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.


Svalbard is calling

This weekend I will head out to the icy, snowy lands of Svalbard, Norway. It’s a wonderful training venue that sits just 600 miles from the Geographic North Pole. The whole island is home to 2000 people and around 3000 polar bears. It will be dark every day, all day. The polar night is in full force which will make expedition training somewhat difficult.

In Svalbard I will be reuniting myself with Mike and Howard, my skis; sit outside in my thermals until hypothermia sets in so I can remind myself what it feels like; I will be putting up and taking down the tent in the dark, possibly in a snow storm and attempting to keep a clear head and remember exactly how many tent pegs are going into the ground. I will be partaking in a search and rescue exercise, walking into the Greenland Sea once more and learning about how to recognise different ice – how to travel across it and the use of different equipment on the floe-edge. First Aid and Arctic medicine will be back on the training menu, as well as route finding, navigation and the orchestration of Arctic evacuation. It’s going to be a busy 8 days, but one that I am very much looking forward to.

The weather is dipping between -5’c and -20’c at the moment, but with an arctic wind, that will drop further.

I am looking forward to seeing the old miner of Longyearbyen who sits in the centre of the town, waiting patiently for the sun to shine upon him once more.

My kit is ready, my mind is ready, I am excited, I just need to find my head torch.

For an exciting view of the town see here.


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!


Two weeks today

Morning skiIt has just dawned on me that two weeks today I will be on my way back to Svalbard for another dose of Polar Training with the Ice Warrior Project. I wasn’t sure that I could survive the basic training, but I did, and now I will attempt to survive the advanced training.

One problem for me at the moment is my dislike for ski-walking. I am a runner, a cyclist, a lover of the warm. Getting to grips with skiing was very frustrating for me on the basic training. I swore; at the beginning I threw myself on the ground to stop, my skis got tangled and I felt like an idiot.  One evening my route back to base camp went a bit Pete Tong – I ended up having a bit of a paddy, so someone else took over at the front. We headed up an icy path with our pulks. I kept falling over and getting annoyed with myself as I couldn’t stop sliding backwards – I took my skis off and decided to walk back to the base.

I can laugh about it now, but when those skis are attached to my feet in two weeks time, I need to be having a word with myself. To be fair, I had never skid before the 17 February so I can only improve. My old trainer from school said ‘practice makes perfect’ quickly followed by ‘perfect practice makes perfect’. I just need some more practice – and to be fair to myself, I did have good days on the ice; the memory of which has temporarily been superseded by the bad days.

Basic training was tough, tiring and demanded huge concentration. As well as learning how to ski, I found myself learning about polar bears and how to deter them, knots and their different functions, belaying, pulk packing, the science behind the expedition, storm proofing a tent, nutrition, the daily regime when on the ice and ski signals blended together with scenario training such as ‘the tent has blown away, how are you going to shelter’.

Two weeks today, I will be on my merry way, back to the ice, with a view to keep learning and progress to the next stage. Topics include GPS and navigation, critical crisis management, building on the basic course and more scenario training which will include sitting outside in my thermals to the point where I get mild hypothermia … just to know what it feels like.

Taking a dip in the Greenland Sea

As part of my basic polar training in Svalbard I took a dip in the Greenland Sea. The idea was to see how my body reacted in the cold water. It was very cold, and no, I am not wearing a wet-suit. I am in my thermal trousers, thermal top and a pair of socks. Not even merino could make this dip warm.