Polar Explorer on Life Alone at the Edge

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Failure is inevitable in exploration. How do you cope with it?

No one likes failure. I don't like failure either, but it's part of life. If you want to achieve your goals, you have to accept the risk of failing. I get depressed when expeditions go wrong for some reason. I feel those kinds of feelings. It's impossible to avoid them. But they can't take control your life, because you have to know that these are things that are part of the reason for choosing a difficult, challenging goal.

Of course it is important to learn from your mistakes. You have to ask yourself, What went wrong? What can I do better the next time? But you also have to acknowledge—worship—the victories. Even if the expedition goes wrong, there will be victories that you can take with you. I think that is just as important as learning from your failures.

What stands out as the most difficult obstacle you've had to overcome? How did you do it?

On the second trip to the Arctic in 2001, my sled broke very early in the trip. I tried to repair it. I thought it was going well, but it wasn't. It just fell apart completely a week into the expedition. I really wanted to complete that journey like I did in Antarctica—pure and unsupported with no help from outside—but the sled was not going to last all the way to Canada.

I had to get a new sled in. But I didn't really think it would be possible for me to continue after getting a new sled in because that would have changed the whole concept of the expedition. I would have been supported. So, I was depressed and didn't have the motivation to carry on. I really wanted to give up.

But then I talked to my wife, and she said, "No, don't give up. Think it over. Give it some time. You shouldn't give up. The most important thing is that you complete the expedition—continuing with a new sled or not doesn't matter." So I decided to get in a new sled, go for one more week, and then decide.

I knew I had to face myself when I got back home and would have to say to the mirror that I made the right choice. I'd have to live with that decision. I thought that if I just gave it some time, got some fresh perspective, my attitude might change.

I was right, and my wife was right as well, because during that week I went from feeling horrible and wanting to give up to gradually getting my motivation and calmness back. I realized that I was privileged to be in such a beautiful landscape with all kinds of shapes and colors in the ice.

At the end of the week, I could finally lift my head, kept going, and actually achieved my goal. Taking that extra time changed the whole expedition from a horrible failure to a huge success.

How do you mentally endure the daily grind of a polar expedition? I've read that you carry things like photos, books, a journal, and music to help keep you occupied.

What's different between a solo expedition and an expedition with two or three other people—especially out on ice where there is nothing living more or less—is that you have to account for all 24 hours of the day. That is why I bring these kinds of things.

If you are just staring at the tent roof for two months you start to go crazy. You need a combination of being able to push on hard during the day and regaining your energy when you are in the tent. I bring letters from home, pictures of my family. I do bring some books, especially ones that give me motivation.

On this last trip across the Arctic Ocean I brought The Hobbit and Papillon. I also brought a bag of poems—I had copied a lot of poems onto individual pieces of paper and put them in a bag. And everyday I pulled a poem and read it in the morning. During the day I tried to reflect on it.

I listen to music as well. I like to listen to rock-and-roll music because it helps me escape to another reality when I need to.

Have you learned anything about yourself during the months you've spent alone on the ice that's improved your daily life back home?

One thing I've learned from those expeditions that I carry with me in my daily life is to not get stuck constantly working every day for some point in the future that never seems to arrive. Sometimes I know I have to stop and live in the present.

Life is now. Life is the small moments that are happening everyday. I know that I should be happy to have good health, family, and friends. I don't take anything for granted.

What comes next?

The next important trip for me is to go back to the North Pole with a few clients. That's coming up in April. I am also working on an article for National Geographic magazine on Patagonia, and I will maybe do a little writing on a book.

To hire Børge Ousland and other explorers for your next event, contact the National Geographic Speakers Bureau.

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