For some reason or another, I always think about mowing the lawn when I am on a trip. I so much look forward to mowing the lawn in my bare feet, with the birds singing around me, a beer on the porch and Dylan singing about Rainbow Trout. When I finally get home, I can never stand to mow the lawn.
Excerpts from Eirik Sønneland and Rolf Bae’s account of wintering at Norway’s Troll Station and then skiing across Antarctica. These deranged, hardcore, and unassuming expeditioners are looking for a publisher for an English translation of their book. Eirik can be contacted at: esonne(AT)student(DOT)umb(DOT)no
The trip really began now, Saturday the 21st of October, 2000. Five years of talk, daydreaming, planning, and intense work was now to be crowned by a three month ski trip. In the sled lay ninety-five days worth of food, and everything needed for self sufficiency and survival. Two friends on a long journey, with as little contact as possible with the outside world.
2200 kilometers to the Pole, and another 1600 to McMurdo. It is like starting from Central Park, and following the highway towards Chicago with a 170kg sled behind you. Every 15 or 20 miles, you make camp. Week in, week out, you do the same, every day. It is not just the enormous distances you have to tackle; there is bad weather, extreme cold, and a climb up to 3000m onto the polar plateau. Sometimes you can use the kite, but forward momentum is hindered by large snowdrifts, blown by the wind across your path, often many miles long. You get stuck by the weather and have to sit it out on occasion, this gives a few precious rest days, but the reality is that you just have to keep on going. Slowly, the sled becomes lighter, but at the same time, your body becomes more and more tired. The snow conditions are getting poorer, and it feels like trying to ski on beach sand. Finally, you reach Chicago. Two-thirds of the trip remains.
The closest friends and family learned of the plans for a complete crossing of the continent only a few months before the trip began, without a real sense of what this entailed. Jorunn Sønneland imagined a short, downhill run from the South Pole base down to McMurdo. In reality, the most dangerous part would then lie ahead, the trip down the Axel-Heiberg glacier.
The transport out from McMurdo was Rolf’s responsibility, and something which he had to arrange from the Troll base. With much assistance from Sjur Mødre, NAE had organized this with Quark Expeditions, who arrange tourist cruises with the Kaptain Khlebnikov to McMurdo at this time of year. The agreement was made via e-mail, and was to cost the boys no more than the promise of a lecture following the expedition as well as $2000 per person, which is a very reasonable price for a ticket out of Antarctica. The only condition was that the boys reach McMurdo in time—the ship would leave the 31st of January, and would not wait.
The South Pole in the Mediterranean
At home in Tannanger, Eirik’s mother Jorunn had decided to escape when her son began his trip. She and her friends went on a health trip to Greece. It did, of course, offer no help whatsoever. The day her son left the Troll base, she lay and wept in a hotel room on a small Greek island. That evening she experienced one of those strange coincidences which make one wonder if fate really does exist.
I really cracked. Luckily for me, I had a good friend beside me. We went for a walk out in the streets, everything was closed and dark. I closed my eyes. All I could see were huge crevasses and unfamiliar terrain. I prepared myself mentally for the fact that I had now lost Eirik. Then we saw a shop with the lights on, the only one which appeared to be open. It turned out to be a children’s shop, and as a new grandmother I was drawn in. In the window stood two mannequins: one with boys’ clothes and one with girls’. The boy doll was wearing a jacket with the emblem “Antarctic Expedition”. Embroidered on it was also a picture of two men pulling fully loaded sleds.
Jorunn’s friend grabbed the chance while she could:
Jorunn, she said, this is a sign: buy the jacket, give it to Jakob and make sure he has it on the day his uncle returns from Antarctica.
Jorunn did as her friend said, and felt a rush of calm sweep over her. From that moment onwards, she was sure of the safe return of Rolf and Eirik. The other mannequin had a white, woolen, hooded cape, which she bought for her granddaughter, Emma, who Uncle Eirik had not yet met. Jorunn Sønneland is not particularly religious, neither is she a believer in such supernatural signs, but she asks herself:
Why was that jacket displayed on exactly that day when I was wandering on that small Greek island and had lost all hope?
An Antarctic motif in the middle of the Mediterranean? Jorunn had calmed down. She remained calm until the day the antenna broke.
Rolf’s mother had an easier time with the boy’s departure from the safety of the Troll base. As a teacher, Sidsel Bae made a story out of the skip trip for her pupils. With an Antarctic map in her classroom, Sidsel began each day by marking how far the polar explorers had gone.
Low budget, low profile
Since the Iridium company went bankrupt, the boys had no satellite phone. The only communication method was the three Orbcomm transmitters, two of which could send and receive text messages, and the other was only a position transmitter. The two main transmitters were unreliable from the outset, partly due to the cold, and partly due to their inability to communicate with the satellites, which only passed at certain times. Later on, Rolf and Eirik would be heavily criticized for their lack of communication, something which they felt was unjustified. They had nothing to do with the bankruptcy of Iridium, and they spent a lot of the trip trying to get the Orbcomm transmitters to work.
Frode had mounted the final so-called KX with its own antenna and battery. This sent only positional information from time to time. The satellite coverage was not optimal so far south, and was only activated when required. The emergency beacons were loaned to the boys by the Polar Institute, and were tested before departure together with the Norwegian Rescue Headquarters at Sola, Stavanger in southwest Norway.
An emergency beacon is nice to have, but if you are really in trouble in Antarctica, a rescue party will take a very long time to reach you, possibly several days. If you are trapped in a crevasse, you are in big trouble. If you have burned a hole in the tent, and the wind has ripped the flysheet, you are again in big trouble. If in addition to this the weather is poor, or the terrain hostile, then there is a good chance that a rescue party could not reach you at all.
Therefore, the safety of a polar explorer depends largely on what he or she has in the sled behind them, as well as their ability to traverse the terrain and tackle dangerous situations. Polar history shows that, in general, Norwegians have always managed these things admirably. Thorough preparation and absolute self-sufficiency have been priorities since the days of Nansen and Admundsen. There is little use for a satellite telephone if you cannot assess a glacier. Being online with your PC is of no assistance if you get frostbite setting it up. Antarctica is perhaps the place on earth which best demonstrates the false sense of security given by modern technology.
Espen Askeladd was a happy man. To have all that you need in life in a rucksack or a sled is extremely satisfying. You are free to go where you want. It is fascinating how little human beings can manage with, as long as one is focused on what one really needs. When people move house, they realize how many useless things they collect through life’s journey. There is a proverb that says “If you own more that seven things, then the things own you”. Rolf and Eirik had what they needed in their sleds. Every item was valuable, irreplaceable.
On the trip, NAE was practically unavailable. They had communication equipment that was only one-way and worked only occasionally. This created uncertainty for those who watched over private expeditions to Antarctica. Where exactly were they? Where were they going? Rolf and Eirik’s expedition still had an aura of uncertainty to it. Only a select few knew of their intention to cross to McMurdo, and their press coverage was very subdued compared to that of Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft.
This was, however, very comfortable for Eirik and Rolf, who only had themselves to concentrate on. Having worried mothers on the telephone every other day would have been a major disturbance. Antarctica is best enjoyed in peace.
In Tasmania, Martin Betts sat and scratched his head. The experienced Antarctic veteran was responsible for writing the ANAN reports which are regularly published on the internet, and which cover all private activity in Antarctica. NAE stood out from other ventures with its low budget, low coverage and—in his eyes—poor communications. This worried the state-employed journalist. On August 2nd, 2000, he wrote an article and stated: “No details are currently available as to just how the pair will travel from the Pole after their arrival.”
Were Rolf and Eirik still too humble? They had consciously decided not to mention any goal for the trip to dampen any expectations. It was all about risk. Not risk of cold, suffering and distance, but the risk of realizing a dream. This dream was alive, even though it was only they who knew of it.
Humor is an important quality to survive in critical situations. The book “Cato to the South Pole” has to be a good example of how much fun one can have, even in the icy wastelands. One of Antarctic-history’s funniest situations resulted when very hungry, armless polar explorer Cato Zahl Pedersen began dreaming of the cake which lay in his sled. His two companions were ruthless in their humor. They threatened to screw off his artificial arms before putting him in his sleeping bag. They then took out the cake and joked, “No arms, no cake!”
Trapped by the weather
From the outset, at 1200 meters, the skis ran well, but the climb onto the polar plateau was hard. For five days, the boys had to cover triple the distance because each sled had to be pulled by them both. The day stages were no more than 3-6 km for those first two weeks. On day four, they set the shortest distance record, with only 270m before bad weather forced them to make camp.
After 10 days, they had to wait out a storm for the first time. They were already behind schedule. The feeling of lying hopelessly in a tent, while their bodies were coursing with energy and enthusiasm was depressing. Rolf’s routine in such situations kept their sprits up. He knew that patience is an invaluable virtue in such weather; they would always get the chance to make up for lost time later.
From the plateau at 2300m meters, the landscape was at first rolling, but quickly turned into sastrugi. Rolf and Eirik had to cover 1500 km of hard packed snowdrifts on that first stage to the South Pole.
Rolf was the best sailor of the two, and often did some crazy sailing through the myriad of snowdrifts. Due to differences in contents, Rolf’s sled was often not packed as well as Eirik’s, and there was often a hail of thermos flasks and other assorted equipment flying out of the sled behind the rally-style sailing of Rolf. Once, Eirik found a pair of skis and poles which Rolf was not even aware that he had lost. Eirik didn’t know if he should laugh or cry. Without skis in Antarctica, one can quickly end up like Scott. The worst that could happen would be losing the stove, or each other. At high speeds, and in bad visibility, you can quickly lose touch with your partner.
Despite not having the most high-tech equipment, Rolf and Eirik could certainly call themselves innovators on the transport front. They had with them two different kites each, one of 22 square meters and one of 11. The smallest could be reefed to a 6 square meters if necessary. In addition to this, they had with them two pairs of boots and skis, one pair to sail with and one pair to ski with. The sailing skis were of course subject to extreme forces, whilst the normal skis were lighter models with wood cores and air channels to save weight. Having two pairs of skis spread the wear and tear, and reduced the chances of breaking a ski.
What were they doing? What did they want? Why is Antarctica worth so many years of young men’s lives? In their promotion of the trip, Rolf and Eirik formulated the following:
The unknown has always fascinated humankind. We are born curious… Close contact with nature is important for us to be able to understand our surroundings, both physical and psychological…For us, Antarctica has become a symbol for challenge and adventure; a continent which offers many of the most important things in human life; hard work, responsibility, sorrow and happiness…
People are different, complex. It is not always easy to understand yours or others’ motivations for reaching a goal. Is it the goal in itself which appeals, or is it the long and demanding journey which leads you there? By exceeding our limitations we will find out –through good or bad– what it means to be a living being. …all development occurs through stretching our limits.
They started to get into a rhythm. Eirik was concerned about frostbite and blisters on the inside of his thighs, the very same problem which stopped Børge Ousland on his first crossing. Mentally, things began to vary. Rolf’s unbelievably stable mindset was a support for Eirik, but also a source of irritation for him. Such a monotonous mood can be frustrating if one regularly experiences bad days, whilst your partner doesn’t. Rolf asserted later that he could not remember a single bad day on the trip, except perhaps the day he damaged his sled.
On one of the first days of sailing, Rolf had pressed on at high speed though the sastrugi, he was trying to catch up on lost time. Eirik was behind and could see the tremendous strain the 10 kg shell of the sled was being put under. He was worried and warned Rolf. It had to go wrong. The sled cracked right under one of the runners. Eventually, the whole runner broke. The situation was critical. They were 25 days and 260km on their way. Without the sled, the trip would have to be abandoned. Repairs were needed.
The runner could be screwed back onto the sled. Empty fuel bottles were cut up and shaped around both sides of the crack. With good help from some Araldite, a hand drill and some steel line, they glued and sewed the contraption to the base of the sled. The repair took a whole day to complete. A previous attempt at the transantarctic record needed supplies to be flown in after a similar incident. Rolf and Eirik had no idea if the repairs would hold. They could not afford for new equipment to be flown in. With only one sled, they would realistically have been in an emergency situation, and would have to have been rescued. The unknown consequences of this damage were yet another stressful thought in their minds.
Luckily, they had with them two sliding boards which could be used to reduce the strain on the sleds. They were the saviors of the whole expedition.
Progress and friendship
The progress improved. For the first month, they had not been close to achieving the planned 38km average per day. On the 20th of November, the log showed 300km covered, 800km behind schedule. The following month, the wind picked up and they often covered up to 90km a day with the kites. From 87 degrees south the sastrugi stopped abruptly, the wind died down, and the boys walked the final 400km to the pole in perfect, soft snow.
Whilst Rolf was the keenest sailor, Eirik began to increase the progress by lengthening the days when the wind was good. They still had 200km to make up according to the schedule, in order to reach the boat in McMurdo in time. Rolf considered it worthless to worry about the finish so soon.
I thought it was too early to start thinking about the finish line when you are 2000km away. That’s why the boat was not in my thoughts. To worry about it could mean risking an accident. I was also worried about my knees. They had taken a battering in the sastrugi. My goal was to get from A to B. If it took 90 or 110 days was of lesser importance.
Eirik continued to worry about the transport anyway. He became irritated over Rolf’s reluctance to lengthen the day stages.
It highlighted our differences; I think further ahead than Rolf in all areas. I even had to plan for parties three weeks in advance in order to structure my training schedules.
Two or One
Børge Ousland prefers to go on trips alone, regardless of whether he is in the Arctic or Antarctic, whilst Rune Gjeldnes and Torry Larsen have come to be an unstoppable partnership wherever they are. Sjur Mørdre, who has experience from both poles, says that being two in the icy waters of the North Pole is more of an advantage than when on the Antarctic continent. Børge Ousland admits there are many advantages in being two, not least of which is distributing the load in the sleds, but he still feels that being alone means going quicker He also adds that it is much more difficult and therefore satisfying being alone.
The debate about the progress was a recurring theme. In mid-December it turned into a complicated discussion about enjoyment and friendship. Rolf told Eirik that he was more comfortable with people other than Eirik on trips, like an echo from Mallorca. It was quite a confession, there, in the middle of all that ice, hundreds of miles from anywhere. It was quite a message to Eirik to receive, and according to his diary, he found it brutal but honest.
Once again, it was the fundamental differences in personality which were highlighted. Rolf and Eirik knew from the outset that they had different mentalities and rhythms. They had discovered that on the kayak trip in the Mediterranean; they had discovered it at the most stressful times during the preparations for the trip; all four of them had noticed it during the long winter, and now these differences reared their heads once more.
The South Pole was within reach, but they still had 2000km to go to the main goal: McMurdo. Was it possible?
The discussion ended with Rolf having responsibility for arranging alternative transport out of Antarctica if they didn’t reach the boat in time. Eirik accepted that fact that all the talk of staying on schedule and progress was only stressing Rolf. Both agreed that it was better that things were discussed openly.
That’s the important thing with communication: get it out in the open.
If we are to believe Rolf and Eirik, and I guess we have to, they say that they almost never argued. Even Frode and Børre at the Troll station found it difficult to believe how harmonious their relationship was. The discussion about the progress was important to have, and important to get out of the way. What else are polar explorers concerned with?
Everything, absolutely everything, says Rolf. It was amazing for us, after 11 months we thought we would have covered everything, but on the trip there was never a boring evening. We always had something new to talk and laugh about.
The internal humor which develops between people who live close for long periods of time is difficult to explain. Magical moments seldom return. Those of us who were not there with them just have to imagine them, hundreds of kilometers onto the ice, dirty and tired, hunched up in the tent while the storm rages, laughing their heads off.
The monotony is all-encompassing in Antarctica. “On the prairie you see something because everything else is the same,” an American writer once said. The same applies at sea, and surely in Antarctica’s endless wilderness. A whole new perspective of time is opened to those who wander through these places. Antarctica hides millions of secrets, because millions of years are preserved down through the thick ice. Above lies a star filled heaven, which stretches billions of years back in time, in front of you lies an endless plain of ice.
Different polar explorers have differing perspectives of time. The Norwegian author Odd Harald Hauge wrote of “completely empty days” in his book “Cato Towards the South Pole”. “I desperately rummaged in my brain for something concrete to think of. Maybe it is a privilege to have such time to peruse life’s mysteries, but the chill, the physical effort and the monotony paralyzed much of the creativity.”
After her solo trip to the South Pole, Liv Arnesen wrote:
“Time alone is not necessary like food or sleep, but it is important to experience loneliness and silence to make contact with oneself. Everyday life is often so busy that it becomes difficult to fully think out one’s thoughts.”
Whilst Børge Ousland talks about “a zone where I become one with nature”. “Time kind of ceases to exist.”
Eirik made his own observations about how he passed the time.
At home, you spend a lot of time doing small, meaningless things, and little time doing the things which really mean something. In Antarctica, it was the total opposite.
Antarctica can, at the same time however, make the small, meaningless things seem incredibly important. To loosen a knot in the sail lines can suddenly be the only thing you can focus on, and it is crucial for further progress, or melting snow for water and making dinner. When everything is in order and you just plod endlessly on, you can get into an almost meditative state, the thought process almost ceases to function. This clears out a lot of space for new thoughts, or it gives you time to think over a lot which has happened to you throughout your life which you would otherwise just forget.
Something which all polar explorers share is an extreme closeness to nature. Some try to read deeply into this oneness. Rolf just shrugs his shoulders at such suggestions. He will not say how ‘religiously’ inspired he was down there.
I just thought that everything was clean and perfect. Once, whilst pitching the tents, the wind suddenly disappeared. Complete stillness. Just like a perfect Easter day in the mountains of Norway. Not a breath of wind, no ants, no flies, nothing but pure happiness.
A cleansing brainwash
Going on a ski trip in Antarctica must be the closest one can get to space travel on earth. Cold and lifeless in all directions, with only the tent and your clothes as thin shells between you and eternity. The only thing you know is to repeat your movements over and over, one ski in front of the other, one pole in front of the other.
In addition, you have to steer a large kite in a lot of wind, with bad skis and zero visibility, through tall snow drifts, for hundreds of kilometers, week in and week out – all the while, your body is weakening and your mind is alone. A trip to the South Pole stimulates the senses in a way of which most people are unaware. Trivial things at home in the middle of civilization are blown away by the surroundings, where humans do not really belong.
Two beings, making their way through eternal wind, eternal snow, eternal cold. It can be called brain washing, in a positive way. Instead of feeling bloated and lazy, you are hungry and sharp. You are balanced between things which strengthen and weaken you. But you have to stay focused. If you sprain an ankle at the pole, the Red Cross will not come to the rescue. The South Pole can eat you alive.
It doesn’t have to be dangerous if you do like Amundsen recommended; be prepared. The drama is in the air, in the cold which draws the life from you if you are not protected, in the distances to safety and from help, in the hidden crevasses. “The Devil’s Dance floor” is what Amundsen called the worst areas, riddled with crevasses. Each snow bridge is like a prehistoric animal trap. The trip is a balancing act, between a heavenly life and a cold hell.
A wise fisherman on a Caribbean beach once said: “There is no such thing as good or bad luck. If you put a foot wrong and trip, it is because you were not looking where you were going.” He had probably never heard of Amundsen, but the message was the same.
So far – so what?
The South Pole base appeared slowly on the horizon, with its characteristic globe, looking like a crash landed disco ball from an intergalactic party. An unreal place, with runways, barracks and motorized vehicles in the middle of nowhere. Rolf and Eirik wandered into the ceremonial area, where the famous ball of steel is surrounded by flags.
They had spent 60 days reaching the Pole, right on schedule. The log showed 2128 km, the date was the 19th of December, Troll-time and the 20th, South Pole time. All the time zones meet a the pole, theoretically, you can jump from day to day by running round the dome. Between all the flags, some joker had hung up a banner: “So far – so what?”
The Americans gave us a round of applause as we entered the dome. We were the first to wander in that year. They didn’t know we were coming since we were not on the ANI’s lists, says Eirik. Even fewer knew that they were going further.
The same day that Rolf and Eirik reached the South Pole, Martin Betts sent out an ANAN report with some ”news” of NAE. Betts stated with amazement that the NAE support team at home were not concerned with the fact that Rolf and Eirik’s positional transmitters only worked now and then. He showed a list of anonymous sources expressing concerns over NAE’s lack of communication. “…regular up-dates of the position and status of field parties is a fundamental requirement for Antarctic operations”, apparently.
Aasheim was charmed
To call NAE a perfect example of an expedition with effective, precise and comprehensive communications would be to exaggerate somewhat. A few weeks prior to leaving, Rolf had gotten in touch with the renowned explorer and author Stein P. Aasheim, and asked him if he would consider being the media contact for the expedition. This request was partly sponsor driven as they wished to raise the profile of the trip. Aasheim knew Rolf, and quickly accepted.
When they asked me, I was a bit concerned over the fact that the PR part was not really thought out. At the same time I found the expedition charming. Rolf and Eirik’s style demonstrated that they were not really concerned about the media coverage, and I was keen to back-up such an attitude.
Aasheim wanted to help, but was no expert on Polar expeditions. Therefore, neither he nor the lads had any specific hopes for what he might achieve. However, their alternative was zero publicity. After the trip began, Rolf and Eirik had asked that Aasheim said nothing of their actual plans, something which he honored.
Whilst at the South Pole, Rolf and Eirik realized that they were in good shape, and had no need for extra supplies. It was time to spread the news about NAE – “The Stealth Expedition” – was going to the other side of the continent.
The necessary phone calls home were made, and the news of the South Pole success went from parent to friends to sponsors. From the valley of Romsdal in mid-Norway, Stein P. Aasheim sent a press release about the explorers who reached the South Pole in clothes they made themselves, looked in their wallets and realized they couldn’t afford a plane out, so they decided to walk to the other side. He also made the point that the lads were trying to cross Antarctica just like Arnesen/Bancroft, but for only a tenth of the price.
The gimmick was noticed in Norway, but did not tell the whole truth. When NAE first shouted out about the world’s longest ski trip, knowing that McMurdo was within reach, the message that that they had actually planned thoroughly for it for many months became lost.
NAE’s reputation was also damaged by the fact that ”Captain Khlebnikov’s” tour operator, Quark Expeditions, questioned their travel arrangements, despite the fact that the deal was made in writing by email. The Quark people began to notice the storm of interest around Rolf and Eirik. They were possibly trying to avoid being caught up in any rescue operation which they thought might be necessary, such things are very expensive.
Despite Quark’s statement, there was a case of clothes and equipment aboard the ”Captain Khlebnikov” sent by Jacob Bae on the 28th of November 2000 to Monsoon Shipping in Hobart, Tasmania. In the case were clean clothes and equipment which Rolf and Eirik would need after arriving in McMurdo on their journey back to Norway. What was that case doing aboard the “Captain Khlebnikov” if the lads were never planning on sailing with the ship? Quark never explained.
In Antarctic circles, NAE’s newly announced goal dropped like a bomb. The outside world already considered NAE to be poorly organized, and without adequate safety procedures. Aasheim’s press release about the poor boys who had to walk home did nothing to change these opinions. There was suddenly a lot of traffic on the digital highway streaming over the heads of the two polar explorers, who were happily plodding onwards.
The personnel at the American Scott-Amundsen base had welcomed them warmly. They offered medical assistance for Eirik’s frostbite on his inner thighs, they wanted to try and fix the Orbcomm transmitters, and Rolf and Eirik could shower and eat when they wanted.
To be polite, the boys had a cup of coffee and some hot chocolate. The rest was politely refused, in order to preserve the status of a self-sustained expedition. In reality, it was NAE who helped out the base by leaving one of the Orbcomms which didn’t work as well as a couple of sleeping mats and unnecessary items of clothing.
Rolf and Eirik were only interested in continuing their journey in peace. They did however leave in their wake a wave of rumors, which later developed in different ways, depending on who you speak to. Basically, Rolf and Eirik, the support team at home, the Americans at the base, ANAN reports and the Norwegian Polar Institute all contributed to the rumors.
Martin Betts was worked up when the Polar Institute denied knowledge of Rolf and Eirik’s plans to cross Antarctica. The fact was that the plan was known about, but only amongst a select few with no contact with the media. The Main Rescue Center in Southern Norway was also notified of the route, the way points and tentative time checkpoints. Rolf and Eirik’s problem was that the Polar Institute’s initial permit had specified that the boys must send a written application to the top management in Tromsø if they planned for large deviations from the permitted route. This application was never formally sent.
In addition to this, the ANAN reports continued to doubt the safety of NAE, despite the expedition having a $350,000 insurance policy for rescue with Lloyds which would cover any event.
Martin Betts began to take a serious interest in the Norwegian Expedition. He began to realize that it was going to be difficult for Rolf and Eirik to reach McMurdo by the 1st of February due to lack of wind. His next report, dated the 17th of January, described their alternative options for transport out of McMurdo. One included Arnesen/Bancroft’s charter boat, the “Sir Hubert Wilkins”. Due to this report, the manager of “Yourexpediton”, a million dollar business was suddenly involved.
Charlie Hartwell sat in Yourexpediton headquarters in Minneapolis, USA. He, of course, followed the ANAN reports from Australia. He immediately started to email NAE’s support team in Norway to inquire as to whether Rolf and Eirik would need a place onboard their boat. The ship’s owner, Don McIntyre, also became involved. Stein P. Aasheim noticed that Hartwell and McIntyre insisted upon knowing of Rolf and Eirik’s exact plans and were, on occasion, aggressive in their emails.
I was amazed that he contacted us so early. The boys were doing well, they had plenty of food in the sleds and had a good chance of making their booked boat.
Aasheim felt that his authority as press contact was being stretched, and he involved Sjur Mødre, the parents and the Polar Institute to keep them oriented. A friendly gesture in being the press contact had suddenly become an uncomfortable, full-time job, which Aasheim was certainly not prepared for. From his base in Romsdal, Aasheim had to fend off aggressive Antarctic businessmen with unknown motives, and at the same time, get acquainted with the bureaucracy of a continent he had never been to.
Soon, the wave of email about NAE’s fate escalated, and there was input from USA, Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica and Norway. In all of the trans-continental correspondence, there was a clear message that “The NAE Headquarters” in Norway had to take responsibility.
The problem was that the NAE hardly had any ”headquarters”. Rolf and Eirik’s command center was a few spread out individuals. In Romsdal there was Stein P. Aasheim, in Oslo sat Sjur Mødre, in Stavanger and Bergen there were a few friends and in Sola and Sandnes were the boys’ parents. Everybody wondered if Rolf and Eirik would reach the “Captain Khlebnikov” in time. Before they knew this for certain, they felt it was wrong to start making any other deals on behalf of NAE.
The boys themselves were out of contact. They already had enough to worry about.
The broken antenna
“I have always considered the so-called ‘point of no return’ to be somewhat of a trap for those who wish to reach any goal”
- Fridtjof Nansen
Rolf and Eirik left the Amundesen-Scott base after two days rest and a lot of fun with the Americans. The boys had given a talk for the crew. Rolf was a little rough around the edges. Eirik felt as though Rolf had ridiculed the questions from the audience and had to remind him that their humble attitude should prevail at all times.
In front of them remained the last stage over the Polar plateau and down onto the Axel-Heiberg glacier, followed by the long trek across the Ross shelf out to McMurdo, about 1600 km in total. In an airplane, it would take approximately three and a half hours. Eirik wondered how much time they would need. They had 40 days to reach that boat.
The ice on Antarctica is on average 2000m thick, and 4776m at its thickest point. It has taken millions of years to build up this giant ice cap. The thickest part of the ice rests on bedrock which is 2000m below sea level. If all the ice were to melt, the world’s oceans would rise around 70 meters, that would reach the nose of the Statue of Liberty. Hundreds of years can pass before a snowfall in the middle of Antarctica reaches the coast in the form of ice, far beneath the surface of the glaciers.
Distance-wise, they were well over half way. Body and mind had of course begun to be affected. In Eirik’s diary he wrote: “Got cold today, but I know that others in this world are colder…”. The snow conditions were periodically very bad. Amundsen wrote that it was like trying to ski in glue. The Antarctic winds blow the snow in such a way that the crystals break down and it becomes like sand. Rolf and Eirik found it very difficult to edge their skis in this “sandsnow”. The snow particles were like ball bearings, and the skis just rolled all over them.
The cold, the wind and the conditions were no surprise for them, but Eirik began to have other reactions he was not prepared for. Missing home, his friends and family was a recurring theme in his diary: “This trip has shown me WHAT and WHO means things in life. (…) I am so much looking forward to seeing them again.”
I hadn’t been homesick since I was at camp as a 10 year-old, not even when I spent the winter in Antarctica. I now experienced a very strong image of what it is like being at home.
Eirik could not forgive himself for not having been at his sister’s wedding, but an important meeting with the sponsors was taking place in Oslo.
Friends and family were not the priority during the preparations, and I now regretted that. To wander here, up on the ice gave me a very bad conscience. The trip lost all its meaning, I was walking in a cloud of negative thoughts.
Think of Kristian, your cousin who had built a fantastic apartment which was always open, he had made many rare and fantastic friends, and in the course of 2 seconds, he was gone. At the funeral, you saw all of this and said: “Kristian was always there for us.” And here you are, on the world’s biggest ego-trip, you couldn’t even make it to you own sister’s wedding. You should be her closest family, and you chose to meet a sponsor.”
Day 70, the day before New Year’s Eve he wrote: “Maybe you go to Antarctica to find something, yourself perhaps. I think I left what I am looking for back at Sola airport in Stavanger; family and friends. Imagine having to walk all this way just to find that out.”
Mowing the lawn and icicles
Another reason for worry came up: The 29th of January was a fantastic day for the kites, 203 km in one go, only 66 km behind the record of 269 km in a day. The problem was that they had strayed 60 km off course due to the wind direction. Now they had to walk due west for three or four days to hit the entrance to the Axel-Heiberg glacier correctly. Rolf – the navigator – apologized, knowing that they had lost valuable days. With hindsight, some may say he purposely took a wide berth around the isolated Russian Vostok Base, where they almost certainly had plentiful supplies of vodka.
To compensate, the boys took a sip of Lagavulin and some snus to celebrate the new year. Then it was onwards over the “big, white silence”, Eirik charging, restless with his gaze fixed towards McMurdo and his thoughts all the way back home on Norway. And Rolf, with all the time in the world and all of his solid routines, very much aware that record attempts in Antarctica have one golden rule: To get there first, you first have to get there.
Rolf was also homesick, but this was more linked to concrete memories which he had experienced on other trips.
For some reason or another, I always think about mowing the lawn when I am on a trip. I so much look forward to mowing the lawn in my bare feet, with the birds singing around me, a beer on the porch and Dylan singing about Rainbow Trout. When I finally get home, I can never stand to mow the lawn.
What else? You cannot think about mowing the lawn and blackbirds for 3800 km. His diary does not reveal much, and is almost unreadable for anybody other than Rolf.
I had already thought about things at the Troll Station for a whole year, and was actually done with most of it. It was more the basic stuff that explorers think of; food, girls, new trips or what my friends were doing back home.
Once Erle gave up, Rolf was even more pleased that he had gained some real friends who kept in contact with him while he was in Antarctica. One of them, Rune Grønningen, had rung Rolf regularly whilst he was in Dronning Maud Land, he was one of the few. Rolf and Rune became good friends, and it was Rune with whom Rolf had spent most of the summer before leaving for Antarctica. The last time Rolf rang before leaving, Rune had sung a happy song about an icicle which grew out of Rolf’s backside, while Rolf himself rolled on the floor in laughter. Such memories were treasured and a big comfort on the ice. Rolf wasn’t to know that he would never see Rune again.
Following Amundsen’s footsteps
Eirik began to be seriously tired of the Polar plateau. Rolf was beginning to get his hopes up. They were getting closer to the most famous places on the trip, Peak Nansen, Peak Engelstad, the Great Ice Fall, the Valley of Silence and the mighty Heiberg Glacier – the key which unlocked the plateau and the Pole 80 years earlier. On the 9th of January, Rolf received his best ever birthday present, he finally could see the characteristic profile of Peak Nansen.
Sometimes it is better to leave things in peace. To describe and explain an experience is to distance oneself from it. Certain things have to be experienced to be understood. Given this, one must accept that people who have experienced these things, neither wish to or are able to describe them. This is how Rolf thinks of their descent down the Axel-Heiberg Glacier.
You can never describe how it really was, so you might as well not bother trying.
Rolf had read and dreamed of this glacier for years. It was his. Every single day during the winter spent on Antarctica, he had studied satellite photos of the areas Amundsen had named; The Butcher, The Triangle, The Ski jump…When Rolf descended the glacier himself, he could hear the barking of the dogs being slaughtered, he saw the blood in the snow, he saw Bjaaland and Hassel struggling ahead of their sleds. He was there, imagining how it must have been for those pioneers at that time, when it really was an adventure into the unknown. He was glad that Amundsen had told his story.
The two newly-turned 26-year-olds had reached the climax of the trip. Both were seized by the serious nature of the situation and suddenly were overwhelmed with a sense of etiquette. Rolf would go first down the Heiberg Glacier because it was his dream. Eirik decided that he should not have an easy ride by following Rolf’s tracks, so he ploughed his own to the side. The two friends made double tracks, circling around the hidden crevasse, and slid down to the warmth and good snow down on the Ross Shelf.
Everything was perfect, then Eirik tipped his sled and the antenna snapped.
The fight for attention
At this point, Arnesen and Bancroft were still on the plateau, with the same problem that Rolf and Eirik had had. They were moving too slowly. They still hadn’t reached the Pole. The ladies route followed the more easterly Shackleton Glacier down to the Ross Shelf. They too were then relying on the wind to blow them to McMurdo.
Through January the ANAN reports continued to exaggerate the story of Arnesen/Bancroft’s competition, the “renegade” Norwegians who walked in silence. In a report dated the 31st of January, Marin Betts wrote a passage entitled “Trekkers miss Khlebnikov, position, plans unknown”:
“Despite numerous attempts over the last two weeks by national program representatives from several countries and others including ANAN to obtain up-dated information on the venture (NAE), nothings is known at this time about the location of the two men, their status, or their travel arrangements for departure from Antarctica at the end of their trek.”
Charlie Hartwell and Don McIntyre began to get very impatient. They demanded answers from the NAE support team in Norway. Did the boys need a space on their boat? Hartwell had already spent a considerable amount of time with this matter and wished to clear it up. The team in Norway felt that the manager for Arnesen’s crew was blowing things out of proportion.
My impression was that Charlie Hartwell was being very aggressive towards Rolf and Eirik because they had originally informed the world that they were going to the South Pole, not to McMurdo. They had continued without having sufficient alternatives for transport out of McMurdo. Hartwell branded Rolf and Eirik as amateurish boys, and NAE as a joke expedition with poor planning, says Jacob Bae.
In one of his mails, Hartwell wrote:
The media is now getting involved (…) asking questions and I’ve begun to talk about it with government officials wondering if you are counting on our boat. It’s putting us in a difficult situation, but it’s also potentially putting your two explorers in a difficult light as they appear to have no search and rescue plan or contingencies.
The reasons for Yourexpeditions desperation to sell a space on their boat to Rolf and Eirik are still unknown. Perhaps they saw it as a way of sharing the high costs. Later, Hartwell claimed it was purely for safety reasons, he wished to help Rolf and Eirik, in case they got into any trouble.
Martin Betts made the point that NAE was a direct competitor to Arnesen/Bancroft’s expedition, both in the competition for have gone the farthest first, and in the competition for publicity.
Yourexpedition was on a million dollar budget, and employed eight persons in their headquarters in the USA. Their homepage www.yourexpedition.com and the interactive work with schools had proved to be immensely popular. Three million children in 116 countries followed Arnesen/Bancroft and their teaching concept from Antarctica. Under the motto “To inspire and promote the achievement of dreams” the Americans had also managed to market the expedition. Yourexpedtition sold large amounts of merchandise, T-shirts, books and other Arnesen/Bancroft items. The ladies arrival in McMurdo was a well planned PR-stunt with the press transported in with the “Sir Hubert Wilkins”
Hartwell risked having to take Rolf and Eirik onboard his boat, and the possibility of their success would severely dampen the interest in Arnesen/Bancroft if they were to fail. On the other hand, if he refused help to Rolf and Eirik, and they really needed it, it would reflect very badly on Yourexpeditions.
Rolf and Eirik were of course blissfully unaware of the politics which were raging because of them. They were participants in a huge PR competition which started a long time after they had left the civilized world. Once again, their lack of communication was stirring up a hornets nest within the channels around Antarctica. The uncertainty was certainly not reduced now that their only position transmitter was now broken.
At it again
The broken antenna was not a massive problem for Rolf and Eirik. Since the start in Dronning Maud’s Land, they had been spending up to a day each time they had tried to get the Orbcomm transmitters to work. Now they had to try and fix the antenna and hoped that their last transmitter could still give the outside world a sign that they were still alive.
It couldn’t be fixed. Nobody had any clue of their progress or status. The last message from the boys reached Jakob Bae on the 9th of January, Rolf’s birthday. After that, it was four weeks before anyone heard anything.
Arranged communication is a double edged sword. If it is broken, then people assume a crisis. With no arrangements for communication, no news is good news. Everything becomes more relaxed. You have an arrival date, some leeway and a fixed date where rescue operations will begin.
The risks involved in crossing Antarctica and the massive resources required for a rescue operation became very clear in Dronning Maud Land at the time that Rolf and Eirik were on their trip. Thomas Olsen Wosnitza, a 21 year old from Finnmark in Northern Norway was onboard Lance, the Norwegian Polar Institution’s summer expedition ship. He sustained serious head injuries after an accident on a snow scooter. He was driving over the ice between Troll and the South Africa SANAE Base when the accident occurred. He was left lying on the ice, unconscious. A multinational rescue operation was mounted, involving a helicopter and several Hercules aircraft. He was eventually flown to a hospital in Christchurch, New Zealand. Months later, it seems as though he will not suffer permanent damage, but he has lost all memory for the past year.
Rolf and Eirik’s parents were put in the worst position imaginable. The communication lines were broken, and they did not know why. Their children could be alright, or they may be lying deep in a crevasse. It could be weeks before they find the answers
This time it was Sidsel Bae’s turn to loose her calm. Jorunn Sønneland was, of course very worried, but she was not affected by the same magnitude of fear that she had experienced in Greece. Her optimism had been strengthened.
When we didn’t hear anything, I cracked, says Rolf’s mother. For seven years I had managed to give up smoking, now I was at it again.
Both consciously and unconsciously she prepared herself for the news of her son’s death.
The unknown is difficult to handle. It was as though the outcome was not important, as long as I could discover what had happened to Rolf. The final two weeks were a blur. I felt guilty for Eirik’s mother. She was alone for the final week because her husband was away.
The two mothers kept sporadic contact through both the winters the boys were away and during the ski trip, and they found themselves very close, closer than other friends or even family. A mother’s instinct is a life force when mother and child are together, but it can be very destructive for the mother when the child is in danger and she is helpless.
Jorunn Sønneland found that the world around her avoided the subject of Antarctica. Whilst she was full of bottled up terror and needed to talk about her son, nobody would ask her how everything was going. Neither was she asked how it felt to be left alone. However, when the family cabin was flooded after a water pipe burst, suddenly everybody wanted to help. It is easier to fix a burst pipe than a mother’s bleeding heart.
Jakob knew every detail of Rolf and Eirik’s route. On the internet, he kept himself updated on the weather situation in the area every day. He calculated that the boys needed two to three weeks to reach civilization, and knew that they were both carrying emergency beacons. Mr. Bae warned Lloyds that an emergency situation could happen, and the 15th of February was set as the day a rescue mission would be commenced. If Rolf and Eirik had not made any contact by then, the alarm would be given.
The weather on the Ross Shelf was not normal for that time of year. A lot of snow fell and there was little wind. Sjur Mødre & Co had sped over a smooth surface of ice 11 years previously, whilst Rolf and Eirik had to break trail in windless conditions. During the final 970 kilometers, there were only a pitiful 3 days of sailing, which meant only 10 in total since the Pole. When the wind was around they put it to good use and set a new personal distance record of 210 kilometers in one day.
It didn’t help much. The wind vanished again after the three days. In mid-January, the boys realized that they were unlikely to reach the boat, and they didn’t worry too much. They could only carry on their steady journey. On the Ross Shelf, even Rolf began to miss home. After checking the log one day he announced to Eirik “now there is less than a Greenland-crossing left, then we’ll be finished.”
Physically, they began to wear down. They both began to get more affected by the cold, even though the temperatures were milder on the Shelf compared to the extreme cold up on the plateau. With 55-70lbs less body weight, their thermal clothes were starting to get baggy on them. At one stage, Rolf was overcome by hunger pangs. One minute he was starving, the next he couldn’t touch food. Eating became the only thing on his mind, a sure sign that the rations had been too small.
The physical requirements for walking 3800km over Antarctica are difficult to imagine with experiencing it first hand. Repetitive strain injuries in tendons and joints, blisters, creeping frostbite and metal struggles are difficult to avoid. It is a balancing act between pressing the body forward and not pressing it so hard as to overdo it.
Rolf was made for this type of work, and Eirik had trained for it – both had the toughness required. At Troll Station, both Eirik and Børre remarked on how inactive Rolf was. Whilst Eirik trained routinely, Rolf lay on the couch, eating and reading. Børre had seen how Eirik had missed his friend he was about to cross Antarctica with whilst he was training. The doctor spoke to Rolf about this
He answered that if he was going to train for months before a ski trip of over 100 days, he could risk getting bored of it all before he began. But he understood that Eirik wanted to be prepared as best as he could. People are different, and you have to accept that.
However different Rolf and Eirik were, however hard it had all been, however late they were going to be – they began to realize that they were going to succeed. The landmarks around McMurdo and Ross Island began to show up on the horizon. In just a few 10’s of kilometers, they would be finished.
When Rolf realized that the goal was in sight, he wanted to slow the tempo rather than increase it. It is better being on route than getting home.
The relief of coming home lasts for only a minute. It comes, and it goes. The day you arrive back, everything you have dreamed of is over.
He was not really that worried that they didn’t reach the Kaptain Khlebnikov in time.
I was sure we would get out of McMurdo somehow, the point was that we had done it.
Rolf looked at the GPS. That had covered a distance of almost 3800 kilometers. Monday the 5th of February, at 1am, after walking for 105 days, they wandered down the runway at Williams Airfield in McMurdo. They had 10 days of food rations left in the sleds. They had reached the end of the road. Their shoulders could sink, and they could breathe out at last.
Four men had spent the winter and become strong friends, two of them had done the longest ski trip ever, and kept their health and friendship intact. All the goals were reached. The Norwegian Antarctic Expedition 1999-2001 had been a huge success.