To the Ends of the Earth

Explorer Johan Ernst Nilson set out on a journey from the North Pole to the South Pole

Sep 28, 2012 | By Elizabeth Winchester

On his way to the South Pole, explorer Johan Ernst Nilson gets close to penguins.

Johan Ernst Nilson is an explorer. His 32 expeditions in 100 countries include biking from northern Europe to Africa, hiking across Alaska and climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. This summer, Nilson completed his most challenging journey—the Pole2Pole Expedition. He traveled about 21,750 miles through 17 countries, from the North Pole to the South Pole. “I go to remote areas where no person has ever set foot,” Nilson told TFK.

This map shows Nilson's trip from pole to pole.
This map shows Nilson's trip from pole to pole.

Nilson walked, sailed, skied, biked, and dogsledded. Known as the “environmental explorer,” Nilson used forms of transportation that are not harmful to the environment. Nilson hopes the expedition, which will be featured in a movie and book, both due out this winter, will inspire others to protect the planet. “This gives me insight into nature. Together with scientists and politicians, we might be able to change things.”

A Historic Start

Nilson began Pole2Pole on April 6, 2011. On that same day in 1909, American explorers Robert Peary and Matthew Henson and their guide Ootah reached what they believed was the North Pole. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first explorer to get to the South Pole, in 1911.

“Peary and Amundsen were big inspirations. We lived in different times and with different backgrounds,” says Nilson, who is from Sweden. “But what all explorers have in common is the will to reach a goal—the fight against what others think is impossible.”

On the Trail

It took Nilson about 18 months to complete the expedition. He faced dangerous situations, just as the early polar explorers did. He traveled through hurricanes. He endured extreme heat and cold. He fell through ice. He suffered cracked ribs and frostbite. He was even chased by bears.

Eating properly was a constant challenge. The explorer, who covered about 60 miles a day, ate a variety of foods, such as fruit, meat, fish and vegetables. At one point, Nilson ran out of food. He wrote on his blog: “The North Pole is a different story. On an expedition on the ice, you have to eat anything you can find.”

In spite of the many challenges, Nilson insists that the expedition was well worth it. He was able to visit with groups such as UNICEF and the American Red Cross, to take part in the work that they do to help people all over the world. He is hopeful that his adventure will inspire others to take action to protect the planet.

Nilson says his big expedition days are now over, but he will continue to explore in other ways. “Exploration is reaching for the unknown, learning how to play the piano, learning a new language,” he says. Are you an explorer too?

This story first ran in TIME FOR KIDS, September 28, 2012.