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In the icy shadow of Scott and Amundsen

Walking through the park in the rain with Erling Kagge, you are tempted to say, 'Nice stride, but nothing special.' And then you think, yes, but that was two miles in the rain, and Erling is going to walk 312 miles in the snow. As the crow flies. Up hill. Into headwinds. In temperatures of minus 20 to minus 40C. And pulling a sledge weighing about 264lbs (120kg) with a harness round his hips.

Erling Kagge, 28 and Norwegian, is setting off to half-walk, half-ski to the South Pole from the northern edge of Antarctica - alone. He will be leaving in early November, and hopes to get there in about 60 days.

On the way, unless he suffers injury, he is likely to pass two Britons, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and his companion, Mike Stroud. Last week they announced details of a vastly ambitious project, starting at the end of this month, in which they will attempt to be the first men to cross the Antarctic via the South Pole unsupported: 2,200 miles in 100 days.

There is little love lost between the Norwegian and Sir Ranulph, and their rivalry raises echoes of the intense competition between Scott and Amundsen 80 years ago. It follows a dispute that arose after Kagge and a companion beat Sir Ranulph to the North Pole two years ago. Sir Ranulph claims that because one of Kagge's companions had to be airlifted home after injuring his back, the Norwegians did not really reach the North Pole without support. Sir Ranulph, on the other hand, hasn't reached it at all in four attempts.

'This affair is more or less water under the bridge to me,' says Kagge, 'because we won the battle.' But he acknowledges that there was a certain tendency in Norway to say, 'Good, we beat the English again.'

Sir Ranulph strongly disputes Kagge's version of events. 'He has made false claims,' he said last week, 'which has made the whole thing a bit of a sham. The Norwegians say it is sour grapes, but that's not true - it's about sticking to the rules.'

Sir Ranulph is a professional explorer, Kagge only a part-

timer: when he is not preparing for polar walks he is a lawyer for the big Norwegian mining and electricity company Norsk Hydro.

Even his legal work can be exciting: he has posed as a rich Scandinavian businessman to expose a fraudster in Panama City, and not long ago he took a bus ride across Yugoslavia to claim dollars 11m which a bank was holding out on.

You can see why the bank handed it over. Kagge is quiet but he is tall, with blue eyes which could easily get quite cold, and he has a bone-cracking handshake. He claims he would get bored if he had to be a lawyer, or an explorer, all the time. He must have a low boredom threshold, because he has taken on a task that is exceptionally tough, both physically and mentally.

He will have to pull every mouthful of food he eats for two months, more than 120lbs of it - a mixture of fat, which is good because of its very high calorie content, meat, oats and chocolate. He will take a tent, modified by himself so he can put it up even in a blizzard, a sleeping-bag of man- made down so as not to absorb sweat, and an emergency radio with a range of hundreds of miles because it uses a satellite.

To save space, he will take no change of underwear: 'I plan to break my own record of wearing the same underwear for 63 days.'

To train for the physical effort, he has been jogging for three hours at a stretch in the mountains round Oslo and hiking with up to 120lbs in a backpack.

It is harder to prepare for the psychological pressures. When he went to the North Pole, one of his companions slipped a disc trying to pull his sledge out of a crevasse, and Kagge himself had to shoot a starving polar bear that charged them.

The South Pole walk presents less physical danger. Kagge feels that 'the biggest challenge is to keep a good rate of progress when you are alone. It is more a mental than a physical thing. The hardest thing is to start in the morning. You get very, very hungry. The fat wears off. The muscle begins to go. You get very, very tired. You get headaches, nosebleeds. If there are two of you, the one who is feeling best goes ahead, and all you have to do is keep up. If you are on your own, you have to motivate yourself.'

Was he afraid of being lonely? 'Not frightened,' he said, 'but I do expect to be lonely.' Every single ounce is a consideration when you have to drag it with your own hips for hundreds of miles, so he is not sure whether he will take a Walkman and a few cassettes. But he will definitely take one book, probably 'light philosophy' or history. He thinks it will be vital to focus his mind on something other than his physical task every now and then.

Why was he doing it? Because it's there? He laughed. 'I'm very fed up with people saying they are doing it because it's scientific, when they could find out far more with less effort by flying in,' he said. 'Those reasons are secondary. You have to accept that what you are doing is absurd.

'Of course, I have secondary reasons, too. People are nicer to you, including the bank manager. Your self-esteem is better. You feel more secure and confident. But my real motives are personal. It is curiosity that drives me.'

(Photograph omitted)