Location: Resolute Bay
Temperature: min minus 36°C – max minus 18°C
Distance Travelled: 2 km
For the first time in as long as I can remember, I had a good night’s sleep. The expedition has started and all the major worries I’ve been carrying are either no longer relevant or out of my hands. And so I slept soundly, despite the sun setting at 2200 and rising to shine through my window at the unspeakably rude hour of 0200!
There are 14 of us in 5 groups all hoping to walk to the North Pole, and although we have met several times over the preceding 8 months, we had an informal bonding session altogether where Steve Pinfield, our senior instructor, got us to discuss our fears and then our hopes for this expedition.
Patton once said never take council of your fears, but what is also instructive is that even he had fears. I didn’t voice mine for several reasons, the main one being that I have so many! But it was reassuring to know that so many others had the same worries and more.
Fears included injury, not being able to finish, falling through the ice, seeing polar bears (although someone put this down as a hope!) the isolation from civilisation, the distance from rescue, exhaustion, poor personal organisation, bad weather, getting lost, and of course the bitter cold.
The hopes were done second and helped lighten the mood. The sense of achievement, the unique experience, simply surviving, the adventure, to finish the trek, to forge new friendships, to lose weight (one of my hopes, thanks to the comments from my brother and his girlfriend), to come back with amazing stories, and to gain some self understanding, although I would probably put that last hope in the fear category!
The weather was quite calm and the temperature was quite warm, although I realise that warm and cold are relative terms, and however it felt, it was still in the region of minus 20°C. After lectures we all went for a walk around the bay.
As soon as we got outside the weather turned very nasty, blowing up to 40 kms an hour whipping up a snow storm that bit at the skin, and made walking so unsteady that we all looked drunk. As we climbed the hill around the settlement the wind became even more brutal and the sky became dark and forbidding.
The snow was soft underfoot with an icy crust, so every step became a lottery as to whether it would sink or slip or stay. At first each slip felt like an insignificant occurrence, but as it happened more often it became unlucky, and then progressed to annoying, until every step was a source of overwhelming frustration and strength sapping movement. Eventually each step became agony as my calves began to scream at the abuse it was getting, and my groin complained at every slipped footing. It is so difficult to describe how awful it was, but of course it is easy for most readers in the Middle East to understand, as it was like walking up a soft sand dune. In a sandstorm. For 90 minutes. Whilst losing the feeling in your fingers. And nose. And ears.
It was so demoralising to be unable to simply walk, but Clausewitz says friction in war makes even the simple things difficult, and this was no different. The weather had become a great source of friction, and now we were all struggling just to walk, albeit in extreme conditions.
As we got to the ridge, the wind howled to 70 km an hour and the temperature dropped to minus 36, the coldest we had experienced yet and conditions we weren’t prepared for when we left camp on our little walk. All of a sudden I lost the feeling from my upper thighs to my belly button. Normally, a cold injury will occur at an extremity, such as fingers, toes, nose or ears, but this was a new one to me, and purely a result of the worsening conditions.
I tried to walk faster to generate more heat. It was obvious I would not survive the day let alone three weeks. I was becoming mildly hypothermic and in danger of not making it back to camp. I really had to dig deep, knowing how high the stakes were, and I did make it, but my spirits were low. And they dropped even further when I found out that we had only walked 2 km.
However, I was not the only one to suffer and fortunately, we were able to change things. The purpose of the training week is to build up our experience and ability, and this was a very good lesson for all of us. By the time we went out for another walk in the afternoon, clothing had been changed, equipment had been adjusted, and preparations had been made, so that the second trek was a lot easier despite similar conditions and by the end of the day we were all in a positive frame of mind ready to face the next challenge.