It seems an age since I commenced my training last November in Dartmoor with Ice Warrior Project for the #Lastpole expedition but finally the day arrived and I set off for the Arctic circle and Svalbard. It was an early start and I was up at 3am to be chauffeured, thanks mum 🙂 , to get my bus to Belfast to catch the first of many flights over the next couple of days. Bags checked in at Heathrow and Norway was the next destination.
The realisation of the upcoming training and challenges it would present started to rear its’ head when we entered into the arctic circle and then touched down in Tromso for a quick refuel on our way to Svalbard.
The scenery is stunning but it is totally alien if you have not experienced it before. After nearly a full day and half of travelling by cars, buses and planes I finally landed in Svalbard in one of the most scenic small airports I’ve seen.
Some of the team traveled on the same flight as myself from Oslo and the remaining guys would join us later that night. While waiting to collect our gear in the airport we witnessed three ladies dressed up as polar bears dancing on the luggage carousel…absolutely no idea what was going on and I was too tired to join them?!
We got a bus to our accommodation, Guesthouse 102, on the edge of Longyearbyen. I was drinking in the views the whole way there. We got ourselves settled into our rooms and then went to the nearest restaurant for some well needed food and liquid refreshments..all for team bonding purposes of course 🙂
The next morning we all gathered for breakfast and then commenced with the our polar training once we were suitably replete. We all gathered together, made our introductions and Jim gave an outline of what to expect over the coming week. Jim also gave the important safety / risk talk and reinforced that we would be training in an inhospitable environment, so we should ensure we acted in a safe manner at all times and look out for each other as the week progressed. Jim had two very dodgy 🙂 looking chaps helping him throughout the week – Peter and Michael. I am of course only messing, both are great guys and an integral part of the team. I had met Michael previously at the Dartmoor basic expedition skills course so it was good to catch up again.
The daily routine generally consisted of ski practice and a mixture of theory and practice on various topics. We covered numerous topics in great detail and Jim imparted his polar knowledge and experience in a very understandable and fluid manner.
Some of the topics (too many to list!) included:
- Clothing and sleeping systems
- Kit, gear and consumable management, maintenance and repair of kit and gear
- Pulk packing and potential issues you may encounter
- Tent theory, potential issues and routines while in the tent
- Navigation, route planning and GPS proficiency
- Ropework, knots and pulley configuration
- Polar bear awareness and their behaviours, polar bear protection and night watch rotas
- Hypothermia and cold injuries awareness and treatment
- Expedition hygiene, daily routines, mental preparedness
- Expedition nutrition and fitness
- Roles, positions and expected behaviours within the team
We cooked our own lunch with two people preparing / cooking each day- all good team building and gave you the chance to get to know your team members a little bit more. We had our dinner at a restaurant close by and would ski there and back to get some practice in.
I had absolutely no previous skiing experience, so I most likely looked like a baby elephant tying to tap dance while gliding along on skis! With more practice came a bit more confidence, but I have yet to master going downhill at speed and stopping gracefully when there is a strong wind pushing you along. Worse case scenario just fall to the side on the ground and hope no-one has captured on camera 🙂
I am not the most co-ordinated person so I’ll keep plugging away as the goal is to expend as little energy as you can; unnecessarily wasted energy over a twenty day period adds up and it can make the expedition very unpleasant! Moreover, the less energy you expend the less you sweat and sweat is your enemy as it impacts on the insulating properties of your layers when it freezes.
On the second last day we were told to get prepared for an overnight outing and get our kit and gear in order. This was our opportunity as a team to put everything we had learned over the last few days into practice. Once we completed our final checks off we went under the watchful eye of Michael.
Michael lead us out of town and up onto just below the glacier. It was pretty tough weather conditions once we got up around the glacier with a nasty wind blowing, so ideal for our training purposes. With wind chill it was somewhere around the -30c mark. This is substantially less than what we could experience on the actual #Lastpole expedition, were temperatures could get down to below -50c.
Once we identified a suitable camping site we all sprung into action with our various roles and tasks. We assembled two tents which we had never tackled before, so it took us far too much time to get the job completed. It was certainly a learning experience for all the team members and we will carry this into the expedition. Once we had the two tents established I took the first polar bear watch. This lasted two hours and my outer down layer kept me pretty toasty considering the conditions around me. I then climbed into my sleeping bag and tried to get some sleep during the remainder of the night. I think I managed about two hours sleep as we were expecting Jim to ambush us with a fake polar bear attack…he’s a devious character! I took the last bear watch in the morning with conditions being slightly more settled. Sadly, my camera had stopped functioning and I ‘d failed to capture some great surroundings.
After breakfast we broke camp and set of towards base again. The winds picked up and parts of the journey were in semi- whiteout conditions. We closed ranks and traveled within 3-4 metres of each other and eventually pulled up outside Guesthouse 102.
We debriefed and discussed our experiences. Being open and honest in an adult manner is expected. The basic polar training was drawing to a close and those not completing the advanced course would return to their homes the next day. We all went out that night for a some food and a great night was had.
Overall a great course and introduction to the polar environment. It was interesting to take the information / skills learned from the basic expedition course in Dartmoor and apply them and expand other skills in Svalbard. The whole experience was thoroughly enjoyable and the team was key…..cheers to Curtis, Ben, Mark, Stuart, Michael, Peter and Jim!
Next up was the advanced polar course and I couldn’t wait!
Slán go fóill!