There's something wonderfully perplexing about Norwegian adventurer Liv Arnesen's account of her solo ski journey to the South Pole. She did this in 1994, the first woman to do the trek unsupported. Her memoir, "Skiing Into the Bright Open," finally has been translated to English.
Amid sundry accounts of other great polar achievements, overwhelmingly by men, Arnesen tells her story almost effortlessly, even chummily, sidestepping the usual tone of turmoil.
It's as if she trusts a reader to grasp that, yes, skiing alone for 50 days in subzero cold is one of most difficult ventures on Earth. There, that's settled.
Instead of dwelling on tortuous meal prep, blinding landscapes and endless sastrugi (waves of snow), she tells us what she thought about while skiing. For example, "I often wondered what I would be when I grew up." (She is a wonderfully droll writer; she was 41 at the time.)
She recited a particular Norwegian poem as a mantra. She acknowledged having a religious experience, but only if religion "means leading people back into contact with their origins."
In perhaps an unintentional explanation for the book's tone, she described research by the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. The blood of people who seek challenges that boggle mere humans contains extremely low levels of an enzyme that regulates the effects of stress on mental activity.
Because they don't feel stress as others do, they seek danger because they honestly enjoy the sensory stimulation. This desire is largely hereditary, but a challenging environment also plays a role. In other words, Arnesen noted with a conciliatory wink, "Norwegians have a clear advantage."
Arnesen's name may be familiar to Minnesotans because of her partnership with Arctic explorer Ann Bancroft, who grew up in St. Paul, and who wrote the book's foreword. In 2001, they were the first women to sail and ski across Antarctica, and continue to work together on various projects.
Arnesen's documented tenacity is what may leave some female readers feeling slightly perplexed, given the generous and genial tone of this memoir: Compared with accounts by such legends as Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, Arnesen's story is not so much feminist as almost feminine. The book concludes with a six-page list of people who contributed to her success, from vice consuls and sleeping bag designers to Helge Hoflandsdal, "a helpful man at Asnes."
No doubt, she did benefit from all, but the root of Arnesen's success lies in a mind-set that eschews the macho and a fascination with what people can accomplish when taken up by an idea.
Steeped in the sufferings of the old polar explorers, she "was prepared for my own expedition to turn out just as badly," she wrote. "But on several occasions I had to stop and say to myself, 'But now I'm here and it's — quite fantastic!' "
Kim Ode is a writer in the Twin Cities and a former Star Tribune features writer.
Skiing Into the Bright Open
By: Liv Arnesen, translated from the Norwegian by Roland Huntford.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 208 pages, $21.95.
Event: 6 p.m. Aug. 12, Norway House, 913 E. Franklin Av., Mpls. norwayhouse.org