The Artic Ocean poses big mental and physical challenges. Polar explorer and adventurer Lars Ebbesen says the key to a successful expedition there is to be honest – with yourself and others.
Taking it to extremes
T hree quick jabs with a pole on the smooth ice skin forming over the open lead through the pack ice is meant to see if it will hold. Under his skis, Ebbesen feels it sway. Newly frozen ice in the Arctic Ocean is extremely strong and unyielding, even when only a couple of centimetres thick, and this should be safe enough. All the same, he gives a fourth jab to be on the safe side. And that is when it happens – the pole goes right through the ice, which disintegrates around him in seconds. Not the sort of accident you want on an Arctic trek.
“It’s like playing high speed chess with Nature,” Ebbesen observes laconically. “You don’t have an hour to think about your next move.”
As one of Norway’s most experienced adventurers, he has been challenging Nature worldwide for 30 years. And he will be sharing his experience of the high north at the PSA’s Arctic Safety Summit in Tromsø this October.
The choices you make when moving on skis in the desolate wastes of the pack ice are manifold. You may have to decide whether open water is reflected in the clouds on the horizon, for example.
Another question could be whether to move along the edge of a partly frozen lead or to try to cross to the next floe? Take the sledge on the first attempt or go back for it?
“The mental effort is profound,” Ebbesen says. “You’re constantly making new decisions. At the same time, you have to remember to eat properly, navigate right, look after your gear and check your body temperature so you don’t sweat or cool too much.”
He is better equipped than most to take such decisions. Backpacking in Asia led him to mountaineering in the Himalayas and Andes, and to dog sledding, ski sailing and kayaking in Greenland.
Other activities included sailing across the Atlantic and rafting in the Grand Canyon, until his urge to explore led him north to one of the most desolate places on Earth.
“People have reached the North Pole before, of course, but we wanted a way to stretch the limits,” explains Ebbesen. “We wanted to get there faster than anyone before.
He was in a party of five which had been weatherbound for a good while and was now behind schedule. They finally donned their skis and disappeared into the pack ice.
The group came to a lead which had barely begun to freeze over. That was when Ebbesen suddenly found himself in the icy water – with rucksack, skis and sled.
“It looked like we could follow its inner edge for a while and thereby avoid the crumpled pack ice,” he says. “I rounded a hummock and lost touch with the others. The ice looked in poor condition, so I gave it an extra jab with my pole.”
Plunged into the freezing water, he fortunately remained calm enough to get one arm on the ice and his comrades were quickly on the scene to drag him out.
That left him soaking wet, exposed to the wind in 40 degrees of frost. But they could not get the tent up there, on bad ice. They had to continue for 30 minutes before making camp.
After a long night drying clothes in the tent, they continued their journey the following day, eager to make up for the lost time.
“My woollen socks seemed dry enough when we started,” Ebbesen explains. “Although my feet eventually got cold, I walked them warm again.”
That continued the rest of day – cold, warm, then cold again. “I thought I was in control, but had quite simply deceived myself,” he admits.
Before any expedition, the potential hazards – and how each of them can best be overcome – have to be carefully thought through. Tent fires, cold, ice obstacles, open leads, illness, infections, inadequate food – all pose a risk.
People in the past generally devoted more time to gaining experience before setting off on a long trip. Today, ambitious goals can be set without the same solid grounding.
That is because lessons can be learnt from others. Ebbesen says that the strength of Norway’s Polar explorers has been their willingness to share experience.
“Many others have benefitted from my mistakes,” he maintains.
“Victory awaits him, who has everything in order – luck we call it. Defeat is definitely due for him, who has neglected to take the necessary precautions – bad luck we call it." Roald Amundsen
In retrospect, Ebbesen’s big mistake was a refusal to be honest with himself. Although he saw that his toes had developed extensive frostbite, he continued to trudge forward.
He developed blisters on his feet and inflammation in his toenails. The latter eventually fell off, but he remained extremely reluctant to call for help.
Ten days after falling through the ice, Ebbesen collapsed. He could not move another step. The expedition had to summon assistance and he was evacuated by air the following day.
His frostbite was treated first in Canada and then in Norway. Everything looked fine, the doctors concluded. But the pain gradually worsened.
Back home in Oslo, he met a doctor who had served with the armed forces in northern Norway. “He took off my bandages, tut-tutted and said an immediate operation was needed,” Ebbesen recalls.
While he suffered no lasting disability from this accident, it nevertheless gave him plenty to think about. He admits to reflecting over the whole incident afterwards.
“Mentally speaking, I’d undoubtedly taken my eye too much off the ball when we set out. I’d been doing too many other things right up to the last minute.
“Zen Buddhists talk about approaching new things with an empty cup. You have to reset yourself to zero and create the space to accommodate the experience – or there’s no more room in the cup.”
Today, Ebbesen helps others to find out what they should fill their “cup” with. Together with fellow Norwegian adventurer and Polar explorer, Børge Ousland, he works to prepare and organise extreme expeditions for people who want challenges.
“The desire to test yourself is inherent in us from our childhood,” he says. “We humans want to push the limits.
“Some people aren’t drawn north by the physical test alone, but by the sense of isolation and lack of aids – which can otherwise be hard to achieve in an increasingly interconnected world.”.
Honesty is crucial when seeking to reach a goal like the North Pole together, Ebbesen emphasises. “Most things in life involve collaboration. Everything’s stripped away on an expedition. All strengths and weaknesses emerge.”
Nobody is willing to admit during the first week that they are uncertain, in pain or tired. People find this extremely difficult to do.
The fear is that one team member will begin to lag behind. If that happens, the assigned rest time is not enough to get back on one’s feet properly. The whole expedition suffers.
“I want complete honesty,” says Ebbesen. “Are you feeling pain? Have you slept badly? Do you think we’re moving too fast? You must dare to say that you’re having a bad day.
“It’s a question of starting from scratch each time. Be sharp, clear and alert. Out of your comfort zone. Don’t rely on earlier experience. You can make soup from laurels – they’re no good for anything else.”