Erling Kagge’s walking tour of Oslo
On a hike around his native Oslo, a writer-adventurer extols the benefits of putting one foot in front of the other
Walking, the new book by Erling Kagge — adventurer, publisher and author — which has just come out in this country, is a slip of a thing. “Quite often books are too long. I think you should be able to say what you find important about walking in 25,000 words,” says Kagge, 56, who is tall and trim with wild greyish hair that he often runs his fingers through. “I don’t think people should spend more than one or two evenings reading about my ideas because you should rather go walking.”
And we do. It’s a cold, bright day as we meander around Oslo, the city where Kagge was born and still lives, talking about his book and the experiences that inform it. The snow crunches under our boots. For all his humility, Walking, which is due to be published in 21 countries and counting and is the follow-up to his 2017 book Silence, an international bestseller which was translated into 37 languages, comes with serious underwriting. Kagge himself is no ordinary walker.
In 1990, when he was 27, Kagge and fellow Norwegian Børge Ousland became the first men to reach the North Pole unsupported (ie, they carried all the supplies they would need for the entire 800km trip). Three years later, he walked by himself, unsupported again, to the South Pole. In March 1993, a photograph of him appeared on the cover of Time magazine and he was lauded as one of the modern-day adventurers “pushing the edge of exploration”. (Also named but not pictured on the cover was his great rival, Britain’s Sir Ranulph Fiennes, whom he beat to both poles. Fiennes, who has often spoken of his motivating desire to “beat the Norwegians”, supplied a quote for the marketing materials of Kagge’s book, describing him, in both his exploring and writing endeavours, as “gifted”.) In 1994, Kagge climbed Mount Everest, making him the first person to complete the so-called “Three Poles Challenge” on foot. If anyone is qualified to write on this topic it’s him.
A recurring theme of Kagge’s book, published in Norway last year, is that putting one foot in front of the other can be transportive not just in the literal sense: it can loosen the body and also the mind; encourage new ideas and fresh perspectives. The book is meditative and quietly stirring. Finishing it, you feel convinced of his written assertion that walking “is among the most radical things you can do”.
“I started noticing in the late teenage years that walking was something more than getting from one place to another,” he says. “I spent parts of my childhood going to the forest, camping, biking, doing mountaineering stuff, but then I started to see how it could develop your mind, by [being] very influential on your emotional and creative life.”
Walking is made up of short passages, strolls perhaps, through the work of philosophers, scientists and writers — James Joyce, Charles Darwin, Søren Kierkegaard, Hippocrates — who have considered what walking means to us as a species, or have benefited from doing it themselves. Their overall findings might well be summed up by the literal translation of the statement attributed to the Greek philosopher Diogenes, “solvitur ambulando”: “it is solved by walking”.
Kagge has always found solace in walking alone: taking circuitous routes through the forest on his way home from kindergarten in the southern Oslo suburb of Nordstrand, stepping out to shake off heartache in his early twenties — “a girlfriend I had, she left me, I was very sad, I could feel it with my whole body, then I went cross-country skiing for the whole day and when I came home I was in such a good mood!” — commuting on foot to the central Oslo office of his publishing house, Kagge Forlag. He set it up in 1996 when his thengirlfriend was pregnant with the first of their three daughters (the girls are now in their late teens and twenties and the couple have separated, but live close by). At the weekends, he walks for longer. “It could be anything from two to 12 hours,” he says. “I think it’s important to get a bit exhausted.”
He also likes to walk with people he knows and people he doesn’t. Today, as we’re wandering around Oslo, it’s impossible not to pass places of significance to him. Early on we find ourselves at Akershus Fortress, a medieval
castle built on top of a knoll overlooking the Oslofjord, looking for the place where Kagge’s morfar, his maternal grandfather, a member of the WWII Norwegian resistance, was shot by firing squad in 1945. Kagge writes about his grandfather’s final steps in the last chapter of his book, a story he says has been “almost like a metaphysical theme throughout the whole family.”
There are mentions of going to the North and South Poles in Walking, and a few photos, but that’s it. “I think it’s important to write about it because to me they were life-changing experiences, but not too much,” says Kagge. “Because my life is so many other things.”
He’s unusually blunt about the motivations for such challenges. “It’s a very egocentric thing to do,” he says. “When I returned back home from the South Pole, I had people writing to me, school kids to people having cancer, who’d been inspired to fight through because they’d been following me walking to the pole. That’s an unbelievably great feeling, but that’s not why I did it.”
Among the reasons he might have done it, he thinks now, is “a little part revenge”, on those who may have underestimated him earlier in life. Kagge was born the youngest of three boys, his mother worked in publishing and his father was a jazz critic, and at school he was “very restless, very noisy. I had a hard time dealing with discipline”. His behaviour, he believes, was at least part-connected to his dyslexia, diagnosed when he was around nine. “The good thing is that you learn to question authorities because the teacher tells you something and it doesn’t work for you.” He was almost expelled from junior high school and later asked to leave his high school. He mentions that his front teeth were knocked out by a teacher. “These are porcelain,” he says, giving them a tap.
After changing to a school in the city, Kagge’s attitude changed too, and he ended up studying law at the University of Oslo. He was on unpaid leave from his job as a corporate lawyer at energy company Norsk Hydro when he did his North and South Pole trips, by which point he had already sailed across the Atlantic. He has also navigated the sewers of New York City, walked the width of Los Angeles, and spent a year studying philosophy at Cambridge University as a visiting scholar. I suggest that he must be, to put it mildly, quite determined.
“Ja, ja,” he says. “If you always choose the easiest option in life then you’re not living a free life, and you will definitely, definitely not walk to the North Pole. And life can feel very short.”
We leave the old fortress and pass by the offices of Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Kagge knows her and is the only nonpolitician on one of her advisory committees. “Actually, I was supposed to meet her this afternoon, but we are getting a new cabinet today in Norway,” he says matter-of-factly, which is how he says most things.
We walk past the Oslo Opera House that dips into the fjord like a bobbing iceberg, and through the former dockyards in the east. To the west we can see the distant outline of the Astrup Fearnley Museum, which held an exhibition in 2015 dedicated to Kagge’s sizeable contemporary art collection; it includes work by Olafur Eliasson and Franz West. He points out a road curving around the side of a mountain and down into the city, along which he used to cycle to school. Not so fun cycling home, I suggest. His response is typical: “It was good exercise.”
As the sun gets lower we cross a bridge over the train tracks leading into Oslo Central Station. After I’m gone he will go cross-country skiing alone, “Probably without a headlight because the light is reflected in the snow. If it’s not overcast it will be a nice moon tonight.”
I ask him if, now his children are growing up, he might find the old cravings returning: the lure of the silence, of the whiteness. “When I did these expeditions you’re kind of hypnotised. You focus on the goal, you don’t look left or right or back. I’m not certain I have this attitude,” he says. He looks up at the darkening hills and shrugs. “At this time of year I see whiteness all the time.”
Walking by Erling Kagge is out now (Viking)
‘I started noticing that walking was something more than getting from one place to another... I started to see how it could develop your mind, by [being] very influential on your emotional and creative life’