In an earlier post I mentioned the historical and literary importance of English travelers. The French, the Spanish, the Dutch all helped settle the United States, but the English get most of the credit (or blame).

The Norse, however, were of course the proto-travelers to the Western Hemisphere. Eric the Red, Leif Ericson, Roald Amundsen, Thor Heyerdahl and others all made their mark among history’s great travelers. That tradition continues today, though in a more specialized, lesser-known way. In an era of adventure travel, ultramarathons and extreme sports, the exploits of a group of almost superhuman athletes can get lost in the shuffle, though they are known, and admired, by the cognoscenti.

Cecilie Skog of Norway.

You have probably never heard of Cecilie Skog, though in her native Norway and parts of Europe, she is a superstar adventure traveler and explorer. Her exploits are near-legendary and probably approach those of the greatest polar explorers, representing the summit of human endurance and endeavor, and also the tragedy that sometimes befalls those who achieve great things.

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I was checking my e-mail in my Paris hotel room when I saw a routine inquiry from someone named Rune Gjeldnes about space on an Expedition Cruises trip to the North Pole (to the extent that such an inquiry could be considered routine). I replied but never heard back. A couple of weeks later, back in New York, I e-mailed again, on the off chance that my reply had gone astray.

That turned out to be the case, and Rune said he was indeed interested in three berths on the trip. Sounded great, a lot of business. He told me his travel partner Cecilie would call me from Norway, and she did. I was proceeding along the lines of a standard booking, until I talked to her. It turned out to be anything but standard; it was, in fact, one of the most incredible journeys I could ever imagine.

Cecilie said she and Rune planned to canoe and ski from northern Canada through the Arctic until they reached the Pole, a 478-mile journey that would take about 55 days. They wanted us to meet them at the Pole and bring them back aboard our nuclear icebreaker to Murmansk and Helsinki, from which they would travel home to Norway. They would get into the water at Ward Hunt Island, as far north in Canada as you can go, and soon be on the ice, a route to the Pole that is considered to be the most difficult and dangerous.

We put into motion the paperwork that accompanies these bookings, and I researched her online. The word “awesome” is so overused that it has become silly and almost meaningless, but the things that Cecilie has done truly are awesome:

  • She was the first woman to climb the highest summits on all seven continents, including Mount Everest.
  • She was the first woman to stand at both the North and South poles.
  • She and a partner made the first unassisted, unsupported crossing of Antarctica, skiing more than 1,000 miles in 70 days.
  • She regularly leads groups skiing 360 miles across the ice of Greenland, as part of her guide business.
  • She even appeared on “Shall We Dance,” the Norwegian version of “Dancing With the Stars.” She was popular and competed well until, in her typically intense fashion, she broke two ribs in the rehearsals and had to withdraw. Attractive and blue-eyed, with long, light brown hair, she sometimes models and lends her image to advertising campaigns.

Cecilie originally trained as a nurse but later became a full-time adventurer and explorer, leading rugged trips across countries and continents. When asked why she does these seemingly impossible tasks, she goes way beyond the old joke about why people climb a mountain such as Everest, “because it’s there.”

“I love exploring, being outdoors, skiing from one side of town to the other,” she told me in one of several phone conversations. “I like to work hard and have a simple life, planning the food I will eat for the next two months, sharing it with a good friend. This makes make me feel very much alive. It’s a chance to think my thoughts all the way through. I like to have a goal that if I don’t know if I can reach it, to use all my skills to be able to reach it. I have to use all my mental and physical strength to do it and we have to work as a team. If it was easy it wouldn’t be a challenge. It takes a lot of your mind to be that focused.”

She makes it sound as though it takes all the physical and mental strength a person can muster, but at the same time easy enough that anyone could do it.

Some two weeks before the trip would commence, at the beginning of June, she said she was very excited, not nervous, the way an ordinary person might be at the prospect of traversing hundreds of miles of open water and Arctic ice. She said she had been training hard in the previous month, pulling 220 pounds of weight, as she would do while skiing across the ice. “I’m feeling strong and fit,” she said. “I’m excited and I want to start tomorrow but it will be two more weeks. A lot of things have to be in place before we go.”

Her travel companion, Rune, is an impressive character in his own right. I’ll tell you more about him, and about their preparations, next time.