Temperature: minus 20°C
Distance travelled: 20 km
Day 39 since I left Bahrain;
Day 29 of the Expedition;
Day 21 of walking
Location; Danish Straight
Wind; 20 kph from NW
The restart for the final leg, leg 4, was scheduled for 1500, so we spent as long as possible in bed trying to nurse our respective injuries and husbanding our energy. As a group we were finally getting stronger and more efficient, and although our tempers were shorter than ever before, we actually had less cause than before.
As a group we discussed our tactics for the next leg. As we now had 24 hour sunlight, it really didn’t matter what time we started or ended our trek. As long as we did our scheduled safety call to report our position at 2030, it didn’t matter what time we pitched our tent, or how long we slept. I immediately was concerned that the others were beginning to write checks our bodies could not cash. Only 24 hours earlier, they were both at risk of pulling out in pain, or being forcibly medically retired and now they were talking as if they were spring chickens.
As it was the final leg, and there was no aeroplane pick up, all the equipment had to be carried from here to the North Pole where it would be flown out. This meant all the extra food, fuel, tents and equipment was shared out among the teams to carry as extra weight above and beyond the normal load. Captain Downes pulk eventually weighed 70kgs, almost my body weight!
Just to prove that Mother Nature has no respect for those with big reputations or those who don’t respect her, while we were packing to go, a gust of wind blew away the instructors’ inner tent. Steve Pinfield is one of the most experienced explorers in the world, and nearly every major new first in expeditions has his fingerprint.
He had constantly told us to pin things down or the wind could take it away, and losing something as small as your “down” gloves (the big warm goose down mittens) could mean “End Ex”…the end of the exercise. Steve had forgotten to put a ski through the loop of his inner tent and with his back turned the wind blew it away.
Fortunately, I saw the error and as the wind took the tent past us, I knew I only had one chance…and rugby dived at full stretch grabbing one of the tent poles. But the wind hadn’t given up yet, and blew into the tent, inflating it like a hot air balloon and causing it to get caught in the wind even more. As I hung on, knowing that the loss of the tent inner would mean the instructors, our safety net, would have to be evacuated, the wind blew on the tent harder and spun it like a bowling ball, which in this analogy made me the skittle being tossed about.
Fortunately I had slowed the tent sufficiently for help to come. I have made some last ditch tackles in rugby and I have missed many more, but the only thing at stake then was a try or a game. This was the first tackle I have made where lives literally were at stake and thank god I didn’t miss.
As we all set off on leg 4, there was an atmosphere akin to the end of school. I had hated almost every minute so far, and would be hard pressed to pin point a moment where I had actually enjoyed myself so far, but if there was a time, this might be it. I knew that I was 140 km away from the end, and that was enough for me to forget all my pain so far, and all the discomfort I was currently in.
Unfortunately this was not true for Capt Downes. As we walked into the howling wind with our hoods up, myself at the front, Clare in the middle and Captain Downes at the back, he dislocated his knee again. This happens often enough for him to know how to pop it back in, but for some reason he wasn’t able to, and as he screamed into the teeth of the wind, Clare and I continued walking with our heads buried into our hoods to protect us from the wind. Eventually, he pulled out the shotgun to fire a shot to alert us, but by the time he did it we were too far to hear it. As the point team member, I turned around every 5 minutes to ensure we were all together as a group, and noticed JP missing, but as Clare didn’t indicate a problem to me, I assumed JP was going to the toilet and we continued.
Fortunately JP was able to pop his knee back in and catch up, as we were by now going slowly to give him a chance. This was another wake up call for us as things could have worked out disastrously by not following our instructions to the maximum. He was furious and rightly so, and to make amends, I took his pulk and let him drag mine. Although I did not realise it at the time, I was dragging my own current body weight of 70 kgs. I had lost 10kgs during the expedition and dragging JP’s pulk was no easy task.
By 2200 we decided that all thoughts of walking for 12 hours were unrealistic with JP nursing a swollen knee and myself dragging a pulk far too heavy for me. As I had suspected, my team mates had been over ambitious and we had fallen short of expectations. However, we were ahead of 3 of the other teams, and only the strongest team was ahead of us, so in reality we were still doing well, although we might not have felt it.