Part 2: Cruising to Polaris - April 11th 2013
11th April 2013
The weather was amazing as we left Resolute for our epic journey ahead. It was ‘only’ about -17c, no wind and beautiful sunshine. For the next few days, we would be pushing forward towards our first re-supply at Polaris Mine… a disused zinc mine that was abandoned in the 1970s (what a cruel and foreboding place that must have been!). On leaving Resolute, we all had high hopes that our expedition would not be as hard as we had envisioned. How naïve we were. We skied past a frozen and derelict tanker having clearly not noticed where land became the frozen arctic-ocean. We put in a good 4 hours before setting up camp for the night, no longer able to see Resolute behind us.
Bear! Bear! Get the gun!!
I woke suddenly as I heard Mark calling my name and pushing me in my sleeping bag. ‘Bear!’ he said. A little delirious, Mike too was bolt upright. ‘What’s that?!’ as we all heard what sounded like footsteps in the snow. Whilst clearly both Mike and Mark were petrified, I was a little more sceptical. I once had the dubious experience of sleeping in Alaska with a ‘bear’ (more like a moose, but we were too scared to investigate) outside the tent. This was a quiet noise and I was pretty convinced there was no bear outside. On sticking our heads outside the tent, we were relieved to see a fox scurrying around outside. No need for the shot-gun tonight, but it reminded us how vulnerable we were out there on the ice.
In an otherwise bereft environment, actually seeing wildlife sighting is quite an exciting experience (all the better when you aren’t cocooned in your sleeping bag and can see what is going on around you). Seeing our first polar bear footprint generated quite a lot of excitement. Seeing first hand a fresh bear print once again reminded us how vulnerable we were. There were clearly a lot of bears about and seeing their paw prints (about twice the size of my hand!) certainly made us keep looking over shoulders. Seals however were a lot less worrisome source of entertainment. It was day 4 when we saw a tiny speck of black on the horizon (unsurprisingly, anything that is not white stands out!). As we approached the seal, it dived down into its hole and left what was arguably an even more interesting site… open water. Seals constantly maintain a few breathing holes and by going in and out regularly, the water never melts. It was clear we were only walking on about 50cm of frozen water – below that was the blue arctic ocean. Something we did most definitely not want to fall into.
Learning to ski
As previously mentioned, cross country skiing with a pulk is not as easy as people previously made out… well, at least not for me. It was on our second day on the ice that I finally learned to ski. Managing to effectively slide along was becoming more efficient and I remember a distinct occasion where I actually ‘got it’, gliding serenely along the ice. By day 3, I had learned all of the different types of ice and snow and the feel under foot, knowing whether I would be sliding, gripping or likely once more to end up on my arse (which happened every now and again to every single once of us!).
Ice rubble – the bane of our lives
As previously stated, the sea ice is not flat. It goes up, it goes down, it is solid shiny ice, it is covered in snow… I learned why Innuit (allegedly) have so many different words to describe it. Despite looking so similar at first glance, it is always different and you always need to concentrate. However, there are times when it is truly impassable. Ice rubble forms due to the constant tides and pressure of the water under your feet. When ice is forced together (typically due to tidal pressure, or land formations) it forms huge blocks of rubble, as it is constantly pushed up with the water underneath then freezing. Coming face to face with blocks of ice as big as cars, for as far as you can see is quite a depressing sight.
It was on day 4 that we encountered our first major set of rubble, leaving us debating whether to try and ski around, not knowing how far it continued for, or whether to take off our skis and clamber over (also not knowing how long we might be stuck in rubble). Having previously clambered through, around and over rubble over the last couple of days and after 9 hours on the skis, the sight ahead of us was enough to make us put up camp for the night and rest up before fighting another day.
Existing in the arctic, whilst perilous at times, is a desperately simple affair. Walk, camp, eat, sleep and repeat – not much else interferes with that experience. For about 12 hours a day you are in your tent with your team mates – battling through with the most simple of tasks that are made all the more difficult due to the extreme environment. I can never effectively describe the challenges of camping on the sea ice, but here are just a few of the challenges we faced day to day once we had set up ‘home’.
- - No space: Imagine three guys, sleeping on a double bed sized space together, with all their gear and needing to cook, eat and piss in the same space…
- - Bear attacks: Any noise outside stirs you… ‘POLAR BEAR!’? The numbers of times the guys woke me to get the gun ready only for me to say ‘it’s a fox’ (read part 4 of this blog… sometimes it is actually a bear)
- - Ice face: It may sound obvious, but it’s FREEZING inside your tent (even after we were in it and cooking for while), I recorded temperatures as low as -24c inside. Many of the guys wore face masks in bed as their exposed faces were too cold to let them sleep (you have to have your face out as you can’t breathe into your bag). Most mornings, my first task was to pick the ice off my face and sleeping bag
- Entry and exit: The zips to the tent get completely frozen and can take an eternity to open, showering you and everyone else with ice
- Metal issues: Anything metal (e.g. fuel cans, pans, zips etc) will freeze and stick to your bare skin (bad idea)
- Ice covering: The tent will be completely covered in ice from everyone’s breathe within minutes – this ‘hoar frost’ will rain down on the poor guy in the doorway every time someone comes in
- Toilet time: Pissing and shitting in this environment is an art form (more to come) – not easy for the uninitiated
- Washing: Other than a wet wipe, you don’t. For a month. Mark and I washed daily and rotated clothes, Mike however preferred a fortnightly schedule (never actually changing clothes once!)
- Eating: Enduring ration packs for over a month is not much fun. Cooking is easy though. Just add water and wait.
- Damp and Frozen: Almost everything you own, particularly your sleeping bag, is damp when you are in it, and frozen solid when out of it
- Sleeping bag: A -60c rating sleeping bag takes a phenomenal of effort to get into and out of. It has multiple ‘layers’ and takes a good few minutes of struggling, only to realise you have to get out again to pick up something you have left to the elements outside of your bag
- Sleeping with everything you own: If it’s not in your bag, it’s frozen – it’s as simple as that. I slept with cameras, batteries, ipods, clothes, wet wipes, toiletries and pretty much everything else. Cosy.
- Defrosting everything you own: You need a wet wipe – it needs defrosting. Some Nivea cream – frozen. Cheese. Frozen. It is comical the things we ended up putting over the stoves to defrost
- Snoring: Initially it was Mark, then it was Mike… having to deal with snoring like this made me consider unzipping the gun on a number of occasions
- The trauma of the arctic shite
Taking a crap in the arctic is not easy and probably the most common question I am now asked. Pissing is quite straightforward, especially for a guy. In the day time, it is back to the wind and away you go, whilst in the tent, you go in your ‘pee bottle’ and use it as a hot water bottle for a few hours. We got so used to this in our tent we started a sweepstake guessing the volume of each and every piss anyone of us took – this lasted the entire month and we become disturbingly good at it by the end. My record was 900ml in a single sitting – a dangerous overflow risk. Mike spilt urine and weed on himself/his sleeping bag on a number of occasions, much to our amusement.
By day 4, Mike still had not been able to go for a shit. The trauma Mark and I had described had probably enhanced his apprehension. The technique evolved over time with experience, but in principle, the technique is this:
- Pre-dig a hole: Pre-dig a big hole/wind break whilst burying your tent. Getting out of the wind buys you precious extra seconds
- Pre-prepare accessories: Have 6 sets of 3 pre-separated sheets in one pocket, 3 wet wipes in the other
- Touching cloth: Wait until you REALLY need to go. You don’t want to have you bum out in the icey air for any longer than you have to
- Proceed with caution: You have free reign on location, but you should aim for your pre dug hole. Gain intelligence as to whether it has been pre-used and if so, proceed with caution
- Power squat: Keeping gloves on, it’s trousers down, legs apart, bend down (you don’t want to poo in your only pair of trousers) and deliver. The other technique is to lean back on your poo spade, although that comes with inherent risks
- Glove off to wipe: This is the critical time – the only time you ever take your gloves off whilst outside. Rapidly take off main recovery glove and put into your coat (to make sure it doesn’t blow away)
- Stick it down: You must stick the paper to the poo. Having shitty toilet paper blowing around the camp doesn’t go down well. Every chance it might blow on to your own tent!
- Glove on and bury: Rapidly get your glove on and bury
- Recover: Get back to your tent as soon as you can and spend the next 20 minutes trying to warm your hand up
I haven’t wiped!!’ - Mike’s failed attempt.
It was by about day 4 that Mike’s poo situation had become critical. He could wait no more. It was in the evening, after setting up our tent, that Mike finally went on his mission. Mark and I thought nothing more of it and sat there eating our soups. After a few minutes we hear Mike coming back to the tent sounding like he was quite panicky. ‘Guys, guys, let me in’… this was a slightly worrying tone and he was sounding borderline hypothermic and clearly in some distress. I was nearest the entrance ‘OK mate, am on it’ and rapidly opened the inner and then the outer and helped Mike bundle back in. Sadly for Mike, it had all gone wrong… ‘I haven’t wiped, I haven’t wiped!’. Whether it was the paper that was not pre-torn, or a wind related incident, Mike had got himself into a serious state and narrowly avoided frostbite. He proceeded to have to wipe his arse in the vestibule of the tent as Mark and I cried with laughter.
Let there be wind
On our 5th day, we had some huge winds pick up throughout the day. For probably the only time of the whole expedition, the wind was behind us – effectively blowing us along. I would guess we were looking at 50-60kph winds as we swept into our planned stop below at Polaris mine on Little Cornwallis island. Whilst it was quite entertaining being quite literally blown along, this also caused some serious issues. Turning slightly northwards, the wind moved over our right shoulders – meaning any exposed skin got very cold, very quickly. Once setting up camp, we really needed to work as a team. It took 6 of us to each to put up a tent, each playing a critical role in making sure it didn’t blow away. Whilst we would have undoubtedly coped, had one of the tents blown away, we would have been in a very difficult situation. Sadly, whilst we crossing the artic, a friend of a friend died in Greenland for the same reason – a storm blowing the tent away
By about 2pm, our resupply had come in on a skidoo (still possible as we were only 80km away from Resolute), we had taken our bags, returned all of our waste and made the decision to stay put given the extreme wind.
Part 1 was completed. We had experienced some rough times, but as an individual and collective team we had pulled through and were ready to fight another day. We would certainly have to fight in the days ahead.
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