TO THE SOUTH POLE - NO GREAT FEAT

To the South Pole. No great feat was published in the end of July. The book was received with enthusiasm, and was among other things offered as a gift to the victims of the catastrophe that hit Norway on July 22. 2011.

The book has been reviewed in several Norwegian medias, magazines and journals. Mr. Stein P. Aasheim, one of the most prominent persons in the Norwegian explorer environment and Mr. Bjørn Guldvog, Assistant Director of the Norwegian Directorate for Health and Social Affairs have both given generous reviews of the book. Since the book was published I have kept several lectures for different groups of patients and health workers. In addition the book has got a lot of attention in health magazines and journals as well as in radio and television.

Since the release of the book I have written and published chronicles in Norwegian newspapers about the issue I write about in the book. I have kept on with my trips. In 2013 I went back to The Southern Ocean – in the South of Georgia – and did the Shackleton Walk. I have been climbing in Iceland, been to The Faroe Islands, and during the spring of 2015 I will return to Spitsbergen as part of a new expedition. In the spring of 2016 I release a second book about being able to carry things through/mastery and the preconditions for changing life style.

BOOK REVIEW

FIGENSCHOU: WITH UNEASE AS A MOTOR An open and honest self-assessment In her book To the South Pole. No great feat Marit Figenschou describes what it is like to be a woman in her fifties who is diagnosed with cancer. By nature a woman who likes always to be at the top of her game, it seems natural to her seek out the highest peaks in the world.

She conquers five of the so-called ‘7 Summits’ (the highest mountains in each continent). Keys. Figenschou acknowledges that movement and good circulation of the blood are the keys to facing the toughest challenges life has to offer. I can agree with her there. But there is a great deal of unease in the inner landscape the author describes. She struggles to find peace of mind. Notes made at her sessions with a psychologist are reproduced as part of the text, and these contrast sharply with the life she lives between these sessions. 

Reading this I find that the text is full of contradictions – but then isn’t human nature itself ? Figenschou is open and honest in her self-assessment. She feels the onset of age, and the fear of death is no stranger to her either. She senses that various ‘border guards’ have held her back on her way through life. To write and publish a book about yourself, lavishly illustrated with wonderful photographs, is a fine way of kicking out at these ‘border guards’ who hold us back and discourage our dreaming. Essence. 

Exceeding limits like this can foster personal development. But it seems to me that those most preoccupied with limits are often those who find it easiest to avoid the business of discovering their own essential being. Reading Figenschou I find some confirmation of this. The title To the South Pole. No great feat reflects the contradiction that is so central to the book. Figenschou describes the tremendous efforts that have gone into the round of achievements she describes, but then almost dismisses the achievements themselves. 

I am reminded of those fishermen who spend hours waiting for a fish to bite in the river, and when they eventually do catch something they let it go again. When I see that I know that they are different from me. Lively. But then most people are, including Marit Figenschou. Her style is lively and playful, and her writing full of invention in a book that defies easy categorisation. I think most of us would like to tell the story of what we have achieved in our lives, even though few of us would publish a book about it. Seen in this perspective, Figenschou’s account is a very human story. I don’t think there are many - if indeed there are any – who have climbed to the top of Mount Everest and not spoken about it afterwards.

PASSAGES FROM THE BOOK

AT THE TOP
THERE ARE LIMITS
WEALTH
MOTHER AFRICA
BACKCOVER
AT THE TOP

(-page 210-) AT THE TOP The summit of Store Kjostind isn’t far off. I can see the cairn a couple of hundred metres away to the west. It’s not the biggest one I’ve ever seen, but it stands there proudly enough looking down over the edge of the drop. The boulders are behind me now. It almost looks as though someone has cleared away the stones and flattened the plateau. There is complete silence. The Creator must have enjoyed himself the day Lyngen was created. Spread out below me are the fjords, and all around in every direction nothing but mountains. In the west are Urdtinden, Urdkjerringa and Istinden. In the south the mighty Jiehkkevarre massif dominates the view, Fornesfjellet, Rørnesfjellet and Goalsevarre. Each one higher than the one before. Further away towards the coast lies the Jægervass massif. 

The peaks resemble one another and it isn’t always easy to tell them apart. Stor Galten and Peppertin are more distinctive. I plunge my hands down into my rucksack in search of my camera. Zoom in, take a few pictures, shoulder the camera strap and head off towards the cairn. Nothing secondary about the peaks around me either.Through the lens I see Aconcagua, Mount Kenya, Mount Margherita and Kilimanjaro. The mountains around me could have been any of them – the Andes, the Caucasian Ridge and the Denali Range. But isn’t that the Vinson massif I see over there, the Ellsworth Mountains and the South Pole? Or is it only the Jiehkkevarre massif? I’m struck by a love that comes to me out of clear blue sky. No mountain is the best, the most beautiful, the biggest, the most magnificent. Every mountain is the second most beautiful. The most beautiful is the here and now, and it can be anywhere and everywhere. 

There’s no need to travel far; I can find joy in being exactly where I am now, but I could as well find it on some little hummock in the forests of the Nordmarka that surround Oslo. The moment the truth of this dawns on me it’s as though the horizon expands before my eyes. Of course my father saw all the way to the South Pole! The air is warm and I turn my face towards the sky. Even my eyelids are getting a bit of a suntan today. Why did I travel so far? What was it I was looking for? In the beginning it was all about mastering things. Achievement. Gradually new challenges made their appearance. On the trip to the Antarctic I encountered the forces of nature at their most powerful. When the gale force winds blew at their wildest I had to fight down the strength of my own feelings. It was about daring to abandon control and facing the unknown. That which was stronger than me. The storm is stronger than me. Death is stronger than me. Pain is stronger than me. There’s no point in fighting against it. At some point you have to abandon yourself to a force that works towards a purpose all of its own. Even your own will must be abandoned. *

THERE ARE LIMITS

(-page 159-) There are days when I don’t think that much about the trip. But there is never a day when I don’t think about the fear. It was twelve Sundays ago that we sat in the café and I – of all people! – suggested another expedition. And at about the same time the fear came to me and has been with me ever since. In a clumsy way I have tried to sustain myself with thoughts of my achievements in conquering Stetind. But as often as not I found myself wondering just how great they really were. These last twelve weeks have made one thing clear to me: perhaps I shouldn’t always follow up every idea idea I have - even if, at the time, it seems like a wild and cool thing to do. 

I shall not expose myself and others to every last one of my whims. There are limits. After twelve weeks I am no longer able to convince myself that there is nothing at all to be afraid of. There is something dangerous out there, and something inside me that has me worried. I am afraid. And this time I’m not going to challenge my fear. I’ve felt the abyss beneath me, and I have also felt the abyss within me. I have reached the limit, and there will be no trip to Indonesia. Border guards can have their uses sometimes. This time they’ve done their job and I’ve finally had the good sense to listen to them.

WEALTH

At the entrance to the Kilimanjaro National Park the ground is parched, the gravel pink and the sun roasts the wrists, the shoulders and the scalp. A pair of large Landrovers stand waiting, with our bags on the roof secured only by a few elasticated straps threaded through the roofracks. The guides are sitting on top of the bags. The mobile phones and the earphones indicate that they can afford a little bit more than just the salt in their food. Their heads bob in time to the music coming through the earphones. Their clothes aren’t exactly new, but they are newer and in better condition than a lot of the clothes I’ve seen elsewhere in Africa. They’re not from the Oxfam shop, but they look like it. The guides are twelve in number and they have done this type of thing many times before. The boss addresses them in a language which is completely impossible to understand. Not a syallable of it can be turned around to resemble anything familiar at all. When not punching in numbers on their mobile phones they cast disdainful looks in our direction. They’re probably wondering what type of idiots want to make the trip this time? Even women? But the mobile phone is a lot more interesting than middle-aged Norwegian women and a couple of elderly men.

The heat leads us to seek the shade of some trees standing some distance away from the Landrovers. Now permission has to be sought for us tread the ground of the great national treasure. We can glimpse them through the window of a rundown shed. The guardians of the entrance to the National Park take their duties very seriously.
After a couple of sweaty hours everything is arranged. We drive on a little and arrive at a new registration station. Passports out again. But here is where the driving ends and it’s time to start walking again. The baggage is divided among the porters who look as though they’re about to collapse under the weight of our affluence.

We’re off at last. Along the way we meet a girl. She’s carrying a bundle of wood on her head that looks as if it weighs a lot more than the bundles of dried hay I used to carry as a child. Her hair is cut short and she walks barefoot. The clothes are a little too big for her. Hand-me-downs, maybe? She stops and lowers her gaze as we pass by.

The sharp smell of sweat prickles in the nostrils. It comes from the porters. Tembo is one of them. He’s fourteen, and this is his first year as a porter. His hair is dark and cut short. He wears a leather belt around his waist that holds his shirt closed. He’s long-legged and sturdy and would probably be capable of running far and fast even in this roasting heat. But instead Tembo is carrying luggage, equipment and food up a mountain. Back home in Norway the fact that a boy of fourteen was doing this kind of heavy work would lead to the involvement of the Child Care people. But there is money to be earned by young lads, and the family needs it badly. With a load that must weigh twenty kilos he walks on up the hill. On his head he’s carrying a wooden table! The sides of the table have rusting metal reinforcements and look as though they’ve been on trips like this before. As he walks past I can see the sweat pouring off him. Maybe he was on that trip I heard about earlier in the year, when eight Americans hired 160 porters and paid them to carry water up to a height of 4000 metres so that they could have a shower. They even paid to have their feet washed.

Tembo comes to a halt a few metres ahead of me and steps to one side off the track. Then he vomits. He’s a child, carrying heavy loads and sacrificing his health for the money he and his family need

(-page 92-93-)

We proceed slowly. It’s cold. One step at a time, the way we did it on Aconcagua. At Stella Point the sun comes up. Slowly it paints the mountains around us red, and the sight revives our flagging spirits. Erik has recovered now and catches up with us just a few hundred metres away from the summit. There is no wind at all.
Kilimanjaro casts its long shadow in the low morning sun. I’ve often wondered why the sun changes colour. Sometimes it’s yellow and cool, at other times orange and then red. Sunrise today is dark orange. Kilimanjaro is made up of three extinct volcanoes: Shira in the west, Mawenzi in the east, and Kibo with Uhuru Peak at 5895 metres above sea level. Uhuru means independent in Swahili, and the peak lies on the rim of the crater. The summit of Kilimanjaro is one of the few places in Africa that is covered in glacial ice. The glacier leans in towards the summit and is some two metres high at its edge. These are the eternal snows of Kilimanjaro. Countless numbers are making their way towards the summit today. But the voices are muted. All that can be heard are the sounds of climbing boots scuffling against the gravel, the clicking of cameras, whispering. A humility grips us, in the face of the elements, of the mist floating below us, the glacier and the views. We adopt a cautious awareness, as though afraid we might break the blocks of lava and crush the sun with our sounds. A few more steps. An elderly woman puts her arms around her husband and kisses him. Each and every one of us has his or her own private moment. 

The eyelids can’t spare even a moment to rest. We’re up. Behind me the moon shines brightly, while in front of me lies a glowing sea of flame. The great orange sun bathes the heavens above us and the clouds below us in its brilliant light. It wipes out whatever is difficult, whatever is closed-in and repressed. At this moment stillness and silence are what matter. Is this perhaps what I have missed most of all? A feeling of being fully wrapped up in the moment. I see Mount Kenya, Mawenzi, the moon, the sun, the glacier and the whole rim of the crater. The weeks have gone by so fast and it has been so hard. But now I feel it again: that feeling of being capable of overcoming every challenge. Erik smiles too. He’s been chewing tobacco hard throughout the tough upward climb and now it frames his teeth like some kind of bathroom filler. This is love! I’m vertically in love. 

MOTHER AFRICA

Esra is probably already on his way up the slopes headed for the Mountains of the Moon with fresh immigrants. He has no time to lose, the season is short and the wage he receives is badly needed. But Esra is not alone. Abu has taken over for us in Kenya and we’re making our way up towards Mount Kenya. Abu brings up the rear of the group and smiles broadly, even though it’s quite a strain carrying provisions and clothing for a group of well-fed Norwegians. Mount Kenya is a more popular destinatin for travellers than the rain-forest in Rwenzori, and Abu probably has more work than Esra. Our guide is of indetermnate age and has almost certainly done this a thousand times before. He is smaller than me, wears a dark blue fleece jacket that is slightly too large, cotton trousers and a pair of old shoes that are just about covered by a pair of well-worn gaiters. An umbrella lies across the top of his rucksack. Umbrella?

My thoughts turn to images of natural disaster, poverty and AIDS. And just as quickly I realise how much I am in thrall to old-fashioned ideas of what Africa is. A mobile phone starts ringing. Abu pulls out a new Nokia. I ask if he’s maried. - Wife – a kid. Wife teacher. Son plays football. – Norway Cup. He smiles broadly. – Shall I help you? I manage to take my rucksack off myself. Just looking for my bottle of water. But he’s quicker than me and takes hold of the strap of the rucksack. – You kid? – Husband? I shake my head. You free!

He shakes his head in disbelieving wonder at the news that a woman of my age is unmarried and childless. I’m probably not the first single Western woman to have been attracted to Mount Kenya. But Abu isn’t the only one who is mystified by the ways of people from the north. This glimpse through a window into how other people live casts my own experiences into a strange relief. Free?

Only one more day’s walking and the summit will be within reach. Mount Kenya is the most beautiful of the three tallest peaks in Africa, but mist and rain have so far prevented us from catching any glimpse of it. It’s somewhere there behind a thick layer of cloud. But it isn’t just the summit that is wrapped in a thick blanket of mist. Peder and Eli have been ill for several days. And now I’m ill too. I’m leaking from every orifice, and onward progress is very slow.

What’s the matter with you? Erik’s mood is still not much improved. What Erik doesn’t know is that I’ve turned myself into a bit of a chameleon. I say as little as possible, keep myself to myself and maintain a low profile. I’m looking to avoid further bilious attacks from that quarter.

Journal Entry

Have been thinking about how easy it is to talk about things that are difficult and exhausting. But also how easy it is to forget who it is I am talking to, and what it is I want to achieve. Erik would probably wonder what a sick person was doing on a trip like this. Or he would say “just grit your teeth”,”it’ll pass”, or “think positively”. I don’t need any of that. All I need is someone to look me straight in the eye, show some consideration and empathy .Why is that so difficult?

The following night. I look at my watch. It’s only 2.am. It is quiet, and still raining. We haven’t had a single day with sunshine and heat since our arrival in Africa.

And now it’s time for the ascent of Mount Kenya. As my eyes accustom themselves to the dark I feel an unease and can’t quite identify the reason for it. There’s some consolation in the fact that there is only way out. I have to go over the summit to get off the mountain. The alternative is to go back the way we came. And that is actually longer. I’m tired. There’s a party going on in my guts, the diaorrhea never stops and my stomach aches. Peder offers me something to drink but I daren’t, it would go straight through me. The beams of light from our headlamps dance over the endless mud. My footsteps seal my guts closed but then things open up in the other direction. At the first incline my stomach heaves. With no particular warning the modest breakfast I’ve consumed is sprayed all over the track. You can make it!

Abu’s voice is steady and resolute. He puts a hand on my back and holds firmly. A mingled odour of sweat and spices prickles in my nostrils. The pains in my stomach bend my back and my shoulders slump over my climbing-sticks. The raised umbrella keeps the rain off us but gives rise to other thoughts. Here I am on my way up Mount Kenya, being helped by an African who is much smaller than I, who is wearing wellington boots that are much too big for him, with his dark eyes and his large umbrella. I am being sustained and cared for by someone whom I, to begin with, associated with AIDS and natural disasters.

The rain eases off. Our steps are heavy against the gravel, but we have only a few metres left to go. At last the layer of cloud seems to be breaking up. Peder and Eli at the rear are keeping us all provisioned. Fistfuls of nuts and raisins are passed forward. Energy seeps into empty storehouses and our endurance and willpower are roused once again to the task at hand.

And then I am at Point Leana, 4985 metres above sea level. A deep orange morning sun rises in the east. Slowly the light brings with it the belief that I can do this if I want to, at the same time as it opens me to the need to accept help when I need it. To the west is the highest point, Bation, 5199 metres. A climb of two hundred metres still to go.

Up at last it isn’t that easy to raise my arms in jubilation, and I feel even less like working with the camera. My jaw is trembling, the tears are flowing. There, couched between Abu and some rocks, the cold beams of the sun strike my face. Strong, dark hands guided me forward, and I made it in the end!

I gather up enough snow to make a snowball and toss it northwards, why not. Just a few short moments ago I felt as though I was drowning in my own sea of rubbish. Now I take out my camera and adjust the lens, determined to capture this great moment.

Journal entry

It wasn’t easy for me to accept help from Abu. But to admit that I can’t manage everything and that it’s okay for me to accept help was even harder. Here on African soil I discovered my own vulnerability. An oppressed people have taught me something about my own inner repression – something ‘dead’ inside me. My own needs? I’m not as successful as some people think, and I’m no superwoman. My life has been turned upside down. From now on I’ve got to work as hard at being there for myself as I do for other people. My head down inside my rucksack, I’m searching for a new meaning.

We’re almost back at the cars. I can feel the moisture in the Gore-Tex, and there’s a stench of damp wool. My hair is a mess after seven days under a hat, my boots are dirty and muddy and I’m filthy through and through. Down the road I see a woman coming towards me. Slightly built, agile, she carries a basket on her head and is wearing a green and yellow ochre wrap.

She doesn’t meet an elephant, but someone who feels like one. I look anything but pretty after my two weeks in the mountains. The temperature must be at least thirty degrees. I bend down to tie my shoelaces, in the process driving out the vapour from my woollen trousers. The smell is not at all pleasant. The woman is barefoot. My big, heavy climbing boots stumble on a stone, dust whirls up and envelops me in a cloud. There are only a couple of metres between us now. The elasticity in her movements indicates that she is considerably younger than me. But her skin is a browny-grey and she has wrinkles around her eyes that suggest a much older women. I wonder what she’s carrying in the basket on her head.

In elegant silence she walks on. I’m slightly envious, though what it is I’m envious of I’m not quite sure. Maybe of not owning all that many possessions? I think of my mailbox with all the bills, and all the things I have to remember: ring the bank, take the car to get its EU test, read the electricity meter, pay my TV license and my ISP, fill out my income tax forms. Buy a new bus pass and get it all done in time to go to the gym. Remember the hairdresser and the dentist appointments tomorrow. Running my life is like running a business, with reports and deadlines that eat up all the time I have.

With heads bowed we pass each other. She must have quite other worries of her own. If she gets sick she has no DSS to turn to. She wouldn’t qualify for a Senior Citizens Bus Pass, and even if she did she wouldn’t know what to do with it. As for mine, I quietly hid it away somewhere soon after I got it. It just made me feel old. Down here they probably don’t have buses passing by all that regularly anyway. She has to use her legs. And maybe she has what she needs in that basket?

I wonder which us is really best off?

I run my fingers through my greasy hair and dry the sweat. In another few metres we’ll be back in civilisation.
BACKCOVER

After Margit Figenschou was diagnosed with cancer in 1998 her life changed. It wasn’t just the conditions that now queued up to meet her: arthritis, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. As the hospital doors closed behind her a life of disability lay ahead. Enough grief, shame, depression, loss and inferiority to fill a whole container. The foundations of life seemed about to crumble and collapse. Through Jungian analysis she set about the task of building a new foundation and a new standpoint. She had to start by taking responsibility for her own reactions to her illness – finding meaning in the meaningless.

Marit began to set herself goals she was not sure she would be able to achieve. She aimed high: Aconcagua in South America was 6962 metres above sea-level; Kilimanjaro, 5895 metres; Elbrus in the Caucasus, 5642 metres; Denali in Alaska 6194 metres; there was Mount Vinson in the Antarctic, and many others. Marit conquered them all. But the expeditions acquired a significance beyond simply climbing the wildest, steepest, tallest and coldest mountaintops and savouring the fantastic views from their summits; through five of the Seven Summits and one Pole we follow Marit on an inner journey towards a realization of the importance of standing steady.

The great mountain Stor Kjostind dominates the skyline in her native district of Lyngen, in Troms. As a child she listened to stories of her father’s hazardous climb to the top of it, from where he was able to look out across the whole world. Why, from up there he could see clear to the South Pole! Marit reaches the South Pole too. But as she touches the polished dome it dawns on her that this is no great achievement. There are other things in her life that have demanded far more courage and effort, and of which she has greater reason to be proud. She has built a new foundation for her life.

Quote by Stein P. Aasheim: ‘This is a thoughtful story that adds new dimensions to the concept of ‘challenging’. Read it – and be encouraged to push yourself much further than you ever thought possible.’