TURNING UP THE HEAT: Warm ship awaits as Børge Ousland and Mike Horn reach support team, but burning questions intensify about costly effort after they reject helicopter pickup

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They’ve spent much of the past three months deeply and sometimes dangerously cold, but things are about to get very warm indeed as Børge Ousland and Mike Horn come off the sea ice north of Svalbard after skiing over the North Pole.

The longtime polar explorers, out of food and suffering frostbite, met up Friday with two peers sent from the former research ship Lance, putting an end to their immediate life-sustaining struggles even though the ship still needs to navigate to a safe place at the ice edge to pick up the group.  Aboard the ship is plenty of food sent and prepared by well-wishers, along with members of the media from Verdens Gang and NRK who have been sharing details of the dramatic in a real-time, minute-by-minute fashion.

The four men now on the ice are expected to have a difficult Saturday as they were about 12 kilometers from the Lance as of midmorning, with gaps of open water and the complication of being carried about by drifting ice among the hazards to overcome at roughly 82 degrees latitude north.

But while some people are following the coverage breathlessly online and chatting about movie prospects, a growing number of pundits and others are questioning the pair’s decision to reject a relatively quick and easy rescue helicopter pickup.

“How is it possible that half of NRK and a bunch of VG journalists are bringing life to a PR stunt in the northern sea where elite soldiers and adventurers have refused The Governor of Svalbard’s generous offer of evacuation from the ice?” wrote Hanne Heszlein-Lossius, a Finnmark doctor who has harshly criticized emergency medical resources in northern Norway as inadequate, in a column Friday in Nordlys.

“Maybe someone in Oslo can explain to me how it might turn out a heart-sick child in Finnmark had to wait 19 hours to get to a cardiologist? Or why a little girl with possible brain hemorrhage in Gamvik waited for the plane for 3.5 hours?”

The column sparked a flurry of responses at various media sites and, while support was widespread it wasn’t universal.

“I don’t understand what’s the problem with the news coverage of the case,” wrote John Alfred Hustvedt, a Stavanger resident who has worked as a sea rescuer, in a comment on NRK’s Facebook page where he called the pickup “an amazing achievement.” “I guess a happy thing like this doesn’t exclude the coverage of other serious matters.”

An intense defense of Ousland’s and Horn’s decision was posted by Jan Sverre Sivertsen, a former Hurtigruten Svalbard managing director and fellow polar explorer who at present is on an expedition in Antarctica. He argued the media is providing the intense coverage without prompting from those involved with the expedition, and the pair are “doing this voluntarily and not spending the taxpayers’ money.”

“They are not asking for a helicopter pickup because they are not in emergency, (and) probably because they also don’t want to involve rescue resources and because I guess they want to complete their expedition on their own as long as it is considered to be within safe security margins,” Sivertsen wrote.

Among the media in Longyearbyen tracking the expedition is a French documentary crew waiting about the Pangaea, a 115-foot sailboat originally designated to pick up Ousland and Horn from the ice until conditions prevented it, which now plans to depart the harbor to meet the Lance when the explorers are aboard. Also on the Pangaea is Horn’s daughter, Jessica, who was interviewed Friday by Svalbardposten (which earlier this week sent a cake to the explorers aboard the Lance).

She told the newspaper that while the immediate thoughts are about spending Christmas with her father for the first time in four years, she knows there are further expeditions in his future despite the exhaustion he’s feeling now.

“You can’t stop a lion who wants to go out,” she said.

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