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Into the Great White Open

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LIV ARNESEN’S PASSION FOR OUTDOOR sports had always kept her in great shape. But early last year the Norwegian schoolteacher’s training regimen took a turn toward the bizarre. She started gobbling ice cream, deliberately putting on more than 20 pounds. But that was just a start. She also began skiing the trails outside Oslo with a 30-pound pack on her back, then pulling a sled through the mountains. When the snow disappeared, she attached 100 pounds of tires to her waist and dragged them along forest roads. “People thought I was crazy when they met me in the woods,” she admits.

But what would they have called her if they had really known what she was up to? Last Christmas Day, Arnesen, 41, became the first woman to ski solo from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole. (Only one other person, countryman Erling Kagge, in 1993, has made the journey.) The 745-mile outing took Arnesen 50 days, and she did it without dog team or backup. Instead, she pulled a canoe-like sled called a pulka, which was weighed down with 200 pounds of food and equipment and hooked to her backpack. During much of the trek she braved temperatures as low as—25°F and constant, buffeting winds. Though she suffered frostbite in two fingers and could have been killed when she almost fell into a crevasse, all in all, says Arnesen, the trek “went very smoothly. I expected to have days when I’d be depressed, but that didn’t happen.”

Arnesen grew up in Baerum, outside Oslo, where her father, Finn, 67, worked as a machine contractor and her mother, Berit, 65, was an accountant. Arnesen was 12 when she first read Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s book about his 1911 expedition to the South Pole and dreamed of going there herself. “I think it wasn’t so much the South Pole that attracted me as it was that long ski trip,” she says.

At the University of Oslo, Arnesen studied history and literature and in 1979 got a job as a high school teacher. In the summers she worked for an adventure-travel firm, taking people skiing and glacier-walking near the North Pole. Then she read about a 57-year-old man who had skied across Greenland. “I began to think that I didn’t have to just read about it,” she says. In 1992 she and fellow guide Julie Maske traversed the Greenland ice cap in 24 days.

Just weeks after her return, Arnesen told Einar Glestad, her husband of five years, that she wanted to go to the South Pole. “When I realized she was serious, I gave her my full support,” says Glestad, 48, a physiotherapist. “Hearing what she experienced on the trip, maybe I should have worried more.”

After arranging corporate sponsorship and traveling to the Antarctic coast via plane and snow scooter, Arnesen set out from Hercules Inlet on Nov. 5. She started slowly, skiing just 6 hours a day and sleeping for 12. Soon, she was going from 8:30 in the morning to 7 at night, with 10-minute breaks every hour for juice and chocolate. Arnesen, who averaged 15 miles a day, was occasionally forced to retire early because of high winds and whiteouts—heavy cloud covers over snow that severely restrict visibility.

The skiing was harder than she had expected. “The terrain wasn’t flat,” says Arnesen. “It was like a stormy ocean. You have to pull the pulka up and then down again.” Yet most of the time she enjoyed the snow. “There were figures in the sastrugi [waves of windblown snow that form on the polar plain],” she says. “It was kind of like a museum of modern art.”

She had her biggest scare the day she was walking up a hill without her skis and stepped onto a layer of snow covering a crevasse. “I sank suddenly through to the hip,” she says. “My heart almost stopped, but the backpack and sled prevented me from falling all the way down into the blue depth.”

Though she had no radio, Arnesen did have a transmitter with which to send coded messages. (One three-digit number signaled “Happy Birthday” to her husband.) “Sometimes I’d get into a meditational state,” she says. “When I took out my diary, I’d say, ‘I don’t think I was thinking at all today’ ”

Arnesen reached the U.S. research base, which sits under a dome at the Pole, on Christmas Eve. “I saw it for 5 hours before I got there,” she says. “I was thinking it would be anticlimactic because it was this big station with bulldozers, cars, planes and so on. But the last few meters, up to the point where a sign says ‘Geographic South Pole,’ I was really moved.”

She was touched as well by the reception she got inside the dome. As she sat in the cafeteria, dozens of enthusiastic Yanks clustered around her. “I realized they had been waiting for me for days,” she says. Arnesen stayed at the Pole for two weeks, washing dishes in return for her meals while waiting for a plane. She enjoyed the company; still, she remains a soloist at heart. “I was more tired after three or four days at the South Pole,” she says, “than after skiing alone for 50.”

Her next project is a book about her adventure, due June 1. Her message, “especially important for women,” she says, is to “live your own life, make your own choices. Fifty days of weather reports could get boring.”