A red and yellow sky filled the horizon and alpenglow bathed the surrounding hills as the sun set on my first ever afternoon in the arctic circle. Miles away from where I would normally call home, I felt that familiar combined feeling of comfort and nervousness that a trip into a wild place unknown to oneself beforehand normally brings. Freedom, fear, solitude, escape, exhilaration… You could probably double, triple or quadruple that list. No doubt we were all going through our own mental routines of wondering what was next. Quite literally next was a trip into Alta (the local town) for Pizza and beers, followed by a wee while spent pondering the map, drinking arctic beer, and stroking our beads (or chins) as all good explorer types do.
The next morning was spent getting acquainted with equipment; mainly the cross-country ski’s. My last and only time on ski’s, albeit of the downhill sort, ended in disaster – 49 times falling over on a beginner slope (if you could even call it a slope) in just under 2 hours. In all fairness it was ice and slush covering a windswept mountain of grass – Aonach Mor, which is next to Britain’s highest mountain the mighty Ben. This time around however I faired much better. Touring around the campsite, I really enjoyed the rhythm of the cross country skiing movement, and felt pretty fluid and efficient within an hour or so. In my head at least, I felt like one of the heroes of Telemark. In actuality I was in giant polar boots, wide cross country skis with skins, dressed in a wind suit and going pretty slowly – see below.
We spent a good hour or so touring about and becoming used to getting in and out of our ski bindings efficiently. It seemed striking to me at this point that being efficient in this environment is so important. Faffing around means getting cold, and getting cold is debilitating both physically and mentally. Fast means warm and safe (unless of course you rush and break something, which I found out I was prone to doing), and therefore over the next week or so I really pushed myself to become a speed demon, from gulping down boiling hot half litres of tea (trying to develop a teflon mouth), to perfecting the art of sitting on my pulk without unclipping my harness or taking my ski’s off.
For the rest of the afternoon we learnt how to pack our sleds. The long and the short of it is that you try and distribute the weight so that the front portion is lighter, allowing you to lift the sled up over icy obstacles (Sastrugi if you were in the Antarctic). At the back you have the bulk of your shared payload (tent, fuel or food) and your tent bag, in the middle your grab bag inside your zipped up duvet jacket, and at the front your roll mat, sleeping bag and mitts. This setup is great, as when you stop you can part the zips a little (less snow gets in) and you have immediate access to your grab bag which has been kept temperate by virtue of being tucked inside your duvet (down jacket, or ‘puffa jacket’ to the chavs that wear them around the high streets of Britain). This contains your daytime food rations, warm drinks bottle and anything else that you might need to hand e.g. head torch etc. Simple and efficient systems, tried and tested for us by Mike during many polar expeditions. In totality I was to pull around 35 kg, the lightest of our group by a few kg’s (being the lightest and shortest), which of course secretly dented my ego (note: there should be no place for ego or pride on expeditions).
As night fell and we finalised our ‘arctic competencies’, I was ever closer to that first day out on ‘the ice’. Only a few more hours now…