Erling Kagge wants us to shut up!
Exploring the power of silence with the polar explorer
Erling Kagge is the first person in history to reach the Earth’s three poles by foot. The out-of-this-world Nelly Ben Hayoun discovers that the toughest thing about being a polar explorer is not what you think
Erling Kagge is extreme. Not only is he the first man in history to ever reach all of the Earth’s three poles without flying – the North, the South and the summit of Everest – but the Norwegian adventurer then returned to get philosophical in a breathtaking book called Silence in the Age of Noise.
Yes, there are three poles. Admit it, you thought there were only two, the Arctic and the Antarctic. Well, the Hindu Kush-Himalayas is the third in the trio of terrains.
In his latest book, Philosophy for Polar Explorers, Erling provides a thoughtful meditation on adventure and discovery. In 16 meditative but practical lessons, the optimistic beard-stroker reveals what survival in the world’s most extreme conditions can teach us about leading a meaningful life.
Having once spent 50 days walking solo in Antarctica in 1993 with a broken radio, he finds moments of silence precious. Probably because he has three daughters.
Based in Oslo, in an office surrounded by art that he has collected, the ever-curious optimist takes comfort in solitude and wants to invite us all to take pleasure in the small things too. Having turned 60 in January, he urges us to treat life like a grand exploration, and get walking. We can all find chill, even in a city, and within ourselves.
Nelly Ben Hayoun: Erling Kagge, you’re an innovator, publisher, author, lawyer, art collector, entrepreneur, and politician. But you’re also an epic explorer who has been to the limits of the Earth – the one and only person in history to ever reach the three poles. What a great honour and pleasure it is to chat to you.
Erling Kagge: And you too, Nelly. I think we are all born explorers, you definitely are. If you look at any kid, they learn how to walk, then start to walk towards being themselves, and towards the horizon. And after a few years, they also start to wonder what’s beyond the horizon. Then, what’s up in the sky towards the stars, the moon, on Mars. You can always ask someone, ‘why do you explore?’, but it’s more relevant to ask people, ‘why did you stop to explore’? That spirit of exploration never goes away. It’s diluted, it decreases, but we all have it within.
NBH: I love that you go to all these extreme places, and then come back and tell us, “shhh, let’s be silent”!
EK: Walking to the South Pole alone for 50 days and nights in total silence – no radio, no telephone – taught me a great lesson on the importance of silence. You know, I have three daughters. When I wrote the book, they were all teenagers. So my life was all about noise all the time. Telephones buzzing and an expectation that something was about to happen. On top of that, life is full of noise in the sense that even the sky is filled with man made lights. You can’t see the stars in many places on Earth. My daughters didn’t know what silence is. So long story short, that’s why I wrote that book.
NBH: Let’s go back to this idea of exploration being a moment of pause. For most of us, when we think about exploration, we think about something extremely active. Exploring the world takes up a lot of energy and power. But you’re saying that in order to really truly explore, you need to pause for a second. Is the night-time the best moment to experience this?
EK: The moment that works is very much up to you – because the big mystery in life is within. The big silence is inside yourself. But having said that, yes, night-time is more quiet. In terms of imagination, to look into a starry night is the best. It reminds us who we are, what we came from and where we will head next. When you look into a starry night, you feel little and maybe a bit unimportant. But at the same time, in my experience, you also feel this greatness, a fantastic feeling that you are part of this huge vastness, which is the universe. To look into the starry night teaches you both about humility, which is super important, but also about greatness and the privilege and fantastic possibilities there are as a human being.
NBH: Where do you see the future of exploration going?
EK: I think everybody should go to the moon. In my experience, I have travelled to not only remote areas but to more than a hundred countries, to many cities and taught thousands of people. My experience is that most people underestimate themselves. Of course, some are overestimating! But most people underestimate the possibilities they can have in life. It’s limited how many people can go to the moon, of course, but the number will increase in the years to come and space travel will be much more common. To travel to the moon today seems super exotic, but it will not be that strange.
NBH: And the far side of the moon has never seen planet Earth and is very quiet! I have a bit of a cheeky question, did you find yourself being extremely annoyed when there was a big cloud in the night skies, which meant you missed an incredible view in the North Pole?
EK: You know, more annoying than that is the fact that at night time in the North Pole, it’s cold, because it’s minus 54 degrees and you’re in a wool anorak. You don’t have an astronaut outfit, it’s much more down to earth. But the toughest thing being a polar explorer is the same as being an astronaut… it’s getting up at the right time every morning!
NBH: To get up at the same time every morning was annoying to you?
EK: Yeah! You’re starving, you’re cold. Somehow it’s more tempting to be in a sleeping bag at least for a little bit, for five minutes, or even five hours, instead of getting out of the sleeping bag and freezing like hell!
NBH: That’s a good point. I can’t wait to hear about your next explorations. Set your alarm!
What’s so good about this?
We could all do with being more Erling Kagge.
Cultivating optimism and being open-minded can benefit our lives enormously, wherever our paths may take us.
So explore your mind as much as the planet. Challenge yourself every day with variety and adventure to live a life with meaning. Mute your phone and embrace silence.
If our lives are made up of moments, and in each moment we are distracted, we will lead a distracted life. Philosophy for Polar Explorers (Penguin, November 2021) provides a thoughtful and eloquent meditation on adventure and discovery.
Meet Nelly Ben Hayoun
Faster-talking than the speed of light, louder than a sonic boom and sparkier than a volcano, award-winning director and experience designer Nelly Ben Hayoun has simulated all of the above with Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios, which is considered one of the world’s best design studios. Her University of the Underground is a tuition-free charity with board members such as Pussy Riot, Noam Chomsky and Massive Attack, and her new “alien festival”, Tour de Moon, encourages creativity within the nightlife sector. Check out the Bowie-lover’s The Nelly Boum Show on Worldwide FM, where the French space enthusiast catapults us through her flights of fancy-made-real in mind-blowing, imagination-sparking conversations like this one.