I met Bård Helge Strand on a trek across Arctic Norway’s Finnmarksvidda plateau, during a story for N by Norwegian magazine. I was with photographer River Thompson
Life isn’t always easy out on the Finnmarksvidda plateau. It’s the coldest part of Norway, where the temperature once reached minus 50 degrees Celsius, and where minus 30 is common. On the desolate 125km route across Arctic tundra, the only civilisation is the odd cabin, and in February, the only company is the odd Sami reindeer herder, whizzing tantalisingly past on a snowmobile.
But Bård Helge Strand makes it all look easy. Out here, he does faux-circus routines, tells long-winded jokes and makes hot-water bottles with bags of noodles. He’s the main guide on a five-day ski-touring expedition across the Finnmarksvidda, in which a group of ten of us are camping, and just about surviving, on the snow.
Bård Helge is a veteran of a few of these trips, including two 26-day schleps across Greenland, following the route taken in 1888 by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. His boss, Børge Ousland, is the man behind the Greenland trips, and this one, as well as others to both poles.
Børge is, by most accounts, the world’s greatest living polar explorer, having been the first person to ski to the North Pole alone and without supplies, and having repeated the trick in a 64-day, 2,845km mission across Antarctica, dragging a 178kg sled behind him. His trips are designed to give normal punters like me a taste of what he calls “letting go of yourself – sniffing the air and becoming part of the universe, like a polar bear.”
Børge can’t make it on our trip, so Bård Helge is his proxy. With his ginger hair and green jacket, he has the air of a leprechaun sent to the wilds of the Arctic. When he does a kit demonstration before the trip (there are lots of demonstrations), he strips off to reveal a tatty string vest base layer, which looks like something Rab C. Nesbitt might be wearing after a particularly long session. He is quietly deadpan, and I’m never quite sure if he’s joking.
But, when we hit the snow, he changes somehow. He is suddenly in his element, and in control. He’s militant about “the system” – where your kit is on your pulk, or sled, so that you can access it quickly – and he insists on a break of exactly ten minutes every hour. He’s obsessive about measuring out food into Ziploc bags, and the process of pitching a tent in the snow, making sure that the back of the tent is facing the wind. Along with co-guide Sebastian Gjølstad, he seems to put his tent up in about ten seconds. Underneath the leprechaun costume, he’s a perfectionist.
And he doesn’t seem to get cold. One night – after seeing absurdly beautiful Northern Lights streak across a sky dotted with a million stars – the temperature drops to minus 30 degrees. The cold is remorseless, with the inside of the tent and the outside of my sleeping bag developing a layer of frost throughout the miserable, sleepless night, rendering futile the stove we light inside the tent. In the morning, everything is frozen, including my eyelashes. I take more than half an hour to get my boots on, through a combination of numb fingers and the chunky boots being frozen solid.
But Bård Helge greets us cheerily at 6am, telling us it hit “30” overnight, as if he’s had a night at the Ritz.
Over the five days, as we’re sliding slowly through the bleak white landscape, shorn of phone reception or any distraction, we gradually tune into Bård Helge’s frequency, a low-key mix of nature-worship and fatalism bordering on nihilism. He’s drifted around a bit: ski instructing here, guiding there, time in the Alps, time in Svalbard, working on a farm in northern Norway.
All I know is that in life, there are lots of questions. But when I go to Greenland, life is simple for three weeks. You just go east. And then you go west.
He’s more intelligent, and drily humorous than expected – one five-minute joke about the transport system in the Sami town of Karasjok (basically, the joke is that the same guy drives the taxi, and the bus, and the plane) is more hilarious than it looks in print.
He also brings something approaching creativity to survival on the Arctic tundra. At every stop, he seems to have a new trick: a high-backed Arctic chair made of skis, or a hot water bottle of noodles he’s simultaneously boiling in a used thermal food pack. He also does his daily circus trick, which is more about the buildup than the execution, often culminating in a theatrical forward-roll across his sled.
Like Sebastian – who is the only person I’ve ever seen make cross-country skiing look cool – Bård Helge’s philosophy is that survival is about being as comfortable as you can possibly be in the conditions. It’s also about fostering a community, which is why he strongly encourages everyone to meet after dinner every evening (food is taken in your tent), round a stove or a fire.
It’s a long way from the tales we hear from Mike, a Scottish former Marine on the trip, who talks about his Arctic expeditions in the military, when the soldiers would race across the tundra and do press-ups in their ice holes. Bård Helge and Sebastian seem un-fussed by the macho stories.
When we finally get to civilisation, at the super-cool Engholm Husky Lodge outside the Sami town of Karasjok, the group is treated to one more nugget of Bård Helge’s philosophy, whilst warming our hands over the fire in the traditional Sami lavvu (teepee), where reindeer will be served for dinner.
“Why do we do this? What’s the point?” he asks. “All I know is that in life, there are lots of questions. But when I go to Greenland, life is simple for three weeks. You just go east. And then you go west. Whatever the weather, good day or bad, you just keep going. And that feels good somehow. It feels right.”
You can read my full account of the trip here, and more about Børge Ousland’s trips here.