that this is your greatest accomplishment. Does that mean it was your hardest expedition, physically and mentally?

The combination of darkness, cold, thin ice and the fact that we did it during a time where nobody goes up there, entering and exiting by boat, makes this a special trip. This expedition represents something new in polar history, and I do regard it my greatest achievement. Mentally, it’s hard to compare with long solo expeditions on the Arctic Ocean.

Nightcrawler. Photo: Borge Ousland


What food or activity were you most daydreaming about out there? A bath? a pizza?

It’s the same old story, we longed for simple things: Just to be able to open a fridge for food, turn on the tap for a glass of water, and a shower and not at least, to be able to sleep in a safe bed without having to worry about the ice cracking up under you. Those small things are the ultimate luxury when you have been all the way out there on the edge. And of course, to be warm, not having to brush ice off clothes every evening or to sleep inside a plastic bag. Mike called it extreme living conditions, and it really was.

Ousland, the master of detail, does a repair. Photo: Mike Horn


How has the ice changed since you were last on the Arctic Ocean in winter 2006?

There has been a notable change in ice conditions on the Arctic Ocean, especially after the millennium. Beginning around 2000, it has just kept on declining, both in thickness and area. I have followed the development from satellite images, and it has been possible to do the trip we did about every second year from around 2007, where that bay over the Lomonosov Ridge (north of the New Siberian Islands) opened up quite far north. Last year’s ice coverage was the second-lowest recorded; only 2012 showed slightly less ice.

The original route plan. You can see the bay Ousland refers to above, to the left of the Laptev sea. Blue dots represent boat travel, red on foot. Photo: Borge Ousland


A couple of decades ago, the ice edge would have been too far south to be able to cross unsupported, so it was actually climate change that made our trip possible. We didn’t do this trip to speak about climate change, but it also made our trip more risky, especially the first couple of weeks, where we had to ski on dangerously thin ice for long stretches. Even further north, the ice was only one or two years old. When I did my first trip to the North Pole in 1990, we skied on three- to four-metre thick multiyear ice for almost the entire time. Back then, we actually brought an axe and chopped off ice for drinking water, since older ice is salt-free. This was not possible last year: All the ice was young and full of salt.

Mike Horn inches across some barely frozen ice. Photo: Borge Ousland


You received some negative press back home in Norway relating to the air ambulance crisis and the fact that you apparently had a helicopter waiting ready. Polar traveller Stein Aasheim also criticized the use of the diesel-powered Lance to pick you up. How do you respond?

There were some misunderstandings, and I had to do some explaining when I got back home. The media wrote that we had to be rescued and took resources from the general capacity. Some even said that our trip was just a big PR-thing, and that a helicopter was only an SMS away. The truth is that around 1,300 of the 1,557km was outside any kind of reasonable rescue. Even close to Svalbard, a rescue operation in midwinter is a tricky and very weather-dependent operation. Anyway, we didn’t have to be rescued and didn’t use any resources other than our own. We had planned the trip so that we would be independent from day one to finish. That’s why, for instance, we sent out Bengt Rotmo and Alexander Gamme from the ship to meet us. That was plan B all along, just like they did it in the old days, if expeditions went missing or were delayed. We met them on the ice the day before we arrived but we didn’t receive any supplies or help from them, and completed the trip unsupported.

We had almost no press before we left: There is so much going on these days that we didn’t really think anyone would be interested. But when a journalist picked up that we were almost out of food and wrote that we likely had to be rescued, which was not the case, we made headlines and got massive attention both in Norway and France.

The Lance trapped in sea ice. Photo: Borge Ousland


What are the last remaining great journeys on the Arctic Ocean, or have you and Mike just bagged it?

The only thing I can think of remaining in the Arctic is to do a solo and unsupported crossing. I crossed solo in 2001 but had to be resupplied when my sled broke.

A triumphant Ousland and Horn on reaching the Lance. Photo: Etienne Claret