Svalbard 2019.

My diary of polar training. Basic and advanced.

January 2nd

Matt at Longyearbyen airport

Lastpole training 2019.

#Lastpole training 2019.

Despite the #Lastpole expedition being postponed until 2020 training goes on. As I write I am on a train, very busy train, to Paddington with a huge Osprey duffel bag, an enormous 2metre  long Dakine ski-bag and an Osprey backpack. It is not easy getting luggage on and off from an Intercity train. Within the bags, one of which I had to abandon in a different carriage, is thousands of pounds worth of new equipment  that I have sunk my money in to, no change that, all of my money in to.

Im investing heavily in the Ice Warrior programme, and I hope I am up to the task in hand. Ice Warrior is all about normal people doing something amazing. I am a very ordinary person and hope I can do myself and my family proud. If I make it to my friends hotel in Oslo then that is the first step. 

Im testing heavily, literally, Ospreys new Transporter. I decided it would be easier to have wheels going through airports, railway stations and through hotels, than simply using my Ortlieb waterproof expedition pack.

So both bags went onto the plane to Oslo as bulky baggage. On the carrousel the skis were returned as bulky. My other bag surfaced on a different carrousel with all the normal bags. The bags, both new came out looking like they had had a tough time the other side of the curtain.

My bags were returned to me, and off I went to get a train to Oslo central to meet a fellow Ice-warrior whom was putting me up for the night. The train was easy. What wasn’t easy was having hands full dragging large bags, whilst trying to scan a qr code from my phone. But it all worked, some man-handling of my gear sorted it all out. On exit  from the train-I stepped outside. The air a crisp fresh 0ºc, lots of ice on the ground. A brisk walk with my colleague and we were at the hotel. A lovely clean, crisp night. The last day I’d see where a sun would set.

January 3rd. 

The day started early as my colleague was catching an earlier flight, so he was up at 4. I crashed until 540, then showered and went for breakfast. Toast and jam and a good cuppa. Tea, my one true love! Then back across the ice to the railway station, to once more struggle with my luggage through the barriers demanding QR codes. Then at the airport, half asleep I went through security and had my water bottle half full of water. The security guards were not impressed and I asked if I could drink it there and then…which I did, then they swabbed my bag, and off I went.

At the gate I met 3 more Ice warriors, and we had a chat and boarded our plane to Svalbard via Tromso. As we flew the sun was bright and it’s dawned on me that I wouldn’t see daylight again for 2 more weeks. Would I miss it, will I miss it. Will I get depressed or withdrawn? 

A few of the SAS fleet of planes have WIFI. The plane I was on didn’t. Flight entertainment would and did consist of “Bones” on my IPad, and a good read on my kindle. 

We landed in Tromso in heavy snow, so much in fact they couldn’t get the steps to us for an hour, but eventually we disembarked, went through identification station and returned to the departure lounge where there were more Ice-Warriors waiting. We talked and discussed our gear, and our journeys. After a while we were informed of the bad weather and a flight delay. AN hour on and we were then told that all luggage was removed from the plane, and 8 people needed to volunteer their seats as the plane was too heavy. Brilliant. Eventually we boarded, with lots of spare seats on the plane only to wait on the tarmac for another 90 minutes while the snowplough got stuck in the snow and needed chains fitting. After what seemed like days since sleep we began our descent in to Svalbard and the small mining town of Longyearbyen. 

So we landed, very cold, very dark. None of our luggage was put on the plane. None! Considering we are on a polar training expedition testing gear amongst other things,our missing luggage was more than an inconvenience. Without our gear, in these conditions things are bad. 

The whole crew managed to borrow some gear from one of our guides. Old gear, backup gear, ill fitting gear but enough for us to make it through the evening.

January 4th.

And so our entire team attempting to fill in SAS(Scandinavia Airs missing bag form) 

We started with a hearty breakfast, then went outside to create an inventory of all the spare gear kept in the basement of the guesthouse here. We were working in the dark, in dust pulling out sleds, pulks, tents and cookers. All manner of expedition gear we dragged out. We counted it, and recorded it. Issued with my own pulk I dug a parking place for it. Then issued with some equipment. Ice axe, shovel, pots, fuel bottles I loaded up my little blue friend. 

Once inventory was completed we sled across the street and started practicing tent erection. The temperature was relatively mild at around -6, after 90 minutes the wind picked up and it felt a lot chillier. The tent was in a bad state of repair, and so poles needed to be maintained and repaired. None the less, we started with the erection and will continue to focus on our erection skills. 

At 10 pm it was announced some of our luggage was at the airport. Some, not all, some!

After a while, looking out of the window at every car that passed our luggage arrived. The joy on our faces, the excitement. The bags were dropped off and we all took them to our respective rooms and unpacked. It was obvious that our luggage had spent a significant time on a runway somewhere in the snow….stuff was damp. But our gear had arrived.

Saturday 5th.

The 12th day of Christmas. No more Christmas trees. (In the UK at any rate).  Today we started the day with a hearty breakfast. We had a morning briefing, and then we set forth and Inventoried the entire Ice Warrior holding in Svalbard. We started looking at food and energy bars we possessed, after that, my colleague and I sorted gear in the dusty, dark cold basement counting dusty old skies and camping stoves whilst the rest of the group made a start on building their skis. Coming late to the group and having missed the input we went ahead and built our skis. It was a difficult, stressful, painful task that somehow took some members over seven and a half hours. I am pretty sure that I ruined my skis as the screws were too small for the massive holes I drilled-in brand new skis!! 

We didn’t go out for dinner, but had a bean stew, then we had an evening meeting on risk and the things that pose as threat to us in the Arctic. 

Sunday 6th

The winds have started. The day started with breakfast, then we went out skiing, just learning. The bindings and the skis are very different from what I am used to. I was the first to fall over, then I was the 2nd to fall over. But in the end I grasped it. A few members of the group found it tough, but more or less grasped it in the end.

The smart wool base layers, and the Mountain Equipment Kongur MRT suit with Mountain Equipment G2 gloves kept us warm whilst we were working. Skiing is hot work. The sorrel snow boots are big, cumbersome but relatively comfortable. After skiing we had lunch, then straight out into the storm to put up a storm shelter, and pretend we had a casualty. Quickly getting pulks around patient , then a mat under them, then the shelter up. It was intense, the storm was blowing, and freezing your face. Your cheekbones are like ice, and your eyes and nose full of snow. 

The Polar regions are extreme. Today was tough and I worry its only going to get tougher. 

Monday 7th

Up at 630am, a quick cuppa and then out for a morning ski-temperatures of around -20. It was cold, really cold and dark of course. The howling winds had left nothing but sheet ice everywhere, so skiing was tough. I was the first to fall over-as always but others soon followed suit. We then skied in and around the hostel-not too far away so that we would not leave the “safe zone”. Head torches were turned off, and we skied. The skiing we do is very different to normal skiing. The boots-so very different. Getting an edge is incredibly tough.

After breakfast we started our knots course. All sorts of knots, and some scenarios in which to use them. We also build a quick hauling system. The rope we spoke about and that it is important to recognise knots.

After lunch we had a GPS session and headed off into Longyearbyen to waypoints set for us on a map. We set our Garmin GPS units up, and set off. I got to see much of Svalbard, and it was interesting to witness a busy  tiny town in the heart of the Polar regions. The GPS tour ended at a pub where we had Salmon Pasta for tea. We also popped into the shop and did a large shop preparing for some meals. The darkness continues and I am feeling tired, really tired.  

Tuesday 8th

Another dark day, up at the crack of dawn to go skiing. The ice was thick and difficult, no chance of finding an edge, or in fact getting any grip. Crystal clear sheet ice. It was  like cycling on a diamond path.

We returned to breakfast, and loaded up on calories. 

Anchors today, we looked at anchors to use on snow and ice and scenarios in which to use them. We also discussed bomb-proofing the tent-preparing for super high winds.

Then down jackets on, we headed back to the ice and tried rigging anchors, in snow and ice. We also set up a hauling kit, and tested our anchors out with weight on them.

Lunch was soup and pasta, and then we set out on a long ski, working on technique and efficiency. We also skated across the river, and yours truly managed to face plant like a champion.

Then we walked back to the hostel and I cooked tea with a fellow Ice-warrior. The manager appeared at the door and warned us that evacuation was possible over the next couple of days as 120mph winds were coming in, and that there is a severe avalanche warning.

A shower, and bed.

I am shattered. 

Wednesday 9th

So, up even early to get out for a morning skiing. There was a bit of snow hiding sheet ice. It was incredibly icy, and again like skiing on a mirror. 

After breakfast we had a long discussion about Polar bears and the way they stalk and consider prey. We spoke about habits and the moods they will possess at different times of the year. After that, we looked at safety including firearms and flares. We looked at a Sig p2 flare gun, and a 1939 Mauser rifle. 

After breakfast we had a talk on how to pack pulks, and the location of kit within said pulk. We also talked about sleeping systems and vapour barriers. We are using a vapour barrier, a -35c Mountain Hardware sleeping bag and an outer synthetic insulator. A triple sleep system. 

So we were told we had an hour, and we needed to have our pulks ready, bags packed and skis ready. It was a rush knowing what to, and what not to pack. There was a bit of guessing and the entire process was a learning curve. 

We were outside and raring to go…. well some of us. We set off pulling our pulks. I was piloting the Pulka-King, and we set off-not far, but we set off in to the wilds of Longyearbyen. The pulk wasn’t too difficult, it follows you well, and sometimes wants to overtake you. Going down a hill it slams you in the back of the legs. None the less the Pulka-king followed me and got me to the camp site . At the camp site i volunteered to be stories mate. A job that I didn’t really enjoy and one that I didn’t  really want to repeat…..I think. 

My colleague and I had to prepare, light and feed and hydrate all the team. The aroma of petrol was pretty overwhelming at some points. I lit stove one that was a prototype and it promptly set fire. I was calm as a cucumber (honest) and brought the stove outside whilst we established the canister was leaking. We serviced it and re lit it and everything came together. The stoves worked, and the snow was dug and put to one side to melt. Half way through the evening the Northern lights made a magical appearance, and we sat for a moment and watched them dance across the sky. It was incredible.

A petrol fume induced headache was beginning to form I was able to escape the tent and sit in the fresh crisp polar air and watch the green lights dance across the sky. Like a searchlight panning above the world , the lights were amazing. A true moment I will never forget. 

The stove was melting snow, the rest of the team were starting to finalise the tent, and were filtering in with mugs and their lunch packs. It was a long smelly task, but one that seemed to make people happy.

After everyone was fed we turned off the fuel and got everything from the tent such as stoves and fuel out. We organised in pairs for bear-watch. 75 minute chunks and then went to bed. Fitting people in was a nightmare, and it was arranged just as sardines. People shared bed rolls and just lay where they could in bear watch order. 

Climbing in the triple layered sleeping bag in such close company to others was difficult to say the very least. It was a bloody nightmare in fact. I slept with my base layers on, my phone in my pants, and my gloves under my arms. I was hot. So so so hot. Hot and trapped. I felt that I simply wanted it all too end. 

An hour later and I was up for Polar bear duty. Standing out with my colleague, our Expedition down jacket and light line sallopettes on , we patrolled our camp site. It was scary, all shadows looked like Polar bears. We were armed with a Sig P2, and various flares and head torches. An hour and a quarter later we got the next people on watch and we went to bed. Climbing into our triple sleeping system, and attempting to pull the covers around our bodies was tough, but in I got. Balaclava on, and to sleep I tried. As I lay there squeezed in like a sardines, the wind howling outside all I could hear was my heart-beat pulsing in my ears.

I must of had an hours sleep, before my alarm woke me up. We had to be fast. We had to be back at or hostel for evacuation in 90 minutes. So once it sounded we were up. Straight up, put on our Mountain Equipment Kongur kit, and then took our sleeping bags and duffel bags straight out. Stowed and secured them. Then quickly I unleashed all the pulks that I had leashed the evening before in case some wind took them.

Next we started removing anchors. Digging out pick-axes, removing snow-screws and snow nails. This was an arduous task, and it was a little wild. Once pegs and storm proofing was done we started unclipping the poles from the tent. Then we all got on side and lowered the tent. The poles were rapidly removed, and then the tent was folded and quickly stowed. Once tent was down we had a quick check of the area, secured our pulks, put skis on, attached harnesses and were ready to go.

We had to wait for a few people, then I led the team off. The wind was starting to blow. Blow is an understatement. The wind was full of snow and ice, and each gust got through every layer, and found any gaps where skin was exposed. So I found a way up towards the guesthouse. It wasn’t great, it was rocky and steep and I managed it-the rest of the group didn’t, and went a different way. Probably wisely as I was sure I had scratched my skis on some rocks. 

We arrived at the guest house, and removed skis and stowed all equipment in the basement. Then quickly we packed our emergency bags-grabbed a sandwich and were evacuated to the other end of town. The new guesthouse was nice. 4 beds to a room, so we had another couple of people in our company. Then a volunteer was needed to get shopping-so off I went. 

We ate soup and bread for lunch and had a de-brief about the camping trip. Then we looked at expedition hygiene and nutrition. Finally we had a long session on route planning. I was told off for marking the map(with a pencil) after always having been taught to mark maps. “Don’t be afraid to mark maps” I was taught-alas not here. Sure they’re expensive, and not mine but still. I guess this is different…… None the less a route was planned. We were told the route wasn’t good enough…then we gave up and went out for dinner. Dinner was a pretty underwhelming luke-warm jacket potato with cold ham and cream…. (Not ideal when you want something hot). After dinner we headed to a pub, I bought some drinks and then struggled back to the hostel. That was a vicious walk, snow was heavy, wind was hard.

Then I slept, oh what a sleep it was-until the rest of the group returned from the pub rather loudly.

11th January

A day off, oh soooo needed. I woke at 730, and had a leisurely breakfast. Spend the morning stroking my moustache and contemplated how old I looked when I looked in the mirror. At noon a group of 4 of us headed to Longyearbyen museum and looked at the island of Svalbard’s history. It appears Svalbard was born through and from the torture of animals. Whaling to start, then seal clubbing, and then furs. Fur of the arctic fox, and fur of a polar bear. It had quite gruesome exhibits. It made me feel rather sad, and sadder still to think much of the barbaric nature still continues to this day.

After the museum we trudged up an icy hill to a rather swanky church. This church had all the mod cons, from a gift shop, to a coffee station. It had saint Barbara on the wall, a mural seemingly picturing Arnold Scwarzanegger as the messiah and of course…a polar bear. Coffee was all I could focus on, and a couple of us headed off to find a good espresso based coffee. When we found somewhere some of the team were already there. So a cappuccino, a pizza (Dargens, the daily special) and then a cappuccino and a cinnamon roll were in order. Then earlier than anticipated we were able to return to our guesthouse. Evacuation order lifted. So we promptly walked the several miles home. Beating our bags being transported by car by some 5 minutes.

Home again I did some washing of my bacon smelling socks, and then did some modification of my gear. I helped rearrange our stowed pulks and skis, and then to celebrate returning the owner of the guesthouse threw us a pizza party. All guests joined us in pizza.Our group also managed to polish off 4 bottles of wine. The edge off reality really helped me relax. Alarm set for 6:28, and tomorrow we are off skiing early….

12th January 

Thoughts of home are pushing their way into my head as I woke early. Dark out. Alarm went off at 06:28 and I was straight out. After a quick cuppa. Yorkshire tea makes me happy.

Then we strapped on our pulks and headed off into the darkness. Skiing over frozen rivers on ice like glass that glints with the dancing lights of the aurora borealis. Stunning. We headed in for breakfast and I ate as much as I could. Tomorrow I may stick to cereal as my diet is causing me some issues. 

After breakfast we had a chat about satellite phones and the Iridium network. Then we headed into the field once more. Pulks attached (The Incredible Pulk? Pulkahuntis ? Pulk Fiction? Randy?) we skied off into darkness. Today was about survival. Today with wind was -25c. It was cold. We talked and built snow trenches, and snow holes. We also built a lovely kitchen for stovie. Our snow hole was epic,  8 warriors  fitted inside with ease, and if we had we had more time we could of built chambers and dining rooms and all sorts. We had a hot chocolate and some soup whilst we were there , and as the time pushed on I could feel my hunger and dehydration and indeed fatigue setting in. I ate a couple of frozen sandwiches , and longed for home. 

Once home a colleague made us a delicious curry-really warmed the cockles. I phoned home, and had a hot shower and crashed out. What an exhausting day. 

13th January

The last whole day before mini expedition and I am incredibly nervous. Nervous, anxious, worried and really rather frightened. The temperature is expected to drop to 25 below, and with wind chill it will be close to negative 33. So …. 

The day started with an extra long morning ski where we managed to ski further still. To the glacier, and back. It was cold, hair froze, eye lashes froze, my breath froze-it was mighty cold. There was snow today concealing some super slippery ice. a talk on photography and how and what (yes my 7 years of photography study wasn’t mentioned, but hey). Later we had a route planning session for our trip. Working together we planned, checking and inputting to GPS systems. 

Next we had a preparation of kit. We got all the gear out and re assigned it to peoples pulks. I now have a flare pen and an EPERB which is great… but means I have even more crap in my pockets. We spent hours distributing kit and checking, checking, checking what we need. Then we had an urgent message. Be outside in 5 minutes in base-layers and socks. So out we marched in our socks into the snow. Ordered to lie down, and lift our legs, separate our legs and hands. We lasted 35 minutes in -15c. At which point hypothermia was setting in. It was incredibly cold. My back got freeze burnt and the ice glued me to the ground. It was cold.

After this, we went out for a meal. A very delicious Reindeer burger. Very tasty. I fell on sheet ice and smashed my elbow and my knee. It hurt lots, and now I will be sore for the trip. 

Home after the meal dragging 15l of fuel back and we went straight into packing. Deliberated, and deliberated. Phoned home and went to bed.

3 days now with no contact with the outside world. I am pretty scared…..

17th January

3 days later. The trip was… cold, enduring, exhausting. I got to know some incredible people, got to know an incredible place, and got to experience severe cold, and extreme fear.

Day 1 we set off at mid day and walked through town to the corner of town. From here I took navigating. The GPS lasted about 20 minutes. Temperature around -18c. We skied for about two to 3 hours marvelling at the Aurora. Camp set up was a mission. It wasn’t fun. I was stovie, so continually boiled snow to fill up flasks, hot water bottles, and feed and rehydrate everyone. We slept-until I had bear watch duty. That is scary.

In the middle of the night, no one around , everyone sleeping. I was then responsible for the lives of those in camp. Gun on hip I patrolled in the darkness. Seeing shadows moving all the time, and walking distances when you are soooo tired. The sleeping system was an “arsehole” according to my colleague.

A vapour barrier-basically a carrier bag means that you lie and stew in your own juices. The smell that rises is pretty grotesque. The idea to sleep in a triple system is complicated, and every morning I woke with ice where my breath had hit-anything. I put my gloves in my pants, my head torch in my bag, and my buff(covered in ice) on my chest. Sleeping in base layers and a thin fleece was as good as I could get it.

With the morning came jobs. Stove on melting snow for breakfast. Always a slow process, whilst everyone else starts packing down. And off again.

On the  middle day of our expedition the temperature plummeted to -33c and there was wind too. The wind howled pushing the temperature even lower. -40c , -44c who knows. All I know is that it was cold. Everything froze. Gore tax jackets, I mean high-end Gore-tex jackets froze solid. The material was reminiscent of thick cardboard. The zips stuck fast, and where you breath, and your breath leaves your face-whatever it touched it froze. It was unlike anything I have experienced. 

Breaking camp  for night 2 was tough. The Marmot Basecamp tent pole elastic had stretched by over a foot. So much so that it caused real issues in the erection of the tent. Everyone was cold, everyone was tired. We got the tent up, and got the stoves inside quickly. Once the stove was on we set about reinforcing the tent for the potential arctic gusts. The winds pickup in no time and without warning. Once stormproofing was done it was time to build a latrine. Ice saws help cut out nice square blocks and with the blocks the toilet was built. Pooing in the arctic at well below -30c is no laughing matter… I mean it is, but one must be quick. 

Whilst lying in bed I reflected on the day. The fresh bear prints were the highlight.

Day 3 was great. Everyone was full of energy and able to join in with the fun and jokes. 

The last erection was up in 16 minutes, that was fast-especially for our group. We had learnt how tor get it up quickly and efficiently. Still room for improvement but none the less we got stuff done.

We arrived at the rendezvous point a little ahead of schedule and had a bit of trouble with Wet and thin ice. This didn’t stop us and before long we were killing time by having pulk races, and we skied over to see some huskies and their puppies. Then that was over. We skied to the transport-loaded up our pulks and walked up to our guest house. It was exhausting. The walk is long anyway-but wearing our large Sorrell snow boots really took its toll on my feet. 

I returned to the guest house shattered. A quick cuppa and a shower, then it was inventory time. Time to get everything stowed away in the basement and everything checked off. Ensuring nothing was lost.

We had a great Thai meal that evening and shared some laughs over a beer. Exhaustion started taking over however I battled it and went to a lovely bar in town. Lovely but VERY expensive. I drank, and drank, and the evening turned into a fun night. Smiles and romances within the group blossomed and moods were high. 

18th January.

The final morning in Svalbard and I woke up incredibly hungover. Breakfast and packing filled the morning. Tiredness was extreme but on we forged. Taxi, airport, check-in, security, technical problem,  delay, wait, board and fly. 

We landed in Oslo, and promptly went to luggage reclaim. My luggage had a direct flight to the UK, my colleagues were not so lucky. Baggage carousel coughed up all the bags and skis and off to the 420 bus we went. 5 was down to 3, and on the bus journey the 3 reduced to the final 2. 

Our final hotel was an interesting place, but clean and tidy it was. We ordered some takeaway food and set alarms for 4.45 am. 

19th January.

So, this is it. An early start, shower, breakfast and airport transfer. Through check in, through security-although I got a slapped wrist for forgetting to take my liquids out. A quick cappuccino and on we trudged. The 2 suddenly became 4 as we bumped into a couple that we lost yesterday. We said our goodbyes and walked to my gate. We sat, we laughed, we talked. My flight was called and the two reduced to me. A solo person on a solo trip home. Everyone like a string on a spiders web threading their ways across the globe to their home. 

8:28 am as I fly to London I glanced out of the east windows and saw daylight. The first time in over two weeks. I can’t explain the feeling. Familiarity, loving, enthusiasm and incredible motivation. Day light, daylight. I’m so excited, however it passes my experiences to a memory, nothing more. It’s done, its over . I’m sad.

As I sit writing this on the plane home  I can’t help but feel connected to the place. The valley. A place that etched a totally new beauty into me. The dusky mountains towering high above in a vail of thick ice and snow. The shadows softer than anything I’ve seen. Like a drawing they stood, they stand. The moon illuminated them in a glow. A cold glow . 

A vast uninhabited valley, no more than 70 people more north than us, and almost 8 billion south of us. Epic in scale and totally unthathomable, soft, soft, soft light paints and dabs the edges of reality. Reality and fantasy merged in a cold as-semblance.

The people, the people I shared this experience with. The highs, the lows. The people, the place. 

As I fly away from Svalbard the horizon has a glimmer of blue and orange and reflection makes me very emotional. These people, annoying, kind, caring, funny-they , they make it real. People from all over the globe thrown together to strive. To be different. I miss them. I recommend it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.