I’ve been training in Nunavut, Inuit territory in Northern Canada, with my guide Matty mcNair (Also known from Top Gears’ race to the North Pole).
The temperatures during a Polar-expedition (and also this Polar-training) range between minus 20 down to minus 48 degrees Celcius. These extreme circumstances tend to get you frozen within 30 seconds (standing still). And so it requires some learning how to deal with.
Pic 1: The pair of orange boots donated by a South African diesel mechanic. He’d been wearing them during a 16-month job on Antarctica. ‘Return safely, girl’ he said as he gave them to me. And I must say, the boots feel great! Orange clown boots that are warm and invite comment at the same time. I’m very proud to have them, with their history…
Pic 2: The ‘Beach Gas Bar’. Inuit buildings in Iqualut resemble many of the constructions I’ve encountered during the African leg of my journey. And with similarly imaginative names!
The training made me kinda nervous. I’d been joking for 3 years that, before taking on the polar expedition, I’d just ‘warm up a bit’ in Africa. Double true. By now, I’ve become more shivery than ever before. Even in South Africa I’m the first to climb into a sweater when others are still fine in their T-shirts at night.
The transmission from +35C to -35C appears to be stupendously enormous. I have some doubts.
Lessons about Hypothermia; severe, rapid supercooling, invoking memory loss, and lethal unless properly acted upon. How do you manage, how do you know it’s happening to you right then and there. How to spot its symptoms in your team mates? An erroneous treatment can lead to cardiac arrest. Exciting! Educational!
Lessons about various kinds of skis and bindings and their weak points. (Since nothing functions a full 100% in these extreme colds, which spare parts will you carry?).
Burners: ones lifeline for cooking, melting snow for drinking water, heating oneself, ones’ clothes, ones’ tent.
A rapid materials maintenance course.
A class taught by two guys who are off to the North Pole in a bit:
they literally strip down to their underwear, showing off layer after layer of clothing and clothing solutions . We get to touch and feel everything, including their gauzed underwear, heehee! Matty shows us traditional Inuit dress, explaining the pros and cons of organic fabrics vs modern synthetics. Gore-tex NO! Thinsulate NONO! Fortunately, I’d already been looking into these things, so most information isn’t lost on me.
Now I have to figure out my my ultimate personal dress system, the perfectly exact skis, gear, tent and all such. The clothing part I am about to test now. At the moment I’m borrowing most of it from Matty. The stuff I brought needs to be customized: My long-sleaved thermal underclothes need to be unified into a single catsuit, as the shirt keeps crawling from the pants and up my back. Ain’t it a thrill.
I’m in Matties home in Iqaluit, surrounded by 9 more Polar trainees of which some aspire to go North Pole and some South.
– Pinah, a girl from Turkey but currently residing and studying in New York, – Dong, a self-employed Chinese boy who dreams of the Arctic and Everest. A dutchman (Willem), who’d like to see the North Pole since it’s bound to be gone any day now. Another Dutch person (me), continuously being mistaken for an Afrikaner for some reason (oh well), A young Brit (A.J.) who has fresh memories of the feats as performed by Scott and his heroic ilk and who wants to be a next generation hero, to tell his tales to school kids in the UK. There’s Micheal, a Kiwi and presumably the oldest among us, who’ll be walking the last degree (about 120 clicks) to the North Pole. Then there’s some Canadians: Eric, who lives an works in a reserve: A girl called A.J. who has made two attempts at Everest, wrote a book about that, and intents to visit the Pole now: A young woman (Sarah) who works in Oil (but has a great sense of humour!): A young and ambitious career woman with a wild sense of adventure (Catherine), who wants to cross the Ice in Greenland with some friends someday soon.
A bunch of people who intend to enjoy the **** out of life!
We’re facing the two guys who will be off to the Arctic in a few days, telling us their story. Day by day, up to the day of their departure, they visibly grow more serious and nervous.
The North Pole is known to have huge cracks in the ice, appearing out of nowhere, maybe right in between you and your partner, or between you and your gear-packed sled. There’s enormous icebergs that need to be negotiated while pulling ones’ 100 kg+sled.
Did I mention polar bears?
Me? An Eskimo?!?
So, what in the name of everything holy am I doing HERE.
Plan was, go to the South Pole, which -as it happens- has NICE LAND underneath it! No creepy white bears, but NICE PENGUINS!
Truth is, that in the coming weeks I’ll be here, on top of the arctic sea on a mini-expedition and hardcore survival training to prepare for my own polar expedition.
We (that is, me and my co-aspiring bi-polar conquerors) start our training with enthousiastic fervor, but little do we know that most of our ambitions are about to melt away under the sun or morph into something totally different entirily. Polar expeditions aren’t exactly categorized in the same league as picnicks or rated an ‘uncomplicated fun expererience for all’…
Night time. I’m cutting holes in my garments and put in big zippers. This way, out there, I can just zip open the appropriate area to take care of the appropriate needs. Instead of freezing my ass off everytime I need to pee. My whole Personal Clothing System (PCS) needs revision. Even though I’d done plenty of research into this back in Cape Town, it’s just a slightly different outlook trying to become an expert at it from the tropics in summer.
I’d read plenty, seen so many websites that it made my brains hurt.
Most of the Gore-Tex stuff stops respirating in these colds, and is therefore dangerous.It’ll make you sweat, moisture you can’t get rid of. Thinsulate has the capacity of absorbing 15 times its own weight in water, which you wouldn’t want to carry with you over a period of 50 to 60 days.
?You sweat, you die!? Matty declares convincingly.
The major important lesson here is that sweating means freezing. Supercooling.
So there’s a problem.
The tropics have taught me to sweat in order to cool down. Which is kinda important, survivalwizish.
Having been educated into a professional dancer, my body was taught to sweat to cool down for stamina.
So there I am, skiing around on -32C Arctic plains, stripping off almost every piece of clothing of my PCS, trying not to get wet, but I’m still transpiring (Did I mention there is a slightly scary aspect surrounding the concept of skiing in your underpants when it’s freakishly COLD?).
Therefore, before taking off on our mini-expedition, Matty dresses me in a gray, patent leather jacket. To be worn UNDERNEATH all the other clothes, as a layer of insulation, making sure that my sweat stays on my skin, and out of my clothes. Kinky! I’ll be going to the South Pole in a patent leather suit!
Anyway, it actually works.
I’ve got no idea why, but somehow I’m the most hot-blooded of the ten of us.
For the duration of the expedition I’m now skiing in only the jacket and my thermal underwear-catsuit. And a facemask, since my nose somehow refuses to acknowledge any exposure to cold.
Everytime we take a break (at a 5 to 60 minutes ratio), mayhem ensues: put on as many clothes as humanly possible before freezing to death. After that: pile on and consume all the food and drink you can get your hands on: Chunks of cougat, chocolate, peanuts, salami and hot chocolate. Calory consumption on a typical day like this averages 6 to 7k, and even if the stomach says no, thou shalt eat!
Foto 1: Sarah will now demonstrate the patent leather jacket!
Foto 2: Pinah cooking in the tent
Amazement, after having worked towards one goal for so long, about getting a peek of the last phase, standing in the snow. It gives so much energy. This dream is about to get real, finishing this project in a unique way.
We train outside, every day.
One day, there’s enough wind to use a kite with our skis. Matty’s concept is that it’ll enable us to return to the coast of the antarctic continent, later on, so that’s a cheerful thought.
Kiting is a bit like waterskiing propelled by a kite, on snow instead of water. As I’m more of a ‘langlaufer’ than a downhill racer, I have to practice seated on the ground, before actually giving the skiing a try. Basically, I’m bum-kiting, and it’s like going down a slide. It’s all great, though the skis are still a big challenge. I will master this.
I’m loading my sled with 2 huge tents (a three-person tent and a communal tent), food, clothing and sleeping gear (enormous sleeping bag!), gasoline burner, kettle and three bags of dog food. It’s appr. 110 kilos, about what one has to bring on an expedition.
Day # 1: We trek over giant icebergs and ice formations, dragging our sleds.
I learn a lot about the techniques of sled-dragging, about how to get the heavy pulk (sled) over the ice blocks without breaking ones’ skis or legs. By simply moving my weight, from the hips, using myself as a levering weight.
When things get too heavy I switch from big to small paces, giving me better control, power and grip, so the sled keeps sliding on. Getting a sled to move again from inertia is hard. Then, when my legs and weight can no longer pull it, I stick my ski-handles in the snow and use them as levers. Scaling the big chunks of snow require the use of ones entire body, all day long, and there are moments that we have to help each other to keep going. Fortunately, we are a cheery bunch, even though people are getting more quiet…
My fellow tent mates T.A. and Pinah. The view from our tent.
At night T.A. and I set up the tent (T.A. is rather petite and is therefore already inside fireing up the burners). Apparently I’m the farmer here, doing the heavy construction, shoveling snow on the flaps so the tent won’t just fly away on the wind, shoveling snow into the tent for Pinah to defrost, for cooking and drinking water.
I decide to go out and finish the day off taking a picture of the camp under moon light. I get more and more distant from the camp in an attempt to get the moon into the frame, but end up making a rather hard drop onto the slippery ice. It feels like it takes more than an eternity before I can do more than just mutter ‘ouch-ouch-ouch’ and get up. My right shin and knee hurt like hell and as I struggle back to the tent, supercooling as I go. That’s one valuable lesson on day one. I’m extremely happy to be back in the tent, hoping I haven’t damaged my knee.
Day # 2: More Ice bergs and blocks. Fortunately my knee is alright, although it’s about to experience every shade of black and blue soon. On the other hand, go try and wipe this grin of my face. Snow craze?
Day # 3:
This night we camp out next to a polinia (a hole in the ice caused by water currents).
After group meeting, as I walk back to my tent, I’m overwhelmed by a stupendous light show. As long as I can hold out in the cold (cautiously hopping and skipping to keep warm as long as possible) I’m watching the northern lights dancing on air. I’ve never seen magic like that!
It isn’t hard to imagine how the Inuit believe that these are the souls of their heroic ancestors, never before have I seen something so ethereal, such an impressive natural apparition. The green light, transforming into every colour of the rainbow and back, dancing and rendering different images, drawing, writing on air, thinner than wind or cloud. Sometimes it flashes so brightly, it looks like it’s heading right toward me. Unbelievable. It’s like they are talking to me: ‘Welcome, thanks for coming, for watching the show. You’ve got a long way to go, but you’re almost done. Don’t forget the beauty and fragility of this world’.
Night in the tent. I have a difficult time trying to get to sleep. My complete musculature is on the verge of unanimous crampdown. Gotta keep stretching and pulling. Yessiree, this is definitely different from driving a tractor.
Day # 4: Plenty of commotion this morning: Eric shows his hands, his fingers riddled with giant blisters and two of them a dark blue. On one of his fingers the total circumference, even under the nail, blue black. It’s serious frostbite, which can cost him his fingertips.
Since temperatures have been only a ‘moderate’ minus 20 degrees C for the last three days, some people have underestimated the risk of touching ANYthing with their bare hands. One can even freeze-burn oneself by touching ones sleeping bag bare-handed, and the wounds are exactly like ‘real’ burns. Quite impressed, I look at Eric’s hands and learn my lesson. Wear gloves, always!
I’m going for a swim!
There isn’t a lot of time for existential contemplation on the Arctics, it’s cold like **** so we got to keep moving. But… a swim?
Matty stuffs me into a gigantic red bathing suit.
If I really want to take this polar challenge I should not fear the deep, cold water. Not that I’m totally in for this. The South Pole has crevasses, not waterholes. But as I dive in, I find out it’s heaps of fun (not getting wet, not sinking). Within 30 minutes all childhood fears of falling through thin ice are eradicated. I climb from iceberg to iceberg, standing on it until it sinks, sing a song. Everyone laughs.
That afternoon, Matty and Eric leave us behind. Because of Eric’s frostbite, he needs evacuation to prevent re-freezing of his blisters which could possibly lose him his fingers. Matty called for help by satelite phone, and late in the afternoon two snowscooters trailing sleds arrive. Dong, the Chinese guy, returns to Iqaluit with them. He’s been there and done that. “I’ve had my adventure, what else is there to be done?”
So this is where story really starts: Now we’re on our own. Matty won’t be coming back. “That’s the best way to learn”, she says. She leaves a satelite phone with which we have to make a sched call every night. Exactly according to the rules of a real expedition.
?Victor Charlie Charlie, this is ?South Pole by tractor? over.?
We set up camp at sixteen point thirty hours.
Our coordinates are: November seven four degrees, three nine decimal, four three minutes.
Our conditions are good and we are in high spirits.
Tomorrow we?re planning our 10 nautical mile day towards Ward island.
In case of a white out (a thick fog that obscures the horizon) we planned an alternative route towards Hope island, coordinates (bla-di-bla). The temperature is minus three eight with a windchill factor of minus four five. How are things at the home base? Did you arrive safely?
We hear about how Matty, Eric and Dong had a terribly rough ride back, through almost -50C, but now they are safely back in the heated dining room…
We spend the night together in Matties home-made green group tent out on the plain. It’s big enough to sit upright in. The roof is being held up in the center by a ski planted straight up in snow. There’s no ground covering, so we sleep in snow. The big tent is cosy,it allows for all of us to sit in a circle round the burners, and discuss stuff.
Let me introduce you to, the Green tent crew:
Left to right, up to down: Sarah, Michael, Catherine, Willem, Manon.
Many expeditions save on fuel by not heating the tent but Matties motto is: Better carry along extra fuel than an equal amount of sweat in your clothes. So we have a bit of time to dry out our gloves, neck warmers, face masks and socks every night. Which makes quite a difference in the mood and stamina department. Not to mention atmosphere. As soon as the burners are turned off, you want to be in a sleeping bag before the cold hits. I’m sleeping with all my clothes on, in a fat feather sleeping bag: In a plastic bag to keep my perspiration out of the sleeping bag (though the leather jacket does a good job too). Over my head is a mega- superthick balaclava, my nose covered by a neck warmer, and I try not to breathe on my sleeping bag to keep the vapors off.
Day # 5: 04.45 am. A long day ahead of us.
We have to do 18 km (10 nautical miles) with our 100 kg sleds. Packing has become fairly efficient so the camp has vanished onto the sleds in no time. We’d like to take off as soon as possible to start the day off well.
Up to now we negotiated 4 to 7 nautical miles a day, mainly due to the gigantic Snow piles we needed to cross, but on a regular expedition one should at least make 10 NM a day in order to get to a pole before the season ends. (In case of Antarctica: November to February – spring and summer. In other seasons it’s too cold and dark, 24 hs a day. This is why I can only go in November. And there’s the fact that I need to find more sponsoring…)
We set off. I’m second in line…
My brain keeps repeating that I’m a tractor. Not as fast, but unrelenting! This has become some sort of running gag, since every time I take the lead we cover more territory than otherwise. Huh?
It’s a nice, warm day today: only -20C. (certain extreme circumstances tend to tilt ones perception…). Gradually I strip off my coat, my fleece, wind them around my body in case I have to put them back on in a rush, for instance when the wind returns.
Willem in front. Me right behind. (2nd on the right)
Slowly we approach the plain, the open ice sheet on the Arctic sea, which is supposed to resemble Antarctica somewhat. We’re not looking for cute penguins though, it’s polar bears we’re watching out for.
Pic 1: 5 minute break every hour. Drop down on ones pulk and accumulate as much calories as one can find. Salami, frozen cheese, peanuts, chocolate.
Foto 2: Is A.J supercooling?
Eric’s frostbite, as seen from the slightly safer haven
Left to right. Top: Eric, Willem, A.J, Sarah, Michael, Dong, Eric (Save the Poles.com, guide). Bottom: Matty (guide), Pinah, Manon, Catherine, T.A)
Many pictures were taken by several people in the group. Big thanks!!! Additional info: leave a message in the guest book and I’ll send details.
to be continued!!!
Back from Polar training….
Just came back from Polartraining in the Arctics. Only thing I did coming back from the ‘wild’ is pack my things, take a shower and now I’m here behind a computer. (Still in Inuit-territory)
My spirit is ‘high up’!
It was extremely incredible.
I’ve got a book full of stories…!