The trip to Montreal that Dina and I took over the Memorial Day weekend had two purposes: to have a few days off and a change of scene, and also to meet Cecilie Skog and Rune Gjeldnes. I had spoken to and interviewed them over the phone, about our planned rendezvous at the North Pole and about their experiences. They would fly from Norway to Montreal, then to Resolute Bay and eventually to Ward Hunt Island in northern Canada, where their canoe/ski trip would begin. As I told Cecilie, even though we had spoken several times, I didn’t want to meet her for the first time at the Pole, two months later, saying “Hi, remember me?,” and she agreed.

Cecilie knits a headband for Rune.

We met them in the lobby of their hotel on Saturday evening, and were joined by John Huston of Forward Expeditions of Chicago and Harald Kippenes of Yourway AS, Oslo, Norway, both part of their support team. Both of them also have substantial experience leading Arctic and polar tours. We talked about the logistics of the trip, the equipment scattered around their hotel rooms and the kinds of things they and I could expect on our respective journeys. Midway through our conversation, Cecilie pulled out some knitting, a baby-blue headband for Rune, which she worked on as she talked, a relaxing hobby for her. Then we headed off to a Mexican restaurant for dinner. Coming from a cold climate, the Norwegians really seemed to like the hot food – to say nothing of the drinks. (Oddly enough, Rune comes from a village in Norway called Hell.)

The plan was that they would stay in touch with the ship via Iridium satellite phones, reach the Pole, hopefully about the same time as our ship, and return with us to Murmansk. This was subject to many variables, including weather and ice conditions. But Cecilie and Rune are highly experienced at this, and their support team was strong. In the event that we somehow missed each other, they had a backup plan. A helicopter would be dispatched from Canada, but would take days to reach them. Meanwhile they would have to hold on in possibly bitter conditions.

During our interviews, they had told me of the practical matters they face on such a trip:

  • An important aspect is maintaining the equipment and being able to repair it if necessary, especially important when they are lugging more than 260 pounds each.
  • They were bringing along 110 pounds of food, 2 pounds per day. They would ingest as much as 5,500 calories a day, including oatmeal, porridge, raisins, oil, butter, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, rice, mashed potatoes, pasta, meat, sauce, vegetables, nuts, chocolate and marzipan, in freeze-dried and powdered form. Still, they would lose weight by the end of the journey. Brushing their teeth was important.
  • Bathing was more a matter of talcum powder and perfume than of water, understandable when the water temperature is below freezing. Once a week they would sponge off with a washcloth, but they would wear the same wool clothing during the whole trip.
  • Going to the bathroom was “simpler than people think,” Cecilie said – step outside, use a “pee bottle” in the tent if it’s too cold, don’t wait for 10 minutes and go only when you have to.
  • They would make a fire once a week to burn garbage, and bring along whatever waste was left.

* * *

This all sounds simultaneously exhilarating, terrifying, death-defying, a little funny and challenging beyond belief. Whatever I’m making it sound like to you, believe me, I do not take it lightly, nor should you. No one knows better than Cecilie Skog about the danger of what she does.

On Aug. 1, 2008, she led a Norwegian team to the summit of K2, in northern Pakistan, at 28,251 feet the world’s second-highest mountain. It was one of several international teams attempting to summit at the same time. A fellow teammate, who had relinquished the leadership opportunity to Cecilie, was her husband, Rolf Bae. The two had become well-known not only for their mountaineering exploits, but also for their youth, beauty and joie de vivre. They were in love and doing what they loved, a life that most people could only dream of.

Cecilie reached the summit, but Rolf had been having difficulty breathing in the high altitude. He started back down but was caught in an avalanche and perished, as did 10 other climbers by the end of the trip. His body was never found.

Cecilie made it down the mountain and back home, but after years of climbing mountains the way other people climb stairs, she seemed to lose some of the taste for it.

“I still think about him all the time,” she said. “He’s very much still with me. I’m grateful that we lived and happy that I can still go and enjoy a lot of the things we do.”

Numerous newspaper, magazine and Web articles have detailed the events of that day. One of the most comprehensive sources is the book No Way Down: Life and Death on K2, by Graham Bowley, a reporter for The New York Times. He interviewed her extensively for the book, but she has since declined almost all requests for interviews. She graciously agreed to share her story with me for this blog, for which I am grateful.

She still climbs mountains, but they are lower peaks, not like the brutal Everest and K2. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to go on those again. I told my family and friends I’m not because it would be very hard to. But never say never.” She’s more comfortable now doing mountains like Kilimanjaro (at 19,341 feet the highest peak in Africa), which she likens more to just a steady walk uphill, albeit a long one. She in fact recently took her sister, who had a fear of heights, on a trip to the top.

A hot time in Montreal before a cold trip to the Pole. From left, Harald Kippenes, Rune, Cecilie, John Huston, the author and Dina.

At the end of our evening in Montreal and a satisfying dinner, most of the preparations done, Cecilie, Rune, John and Harald headed off into the wild Montreal nightlife for a few hours of relaxation. Another night of adventure in a lifetime of many.

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