Norway’s Troll Base, on the coast of Queen Maud Land, was named by a popular vote of Norwegian schoolchildren. Historically a summer base, no one had wintered at Troll until 2000, when four men became the first Norwegians to winter on the continent in forty years. Over the long winter, they studied the effects of UVB radiation on the immune system, they were the subjects in a psychology study with Martian implications, and they tested a new system for processing shit at Antarctic bases. After eleven months, after a dark winter on a frigid coast at the end of the world, two of these deranged mutations then skied across the continent, claiming the longest (3800km) unsupported trek in Antarctic history. Not only did Eirik Sønneland and Rolf Bae seem to snag their prize with a shrug, but they did so after an Antarctic winter, an unnerving event that alone drives the typical American to New Zealand gasping for sushi and whores. The goals for their Trans-Antarctic trek were to set a world record, remain friends, and stay alive. They achieved their goals quietly and modestly, so their expedition was largely ignored by all but Norwegian media. Big Dead Place approached Eirik Sønneland and conducted this interview via email.
You worked for the Norwegian Polar Institute?
[During the Antarctic summer] we worked officially with the NP on NARE 99/00 [Norwegian Antarctic Research Expedition]. During the winter we were on our own (we had our own insurance) with a contract that we could use the station. We did a lot of work for NP during the long winter.
Can I rent Troll Base for a winter?
No. We had a special agreement with the Norwegian Polar Institute that said we needed to do several tasks for them during our stay.
Were they aware that you were going to ski the continent after your winter? Did you have to get a license from them, or ask their permission?
We had permission to walk to the Pole, and proper insurance for the total crossing and wintering. We left a written statement for the NARE expedition leader about our traverse to McMurdo (including way points). We had to do this because we borrowed their emergency beacon and they needed to know where it would be used. People in the NP system knew that we would continue after the Pole, but our mistake was that the right application form did not reach the right people in NP. We had a written letter about our route, but it was placed on the wrong desk. As simple as that.
Let me know if any of this background information is incorrect: You and Rolf Bae spent the winter at Troll Base, then left on 20 October 2000. You made it to Pole about two months later. When you got to Pole, you decided to continue your expedition…
Well, this is where some people have misunderstood us. When we left for Antarctica in 1999, we brought with us equipment and plans for crossing the whole continent to make the world’s longest unsupported ski trek. But we didn’t say anything to the media…only a few people knew about the plan. Reasons: we didn’t want to seem too ambitious, already saying that we would do the first Norwegian winter in Antarctica in forty years, and THEN walking to the South Pole. Also, nobody knew how the four of us would handle eleven months alone at Troll base. How would our motivation be? Would Rolf and I have issues that would make it impossible to set this world record? Would we still want to do it? By telling the world that we would walk only to the South Pole, no people or sponsors would be disappointed if we didn’t walk all the way.
As the winter went on we also had an economical benefit for doing the crossing. It’s cheaper to walk to the coast than fly from the South Pole. Having very little equipment, the route from Pole to McMurdo is a route with a lot of challenges. So we had the chance to quit at the Pole, though that would mean disappointing ourselves big time, and returning to an even more enormous debt. When the time came, we decided not to give up at the Pole, but to continue.
How long did you spend planning your expedition?
We spent about four years planning the expedition, five years if you include preparation during the winter.
When the South Pole appeared on the horizon, or when you approached it, what comments did you make to each other about South Pole Station?
That is a time we will never forget. First I felt we were looking for a needle in a haystack, because a base in Antarctica is small. The first sign of being on the right track was the smoke from an LC-130 far away, taking off from the runway. We were three days away at that point. Then we started to see small buildings on the horizon. Because the station sits on somewhat sunken terrain, you have to get pretty close to see it. It was a wonderful day, the sun was reflecting in the snow and the man-made installations were beautiful from a distance…When we got closer, a guy from Switzerland was out taking photos and looked at us. Surrealistic. Some photos and greetings. We continued along the “roads” on the station, quite bothered by the traffic lights to cross the runway. I remember looking at the buildings thinking, “This is ugly…”
Who greeted you when you arrived? What did they say to you?
Closing in on the ceremony place and the South Pole, about twenty or thirty people were walking with us, asking all kinds of questions, many I don’t remember. I was in some kind of trance, happy. One girl, from the gift shop I believe, asked me why my sledge was still so full when we arrived. I answered, “Because we are going to McMurdo.” Some guy behind me said, “Crazy Norwegians…” People applauded as we closed in on the Pole. Rolf said to me, “Slow down Eirik, you are walking like crazy.” My mind was another place, the South Pole was ours, and I wanted to be with my best friend when we touched the most southern point in the world. A lot of pictures and greetings. A girl came over and took my hand, “I’m Jensen, the station manager…” When I looked at her face I swear it must have been the most beautiful face I’d ever seen. (Yeah, yeah…I hadn’t seen a girl for 13 months.) With all the wonderful people at the base I felt real warm for the first moment on the whole trip…seriously.
When we left the base a girl working on the construction of the New Station flashed her tits as we passed her. I tried to get a picture. She shouted something like, “These are for your motivation!” She was right.
When you got home, what did you tell your friends about South Pole Station?
I told everyone that the people at South Pole Station are very friendly. It has an enormous infrastructure to be in the middle of nowhere. A piece of America!? It must be a wonderful place to spend the winter! Lots of boxes…it seems temporary. The Dome is nice, and I guess the New Station is going to be nicer.
Do you like the name “Amundsen-Scott Station”?
Hmmm…I guess it is okay. It says a little about the race to be first to South Pole. On the other hand, why should Scott get his name on the station? He lost the race and his men because of bad planning and arrogance (he wouldn’t listen to more experienced people). The sad thing is that everyone knows who Scott is, but few know Amundsen’s story. Even today, people like the National Geographic Society think Scott is the “big boy”.
With the glaring exception of Borchgrevink, Norway has consistently manufactured high-calibre polar explorers such as Roald Amundsen, Fridtjof Nansen, and Trygve Gran. Are you much influenced by these old-time explorers? Do you read their accounts?
Yes, the old polar explorers have meant a lot to us. We have read a lot of their stories and used much of their experience on our expedition.
What influences throughout your life led you to want to ski across Antarctica?
Why we wanted to ski Antarctica is complex. Interest in Antarctic history, testing our own physical and psychological limits, and at the same time doing this with your best friend. Making history is also nice. But if you look in the Guinness Book of World Records it says that two Belgians have the world’s longest unsupported ski trek. This is wrong, and everybody knows that. We will try to make this right.
We will straighten out this nonsense about the Belgians. Forced at gunpoint to pick only one, who is your favorite Antarctic explorer?
I think for the time being Shackleton is my favorite because I have an interest in how he was leading and motivating his men.
What books did you bring with you on your expedition? Did you carry photographs of anyone? Who?
A Norwegian book “L” by Erlend Loe, “Pale Blue Dot” by Carl Sagan, and the Bible. We brought no pictures except satellite photos of the Axel Heiberg Glacier. What we did have was names on our sleeping bags: Rolf had written Selma Hayek on his, and I had written Jennifer Lopez on mine, in big white letters. In some way or another we went to bed with these girls every single night of the trip: 105 total.
After you left Pole, people around McMurdo would ask, “What’s the story with those crazy Norwegians?” and the reply would be something like, “No one knows. They’re probably dead.” The lack of communication and the uncertainty of your situation drove NSF to indignant rage, so you had many fans in McMurdo. I read somewhere that your lack of communication after you left Pole was a technical problem. Is this true?
I broke the satellite (VHF) antenna coming down the Axel Heiberg Glacier. I thought I fixed it, but it didn’t work. Imagine our parents looking at their plots on the map, and the last plot before we lost communication was when we were on the glacier: one of the most dangerous parts of the trek. They were terrified. Nobody heard from us for about three weeks. To be without communication was not a major point for us. You feel alone anyway, and isolated, unless you can use Iridium to call home. We had three phones, but the company went bankrupt while we were wintering.
Most of the modern expeditions advertise their logistics, broadcast their exact location at all times with GPS, and communicate each move to their sponsors and to the press, and when they’re finished, they know exactly how they’re going to get home. In contrast, you were out of contact much of the time after you left Pole, few people knew where you were or what your plans were, and you showed up at the coast essentially trying to hitchhike out of Antarctica. Was your expedition intentionally opaque?
Few but essential people knew about our plans. We had equipment that gave GPS positions every day, which people could follow, sent via satellite. What we didn’t have was money to pay people to get this out to the press. Newspapers in Norway, sponsors, and parents knew where we were. Of course we had a plan to get off the continent! We had two seats on the Klebnikov icebreaker (We are still waiting to get back our bags!) They said that they couldn’t wait if we ran late, and because of record-breaking little wind we had to walk more than expected; therefore we were five days late for the boat. When NSF & Co. started arguing against us, I guess those on the Klebnikov found it easiest to say that they had no deal with us. Then people started claiming that we had no plan to get off the continent, making us look like idiots. The only reason we kept calm is that we believe in the power of truth.
Rumor around McMurdo was that after you missed the boat you were doing dishes at Scott Base in exchange for use of some of their facilities, but then Scott Base kicked you out. Is this true? Were you made welcome at Scott Base?
Yes, we were made welcome at Scott Base. Very much so. We helped out doing different work at Scott Base in exchange for staying there, even though there was some kind of pressure from NSF to stop this service. Rumors started to get to Scott Base, and I’m not sure they knew whom to believe, so we needed to leave the base to stay in our tent for one or two days. The worst part of that was that we felt like criminals and that people didn’t believe us. At this point, U.S. pilots and Kiwis were putting food and chocolate outside our tents, and you can believe how good and important that felt for us. Bottom line, Scott Base did us a tremendous favor by letting us stay. In contrast, NSF told us not to enter the McMurdo Station area or any of the buildings, and not to use the shuttle buses. American employees told us later that they had been told to stay away from us and not to talk to us.
Welcome to McMurdo. I was working at McMurdo when you arrived in 2001. I remember it well because we were commanded by NSF not to accommodate you in any way, and were forbidden to invite you to our rooms or into any buildings. We were told not to send mail for you, nor to send email messages for you. While you were in the area, NSF was keeping a close eye on you. What did the managers say to you when you arrived?
They asked us what plans we had for getting home. The manager at Scott Base was calm and listened to what we had to say. I must be honest and say that this was not the way we were treated by the U.S. manager. It was like an interrogation. Very unpleasant. He acted arrogant. However, it seemed like he started to realize after a couple of days that we didn’t try to fool anybody. He probably got his orders from people that were not in Antarctica at the time. And, to be honest, today I don’t have bad feelings toward anyone in McMurdo. Bottom line, what did hurt us was that people could not think without using bureaucracy. If people could only try to listen to what we said and stop looking up paragraphs in some kind of “standard operating procedures” for a short while, a lot could have been solved in a shorter time.
One example: our home office, together with Steven McLachlan and Klaus Pettersen in New Zealand, got a green light from the captain of the cargo ship that would deliver cargo (beer, etc.) to McMurdo, who said he would let us travel for free back to New Zealand if it was okay with his company. At first the company was agreeable, but then NSF told them that the ship would be under their rent until it left McMurdo and was 27 km away. Reason for the 27 km? The cargo ship needed support from the Coast Guard icebreaker to get through the ice. Since, technically, the contract with NSF did not cease until the ship left the ice, NSF could stop us from going on the ship. At which point NSF offered to fly us from McMurdo for US$50,000 each.
How did you finally arrange to leave the ice?
We left because of another wonderful New Zealand personality called Rodney Russ from Heritage Expeditions. He let us aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy to help us out after Scott base helped us contact ships in the area. I can tell you there were two big smiles when McMurdo called the ship the next day to confirm that we were on board.
What was your visual impression of McMurdo Station?
McMurdo looks like an oil refinery. And it is too big, with too much destroyed equipment. There were about seventy destroyed cars down by the harbor! But I guess it does its job.
Did you talk to any workers? Did you get invited to any parties?
We got a lot of invitations to parties and we visited the base and spoke to people. We also were invited to speak about our trip to the people at McMurdo. But it was stopped because, as you know, we weren’t supposed to talk to you guys, nor enter any of your buildings.
During 2000-01, McMurdo was crawling with gorgeous women. Did you get any action in McMurdo?
I met a lot of nice women, especially one whom I afterwards lost the e-mail address of. I think she was from Seattle…maybe I can find that name…I need to find that name! Some guy said I got “the snow wing”. I thanked him without knowing what it meant.
Outside of Antarctica, has your status as an Antarctic explorer ever been the obvious factor in tilting female attentions toward the horizontal?
We could probably use our story when we meet girls, but that is not in my nor Rolf’s nature.