Skiing into the Bright Open, a modern-day adventure

A modern-day Viking’s historic expedition to the end of the earth

Liv Arnessen

Photo: The Liv Arnesen Foundation / Wikipedia
Liv Arnesen was the first woman to reach the South Pole on a solo expedition. Liv Arnesen presented her book Skiing into the Bright Open at a Norway House event on Aug. 12 in a live Zoom session.

COURTNEY OLSEN
Assistant Editor
The Norweigan American

On Christmas Eve 1994, Norwegian adventurer Liv Arnesen skied into the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the research base located at the South Pole of the earth. In just 50 days, Arnesen had skied 745 miles from Hercules Inlet to the pole, becoming the first woman in the world to ski solo and unsupported to the South Pole. 

For geographic context, Antarctica is 40 times the size of Norway; the size of the United States and Mexico together. Ninety-eight percent of its surface is covered in ice, which at its thickest is 2.5 miles deep. The South Pole is at an altitude of 10,000 feet, the majority of which is ice. During the course of her journey, Arnesen encountered dangerous crevasses, sastrugi (wave-like, pointy ridges of hard snow formed by wind), and strong winds. Put simply, Antarctica is a vastly challenging landscape to navigate, even more so on one’s own.

Soon after her return to Norway, Arnesen published a book detailing her expedition to the South Pole. After nearly 30 years, that book, Skiing into the Bright Open: My Solo Journey to the South Pole, has been translated into English and is at last available for American audiences to read.

Arnesen had an ambitious and expeditionary spirit from a young age. Early in the book, she discusses how her fascination with reading about the explorers of yesteryear like Thor Heyerdahl led her to dream of her first expedition: sailing the oceans of the globe. As she grew older, she devoured polar history literature and continued to develop into an experienced skier, a background that would be critical in her preparation for the South Pole trek.

Arnesen is no stranger to hard and historic expeditions. In 1992, two years before her solo expedition to the South Pole, Arnesen led the first unsupported women’s crossing of the Greenland ice cap. In 2001, she and her expedition partner Ann Bancroft became the first women to ski and sail across Antarctica’s landmass, a journey totaling 1,717 miles in 94 days.

Skiing into the Bright Open is just as much a story of the challenges Arnesen faced trying to make it to Antarctica as it is a story of her epic journey once she got there. Her struggle is best summarized by Bancroft in the book’s foreword: “[Liv] overcomes not only the obstacles of the continent but also those of cultural, sexist, and economic prejudices in pursuing her dreams, motivated by a passion for life and a desire to share it to make the world a better place.”

In many cases, these prejudices coalesced to form substantial hurdles for her to overcome: male partners who felt threatened by her ambition and athletic prowess, sponsors who withdrew their sponsorships for her after a different female-led expedition in Antarctica had a fatal accident, the minimal press coverage she received compared with her male counterparts; the list grows longer and longer throughout the book. At times, it almost feels like dealing with the misogyny before departing was even harder than the actual ski journey in Antarctica.

The narrative of the book is well constructed, and I found it to be a page-turning read from beginning to end. I particularly enjoyed the final section, which included a transcript of Arensen’s expedition log, the menu of foods she ate while on her journey, her equipment list, and a brief history of the South Pole explorers who came before her. I recommend flipping ahead to read through the menu and the equipment list right before the part where Arnesen begins her journey (“Alone at Last”), so you can appreciate more deeply how much she had to carry with her and what she ate over the course of the 50 days.

Above all else, this book is an inspiring account of what a person is capable of when they set their mind to accomplishing their dream. In the first chapter of the book, Arnesen writes, “The worst betrayal is the one committed against yourself by ignoring your abilities. It’s just as important to respect yourself as it is to respect others. If you constantly feel that you’re compromising with yourself, it’s difficult to mean anything to others.”

Arnesen is an inspiration to women, girls, and explorers everywhere. Not only did she accomplish a phenomenal feat, but she also overcame so much to get there and never strayed from her dream. When discussing what kept her focused during the years of hard work and 50-day ski tour she wrote: “What drove me was a combination of my upbringing, childhood surroundings, social influences, and way of life in adulthood, to which must be added my old dream of the South Pole, a taste for testing myself mentally and physically, an enjoyment of long tours, and, above all, a love for skiing.”

On Aug. 12, Norway House invited Arnesen to give a book talk now that it was finally available in English. She shared photos, told stories, and answered questions from the audience about her historic journey. A recording of the event will be posted to the Norway House website, www.norwayhouse.org.

Skiing into the Bright Open: My Solo Journey to the South Pole (University of Minnesota Press: 2021) is available from all major booksellers. 

Courtney Olsen

Courtney Olsen is a writer based in Tacoma, Wash. She is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Oxford and has been writing for The Norwegian American since 2020. A historical fiction enthusiast, she spends her free time working through her ever-growing reading list with a cup of tea in hand.

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