"I went to fashion design school." Those are unexpected words from Johan Ernst Nilson, the Swedish swashbuckler who's making headlines for undertaking a carbon-neutral, yearlong trek from the North Pole to the South Pole.
Nilson, 41, started his journey of 12,000 miles on April 6, 2011, on the Arctic ice of the North Pole, and headed straight south through Greenland, then Ottawa, Canada, and on through North and South America. By the end of the year, he was tracing the steps of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who 100 years ago was the first to reach the South Pole. Nilson is determined to do his trek without leaving an environmental footprint. Skiing, sailing, biking and kite-skiing are Nilson's modes of transportation, powered by wind, water and sweat. Along the way, he's been chased by black bears, sustained broken ribs and frostbite from a fall in the ice, and had roads literally disappear from beneath his bicycle in torrential downpours. At one point, he had to drag his bike through a jungle.
Hard to believe that such an adventurer would be thinking of his fashion sense.
Yet Nilson admits to a split personality. "I am very interested in beauty," he says, noting he'll wear a Tom Ford suit when giving a lecture to a group of bearded, flannel-clad, geared-up colleagues. "Beauty in nature, beauty in food, beauty in fashion and design and beauty in photography. So I kind of combine design and beauty with adventure. It's a perfect mix."
Nilson's fascination with style began as a teen when he started acquiring watches. He sought out vintage watches in particular, the rarer the better. He acquired "really old" pieces from Swiss luxury brands like Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Hamilton Watches and Girard-Perregaux and, in the process, became somewhat of a connoisseur. He also cultivated an interest in product design. Collecting everything from antique watches to timepieces that could survive the elements, he soon obtained a piece from Zenith. He could not have known back then that fate would bring Nilson and Zenith together again.
Amundsen traveled with a Zenith watch in his original 1911 expedition. So it made sense when Zenith partnered with Nilson to come up with features Nilson required of an expedition-worthy watch. The Swiss watchmaker created a limited-edition "Pole2Pole" El Primero Flyback Stratos, a lightweight chronograph precise in its timekeeping, visible at night and made with a synthetic strap instead of leather. "It's practically part of my body," says Nilson, who says he spent many hours before embarking on his journey testing the watch to ensure it could sustain temperatures ranging from minus-50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit) to 50 Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). "It was really important to have something reliable."
That reliability was especially comforting when a lot of other things went haywire. Treacherous icebergs and bureaucrats at boat insurance companies forced Nilson to abandon a good chunk of sailing off the coast of South America. By plane, he flew over the icebergs, then skied the remaining
2,500 kilometers to reach the South Pole on Dec. 13, 2011 — exactly 100 years after Amundsen. To make up for the fuel he used by flying, Nilson returned to South America to bike the entire missed leg. "I felt that reaching the South Pole on the exact day 100 years later with the same (watch) brand that was here for the first time — that was pretty mind-blowing," he said.
The concept of turning setbacks into successes is a central message for Nilson. He's had heatstroke in the Mexican desert; gotten four rabies shots in one week; faced killer whales and polar bears; and had to ride out stormy, boatswamping waves. If you're in the adventure business, you spend a great deal of time analyzing human drive and limits, he says, emphasizing that taking risks is more important to human evolution than making the right choices. "There will be problems the whole time," he says. "If you prepare well and see failures as knowledge, you will succeed. People think success is following some straight line without problems. The only limits you have in your life are the limits that you set yourself."
Nilson kept pushing through all sorts of torments. The physical strain of getting up every day to ski, bike, kiteski or sail for more than a year has been one hardship. The mental strain of handling media interviews, writing and delivering photos in the evening hours on top of physical exhaustion were almost worse. Four newspaper and TV show interviews in one day nearly did him in, he quipped — realizing, perhaps, that it doesn't sound that hard compared with trudging to the South Pole. The explorer says he often daydreamed of the perfect vacation: watching TV in his apartment in Stockholm and getting pizza delivered.
Once Nilson finishes his Pole2Pole mission, he plans to wrap up his life in Stockholm and take on a new and, in its own way, daunting adventure: moving to New York. Nilson, who is also an accomplished concert pianist and published poet, hopes to be busy with speaking engagements, writing and compiling photography, while working with numerous charities. He may even settle down and start a family. "Everything is possible," he says. "The impossible just takes more time."