For this polar explorer, some of the biggest lessons come from the lives of school children, New York City’s homeless

Philosophy for Polar Explorers

By Erling Kagge, Pantheon Books, 192 pages, 2020. $20

We’ve all heard stories of modern day explorers and adventurers who push the limits of both their bodies and technology, still proving that one can be the first to achieve something in this world, completing some journey involving deserts or jungles, water or ice. And most of us, I suspect, have wondered, what these people are thinking? It must be worth learning.

Erling Kagge put himself in the history books by being the first person to complete the fabled Three Poles Challenge on foot (the three poles being the North, the South, and the summit of Mount Everest). And in “Philosophy for Polar Explorers” he ruminates on what goes through his mind as he does these things, and applies these thoughts to everyday life.

The Kagge that we meet in these pages is extremely well read, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Expeditionists these days don’t bring much excess weight in their packs, but they do bring books. Far from the global electronic networks we’re all wired into, they have to feed their minds with something. And judging by the names that get dropped on these pages, Kagge looks to the classics. Socrates and Seneca appear here, as do Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, John Stuart Mill, Viktor Frankl and others.

One gets the impression that Kagge is attempting to tie his own life into the ideas and directions suggested by the philosophical tradition, and at times the connections are to be found. But the book seems more of a self-help manual than philosophy, more psychological. These are lessons sprung from the battle between Kagge’s body and the elements. He tells us about the drives he surrenders to that have made him embark on such extreme adventures, and the forces that guide his thinking, and act as a check on his impulses. And from this he offers observations and advice.

What comes out isn’t always what one might expect. His focus on courage and proper preparation and perseverance are fairly much as anticipated. It’s where he sees these virtues acted out that is sometimes surprising.

Kagge defines courage in the usual fashion: the ability to stand up to the things that would harm you and keep you from attaining your goals. This is straightforward enough, but it isn’t his own experience he touts for long here. Instead he looks to children who are bullied in school, and yet who get up each morning and go again, endure the abuse, and make it through another day. The admiration he expresses for these kids is heartfelt, and he points to them as examples we should admire.

Kagge also devotes a fair amount of time to failure, and to the wisdom of knowing when to accept it and retreat. He credits his survival in his many adventures to this instinct. But the primary example he offers comes from Arctic exploration history.

In 1897, the Swedish explorer Salomon August Andrée and his crew launched a hot air balloon from Spitsbergen in an attempt to be the first to reach the North Pole. Flying into unfavorable winds, they never returned, and their bodies weren’t discovered until three decades later.

It’s not Andrée and his men who boldly sailed off despite the ominous signs that Kagge respects. Rather, he says, his regard is for the one man who withdrew from the expedition after concluding it was ill prepared. While Andrée so feared being seen a failure that he hurled forward into the sky despite the dangers, this man, Nils Ekholm, decided he would not risk leaving his wife a widow. He chose life over glory.

This is how Kagge makes his decisions when out on the ice, he tells us. Assess the circumstances, and trust gut instincts. Failure is a better fate than death.

Curiously, when Kagge discusses his own failures and setbacks, he doesn’t talk about the ones he encountered on the ice so much as the the ones he’s been blindsided by in the world most people live in. A major stock market loss seems to have stung him more than the times he turned back on expeditions, short of his goal. But he coldly examines his decision-making process, locates some flaws, and vows not to do it again.

It’s a detachment that many would struggle to achieve. And it is no doubt the product of taking himself all alone to the South Pole, where any mistakes have to be compensated for, learned from, and then emotionally let go of because the next challenge could be in the next step.

It’s this perseverance Kagge sees in the homeless. One of his journeys was a trek not across some forbidden continent, but through the underground tunnels and sewers of New York City. There he met a homeless women who had lived beneath the streets for 28 years and claimed to be quite content. She had a routine, and because he follows routines on his journeys, he saw in this a lesson for survival.

This is a “live life to the fullest while you can” kind of book, but one that also advises thinking things through. Kagge says for him, the inspiration comes first. He commits to doing something, and only then does he lay plans. But pan he does. “Alone, then, to the South Pole!” Kagge writes. “For me the decision was made the moment the idea came to mind. Thereafter all I had to do was think through how it might be achieved in rational detail.”

Simple. Why didn’t I think of it? Probably because I’m not Erling Kagge. Few of us are. But he’s come down to our level now, raising three daughters and running a publishing company. He’s finding his challenges in the workaday world, but applying the lessons of adventures on the ice to the daily grind. Everywhere, Kagge writes, opportunities abound.

“Chess is a sophisticated game: after three opening moves, there are nine million possible positions. But each and every life holds far more possibilities than a chessboard.”