If you were to meet Rune Gjeldnes and didn’t know who he was, you’d probably think he was an average, ordinary guy. He’s friendly, he laughs and jokes a lot, and he seems like the type you’d enjoy having around for a night of pub crawling.

His demeanor might be deceptive, for he is a polar explorer and a former SEAL in the Norwegian Navy. (Members of the SEALs, or SEa, Air and Land Teams, in any navy, are among the most highly trained and lethal soldiers in the world.) He’s lean and tough, qualities needed not only to do what he did in the navy, but also in his latest career, which is guiding expeditions to the farthest, coldest reaches of the world.

Rune Gjeldnes in Montreal, relaxing before taking off for Ward Hunt Island in northern Canada, and then the North Pole.

  • He is the only person in the world who has crossed both the North and South poles on skis, without support.
  • He skied the longest expedition ever across Antarctica, 2,985 miles.
  • He was the first person to traverse Greenland lengthwise, 1,864 miles, unsupported, and the first to travel from Siberia to Canada by way of the North Pole, also unsupported. He and fellow SEAL Torry Larsen started out from Cape Arctichesky in Siberia on Feb. 16, 2000, with 880 pounds of supplies on four sledges. They reached the geographical North Pole, and after 109 days and 1,243 miles, they landed at Cape Discovery in northern Canada with no food or water left, totally exhausted and weighing 117 pounds less than when they started. Eighteen other international expeditions have attempted this unsupported crossing, but none have succeeded.

John Huston of Forward Expeditions of Chicago, who is an explorer and adventure tour coordinator himself, was the first American to travel unsupported to the North Pole. He was part of Rune and Cecilie Skog’s support team for this trip, in which they would canoe and ski from northern Canada to the Pole. He spoke highly of Rune.

“You’re never really prepared till you hit the ice,” he said. “It takes a lot of mental patience and energy. You never know what you’re going to see. It’s dynamic and constantly changing, and you can feel the force of nature in your face. But when it comes to polar explorers, Rune is the best. He’s really incredible.”

Rune is also a lecturer who appears before corporate audiences. He tells of his travels and how people can apply the same lessons of positive attitude, mental strength and teamwork that got him through his polar journey to their everyday situations.

Despite that toughness, his affable nature always shines through. On his website and blog, at http://www.rune-gjeldnes.com, he describes himself as “Explorer, lecturer, consultant, writer, producer and happy.” Still, as he made preparations in May for the trip, he admitted to “butterflies in my stomach. If you don’t have them before you go then something is wrong. I think we have good equipment and we are a good team with a lot of experience in the Arctic Ocean.”

John, who was coordinating the trip, echoed his view. “You need a singular focus to get things off the ground,” he said. “You either have the equipment you need or the expedition is over.”

Rune and Cecilie had been training intensely in Norway, hauling hundreds of pounds on sleds and working their compasses and GPS equipment. Rune said that unlike the winter temperature of -67 degrees F., about what he experienced on the 2000 trip, this trip would be a balmy 25 to 50 above, maybe warmer, with fog and mist and, he hoped, a lot of sunshine. In 2000 a major problem was the whiteout conditions, in which it is impossible to see more than a few feet in front of you, and you travel mainly by compass, GPS and “the colors of the clothes of the person you’re with,” said John.

“But at the magnetic pole, it’s sometimes hard to use a compass,” Rune said. “You have to use shadows. You can never go in a straight line. And the ice is always drifting away from the Pole. You have to be on the move constantly, sometimes 25 kilometers [15 miles] a day. It can take as much as 13 hours to walk 34 kilometers.”

The plan was for Expedition Cruises’ nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory to collect him and Cecilie at the Pole and bring them back (alive) to Murmansk, Russia, and then to fly to Helsinki, Finland. He said that to minimize the walking and waiting, the best plan would to reach the Pole the same day as the ship.

“Reach your goal. Stay in the tent. You want to go home,” he said was the general philosophy by that point. Also, “we’ll take a bath at the North Pole,” the first one they’ll have had, other than sponging off, since leaving Canada about 55 days earlier.

“We’re going to be smelly,” said Cecilie.

Cecilie Skog and Rune in Montreal.