“Thomas Ulrich and I left home 12th of April. We started from the North Pole 1st of May and headed south towards Frans Josef Land with a weight of 170 kilos in our kayaks. (We used plastic kayaks instead of sleds, to be able to paddle when the ice melted later in the season, they worked extremely well).”
Thus began explorer Børge Ousland’s report back to the National Geographic Society of his 2007 expedition. Not only did he and Thomas Ulrich navigate by their own power from the North Pole across sea ice to Frans Josef Land, they also retraced the steps of 19th century explorer and fellow Norwegian, Fridtjof Nansen. (Fridtjof Nansen’s 156th birthday is being commemorated today with a Google Doodle.)
This was supported by Ousland’s fourth grant from the Socitey. Since then, he’s had two more, the most recent in 2015, to cross the three largest icecaps in Alaska: the St. Elias Mountains, Western Chugach Mountains, and the Stikine Ice Field, among the fastest retreating icecaps in the world.
“We had a hard time reaching the northern islands of Frans Josef land,” Ousland’s report continued. “The ice was thin and breaking up all around us. Sometimes we jumped from ice floe to ice floe and frequently had to use our dry suits to swim from one ice edge to the other. The drift was also extremely strong, we almost drifted past the island and in the end just had to go for it! The last day before land we worked constantly for 25 hours before we finally reached the relative safety of Eva-Liv Island, 14th of June, in the northeast of the archipelago. By then we had skied for one and a half month on the polar drift ice.”
“From this position we paddled and skied southwest through the archipelago, from one island to the other, following the route of Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen. We came to their wintering hut at Jackson Island, which was a touching and very special moment. Here the two explorers spent the winter in 1895-96 with very little equipment, not really knowing where they were. That they survived is a feat second to none in Arctic history.”
In 2009, two stories ran in National Geographic Magazine about polar exploration: the first, a historical look back at Fridtjof Nansen’s adventures; the second, the saga of Børge Ousland and Thomas Ulrich’s journey. Two stories, spanning three centuries, and one spectacular, challenging, and ever-changing landscape.