Where’s Peter?


Jim called us for a team meeting one morning: “Where’s Peter” he said. “This is a search and rescue exercise, you’ve 3 minutes to get yourselves organised”. And off we went. Hurrying to get torches, kit, clothing, medical kit we left the safety of the guesthouse. Andy took charge as Team Leader to get us organised and start the search. We were quickly split into 4’s and started searching around the guesthouse, sweeping the area and shouting for Peter.

It soon became apparent that we had our own ideas on the best way to find Peter. Jim called us all back in after 6 or so minutes as we were so spread out you’d easily lose one of us if you didn’t keep track. It was decided that a search line would form on one side of the valley. Running into position we formed a line, spreading out as far as our head torches would beam and moved forwards, like an un-oiled army.

We walked at different paces which made it difficult once more. “We need to keep at the same pace” I shouted. At this moment Paul to my right spotted a reflective Peter lying in the snow about 100 meters ahead. “How on earth can you see him?” I thought to myself. Paul sprinted off, me following in his footsteps, draped in my down gear and polar boots which made running in the snow pretty tough. I shouted for the rest of the team.

Peter was there lying on the ground. Paul leapt into action as Medic; Peter told us his name, he knew when he had eaten and what had happened. Peter has fallen over! Someone put the bothy over us as we went through the DRABCDE of medical training. We decided that poor Peter had hypothermia, and he was fading in the cold. After what seemed like 40 or so minutes Jim shouted, “the helicopter will arrive in 5 minutes”.

At that point we had to move Peter to safety and to the helicopter landing site maybe 300 meters away. Using the only kit that we had, we picked up Peter and moved him onto a pulk, strapped him in and off we went. Someone was at his feet, two were pulling the pulk, and 2 either side of Peter to keep in him position. That 300 or so meters felt like miles as we struggled over a ridge and through the snow to safety. “End of exercise” shouted Jim and we all went back into the guesthouse for a debrief.

Scenario training is probably the best way to learn in the Arctic – learn by doing and by making mistakes. I know that if the team had the same situation again, in real life, we would be more effective from start to finish.

Svalbard this time was different – it was 24 hour darkness, the team was a mix of new and older team members. Team dynamics were different – it was interesting having new members to share knowledge and new enthusiasm in the group. We camped out more, we put our years’ worth of training to the test with improved storm proofing of the tent, knots, navigation, skiing and getting organised prior to heading out into the icy wilderness. One night I slept in a snow trench …. The scenario was ‘the tent has blown away’. That night I can’t really say I slept, but I did survive!

One thing that I need to work on is my route planning – realistically on the expedition we will put the GPS coordinates (85°15‘N 176°09’E) into the GPS and head for it (navigating around the ice floes and ridges). In Svalbard we did a route card, looking at points along the Longyearbyen valley and planned 3 days of travel and camping. This slow and laborious process frustrated me – the GPS was new and our team let couldn’t get to grips with it. After ½ day we just about managed it, but it tested my patience … some might say, I didn’t have any patience, for at one point I had to step away from the planning table! Testing the mind is great, but it’s also good to push yourself to that point when you have to ‘take 5’ and step back in.

I felt strong on the ice and in training; my physical training has made me fitter, but as we have a year to go, it’s important to step back, reflect on what I have learnt, what I struggled with and to look at where I am going. The next year with Ice Warrior is going to be challenging but I am very much looking forward to it, and to more scenario training.

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Making time for science

Arctic sea ice extent on 12 September 2012 c/o NSIDC

I am always rushing around doing ‘things’; training, eating, working, replying to emails, catching up with people, sorting out the garden, cleaning the house, writing about the expedition, securing funding but there is one thing that I feel has been missing for a while on this blog.

The missing element is something that perhaps is so important to the expedition that I don’t really think about it. It’s ingrained in my head. It’s the science.

It’s easy to write about pulling tyres as its fun, but the science behind this trip is technical, and not so easy to write about.

Today, I am making time for science.

The basics

We’ve lost 40% of Arctic sea ice in the last 40 years, We’ve more melt days, less freeze days, More open water absorbing the sun’s radiation, Heating the planet.

The expedition

We are working with some fantastic scientific partners to monitor the state of the Arctic Ocean, on a transect never travelled before. Our 800 mile journey will involve team members, under the guidance of Bjorn Erlingsson, researcher at the Icelandic Meteorological Office to record:

  • Ice properties e.g. ice-type ridging/rafting stage, ice-free-board, ice-type thickness
  • Snow thickness, snow density and snow crystal properties
  • Ice mechanics, growth of winter ice (rafted/ridged vs. thermodynamic), crossover thickness and block thickness in ridges and cohesion of ice blocks.

This data will be fed into the NASA funded National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) scientists, The Met Office, The Scott Polar Institute, The Norwegian Polar Institute and the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute to name a few. All of the data collected will be ‘open source’ so that anyone can use it. We are part of a huge citizen science project.

The Royal Society

I went to a conference back in September at The Royal Society where ‘Arctic sea ice reduction: the evidence, models and global impacts’ was the topic of the day. Quite a topic for someone who is getting to grips with ice science.  It was a worthwhile event with a range of speakers from the National Oceanography Centre to the National Snow and Ice Data Centre to the Universities of Reading and Cambridge. I learnt a lot and came out feeling proud to play a part to help decipher what is happening in the Arctic.

A few key points re the state of the Arctic:

  • It has been noted that multi-year ice in the Arctic is on the decrease. This older ice helps to stabilise the new ice which forms. With this on the decrease, the ice is more susceptible to change from a warming climate.
  • The melt season in the Arctic is changing. The melt season begins earlier and has a later freeze point in the autumn. This gives rise to a longer melt season and an ability to melt more of the ice.
  • Satellite evidence and models show a decline in multi-year ice from 1999-2014. QuickSCAT and ASCAT scan the region every 3 days. In the past 15 years, the ice has decreased in the Arctic by 2 million square kilometres – 30% of the Arctic Ocean!
  • Satellite data cannot always differentiate between snow and ice, so our measurements on the ice will help ground-truth satellite imagery for the region.
  • Peter Wadhams of the University of Cambridge spoke about the Arctic Death Spiral and its impact on the planet. Quite scary!
  • Factors which influence the extent of sea ice include dynamic influences i.e. wind force, divergence/convergence; thermodynamic influence i.e. surface winds, weather; cloud cover; arctic oscillation and changes in ice albedo (reflection).

Summary

I am enjoying learning about the science and how we continue to monitor the Arctic for changes. It’s a new world to me, but having an ongoing dialogue with Bjorn is helping me get to grips with how important our expedition is.  Maybe I’ll have a new career in ice science one day.

A reflection

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For the past month I have been consumed. I have been doing the day job, building my arm muscles, discussing the expedition with corporates and working to promote the Ice Warrior project. It has been busy, but worth it.

On Wednesday 16 July, we will launch the Pole of Inaccessibility expedition at Royal Geographical Society. The event starts at 5pm with a talk on our quest, followed by a conversation between Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Polar Jim at 6.30pm. Further details here http://t.twi.to/kD4w/bL6sI

When I signed up for basic polar training back in February, it was all about ‘survival’ for me. I needed to survive a week in the Arctic. Little did I know that 6-months later I would be completely consumed with the Pole of Inaccessibility and the thought of reaching the centre of the Arctic Ocean.  When I am not at work, it is all I think about….

Over the past 6-months I have been learning how to become a safe, competent polar explorer. I still have a long way to go, but already I have learnt:

  • How to build a snow trench
  • How to drill bindings into a new set of skis and measure them so they are ‘just so’
  • I have learnt that if I put my mind to something, I can do it
  • I am stubborn – sometimes when your body lets you down, you need your mind to get your through. A pulled shoulder muscle taught me this when attempting to ski up hill
  • I can ski … it’s a mini miracle
  • I have learnt a few knots …the alpine butterfly, fig 8 and the double fig 8, the clove hitch, the munter, half hitch, the stopper and the sheet bend. I am yet to conquer the Thompson
  • I am learning about ice science. I did marine environmental science at university but ice science lessons escape me – it’s technical

I have also met some amazing people; people from all walks of life that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.  My team mates are the best – hearts of gold, with a hint of mischievousness. I am looking forward to the official launch, furthering my training and the run up to February next year. I have a lot to learn and do, but it is exciting.

Finding my trainee explorers feet

My first attempt at skiing in February was tough. The two planks (skis) attached to my feet were limiting my ability to move on the icy-snowy lands of Svalbard. This time around it was better but my team mates commented on my lifeless, grey face when the word ‘ski’s’ were mentioned. It’s fair to say I returned to Svalbard with a fear and mild hatred for skiing.

My first full day on the ice was hard, it was a Tuesday and I became awash with self doubt for the expedition. My brain was chattering; “I’ll never make it”, “Am I good enough for this?”,” How am I going to survive in -40?”, “What happens if Jim says I can’t be part of the team?”, “Will I ever be able to ski good enough to travel 200 miles over the frozen arctic sea?”.

I was having a downer…. it was like a tonne of bricks.

My mind has chattered to me in the past; on my 2nd marathon, I had run 25 miles and my mind was telling me “you can walk now, you are tired”. With 1.2 miles to go this was not really an option! I guess to have this ‘chatter’ on the first full day of training was a shock to me. I wanted to be better, I wanted to be strong, but the cold and the task ahead was daunting and making me doubt myself.

On the Wednesday I woke up, feeling fine, feeling like I could do anything. My chatter has been put to rest. Wednesday was great – I laughed, I recollected skills that I learnt in basic training and I skid… without the chatter, but with a pure and deep concentration. I thought to myself I am not going to leave the expedition because of skiing!

Arising on the Thursday for our 6:30am ski, I felt confident. I didn’t want to be bambi anymore; I wanted control over my planks. I started to play with my planks – they were not going to get the better of me. I started to jump in them; I saw a hill and had an urge to go down it. Cat, Andy and I used the herringbone technique to get the top of the hill and gingerly said ‘lets do this’. We skied down the hill. We all fell over at the bottom but, my god, it was fun. We carried on skiing until we met another hill and off we went. All I had to do was bend my knees, keep my ski poles down and not worry. This technique was good…. as I had fallen over so many times; I knew it wasn’t going to hurt. We went down the next hill, one at a time, wondering whether we would actually make it without falling over. WE DID IT … AND IT FELT GREAT!

The day after my skiing epiphany, I skied to the hill again with a desire to go down it. I went down that hill without falling over. I was so proud that I got down that damn hill … and pleased that one of my worst fears for walking to the Arctic Pole has (kind of) been dealt with.

Training is mentally and physically tough and brings all emotions out in you. Last week I cried, I laughed, I felt elated, I was filled with adrenalin and I felt challenged. I feel as though I am finding my polar explorers feet and if they are attached to a set of planks, then it’s not so bad. To be honest, I should have a fear for the polar bears, not my skis!

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