"The need for adventure": Interview with polar explorer Borge Ousland

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Editors Note: The following blog was originally published in November 2013. 
 
Borge Ousland is one of history’s most accomplished polar explorers. He is the first person to ski across both the North Pole and South Pole alone. His last big solo trip, in 2001, was an 82-day odyssey that saw him cross the North Pole, from Russia to Canada, walking, skiing and swimming. He told National Geographic that the trip taught him to “never give up.”
 
This month, Ousland is leading an expediton across the Northern Patagonia Ice Field. This authentic living legend also skied across the Northern Patagonia ice over 17 days in November 2009. After that previous expedition in Patagonia, Ousland spoke to Patagon Journal about the inner journey and preparation involved with polar expeditions and global warming’s serious impact on the world’s glaciers over the past two decades. We re-publish excerpts from that interview here:  
 
Patagon Journal: What motivated you to become one of the greatest polar explorers in history?
Ousland: First of all, the need for adventure. That’s the main purpose. For some of the big trips, its also to break new ground, try something new and difficult, to do something that no one has done before, and to try to move these expeditions forward in a technical way and also physically and mentally. I think that is very inspiring. But most of all my expeditions are not to be the first, but as with the recent trip to Patagonia, they are done moreso for the experience, the nature, just to be out there.
 
 
 

Patagon Journal: What it’s like to be out there by yourself, alone on an ice cap. I imagine there is not a lot of action out there.  
Ousland: The South Pole can be quite sterile in a way. The animal life is coast to coast and when you get inside its just a huge expanse of snow. But what is interesting about that, especially solo trips, is that its not just traveling from point A to B, rather its also very much a mental trip. When you don’t have anyone one else to relate to, you relate more toward nature and also toward yourself -- you reach levels inside of you that you didn’t know existed. As well, you also have an entirely different interaction with nature when you are by yourself. For me, it’s extremely exciting to do it solo, my trips alone are some of the most rewarding I have done. But I mostly do the trips with other people because its too beautiful to do it alone and I want to have someone to share it with.  
 
Patagon Journal: Doing it alone is pretty dangerous. Have you been in a situation where you really needed help at some point?
Ousland: Not really that I needed help. Of course, I remember it’s much harder when you are by yourself. You have to be so much more concentrated. But I used to work as a diver in the North Sea, which is a quite demanding job as well. I did that for 10 years. Saturation diving down to like 600 feet, about 200 meters, so I’ve learned a lot about safety. You have to be a little bit ahead of yourself at all times. You have to look for problems before they happen -- and look for escape routes before the problems arises. I also was in the special forces of the navy, and there I learned about taking decisions under pressure. I don’t think solo expeditions are for everyone. But I don’t think that I am so unique that nobody can do what I do. You have to be careful. If you are careless you will end up in trouble one way or another.  

Patagon Journal: You must have to be in really good physical condition.  Are you constantly in training for these expeditions?
Ousland: Yes, actually that is very important. People think that this is something where you can just get in shape along the way. But you are so much more focused when you are in good shape, both mentally and physically. You are in a better position to take the punishment from working hard for, maybe, 10 hours a day for two months. It is hard work. By training thoroughly, like tire pulling and walking backward, you make your body accustomed to that kind of stress.  
 
 
 

Patagon Journal: What’s your life like when you are not training or out on an expedition?
Ousland: (laughs) Well, right now, I’m working on some photos from that Patagonian trip. I do some writing of articles. I am also guiding trips to the North and South Poles, which is a lot to organize. I also want to do a little more with Patagonia as a travel destination because I think its such a fantastic place with so many possibilities to do trips. In Norway and Scandinavia its not yet a well-known place. A lot of Germans go to Patagonia, but not many Scandinaivans and that is something I want to change.  

Patagon Journal: Are glacier expeditions in demand now as a tourist activity?
Ousland: Yeah, it’s been that way for several years. Most people are crossing Greenland. Some are going to the North and South Pole, but that’s obviously more expensive because of the travel involved. But Patagonia can be another great land where people can cross the ice caps in one way or the other. Or just go fly fishing, for instance.  

Patagon Journal: How do Patagonia’s ice fields compare to Greenland and other glacier-dominated areas of the world?
Ousland: It’s a lot more wind and a lot more rain and snow. That’s the main difference. It can snow two meters in two days, that’s not unusual. There are very, very powerful winds. Its not as cold in Patagonia, but you have to control for the humidity, the wet times, when everything gets soaked. You need to know how to handle the rain and the big storms.  
 
 
 

Patagon Journal: You have been doing this since the 1980s. Have you noticed changes to the ice because of global warming?
Ousland: There is a huge change.  When I did my first North Pole expedition in 1990, most of the ice, 90 percent of the ice, was old ice, like three-years-old or more. Now, the last few years, only about 10 percent of the old ice is left. The ice at the North Pole is now just one or two years old and it’s 30 percent thinner than it was 20 years ago. So, there has been a huge, huge change.  You can also see in Patagonia that the glaciers are shrinking really fast. The San Rafael Glacier is shrinking very fast.  
 
Photos courtesy of Borge Ousland. To see Borge's complete Flickr photo gallery from his Northern Patagonia Ice Field expedition, click here.  
 
- Jimmy Langman
 
 
 
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