Pole2Pole: Swedish explorer’s latest trek about to make history

Pole2Pole courtesy photo
Johan Nilson’s beard and mustache are encrusted with frost while trekking...
Story by Jeff DeMoss
Standard-Examiner staff
May 2, 2012
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Johan Ernst Nilson has been on top of the world in more ways than one, having trekked to the North Pole and summited Mount Everest.

While many before him have accomplished both of those feats, Nilson is closing in on becoming the first person to travel from the North Pole to the South Pole “carbon neutral” — using primarily his own energy to make the long and perilous trek.

A century ago, the first successful human expedition to the South Pole was achieved when a party led by Norway’s Roald Amundsen reached the southernmost point on the globe. Nilson has already reached both poles, but is biking through southern Argentina to the southern tip of South America to make up for circumstances that forced him to fly to Antarctica.

Injuries, lack of supplies and logistical barriers at times forced him to fly via airplane or helicopter, and he had support vehicles follow him for some of the biking stretches for safety and other practical reasons, but his feat is still unprecedented. All in all, he has trekked, biked and skied roughly 21,750 miles.

The 42-year-old Swedish explorer has been on some 30 major expeditions covering about 100 countries over the last two decades. At age 22, he quit his job as a pianist and, on a bet with friends, rode his bike more than 4,600 miles to Morocco. He has kayaked across Europe, walked across Alaska, and in 2008 accomplished the Seven Summits journey, in which he reached the highest peak on all seven continents.

Still, he said, his “Pole2Pole” expedition is his crowning achievement.

“The idea was that I wanted to combine everything I’ve done into one,” Nilson told the Standard-Examiner by telephone from a small town in the remote Patagonian desert last week. “For me, exploration is about pushing the limits, and this has definitely been my biggest one.”

Nilson set out from his hometown of Stockholm, Sweden 13 months ago, kite-skiing across the snow and ice to the North Pole and over to Greenland, a distance of nearly 1,500 miles. From there, he struck out for Canada, where he faced his first major logistical challenge. Running out of food and fuel, he and his small support team ended up having to take a helicopter to reload on provisions and supplies.

“You won’t last long without food and fuel, especially in a climate that severe,” he said.

After the long, icy and arduous trek through the Arctic and the Northern Territories, he finally was able to put his feet back on green earth, which signaled the beginning of a long biking trip that would take him all the way to the southern tip of South America.

Getting on a bike after hauling a sled every day was probably the most liberating feeling of the entire trip, he said.

“Just having those wheels under my feet, moving me along, felt really good,” he said. “Having that concrete under me was such a relief.”

He biked south through eastern Canada to the United States, where he made brief stops in New York and other cities, then continued into the southern states before turning west and eventually down to Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, reaching elevations as high as 15,000 feet on his way to Antarctica.

He had photographers and cinematographers following him at times, and support vehicles to help with things like equipment failures and charging batteries for lights and his iPod, which came in especially handy on the long stretches when he was alone.

He says he has had more than 100 flat tires on his bike, and faced numerous other obstacles, dangers and injuries along the way.

“It’s complicated. So many things happen along the way,” he said. “I’ve been thrown around so many different ways. You think you can plan for everything, but you never really know what’s going to happen next.”

He was originally planning on sailing to Antarctica, but conditions on the water were such that he ended up having to take a plane before skiing to the South Pole and back — about 1,700 miles round trip.

“There were huge icebergs floating in the water, and the ships wouldn’t go because of insurance reasons,” he said.

In the Arctic portion of the trip, he and his Norwegian friend were followed by a Polar bear for a few days.

“It didn’t necessarily mean we were in danger, and nothing happened, but he knew where we were and we didn’t know where he was, so that was kind of scary,” he said.

Equipment failures included broken skis and holes in kites, among others.

In Mexico, Central America and South America, he biked on roads so narrow that barreling trucks would force him to the edge of the shoulder, sometimes next to precipitous drops off of staggering cliffs, such as those on the Bolivian road famously known as the “Death Road” for the high number of fatalities that occur every year when vehicles go over the edge.

While skiing toward the South Pole, a gasoline bottle started leaking and destroyed seven to 10 days worth of food and fuel, forcing the party of two to speed up their timeline in a region where the window for travel is very limited.

The wide range of extreme climates and dangerous weather caused some daunting physical challenges and problems as well. Temperatures ranged from hot enough to give him heat stroke in the deserts of Mexico to frostbite at minus-50 degrees in Antarctica.

He fell through the ice into the frigid Arctic waters once, but the most dangerous situation happened near the South Pole, when he and his companion were caught up in a polar hurricane. His tent started to break down in temperatures far below zero, and after suffering cracked ribs, a knee injury and serious frostbite on the 850-mile return trip from the pole, Nilson had to be evacuated to a hospital in Cape Town, South Africa for treatment before returning to South America to continue biking and make up for the setback.

“My whole nose was white with frostbite,” he said. “I like my nose, so I was happy to be able to keep it.”

Nilson is globally known as the “Environmental Explorer” for his emphasis on bringing attention to climate change, a common theme in all of his expeditions.

“I don’t think I should be considered special for doing things climate-neutral — everybody should be doing it this way,” he said.

He’s quick to point out that he’s not a scientist or a politician, and can’t prove that human activity is responsible for things like melting sea ice. But he sees such changes up close and personal, and wants to show the world what is happening as seen through his eyes.

“I’ve experienced those moments, so I can tell stories,” he said. “I’m a window between people and nature, and I want to show the world what we should try to save.”

In his travels, he also acts as a global ambassador for 17 different charity organizations, groups like UNICEF, Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders, and meets with these groups and gives presentations along the way.

With the epic Pole2Pole journey essentially complete, Nilson said he’s just enjoying biking through Argentina and reflecting on his unprecedented accomplishments. He plans to finish as early as this week.

“I think a lot. I keep a diary. I take a lot of photos,” he said. “I just try to work inside my own mind when I’m biking.”

After spending a couple of weeks sailing off the coast of Tierra del Fuego and filming for an upcoming documentary on the expedition, Nilson said he’s going to embark on a journey of a different kind. After spending some time at home following the longest absence of his life, he plans to travel to Tibet for two months of meditation.

“What is exploration? It’s not just about climbing mountains. It’s about inner exploration as well.

“I call it the eighth summit — exploration within ourselves.”

Jeff DeMoss

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