The Expedition Amundsen Series: Part 1
Norwegian inspiration, the story of Roald Amundsen, and my wife’s aspiration to pull 80% of her bodyweight by sled.
My wife and I have registered for The Expedition Amundsen, an annual 100-kilometer race (map) that will take place in Norway in early March of 2017. It’s a reenactment of Roald Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole, but there is more to it than that.
My dad was in the army, and, as any military kid knows, that results in a lot of moving around. By some good grace I got to live in Oslo, Norway from grades 1 through 3. If you are a skier, you’re familiar with Norway. It’s the place where kids are born with skis on their feet, and that’s not too far from the truth. Every day during and after school and on weekends, we skied. We’d build jumps at recess and launch our wooden cross-country skis off them, with images of the legendary Holmenkollen ski jump dancing in our heads. I remember landing one icy jump on my face, and scraping off the skin from my eye to my jaw before running to the teacher, bleeding and crying. Norwegians are tough, and the teacher patched it up and told me to stop acting like a baby. I was back ski jumping the next day.
Roald Amundsen, 1923
History classes were different in Norway as well. We learned about Vikings, reindeer herding in Lapland and polar exploration. That was my first introduction to a man named Roald Amundsen. Back in 1911, he was the first person to go to the South Pole, and the reason he made it was drilled into our wide-eyed little heads. The early twentieth century was the era of exploration, and the South Pole was a big carrot. Amundsen had some competition from a British explorer named Robert Falcon Scott.
Amundsen decided to make the trek to the South Pole using dogs and experienced skiers. Scott decided to take horses and walked much of the way. Amundsen won the race to the South Pole. While he and his men were triumphantly celebrating, Scott and his crew were dying because horses and arctic conditions don’t mix and walking was too slow. I learned at a very young age that skiing was just better.
I gave Nordic ski touring a break for a few decades until 2010. That year my wife, Elaine and I started working at Neptune Mountaineering, in Boulder, Colorado. The owner of the shop, Gary Neptune, is an avid skier and arguably the biggest proponent of Nordic ski touring in the United States. Gary went to Norway every year to ski tour and he’d import high-quality Norwegian touring skis to sell at his shop. Instead of rewarding staff for pushing sales, we’d get bonuses for cross-country skiing in the Indian Peaks Wilderness outside of Boulder. The bonus was in the form of a fresh pair of Norwegian skis — and they’re still some of my most prized possessions.
Armed with Neptune’s knowledge and encouragement, Elaine and I took the plunge and traveled to Norway on a Nordic ski touring trip in 2015. It was like nothing we’d ever seen before. Ski trails crisscross the entire country. They are marked every 30 feet or so with willow wands, making it possible to follow them even in the worst conditions. The hyttes (huts) are stocked with food and based on the honor system. You leave your credit card number and pay for what you take. Honor and trust are a big deal in Norway: To abuse this system is to abuse the very fabric of the country. That first trip morphed into two more trips, each time visiting new areas and upping the ante with more challenging routes and longer distances.
Elaine Vardamis cross country skiing in Norway
As a challenge to ourselves and an ode to this region’s unforgiveable terrain as well as it’s enduring heritage, Elaine and I have signed up for Expedition Amundsen.
The race crosses a region called the Hardangervidda, which is a high plateau in the middle of the country where winter weather here can be worse than just about anywhere. It’s used by polar explorers for testing and preparation because it’s vast expanse with endless horizon perfectly mimicking conditions found in arctic zones. And while Amundsen made it to the South Pole and back with self-confidence, his training trip across the Hardangervidda almost killed him. He was marooned by a storm and had to abort the mission. In his final memoirs, he lamented that crossing the Hardangervidda was the one goal he never accomplished in his life. The Expedition Amundsen race course follows his intended path, and the promoters deem the event “the toughest ski race in the world.”
"The sled will essentially be 80 percent of her body weight. That’s not an easy task for about 62 miles over steep hills and white-out conditions."
Beyond the long course and harsh environment, there are some unique challenges. Male and female racers are required to pull a 98-pound sled the entire route, because that’s how much weight Roald Amundsen had in his sled when he tried to cross the Hardangervidda. This fact alone is a little daunting. My wife weighs 120 pounds after Thanksgiving dinner, a good 40 pounds less than me. The sled will essentially be 80 percent of her body weight. That’s not an easy task for about 62 miles over steep hills and white-out conditions.
To prepare, we’ll drag a lot of sleds in the Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado and camp in the most brutal conditions we can find. Our goals are simple: We want to compete with dignity and finish. The last thing we want is to end up like Robert Falcon Scott. That’s intimidating stuff, and that potential embarrassment is a powerful motivator.
It’s going to be a unique and challenging winter and we hope you’ll follow our story along the way.
Dan and Elaine Vardamis are self-proclaimed “Nordic nerds” living nearly off-the-grid in Eldora, Colorado. They were married at the top of Loveland Ski Area in 2010, have skied at least one day 75 months in a row, have podiumed in races like the Grand Traverse and obviously like to go on really long adventures. This series will follow their preparation and execution of The Expedition Amundsen. Track their training on Instagram @Nomadwolf360 and @elainevardamis