Explorer Erling Kagge on why we walk and the tyranny of tech
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The first sign this is going to be a Lunch with the FT like few others takes place just after breakfast. Instead of researching my guest and his choice of restaurant online, I am mixing eggs, flour, milk and sugar into a batter that I pour, somewhat sloppily, into a Thermos flask. Next stop is the state alcohol shop in central Oslo to buy glogg, Sweden’s version of mulled wine, and a small bottle of aquavit, Norway’s version of fiery hell. A final dash into a sports shop secures a bottle of gas for my Primus stove.
With rucksack packed and sturdy walking boots and fleece donned, I head off to meet the first man to walk to all three extremities of the North Pole, South Pole and Mount Everest. Since those feats as an explorer in the 1990s, Erling Kagge has become something of a Renaissance man. A lawyer by training, he studied philosophy after exploring the world, starting his own publishing house, becoming a renowned collector of contemporary art, and latterly an author of slim but thought-provoking tomes.
The latest of these — out already in Norway and to be published in the UK and US next spring — is simply called Walking. Appositely, Kagge has decided we should eschew a restaurant setting and instead walk into the woods and hills outside Oslo, and cook our lunch ourselves. Now 55, with his shaggy hair and beard flecked with salt and pepper colours, Kagge has covered more miles than most people. But it was only when he sat down to write a book about it that he started to interrogate what all that walking had meant.
“It’s what publishers tell authors: don’t worry that you don’t know the conclusion or exactly what you’re going to write because you may find some new answers and some other questions. I was surprised to see, for instance, how radical it has become to actually choose to walk. To move slowly from one place to another has become a privilege, and many people can’t afford it because they need to get from A to B in a fast pace,” he says in summary of his 25,000-word paean to the joys of bipedalism.
Today’s walk will be on a much more modest scale than his more famous feats. Kagge has picked a route leading from his house — the Modernist Villa Dammann in the university district of Blindern, up through the woods of Oslo’s Nordmarka to Vettakollen, a peak of just over 400 metres. His home is vintage Kagge, from the six pairs of prepped cross-country skis by the front door to three large, contemporary sculptures in the garden. Dressed casually in a checked shirt and blue trousers, he slings on a pair of trainers and we set off at a brisk pace past his driveway, which contains a Tesla — complete with a learner plate for one of his three daughters. (Kagge interviewed Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, for his book Silence, and gives him a thank-you in the credits.)
We walk uphill for the best part of an hour and a half, passing Oslo’s research district and main hospital before the ground becomes wetter and rockier. Kagge knows the area well, skiing here in winter, and we pick our way up the tracks in a light drizzle. Aside from our small talk on the media industry and Norwegian politics, the paths are quiet, with just the occasional aeroplane and the sound of our boots on the rocks.
Vettakollen’s summit is pretty much level with the cloudline. From it we see the famous view of the Oslo fjord and the city centre through a veil of pale grey. Kagge spies a tree-trunk bench and we set up our respective portable stoves and put on our coats, his an old, red Patagonia puffa jacket with pieces of black and red sticky tape keeping it together. He has chosen oat porridge as the main course of our picnic — but with the addition of bilberries, a smaller, tastier cousin of blueberries picked by his brother in the forest nearby, and apples from his own garden, raisins and local honey. I warm up some of the glogg over my Primus, and a strong, spiced wine smell rises into the air.
“This is good,” Kagge says, sounding somewhat surprised at first sip. “The moral is that everything tastes either good or fantastic when you have walked first.” I mention that both readers and the FT Weekend editor seem keen on Lunches with alcohol so I have also brought along a Christmas version of aquavit. Kagge looks sceptical: “You never drink aquavit in the middle of the day. Norwegians say that if you drink liquor to get warm, it is like peeing your pants for the same reason.”
This is classic Kagge. His latest book is full of aphorisms that often tread the thin line between banality and profundity (“Your feet are your best friends. They tell you who you are”), and citations by everyone from Heidegger, Hippocrates and Thoreau to Ted Bundy, Pablo Neruda and Steve Jobs.
I ask him about one of his main conclusions — that humankind could be changing as we use our feet less and our cars more. “Humans or homo sapiens didn’t invent walking. But walking invented human beings. So, of course, now we go into a time where we walk less and less,” he says, squatting by his cooker. He pours some more milk into the oats. “You need to heat it not too quickly so it takes in the milk,” he says, launching into a lengthy description of where the bilberries and apples come from.
What does he get out of a walk like today’s? Can it even be remotely compared to going up Everest? “I spend so much time of my life walking, also walking in the mountains, but now more and more in the forest. What I like about the forest is that the terrain is uneven or rugged. And then you have to move with your whole body using your arms, your head, and somehow you feel that you are experiencing with the whole body. And also you make decisions before you feel they have reached your head. It’s whole body and mind balance.”
Kagge says he often chooses to take meetings, like ours, on a walk rather than in the office or at a café, although he is at his happiest when walking alone. He likes to work early in the morning at home so he can walk in the daytime. He pours the bilberries in the porridge, turning it almost instantly a lurid purple while I pour out the rest of the glogg.I soon realise we have drunk a full bottle of 15 per cent alcohol in about 20 minutes flat.VETTAKOLLEN
Vestre Aker, Oslo, Norway
Porridge with bilberries, apples, honey and raisins
Pancakes with blueberry jam and maple syrup
Loiten Juleaquavit 2018
Estimated cost of liquor and food lugged up the mountain £50
I press him on how he feels walking in Norway compared with Nepal. “The North Pole, South Pole and Everest, it’s mostly mental. I’m not physically more fit than other people doing the same stuff or other people trying to do the same stuff and failing. It’s a mental thing and it’s definitely about preparation. You need to be well prepared.”
His 1990 trip with fellow explorer Borge Ousland was the first successful unsupported expedition to the North Pole and took 58 days. “I have always been walking and cross-country skiing, so the biggest difference is that for 50 days and nights you had to drag all your belongings. And it’s so cold you actually start crying because your face hurts.”
He argues that being a Norwegian was a comparative advantage “because I’m used to the cold”. He says he and Ousland did not regard the likes of Amundsen and Nansen as heroes as such but adds: “It’s a bit like a football star in other countries. But in Norway it has to do with polar expeditions. It’s a huge thing.” I ask whether he misses big expeditions after conquering both poles and Everest in just a few years. “Not now. I think there’s a time for everything and I strongly believe that life is very much about fulfilling your own potential.”
In recent years, he has tried more quixotic trips such as crossing Los Angeles on foot or using sewage pipes and other tunnels to traverse New York. “The thing is, the world remains unexplored because the world is changing all the time but also because there’s always a new way to see everything,” he adds.
The porridge is ready. Kagge dollops a couple of big spoonfuls each into bowls and throws in some chopped apple and raisins. We wolf it down greedily, grateful for the warmth it provides and the delicate taste of Norwegian nature. Raindrops fall off the pine tree on to our heads and into our porridge. From the fjord, several kilometres distant, we hear the foghorn of a ferry.
Born in 1963 to a journalist father and book publisher mother, Kagge struggled at school in Oslo. “I was a loser at school, a bottom-three pupil, I think, in every class I attended for 10 years.” He struggled with dyslexia and didn’t show talent in sports. After university, he became an in-house lawyer for aluminium group Norsk Hydro before starting his expeditions. When his then-girlfriend became pregnant in 1995, he decided he needed to settle down at home and chose book publishing as his new career. I ask, given his dyslexia, whether it was a deliberate choice to prove people wrong. “I don’t know. Revenge is a very undervalued motivation. The good thing with dyslexia is that you learn to question authorities. You also learn to find different solutions to problems.”
Throughout his life, he says, “curiosity has been a driving force”. Scraping up the last bit of porridge, Kagge adds: “I also believe in making life more difficult than necessary. If I had been born in Sudan obviously I would not think the same way, but as a Norwegian in general you need to have a meaningful life. You need to make it more difficult than it has to be.”
It is my turn to do some cooking. I pour some of the batter into a frying pan to make lapper, or Norwegian pancakes. The cloud has descended. The first pancake cooks a little too quickly and is soon a little charred. Kagge charitably says we should split it and we both add a slug of maple syrup to it. “This is good. Is it homemade?” Kagge asks, a signal to make a second one, this time with blueberry jam.
I ask about food on expeditions — was it the same each day? Kagge nods his head — he had 58 days of oatmeal with formula milk. It is clear he appreciates good food. We talk about Oslo’s first Michelin three-starred restaurant, Maaemo, and his thoughts turn to the following day, when he heads to Spain to promote his last book, Silence. He has booked a table for one at a recommended fish restaurant. “I’m looking forward to being in Madrid so I can sit down and read during the meal and watch people and maybe think about the wine and go back to sleep.”
He sees the Silence and Walking books as companion pieces, as both are important to him. But it is obvious that writing is a challenge for him — the 18,000 words of Silence took him 18 months to craft, he says. “For me to write about silence and about walking was super-difficult because I wanted to use few words and make it breathe and still be meaningful.” He says he was aware of the fine line between deep observations and obvious ones. “I use plain language, no ups and downs, kind of a meditative atmosphere with the words I choose. I write philosophically but I am not a philosopher. I am, first of all, a guy that walked really long distances.” Kagge will now spend the autumn thinking about his next book, and he makes it clear he has plenty of options to mull.
As if exploring, collecting and philosophising were not enough, he is also head of Kagge Forlag, one of Norway’s biggest publishing houses, and books help feed his curiosity. He talks of ringing up a Norwegian chef, around whom there is a growing buzz, to see if there might be a book in her before she becomes too well-known.
“Publishing is outstanding in the sense that you always have to think about the intellectual aspect, and you also have to have a commercial aptitude to everything you do every day. Also books can be life-changing. What people do today with Instagram and YouTube and TV series, they are very seldom life-changing,” he says, adding that he has not watched a TV series for two decades.
It is time to try aquavit in the daytime, but Kagge has a trick. Apparently, it is traditional just to take a little in the cap of the bottle. He goes first and scrunches up his face as the firewater descends. I take my gulp next and it tastes much better than my memory of it — perhaps another benefit of walking.
We pack away our picnic and as I stand up I realise the glogg at least has gone to my head. It makes the descent — on a well-trodden path with plenty of slippy rocks — more interesting. I ask what his three daughters make of his books with their homespun wisdom. The eldest two read Silence and approved, he says, but his youngest thought it was “bullshit”. He is wary of technology, calling smartphones and their related apps “a new variation of slavery”. One of the joys of walking for him is leaving his phone behind and not seeing other people carrying them around “like they are teddy bears”.
We are close to the metro station when we hear the train coming. We start sprinting but the barriers come down across the road to our platform. Kagge takes off his backpack and readies to duck the barrier but gets a sharp warning toot from the metro driver. So we head down the hill, missing out three stations.
I ask him about art collecting — it has long been his passion, and the Astrup Fearnley museum in Oslo even had an exhibition of works from his collection three years ago. At the peak, he was buying almost a piece a week — everything from a Rolls-Royce with different bonnet ornaments by Franz West to works by Olafur Eliasson and Trisha Donnelly. “Again, it’s about curiosity. It’s also absurd. Just like walking to the poles and Everest,” he says.
Just before we reach the station, we pass some other walkers. “It’s funny: people coming from a walk, they always look happy,” Kagge says. Aquavit or not, I can only agree.
Richard Milne is the FT’s Nordic and Baltic correspondent