Conquering the Impossible (2 page)

BOOK: Conquering the Impossible
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On this expedition I basically served as a packhorse. I worked and learned. I watched, I listened, and I tried to soak up everything like a sponge. Of the many things that Erhard and Jean taught me, the most important lesson was, unquestionably, patience. In conditions of extreme cold, knowing when to stay in your tent—instead of trying to go on at any cost—can easily spell the difference between life and death. I am by nature impatient and impulsive and have a hard time staying in one place, but I learned the importance of a Zen-like self-control.

That sort of self-mastery is indispensable when, for instance, a blizzard has been blowing for two days, blowing so fiercely and intensely that you could become totally lost just two yards from your tent, the distance at which the tent would become completely invisible. In such conditions everything is a wall of white, there is no earth or sky, no features, no landmarks. Lots of people have died that way in the Arctic: just two yards away from their tent.

That's what would have happened to us if we had ventured out during the two weeks of terrible blizzard that poured its full force down on us. I couldn't stay calm. I kept showing my uncontrollable impatience, but Erhard and Jean calmed me down and kept my nerves in check; in so doing, they offered me an example of wisdom and knowledge that would be an important inspiration later on.

*   *   *

Shortly before leaving for Greenland, I learned that I had been named a winner of a Laureus World Sports Award, the prestigious prize given by Daimler Chrysler and Cartier. I was chosen in recognition of my 1999–2000 journey around the world at the equator.

I was invited to spend three days on Le Rocher, the famous rock of Monaco, all expenses paid, of course. Since I am not really comfortable with social occasions or awards ceremonies, I very politely declined the invitation. Erhard and Jean were waiting for me. Given the choice between the luxury of Monte Carlo and a fair likelihood of freezing to death, I didn't hesitate even for a second.

Back in Greenland, though, I told Cathy over the satellite phone that our food supplies were dwindling. Since the incredibly bad weather was showing no sign of letting up, we were considering turning back. On her end, she told me that the Laureus World Sports Awards representatives were still insisting that I show up for the ceremony; they were saying that I was required to be there. None of which appealed to me in the least. I was happy as a king where I was. If we did decide to turn back, it would be an opportunity for me to trek solo on the ice, giving me a chance to become familiar with that activity. As a joke, I told Cathy that if the people from Monte Carlo were so eager to have me attend their ceremony, all they had to do was come get me on the ice field.

My wife passed the message along, as positive as I had been that no more would be said about it. But the organizers of the Laureus World Sports Awards were not easily discouraged. They sent up a helicopter to get us: it picked up Erhard, Jean, and me at Angmagssalik, on the east coast of Greenland, and ferried us to the military base of Kulusuk. From there, a private jet that had come all the way from Europe just for us flew us back exactly as we were, fairly gamey, with all of our equipment, but without “civilian” clothes. Our civvies were still on the west coast of Greenland, where we were planning to pick them up after our trek, and, of course, we never did reach the other side of the country.

*   *   *

During the last stage of my trip, flying business class, I smelled so bad that the woman sitting next to me asked to be moved to another seat. I was embarrassed and could only mumble my apologies. Sweating like a pig in my polar gear and my thermal underwear, totally unsuitable for the May climate of the Riviera, I landed in Monaco, where I was informed that “my” car and “my” driver were waiting to take me to “my” hotel. I found myself in a palace where, since I had no money with me at all, I was forced to gobble down the energy rations that I was still carrying in my pockets. And since I had no clothes except what I was wearing, my hosts took me shopping, and I bought some casual clothes to wear around during the day. The following day, Cathy brought me my formal clothes, a dark suit that I refer to as my “papal costume.” It was actually a suit that the Vatican had bought me, so that I would be decently attired for my audience with His Holiness.

Despite all the attention and care that was being lavished on me, I still felt ill at ease. Twenty-four hours earlier I had been on the ice field, and there was a part of me that kept wondering what exactly I was doing here. But all that changed pretty quickly when the big night arrived. A crowd of living legends showed up to pay me their respects, including Michael Jordan, Alberto Tomba, Ernie Els, Edwin Moses, Juan-Pablo Montoya, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, and Jennifer Capriati. My head was spinning! They knew who I was because, as members of the jury, they all had read my file.

I received my “Oscar” in the category of Alternative Sports, but that was not the only good thing that happened to me that night. Of the major sponsors of that event, a considerable number would become sponsors of my future expeditions, as well. For instance, my fellow South African Johann Rupert, president of the Richemont watchmaking group, which owns Cartier, offered me a sponsorship. He would also become my good friend.

*   *   *

Despite the terrible weather and the relative failure of our undertaking, the Greenland expedition was a special and wonderful time for me, and I learned a great deal from it. That experience would prove invaluable to me on my second preparatory expedition for the journey around the Arctic Circle: a solo trip to the North Pole.

Objectively, I can say that I possess two main assets as an explorer: a rock-solid temperament and a solid capacity for physical endurance. But I wondered if those qualities would be enough to ensure my success without the support of Erhard and Jean, alone for the first time in the Arctic environment.

I was pretty sure that I could find the answer by going to see the Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland. He was the first man ever to reach the North Pole solo, as well as the first to cross Antarctica alone. I saw Børge as the world's foremost specialist in solo polar expeditions. Since I considered him to be an absolute master, I decided to visit Norway so that I could apprentice with him. I wanted to learn everything I could about his way of life, his personality, the way he works, his attitudes and his reactions to events—and to life in general. I even wanted to know about his everyday routines. Then I would have a better idea of whether I could match his accomplishments.

I moved in with him in his house overlooking a fjord on the coast of Norway. Børge is very, very Zen. He operates like a cold-blooded animal and conserves every last bit of energy. There are times when I think his heartbeat must slow down to about one pulse per minute, like the heartbeat of the great masters of breath-hold diving. Two solid hours could go by between the time he offers you a cup of coffee and the time you finally receive the hot beverage.

I watched and learned.

Because he had decided that my motivations were honorable—perhaps because we have a sponsor in common—Børge offered an unlimited fund of generosity to me, a South African who had never set foot on the polar ice fields.

“I want to help you become the second man ever to reach the North Pole solo,” he told me. In the course of just a few days, he imparted to me the entire body of knowledge he had accumulated in all his years of experience in the Far North, and he made it clear to me that the physical condition I had needed to make it across the Amazonian jungle was nothing compared to what would be required for a polar expedition.

I returned home with the invaluable wealth of knowledge and a very busy calendar ahead of me. I needed to have shoes, a sled, and a tent custom built for me according to his specifications. Such cutting-edge equipment is expensive, and you can't buy it at the local sporting goods store. But I was lucky enough to have the financial and technical support of generous sponsors. I was all the more grateful to them because, unlike a soccer or tennis star, I could offer them only the most meager returns in terms of media attention.

As soon as my first polar tent was ready, I contacted Mercedes–AMG and asked for permission to test the tent in their wind tunnels in Munich. I needed to feel confident that it could withstand the nearly hundred-mile-per-hour winds that are commonplace on the ice field.

My Italian tentmakers brought me two or three sample tents. The shelters, made of synthetic materials, all collapsed under the powerful gusts. The test was spectacular and conclusive, and so it was back to the drawing board!

I ordered all of my clothing from the designers at Eider, the French specialist in outdoor apparel. To start with I ordered a thigh-length anorak, with huge pockets that would hold both medicine and food, and a zipper that would neither freeze nor break.

Last of all, Salomon produced skis and boots that met my specifications.

*   *   *

I was especially demanding because, during this expedition, my survival would depend even more than usual on my equipment. I would have to rely upon it completely because I wouldn't be able to carry a backup version of anything.

Some of the equipment I ordered was encountering delays. Organizational problems began to emerge and, three weeks before my scheduled date of departure for the pole, I was still a long way from being ready. I admitted this to Børge Ousland when he called to ask how things were going.

“If you'll pay for a plane ticket,” he said, “I'll come down to your house this weekend.” I accepted, and two days later Børge was walking into our little family chalet in Les Moulins, near Château d'Oex. It was hard to miss the gigantic duffel bag that he dropped casually in a corner of the kitchen. He asked to review all my equipment, and he issued a rapid series of judgments, “That's okay; that's no good. That might work, but that definitely won't.” He asked me what I still needed, and I told him that I was waiting for my boots. Without a moment's hesitation, he opened the huge duffel bag and exclaimed, “Here are your shoes!” They were his boots, the ones he wore all the way to the North Pole. The same model that the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the first man to explore the polar ice caps, wore on his early polar expeditions! Deeply moved but uncomfortable with Børge's generosity, I said I couldn't take them. “I want to see you back here with all your toes!” he insisted, handing me the thermal linings that went with the boots.

The question of whether Børge's feet and mine were the same size never came up: the boots in question were a few sizes bigger than the running shoes or loafers that I usually wear around town. They were built to accommodate the many overlapping layers of insulation in which I would wrap my feet before slipping them into the boots.

The first rule of fighting extreme cold is this: it's not the clothing that keeps you warm; it's the warm air that circulates between the layers. In other words, it's not the clothing that warms the body but the body that warms the clothing. That was why tight clothing was to be avoided at all costs, and why roomy, flowing clothes were ideal.

When I showed him my mittens, Børge pulled out his knife and cut the elastic fastenings at the wrists.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing, should cut or restrict your circulation, however slightly,” he said, “or your fingers could freeze. You should fit into your mittens the way that a car fits into a garage.”

He fastened strips of synthetic cloth to the tabs of my zippers, so that I could grip them easily in all circumstances.

He took a look at my tent and asked me how long it took me to pitch it. I replied innocently that it depended on the day, the weather, the wind, and how tired I was.

“Twenty seconds!” he broke in. “At forty degrees below zero, you have exactly twenty seconds to set up your tent. Any longer than that and you're dead. Start training now, and do not stop until you can set up that tent in no more than twenty seconds, however bad the weather is or however tired you may be.”

“Inside your sleeping bag,” he went on, “you need to be wrapped in an insulating sheath that will keep the quart of water that you will lose through exhalation and perspiration each night from freezing inside your sleeping bag. Otherwise, the bag will be two pounds heavier every successive day, and you will go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning inside an icebox.”

On top of the insulating sheath for my sleeping bag, Børge gave me a pair of ski poles that he guaranteed were unbreakable. The man who once told me that he had spent his whole life perfecting his equipment had suddenly turned into Santa Claus, and he had flown down from the Far North with a bag full of gifts, all for me!

*   *   *

And there were still gifts to come. The great multistar chef Philippe Rochat, who presides over the kitchen at Crissier, near Lausanne, Switzerland, is one of my warmest supporters. In his words, I am a “latter-day Christopher Columbus.” He had already placed on his menu a delicious—and filling—Gâteau Mike Horn (a cake with fruit, Armagnac, sugar, and syrup), and he had handed out copies of my first book to all twenty-five of his employees, as well as to two hundred other friends and acquaintances. Now he insisted on personally preparing—for free—the entire array of foodstuffs for the expedition. It's not the kind of offer you can easily turn down. So Philippe immediately busied himself preparing and individually vacuum-packing my next one hundred “specials of the day.”

Three months later, in February 2002, among the equipment and provisions I brought with me were rations that would have rated a few stars from Michelin, as I set out to try to reach the North Pole alone and on foot.

A crowd of friends from Château d'Oex—“Pipo,” the farmer; “P.A.,” the restaurateur; Corinne, and others—a throng of journalists, a cameraman, a photographer, a representative from my sponsor Gore-Tex, and Daniel de Bonneville from the Geneva bank of Mirabaud, along with Antoine Boissier, one of the bank's owners, all boarded a chartered jet along with me, my wife, and my two daughters, Annika and Jessica, to accompany me to the village of Khatanga in northern Russia. This would be my communications base camp, and from there we would travel as far as Cheredeny, a tiny weather station on an island in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

BOOK: Conquering the Impossible
4.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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