UPDATED: After months of trying to cross the Arctic from Alaska to Svalbard by sailboat and skis, but opting for pick-up by a diesel-powered vessel in the end, polar explorers Børge Ousland and Mike Horn finally arrived in Tromsø on Monday. Their expedition generated no small amount of controversy and criticism in Norway, although Ousland now claims it was a “complete success.”
The pair left Nome, Alaska on August 25, declaring that they also wanted to observe how the Arctic ice was holding up. Veteran polar explorer Stein P Aasheim told newspaper Aftenposten in early December that he doubted there was any need for such ice observations given modern technology. When the pair ended up being delayed, were close to running out of food and needed to be brought out of the darkness and ice, plans to be fetched by sailboat also fell apart. Newspaper VG, which covered the expedition closely and gave it lots of national publicity, reported Monday that the “enormous power” of the drifting and unstable ice could have crushed a sailboat.
Expedition organizers thus called in the diesel-powered vessel Lance, based in Tromsø, to bring them back to home base. Aasheim questioned that as well, estimating that the Lance burned six tons of oil a day, generating carbon emissions along the way. He wondered on social media how that could be defended, if only to finish a “meaningless” athletic record.
Then the Lance got stuck in the ice itself, with reporters from VG on board. There was no lack of drama in their coverage, with daily stories about how it all turned into a rescue mission, and that Ousland and Horn had to not only abort their project but be “evacuated” as well.
Ousland and organizers object
Expedition organizers have later objected to the Norwegian media’s use of words like “rescue” and “evacuation.” Ousland himself defends the expedition, refuting much of the criticism in an email to newsinenglish.no.
“Our trip was a complete success” Ousland wrote. “We completed the trek across the North Pole in 87 days totally unsupported as planned, which means that we did the trip with the amount of food and fuel we brought with us from day one to finish.”
Ousland also noted that “we never said that we did this trip to document climate change. We do answer questions about climate change in the Arctic when asked, but there was not a climate mission behind this trip and we did not do any research or measurements linked to climate change on the trip.”
He stated that “the use of another vessel than Mike Horn’s sailing vessel Pangaea for the pick-up was not due to running out of food. This was planned several weeks ahead and the need for another vessel was due to problems with the heating system on Pangaea and what possible danger the thicker ice outside Svalbard could represent for a vessel like Pangaea and (its) crew.”
Air ambulance crisis fueled critics
Criticism in Norway, meanwhile, soared when an air ambulance crisis that grounded many rescue planes in Tromsø and elsewhere in Northern Norway coincided with Ousland’s, Horn’s and the Lance’s predicament in the ice. When it was eventually revealed that a rescue helicopter on Svalbard could have been called to airlift Ousland and Horne out of the ice, critics shifted into high gear.
“While our polar explorers have a helicopter just a text message away, we’re experiencing cases where seriously ill patients here in Finnmark have no air ambulances to help them,” raged Dr Hanne Heszlein-Lossius, district physician in Berlevåg. She told Aftenposten that she thought it was “absurd” that the polar “heroes” were getting so much media attention when the air ambulance crisis was not.
“How can it be possible that (state broadcaster) NRK and a pile of VG journalists are giving live coverage to a PR stunt in the Arctic,” wrote an angry Heszlein-Lossius in a commentary in Tromsø newspaper Nordlys. She seemed to feel cheated upon learning that Ousland and Horn could have called in the helicopter, “while children ill with heart trouble wait 19 hours for an air ambulance.”
Ousland: ‘Most difficult’
The ambulance crisis clearly came at a bad time for Ousland and Horn, setting off more headlines from commentators, one of whom wrote that “the world is dramatic enough as it is. We don’t need wall-to-wall coverage of a fabricated drama” like Ousland’s battle with the ice. When asked why the two didn’t simply call the governor on Svalbard and request evacuation by helicopter, expedition leader Lars Ebbesen answered that the two men didn’t want that. They wanted to take care of themselves.
The Lance ultimately returned to Tromsø with the pair on board Monday, 31 days after leaving to to pick them up. Ousland called the expedition “the most difficult” he’d been on, while reader comments ranged from those who welcomed him home to one who nominated Ousland and Horn for a “Clown trip of the year” award.
Others criticized the environmentally unfriendly aspects of the trip while another simply wrote: “Enough negative comments now. The expedition is over. I and many others have relayed our negative opinions before and during the expedition. Let’s just be glad that they finally are finished with this strenuous trip and can meet their families again.”