Great Expeditions: Dead Men Walking

The story of Rune Gjeldnes and Torry Larsen and the first and only unsupported crossing of the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada

At the turn of the new millennium, two young and hardy Norwegians snatched one of the last remaining polar firsts — an unsupported crossing of the Arctic Ocean from land-to-land. This wasn’t Rune Gjeldnes and Torry Larsen’s first rodeo, however. The pair had made a remarkable 2,900km length-wise crossing of Greenland in 1996. To cap it off, they were only in their early twenties at the time and had parachuted onto the ice with their equipment. Pretty badass, I think you’ll agree.

Four years on from that Greenland crossing, Gjeldnes and Larsen saddled up for an even harder undertaking in the far north of Russia.  On February 16, 2000, the pair set out from Cape Arktichesky, each pulling two custom-made pulks weighing 100kg. Their destination was Canada. In-between lay some 2,100km of frozen Arctic Ocean, and for the first month, total darkness.

In 1998, Gjeldnes had also reached the North Pole with David Hempleman-Adams (on their second attempt), so there was Arctic Ocean experience within the team. They also had strong support from the Norwegian Navy and the Norwegian and U.S. military research teams, which gave them a raft of physical and mental tests. Four years of planning went into this expedition, with over 100 people involved.

The departure at Cape Arktichesky. Photo: Rune Gjeldnes


Right out of the blocks, the conditions weren’t easy. Ice conditions were poor, and they had to ferry sleds back and forth one at a time as they struggled to adapt to the heavy payload. After three weeks, and a week earlier than planned, they decided to dump their second sleds and pile 150kg into one sled each. This made it particularly hard work for Gjeldnes and Larsen to surmount the broken ice rubble that litters the Arctic Ocean.


Gjeldnes and Larsen had to be careful not to injure themselves when manhandling these 150kg sleds over broken ice. Photo: Rune Gjeldnes


The first month on the ice was clearly tough going, even for these two former Norwegian special forces personnel. “The four weeks with 150kg sleds was terrible, but then we got into it and got used to it,” wrote Gjeldnes.

As the polar night ended, supposedly promising slightly better conditions, the wind rose. “Sunrise means more wind, and wind and cold together are worse than just cold. From that day, it was really cold.”

First sight of the sun. Photo: Rune Gjeldnes


After four weeks, Gjeldnes and Larsen had covered 250km toward the North Pole and had got most of the typical accidents out of the way, such as broken tent poles, fuel leaks in the sled, etc. They had also endured what they later remarked as the worst rubble ice of the expedition, and had safely encountered meeting a huge polar bear.

The Norwegian duo progressed steadily, taking occasional rest days when needed. Their aim was not to burn out but to reach the Pole in good shape. By April 5, they passed the 86th parallel, and on April 11, Larsen celebrated his 29th birthday with cigars and chocolate. Gjeldnes then decided to celebrate his own birthday a month early, for which Larsen had squirreled away 200 cigarettes and a book of poems. These tough guys weren’t doing anything by halves.


Later in April, after 74 days of progress, they reached the North Pole in good shape and in good spirits. During a buoyant rest day at the Pole, Gjeldnes checked provisions and alarmingly noticed that there were only 30 days of food left (because of spoilage from the earlier fuel leak). “The record speed to the Pole from Canada was 44 days, with support. The mood in the tent dropped to the bottom line. However, we had to continue,” wrote Gjeldnes.


Despite the bum news, Gjeldnes and Larsen convinced themselves that it was possible to cover almost 800km in just 30 days. Gjeldnes, in particular, is known as an upbeat kind of guy, and once told ExWeb that polar travelers should “Say only positive things to each other.

Temperatures increased, and their skis glided a little better, but despite their initial optimism, the first few days after the Pole was slow going, because of open water and difficult ice.

“From then on, in the mental cellar, we struggled to come on the positive side,” said Gjeldnes. “Hard work, and also try to find hope of success or a solution. It took us several days to figure out what to be done to succeed. We had to gamble!”

That gamble was to dump their remaining sleds and stuff all their equipment into 95-litre backpacks. Gjeldnes and Larsen reckoned the unwieldy sleds were holding them back, and so 14 days out from the Pole, they made the switch to 45kg packs.

A small lead (section of open water). Photo: Rune Gjeldnes


By May 30, Gjeldnes and Larsen had spent 105 days on the Arctic Ocean, and ahead lay 130km of broken and melting ice. Food supplies were low, their bodies were emaciated by months of hard travel, and they suffered bouts of dizziness as they walked. They dreamed of sitting in a chair, sipping coffee, and doing nothing. Yet Gjeldnes and Larsen had faced hard times together before. They knew not to let their minds run wild. They knew that willpower could overcome fatigue. And so they willed their weary legs forward. Onward, ever onward.

“The last leg will be done without sleep and not a lot of rest. Food will be very short, but it has to be enough. We are both very excited. Have no clue how many days it will take us. Some long, hard kilometers are awaiting us, and it has to work out. Work, work, and keep fingers crossed,” wrote Gjeldnes.

By June 2, Gjeldnes and Larsen were pretty much out of fuel and food. This was their last stand — “45km left to freedom,” as Gjeldnes put it. For  the final push, the tired Norwegians tucked into a dinner of “thin soup piquantly spiced with a dash of fine fuel.”

As they pushed on, Gjeldnes and Larsen were unaware that their home team was already making its way to the pickup zone. The original intention was to finish at Ward Hunt Island, but because of the strong ocean current and westward drifting ice from the pole onward, they made for Cape Discovery (50km further west) instead.

A big fear for the two beaten-down Norwegians was that open water near the shoreline would stop their ability to make land. “Six hundred metres from shore, we met open water,” said Gjeldnes. “We had been worrying about it, the land lead. We told ourselves that we were Navy Seals and could just swim across.”

That final lead could have ended their plans of reaching land and claiming a land-to-land crossing. But after a few hours of walking parallel to the open water, they found a way through and stepped onto solid ground. Gjeldnes and Larsen had covered 2,100km in 109 days. The pair had lost a total of 53kg and had just one liter of water left. They later titled the expedition, “Dead Men Walking”.

Rest at last. Torry Larsen left and Rune Gjeldnes right. Photo: Rune Gjeldnes.

At least 17 international expeditions have attempted a similar land-to-land crossing of the Arctic Ocean. A couple of them have succeeded, but only Gjeldnes and Larsen did it unsupported.