Female SOLOists: Meet Cecilie Skog – the Norwegian mountaineer who’s on top of the world

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As temperatures drop and we all try to resist the urge to crank the heating up, Cecilie Skog likely has some tips for keeping warm. The 48-year-old Norwegian is the only person in the world to have skied across both the North and the South Poles and to have climbed all of The Seven Summits – the highest peaks on every continent.

“In the beginning, the Poles do feel very cold,” Cecilie tells me from her home near Oslo. “You set off in winter when the ice is thickest, so there’s not much sunlight. The North Pole is much harder. It’s basically just a 4,000-metre-deep ocean that decided to freeze, so the surface you’re standing on is constantly moving, your skis are getting stuck. Plus, there’s icy wind, strong currents and five-metre tall chunks of ice to navigate.”

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Cecilie has been dubbed the ‘Polar Princess’

I feel chilly just thinking about it. “You just have to keep moving and that warms you up,” she explains. “I was pulling a 127-kilo sled, so that was quite a workout. You also start the day wet as you have to sleep in a plastic bag inside your sleeping bag – if any of the water left your body in the night it would instantly freeze. You wake up wet, pull on your woollen layers, have a very quick drink of tea and breakfast, and get going.”

Luckily, Cecilie, who has been dubbed the “Polar Princess”, says the scenery more than makes up for the discomfort. “It is just incredibly beautiful,” she says. “People think of the North Pole as being very white, but actually it’s so colourful. There’s the blue of the ocean and the pastel-bright colours in the sky, plus seals playing and polar bear tracks. The sunsets are unreal and it’s so quiet, too.

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I felt scared climbing mountains in the beginning

Cecilie says she became “completely obsessed” with mountains as a teenager and that growing up in Alesund, on the west coast of Norway, there certainly were plenty to climb. 

“As a child, these peaks were just scenery for me. But when I started climbing them at around 18-19, they became familiar and intimate,” she says. 

In the beginning, I didn’t feel comfortable and I felt a little bit scared. Then I realised I just had to take small steps towards the summit. It was a new thing to me, being surrounded by so much air. When I was finally sitting on the top of the mountain, I had this enormous feeling of achievement. The view was amazing and to sit there with friends meant a lot. It changed me.”

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I found my body could handle altitude better than most

She took a climbing course and then went on to train as a glacier guide and a nurse. She left Norway at 21 for the first time to climb Mont Blanc with her then-boyfriend. 

“We had no idea what we were doing,” she laughs. “We both had such altitude sickness, but I found that my body could handle it much better than his. I don’t know if it’s genetic or just luck, but my body has always acclimatised very well to climbing.”

Cecilie hadn’t even heard of The Seven Summits and didn’t set out to conquer them all, but the mountains she climbed just got “higher and higher,” she says.

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I’ve been lucky to be a mountaineer for 20 years

“I just wanted to go out and explore the world and travel with my friends,” she says. “For me, it wasn’t a decision to become a professional mountaineer, it just happened. I became a nurse less and less and then, around 2003, I didn’t do any nursing at all. I’ve been lucky enough to live like this for the last 20 years.” 

After Mont Blanc, she went to South America to climb Aconcagua on the border between Argentina and Chile. She then tackled Everest in Nepal, Denali in Alaska, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Elbrus in Russia, Vinson in Antarctica and Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia.

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Tragedy struck when an avalanche hit during one of their climbs

Although it’s hard to pick a favourite, she says Vinson was very special: “There were only like three people on the whole mountain,” she says. Elbrus stands out, too, as it’s where she met her late husband, the adventurer Rolf Bae (he proposed while they were skiing to the North Pole).

Sadly, tragedy struck in 2008 when an avalanche hit during one of their climbs on K2 in the Himalayas. In one of the worst accidents in Himalayan history, 11 climbers died that day – one of them being Rolf.

“I was only able to get back to base camp because I had Rolf’s voice in my head,” she says. Although it was the hardest thing to go through, it didn’t dampen her love of climbing and Cecilie continued to go on adventures with friends, including a 70-day journey across Antarctica unassisted on cross-country skis.

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Rolf taught me not to sneak after your dreams – grab them

“One thing that Rolf taught me was that you shouldn’t just sneak after your dreams – you should grab them with both hands and hold them really tight and try to live them,” she says.

By 2013, she was about to lead a trip across Greenland when she discovered she was pregnant with her new partner, the adventurer Aleksander Gamme. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done because my body was doing strange things,” she recalls. 

“All the food I’d packed for the two months smelled so bad to me; the five guys I was leading smelled so bad – it was awful. But now my eldest daughter likes to say that she’s hiked across Greenland, so that’s pretty cool.”

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She led an expedition across Greenland – while pregnant 

Climbing with her two young daughters means that Cecilie is no longer racing for the summit, but a change of perspective has been no bad thing. 

“We might see an ant hill and we’ll watch it for hours,” she says. “We spend a long time making maps of our route and playing on all fours. When I want to challenge myself now, I go bouldering. One of my favourite places to visit is Fontainebleau in France and I also go climbing in Central Park in New York.”

She has also appeared on Norway’s version of Dancing With The Stars and says that performing in sequins was far harder than skiing solo across Antarctica. “Live TV was honestly so scary,” she says. Worse than altitude sickness, she jokes: “I couldn’t breathe.”

Cecilie Skog spoke to Kate Wills, author of A Trip of One’s Own, for Female SOLOists – a monthly column for SOLO on women exploring the world their own way. Catch up on the other interviews with Ana Hop, Jessica Nabongo, Anna McNuff and Leilani McGonagle now.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: Courtesy of Cecilie Skog

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