Part 1: Journey to the top of the world - April 6th 2013
6th April 2013
The nostril hairs and my eyelashes started to freeze up – something that has only happened a few times in my life – typically at about -25c. The worst part was that I was still a two hour flight south of the start line. Flying into Nunavut is quite entertaining… heading north from Ottawa to the outpost of ‘Resolute Bay’ involves a number of flights and stops – primarily because the communities are so spread out, the planes work almost as a hop on – hop off service (albeit at $2000 a seat for us), stopping at every place with a population of more than 200 people.
Starting as you don’t mean to go on…
After almost two years of planning, you would think I would have got everything ready nice and early, but despite a military approach to packing all 292 items of kit, I only finished everything at 5am, just 6 hours before the flight. I had also picked up a cold (my first in about 3 years) following a goodbye visit to my niece just days before. Crap – bad start.
The expedition team had met at Heathrow with almost half a ton of kit (with the remaining half ton or so already in Canada). Following many hugs and tears (obviously not involving me as I was the only one that rocked up solo), we set off for what was undoubtedly going to be the toughest adventure any of us had ever attempted. I sat next to my team mate Mike Laird on the plane. Mike is a character to say the least having been a reality TV ‘star’ on Castaway back in 2000 and has got himself involved in a number of adventures over the years (www.jockandthebeanstalk.com). Anyway, Mike stank. Having decided to really keep his clothes to a minimum and not bring any deodorant, I quickly let him know that a) he smelt like a dead badger (‘Badger’ became his nickname throughout the expedition, and to this day for that matter) and b) we were a British team and we would maintain standards. I think the overwhelming stench was partly a symptom of the nerves we probably all had… ‘Where did I put the…?’ ‘Am I fit enough?’, ‘Am I fat enough?’ Cold sweats…
We arrived in Ottawa where we met up with our expedition leads Steve Pinfield and Gavin Bate – two of the most experienced guys in the world in this environment. Steve spent 7 years managing the Patriot Hills base on Antarctica and has been described by other polar veterans as ‘probably the best in the world’ at his job. Gavin is one of the most successful climbers in the UK having completed the ‘Seven Summits’ and climbed Everest no less than 6 times, including alone and without oxygen. Good guys to have around in case things went horribly wrong! We also had Jock Wishart – also probably one of the most experienced guys in the world in this environment supporting us as the race organiser for our first week in the arctic before monitoring us and coordinating operations from the UK.
Steve and Gavin had come out to Ottawa a few days earlier to buy the monumental amount of food needed – approximately 40kgs each (about half a ton all together). Quite a comical experience on all counts – going into a huge cash and carry and buying chocolates, nuts, dried fruit, sweets etc. by the bin bag. Sorting this food into daily rations would prove a monumental task… but first, we had to get to Resolute Bay – North America’s most northerly inhabited outpost.
At every stop in the arctic, the pilot of our little twin prop ‘First Air’ did the usual routine of letting us know the temperature outside and the weather as we came to land… Iqaluit, -11c, Igloolik, -17c, Arctic Bay – 26c. We got off at every stop for the 30 mins or so to offload/load a few passengers (all locals) and took a walk around what were essentially artic wastelands punctuated by tiny buildings, acting as airports. Clearly, we were in (almost) full arctic gear on the plane because the second you get out, you are at risk of frostbite and hypothermia.
Coming into Resolute Bay, a tiny outpost of about 100 buildings amongst a never ending ice sheet, the pilot gingerly let us know that it was -36c in Resolute. Nice and fresh. I have been in -30c a few times before, but that was typically only for a few hours on high mountains when I was waiting for the sun to come up. This was going to be the temperature for over a month, every minute of every day and night. Getting off the plane really was something else… Within seconds, every bit of skin felt the biting cold. I could visibly see the shock and fear on some of the guy’s faces – quite a few of whom had never experienced anything like this at all. We would get more than used to this… for -36c, really wasn’t too bad compared with some things we were to face.
Including our two expedition leads, we had 12 people in total on the expedition – all guys. Whilst this blog is too short to go through everyone, it’s fair to say in retrospect, I will no doubt stay in touch with these guys for the rest of my life. We had come from Germany, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and each brought with us a range of skills, experience and personalities.
My two team mates were Mike Laird (‘Badger’ and later ‘Liability Laird’) and Mark Mosimann (aka ‘Marky Boy’). I have already given a brief intro to Mike (although I could write a whole book on stories involving Mike – only some of which can make into this account. Hilarious.). Mark is the 36 year old MD of the exclusive ‘Mosimanns’ private member’s club in London who count many prime ministers and members of the royal family amongst their clientele. As well as being an incredibly solid, down to earth guy, Mark was also graced with Michelin starred cooking skills – which would have been really useful if ‘cooking’ didn’t just consist of pouring water into ration packs. Our adventure together was just beginning.
We were to spend a week in Resolute Bay preparing all of our gear and going through an intensive artic training course from Steve, Gavin and Jock. We had use of a large ‘conference’ room in the hotel that was stocked to the gills with all of our kit in every corner – our ‘base’ for the next week. The training was all stuff we had dealt with to some extent in the 18 months leading up to the expedition, but all of a sudden it took on a whole new meaning. If we screwed up out here, we would lose body parts and potentially our lives.
We spent a single night in the only ‘hotel’ in town. I use that word loosely for good reason. Firstly, the price. It is $2500 a room, per night (pretty sure that would put it as one of the most expensive places on the planet?). Rooms consist of dorm style beds for 5 people and an ensuite bathroom. The biggest bonus is of course they are warm – well worth the money once you have experienced sleeping in -40c.
Our first day was focused on key items, such as how not to get frostbitten and how to put up our tent (something I had done a number of times… in leafy lawns, green fields and even in a hotel carpark – but never at -30c). Our first walk outside was to simply get us used to our clothing layers – a good lesson for never following the herd. I had some good cold weather experience and despite my motto of ‘be bold, start cold’ (wearing a lot less than you might expect), I picked up on the anxiety of others and put on my fleece jacket under my windsuit. After just 5 minutes of walking outside, I was sweating and my goggles had completely steamed up and frozen – effectively leaving me blind, a problem that would plague me in this first week. Lesson learned, you can wear less than you think, and when cold, moving at pace will generate the heat you need to keep you warm.
The first night
F*** me – that first night was so cold. I have spent many nights in cold tents over the years, but never had I experienced anything like that. We had put up the tent in day time and set up the mats/sleeping bags etc. – it took about 45 minutes (something that we later got down to about 10 minutes, able to do this without saying a word to each other). We headed out from the comfort of the ‘hotel’ into the dusky evening at -38c. Sleeping in a tent in this temperature introduces a whole host of challenges that you may never have anticipated, creating a phenomenal and lamentable amount of effort simply to get set up for the night (I cover in detail the daily chores in a later blog entry)… In these early stages whilst we were learning our routine, I can not put into words how uncomfortable this was. Just imagine getting into your freezer at home, somehow turning the temperature down another 20c and then trying to sleep.
I ‘slept’ for about two hours at best. My face was so cold, I genuinely thought I was getting frostbitten and kept touching it to ensure my skin wasn’t freezing as it was so numb. I knew very well the issues with putting your head in your sleeping bag (a major no-no in the cold as the cumulative litres of moisture you breathe out simply soaks the bag, later resulting in a wet, frozen and heavy ice bag). We ‘woke’ (ok – all decided to simply get up and leave) at about 6am to escape back to the safety of our little ‘hotel’ and thaw. The tent was literally covered in ice – every bit of the inside was covered with delicate ice crystals formed from our breath. Looking at the other guys, I think many had experienced much worse than me – genuine shock and fear all round (including Steve and Gavin who, like us, needed to acclimatise to the phenomenal cold that awaits you every time you venture into the arctic/Antarctic).
Despite the hideous night’s sleep, I was pretty sure I would be ok with the cold – although fair to say, we really hadn’t experienced anything too bad at this stage. Our next challenge was to get out on our newly built skis and pulks (the sleds we would carry behind us with everything we owned). I am normally reasonably apt at physical activities – however, I realised I was phenomenally bad at cross country skiing.
I had been reassured numerous times that I didn’t need to train on skis prior to coming out as it was easy. ‘Just like walking’ they said. All lies. I fell on my arse within the first 10 metres. Struggled to get up, ski-walked another 20m and went down again like a lumbering and uncoordinated buffoon. To be fair, I wasn’t alone, but unlike everyone else, I had never even put skis on my feet. I picked myself up, and stumbled around trying to pick up the technique. People think the frozen sea is flat – it really isn’t, snow drifts, ice rubble and pressure ridges all combine to create a multitude of surfaces underfoot to scupper even the most experienced skier (everyone would end up on their arse at least once a day – even at the end).
A major problem befalling all polar adventurers is moisture management. Moisture leaking from your body freezes – particularly on your exposed face. I learned quite quickly that even at -30c, my face sweats when I am pissed off at myself – falling over and being useless exacerbated this. The huge issue here is that your goggles freeze up, effectively making you blind. You can’t take your goggles off, as you can go snow blind in as little as 15 minutes in bright light.
Crap – I can’t see, and I most certainly can’t ski at this stage. Repeatedly falling over, in soft snow, attached to a heavy sled, with huge gloves on, attached to poles, at -35c, is certainly character building. Without practice, getting up can be a major challenge and completely demoralising. Whilst normally hugely confident, at the end of the third day of training (the first time we had combined all components of skiing), I was a little concerned to say the least. I was normally completely blind (frozen goggles) within about 3 minutes of going outside and was seemingly struggling more than most on my feet – how could I ski 600km like this?!!? This fear stayed with me for a good few days…
We sat down one night in the first week around a small TV in the hotel to watch an extremely budget production made with some local Innuits on polar bear defence. As a reminder – we are about to set off 600km through an area which has the highest polar bear density in the world. We are breaking every ‘sensible’ rule. We are walking in March to May, just when they are coming out of hibernation and are hungry. We are eating in our tent and keeping our food there (really no choice here!) and are not using trip wires (far too much of a hassle if you are on the move every day). We were in their territory and these are big animals – up to 900kg, they run faster than horses over 50m and are apparently the only animal known to actively hunt humans.
Trying to remember the key behavioural traits of a curious vs attacking bear is all very well, but I know from experience, when you are face to face with a bear, you aren’t thinking about its nostril movements or tail positioning.
We spent a couple of hours well away from our training camp with the shotguns – practicing getting them out, loading them and firing them in the cold. In the warm fields of Wiltshire, I learned I was really quite adept and shooting and so it would seem I was in the cold too. After watching Mike miss our cardboard box target by a healthy 1 or 2 meters, I proudly blew a hole right through with both shots – trying not to look too smug (that same feeling after getting a strike in bowling and trying to look casual). I was in charge of weaponry for the whole expedition (as well as navigation), but in this environment, I truly hoped I wouldn’t be firing a gun in anger at a bear. The gun would never be more than 2 metres away from me for the whole expedition.
Sorting the gear
During our 7 days of training around Resolute, alongside learning how not to kill ourselves every time we set foot outside, the main challenge was preparing all of our gear, sorting our food and learning all of our procedures. This was actually a huge task that took up every waking hour of the first week. Key things we had to sort included:
- Tent building: Taping up tent poles and threading them through the tent mesh (we never took tent poles out of the tent as far too painful at -40c in a gale)
- Skis and sleds: Attaching the bindings to skis, tracers and bungees to sleds etc
- Sorting ration packs: Sorting out the 1680 double ration packs into our daily meals, per person, per team, per resupply (not a small task) – if you screwed up, you may go hungry for a day!
- Building ‘day bags’: Preparing 420 equal bags of 600g of nuts, chocolate, protein bars, ‘meat sticks’, cheese, nutri-grain bars, dried fruit, biscuits, cereal bars (think a conveyor belt with weighing scales at each bin bag)
- Sewing: Sewing fur to our windsuits, cutting holes in face masks, attaching fleece to goggles etc
- Stoves and fuel: Ensuring we have fully functioning stoves and understand how to fix them
- Guns and ammo: Making sure we had and understood the three different types of ammo (bear bangers, rubber bullets and a single lead shot) and any of the quirks with the guns (each slightly different)
- Navigation: Checking and double checking each of the waypoints in our GPS
Bringing it all together
We set out on Day 5 for a full day of training, with full gear and the aim of replicating every element of our expedition – skiing, navigation, putting the tent up, cooking etc. This was a great experience, with a good couple of hours skiing before setting up the camp. Not ideal weather conditions when we were setting up camp – the wind had picked up and it was well below -30c. I managed to rip the valance on our tent desperately trying to put a pole in – something that would be a constant and inexplicably difficult daily challenge.
We were starting to get used to the routine, although it was no more pleasant. Even when the day was over, you still risked cold weather injuries even in your tent. Overnight, we had about 30cm of snow accumulate around the tent – burying one half of it and all of our pulks. After digging everything out, we had an issue. Mike had forgotten one of the golden rules and managed to leave the poo spade (we had two, one for cutting water blocks, the other for burying your crap) lying flat. It was buried… ‘somewhere’. It took us 30 minutes to dig all around our tent before we finally found it. Another painful lesson learned – not great when it meant everyone else standing around in the cold.
The big off…
On day 7, we were ready to leave. Everything packed and ready to go and left outside… 12 sleds ready and assembled. After being recited a stirring poem, the name of which I can’t remember, we set off into the big white, away from the last vestiges of civilisation.
I was nervous, but excited - for this was a journey like no other I had ever taken.
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