After a long day travelling via Oslo I arrived in Longyearbyen, the main town in Svalbard, at about 23:30 under the near midnight sun. Actually this is still a couple of weeks early for the sun but you can really see the light in the sky.
Svalbard is a pretty remote place and holds pretty much every Northernmost record (eg most Northerly hotel, supermarket etc) as it is a fairly civilised place - what else would you expect from the Norwegians! This compass just outside the airport shows just how far from anywhere else you are - you can also see the sun trying to edge above the horizon at midnight.
The first day or so is just assembling, organising oursleves and seeing a bit of the town. We are actually staying a bit out of town which allows / forces a couple of km walk into town in the chilly am showing Svalbard's setting on the shore of a fjord.
There is even a university complete with student's bikes outside:
In the background you can see the chimney from the coal-fired power station which provides all the island's electricity. Along with tourism and a bit of hunting / fishing the island's main industry is coal mining, although not all the mines remain operational. It also has the Global Seed Vault - hopefully there will be time to visit that.
The maximum temperature here is going to be -10c (good job a couple of Winters in Mongolia have prepared me well for this!) and it will be a lot lower than that when we head North to the pole.
We meet to discuss the trip and our equipment and then head out for a few days on the snow around Longyearbyen. Luckily, but probably unhelpfully, the weather is in general superb with clear blue skies and sunshine. It does get down into the -20s one evening and so becomes a bit chilly when we are in the big mess tent discussing the expedition that evening. We won’t be taking this to the pole and so will only need to warm our smaller 3 man tents instead.
The most important part of the training is to get used to skiing with the sled and try various systems to cope with the cold and the wind that we are likely to experience at the pole. Unfortunately, sun and blue skies mean that I am mainly skiing in sunglasses and a headband which won’t really work at the pole.
This is also a chance to get to grips with more mundane issues like the cooking with the stoves and putting the tents up – but whilst none of us have used these models before, we are all (save Carl who has decided that the North Pole is a good place to have his first ever go at camping!!) fairly experienced and so adjust with little difficulty.
Food – as expected the food is standard for extreme conditions. Freeze dried food with snacks / energy bars for lunch. I have brought out about 30 or 40 of these bars to have in addition to those provided – I don’t normally eat much lunch on such trips so it will be interesting to see whether I make a net energy bar gain on this expedition.
The US addition here is the importance of bread products. We have bagels and tortillas to fry with butter and then grated mozzarella to melt on top – if you can carry the extra weight they are a superb addition to the diet.
After the training it is back to Longyearbyen for a couple of days. The training has been useful and a fair bit of Krona is spent in the various outdoor shops to ensure that we are as well-equipped as possible for the Pole. I also managed to eat at the most Northerly Thai restaurant in the world and use the most Northerly cash machine!
Whilst we were on our training, the North Pole marathon has taken place and we meet a number of the participants and organisational team when we gate-crash their after party. The marathon is 9 laps of a track marked out around Barneo with the competitors having to run through a heated tent on each circuit for a break, refuelling or check-up by the medical team - including a rather lovely young lady called Beth who was in the medical team for the event:
We learn later that the only medical issue of any severity was some chap who got fairly badly frostbitten toes when he went for a barefoot run! It is not clear how much of the original incident or the retelling of it were fuelled by alcohol.
The following day is a struggle to get up (must have been a good party!) but we then hear about a nearby ice cave. Along with some vague directions, we receive a few warnings about the inherent dangers combined with a very strong recommendation that this trip should never be done alone. It won’t come as much of a surprise to any of you to discover that these warnings were roundly ignored – apart from the one about the polar bears and the need to carry a gun with you when leaving the town. Luckily, Guy, our Aussie / American friend, had been in the US army for a few years and felt more confident than the rest of us that he would not shoot either himself or anyone else in the group whilst carrying the gun and, perhaps more importantly, that he could shoot a bear if absolutely required rather than feeling sorry for the poor animal as it attacked, as I would no doubt have done!
We have a very enjoyable 1.5 hour hike up the steep valley that Longyearbyen is in with great views and an enjoyable mix of terrain.
The entrance is actually a bit of a surprise in that it is only a small hole in the ground which is just marked by two poles forming an ‘X’.
I had to crawl in whilst lying flat on the floor and found a sharply inclined drop to the right which opens out into a series of small chambers that are connected by small passages that twist, turn and drop. The fact that we don’t have a guide means that there is a much greater sense of exploration as we progress through the cave – especially for me as quite luckily none of the others were keen to go first. This is a really good side trip to any visit to the island and highly recommended.
After this, we have out last night in civilisation for a while so we head out again to enjoy more of the Longyearbyen nightlife – in fact that is a bit of a misnomer as the sun does not set here and it is pretty strange wandering home from a bar at 3am in the sunlight:
– and have a really rather amusing night. The evening started out with Bourbon (despite the fact it was pretty expensive and none of us actually like it) and flirting with some masseuses (d'une certaine age) who had come up from Oslo for a conference (!?) and had taken the opportunity of a night out whilst their husbands had gone to bed early. We got some rather disapproving responses early on but by the end (and in no small way aided by alcohol) had managed to turn things around to the extent that I was told that if I was ever in Olso I had to call on one of them to meet her daughter!
From there we went to the 'local' bar in town only usually frequented by miners and the various seasonal staff. As we were to find out, this place is notorious for three reasons (and the combination can make it a pretty rough place to be at times!):
1. There are no windows – whether this is to stop the permanent sunshine or police to look in is not clear;
2. It has a legendary collection of whisky and other spirits – 10 shelves high and about 2 metres in length;
3. The alternative to quality is quantity and their special Longyearbyen Iced Tea is remarkably potent.
We were staying some way out of the centre of town and despite the 2am sunshine, a 30 minute walk home at -15c or so is never fun. Luckily there was a late night pizza / kebab shop nearby and I had the brainwave of ordering some food and getting it delivered with us in the vehicle at the same time – unfortunately the staff did not seem to think it was such a clever idea. My immediate reaction (and I have clearly spent too much time in countries that used to be under the Soviet sphere of influence) was to suggest a ‘delivery fee’ which increased by a few £ each time it was refused – much to the amusement of the rest of the shop but probably less so to the staff themselves. Unfortunately, Norway is a very law abiding and when this routine stopped being first productive and then funny, I apologised at which point they mentioned that they could, and would be happy to, book the Longyearbyen taxi for us!
The first day of the expedition proper is a relaxed start with us needing to be at the airport at 10am, having packed and sent our sleds and equipment to the airport yesterday afternoon. However, as the morning progresses, concerns rise over the bad conditions at Barneo and after waiting for an hour or so at the airport we are eventually told that the pilots have called off the flight for the day. Apparently it is quite mild up there but very windy so the snow is being blown up into the air critically reducing the visibility - if Russian polar pilots say it is too dangerous to fly, you know that the conditions are terrible!!
This gives us an unexpected additional day in Longyearbyen, together with nerves as to the implications for our likelihood of reaching the pole. The guides seem pretty calm about this but don’t provide the greatest reassurance by going on to say that they have never not reached the pole and on prior trips the helicopter has picked them up on the last day and flown them the rest of the way to the pole before heading back to Barneo. I commented that I, and perhaps others although I wasn’t presuming to speak for them, was really rather keen that we reached the Pole under our own steam rather than via the helicopter and that one option would be to do an extra hour or two each day to catch up the time we missed. Luckily, my rather British way of phrasing things had been laughed at and commented on enough on the trip so far that I was comfortable that the meaning would not get lost in the translation.
This extra day was a good opportunity to join the local Liverpool fan club in their corner of the largest bar in town for the game against Reading.
Typical Liverpool - should have scored 7 or 8 but in fact managed none and yet another keeper had the game of their lives against them!
The rest of the day was pretty quiet and an early night in preparation for the big day. There was time to get very annoyed by a TV program about 2 Brits who were driving all the way to the South Pole in a world record attempt and managed to heavily over-dramatise every challenge they faced - everything was life threatening and potentially disastrous including the fact that it was -30c outside despite that fact that they were driving in a heated 4x4. Perhaps I need to make my expeditions sound a bit more death defying...
Bad weather at Barneo again left us waiting in the hotel but all of a sudden the call came through to get to the airport in 10mins! I had been attempting to shave but the razor in the hotel’s complementary female hygiene kit was no match for my beard - not that evident in my final photo before departure:
There was no time for security today so we just walked onto the runway via a side gate, on to the waiting Antonov:
and then off to Barneo with an absolute minimum of fuss – amazing how quick these things can be when Health & Safety doesn’t get in the way!
The flight was pretty calm and by the time we got to Barneo it was bathed in sunlight with no sign of the recent storm – this was our first taste of polar conditions and even though the sun was up it was down into the mid -20s. The North Pole is also quite a humid place and it is interesting to see how much of an impact that has on how cold it actually feels. There was a very welcome heated mess tented where we were given some warm beef stew and a short presentation about Barneo including its facilities.
Then it was time to load the helicopters with our gear and the dogs who were now out of their kennels and itching to get going - made for a very warm and pungent ride to our starting point which was back at 89'.
We walked for an hour or so to get the blood flowing before camp as well as to re-check our gear in action and get our first taste of moving at the pole. All was going well until I managed to take a nasty fall just before camp. The others had swept all but a last covering snow off from a sheet of steep ice so when I got on it my skis shot down the short slope but my sled held my hips back and so my feet shot up in air and I landed pretty hard on my elbow - I was a bit concerned as to what I had done to, especially once it started to swell but it seems to be manageable...
The days skiing to the pole are very alike so I will give an overview of the typical day and then some highlights in later posts. Nowhere is it more true that time is relative. You can cross time zones here in a matter of minutes and the sun remains at about the same height in the sky the whole time. Teams therefore stay on the same time as where they were before they enter the pole regardless of what longitude they are actually at and therefore what the time actually is.
Whilst I may make things sound simple, you have to remember that we are doing everything in the real cold. It is usually between -30c and -40c. That is absolutely exhausting in itself but it is also vital to do everything quickly and positively to avoid getting cold. Just having a glove off for a few seconds too long with leave you with dangerously cold hands that could take a good few minutes to recover.
Wake up at about 07:30am and whoever is up first puts on the stove to get the water going for tea, drinking water for the day. While the water is heating and continuing over breakfast we pack our camping gear and load the sleds. Breakfast is a hot drink, serving of oatmeal and a tortilla with cheese - there were also freeze dried 'breakfast skillets' (scrambled egg, onion, bacon etc) - apparently with a few extra steps these can be made to be pretty tasty but without those and especially if you add even slightly too much or too little water, they can be tough to stomach.
Each night, moisture from our breath and drying gear condenses and freezes on the inside roof of the tents - this has only a tentative hold and the slightest motion of the material will cause parts to detach and snow to fall (with unnerving accuracy) onto any exposed parts of your skin! This is really miserable first thing in the morning - unless a huge amount comes down when the only option is for you and your tent mates to laugh about it! Last to come down is the tent which we take in turns to carry each day, before heading off at about 10am.
Despite the cold, the effort of pulling the sleds mean that you generate a lot of body heat and as such we wear relatively light clothes during the day. I generally wore a thick base layer and waterproof shell on my legs; thin base layer, light mid-weight layer and windproof anorak on my top half topped off with a light hat, hood from my mid-weight layer and anorak hood if required. Apart from the head layers this would not be excessive for Winter walking in Scotland. Oddly, the main concern during the day is not getting to hot rather than getting to cold. If you get hot, you sweat and with an outside waterproof layer it is hard for this moisture to escape. You then spend the rest of the day keeping this moisture warm which is a real energy drain and once you stop this layer becomes very cold very quickly which can be dangerous.
On my face, I would alternate between just a buff (thin stretchy layer) or buff plus face mask - rotating depending on weather and the amount of ice that has built up on my face mask:
For the eyes it would be nothing or goggles. The sun is pretty low so there is no real risk of sun blindness but when it is cold or windy some physical protection is helpful. The problem then is that goggles tend to fog up and then freeze up when worn with a face mask.
We would head off at about 10am and walk for 1.5 to 2 hour blocks and have a 10 minute rest for drinks and snacks before the next push. The breaks are short as whilst you can generally keep warm when pulling the sled, the cold hits you very quickly when you stop. The first thing you do when stopping is to put on your down jacket to conserve your body warmth whilst at rest; taking it off and repacking it in the sled is the last thing you do before restarting. Even so, it takes a good 15 mins or more to get warm again after the stops and often longer for hands which aren't working so hard.
For the first few days we did 4 sets of these to ensure that we made good progress into the time that we had to catch up, but later only needed to do 3 given the progress that we had made.
This would get us into camp at around 7 or 8. Again, first action is to put on the down jacket and insulated trousers (if required) to maintain body warmth whilst doing the various chores to get the camp set up. This was mainly erecting the tents, getting our gear stowed inside the tent and stoves started as well as chatting to rest of the team. After that it was supper - hot drink, soup, packet of freeze dried food and bagel with cheese.
Again, simplicity in the freeze dried food tended to give the best results. Mince rehydrates well as does pasta so dishes like Chilli Mac (chilli and macarone) and lasange (small chunks of it) were good. Rice dishes are very dependent on the correct proportion of water which is hard to get right with no equipment (and US measurements required). A crucial additive is a bottle of chilli sauce or tabasco which you can thaw by putting in the kettle for a few minutes. Last thing it to fill water bottles with hot water and pop them into the sleeping bags. This warms the bags up before you get in, keeps your feet warm throughout the night, helps dry out your wet gear and also provides water to go into the kettle the following morning which is much quicker and so uses less gas than having to melt snow or ice
After dinner would be reading, chatting or visiting other tents and then to bed at about 10 to get ready to do it all again the next day.
Accounts and photos of completing the Explorers Grand Slam - 2 Poles and 7 Summits. By Sebastian Merriman. Aconcagua, Ama Dablam, Carstenz Pyramid, Denali, McKinley, Elbrus, Everest, Kosciusko, Kilimanjaro, North Pole, Arctic, South Pole, Antarctic, Antarctica, Vinson, vertigo, climbing, mountaineering, skiing to the pole, skiing to the poles, seb2poles7summits, seb27, Seb Merriman, seb2poles, mountains, poles