Wednesday, 4 May 2011
VocaLink North Pole Challenge
If there is a moment from my recent North Pole expedition that sticks out it is the moment I stepped off of the Oslo flight to Longyearbyen at 78*North.
I gulped down the fresh air as we were herded onto the tarmac- and it was that first breath that sent a shiver of fear down my spine.
Like swallowing a thousand knives, the bitter air at minus 23*C was a deadly comparison from the warm aircraft- I choked at the shock. Within seconds of stepping off the plane I felt I was in the coldest environment I had been in my life. Everest didn’t seem to compare.
My mind reeling, all I can remember thinking was ‘what on earth am I doing here?’ The thought of heading even further North onto the barren sea ice seemed ridiculous. Impossible even.
But, it is testament to the human body- within a day my team of intrepid skiers and I were walking around town in ‘little more’ than thermals and Karrimor windproofs. We even began taking our gloves off! And yes- Everest reaches far lower temperatures but when heading into the death zone one is often more prepared for the cold than when stepping off a plane.
78*North is an odd place- the sun doesn’t set until 2am and even then leaves behind a scar of orange on the horizon. There are no stars. The community is even odder- it’s expedition season and so in every bar, every guest house and lingering in every aisle of the co-op is someone involved with or embarking on a polar trip of some sort. Gossip is rife, especially when a place like Longyearbyen becomes host to Prince Harry and the world’s media.
I even bumped into a Chinese chap in the equipment store who stood on the summit of Everest the same day as me. We had never met but had stood on top of the world together- and now again next to the jet boilers and sporks.
I was a member of a team lead by Alan Chambers MBE. Chambers was the first Briton to reach the North Pole unsupported from Ward Hunt Island in 2000 and his MBE is in honour of that expedition.
Our team was an eclectic mix of Brits all wide eyed at the prospect of reaching the top of the world. We waited with baited breath for the ice and weather to settle so that a camp and runway could be established at 89*N.
After a week the call finally came: ‘be at the airport tomorrow morning’. Not exactly a scheduled flight, but credit to the Russians they get things done.
I wish I could say that that flight went smoothly, but it didn’t. The Russian Antanov plane crammed full of sledges and people was moving steadily towards to ice runway when just before the last ground checks were made the ice began to move and a 3 metre wide crack in the runway appeared- exposing the black depths of the arctic ocean beneath it.
The drama hit the world’s press and within hours the web was full of stories of the plane landing and nearly crashing through the ice. The flight onto the ice is the most dangerous part of the expedition and the media hype only served to make us more nervous.
A week later we finally landed safely at our start point. The Russian chopper lifted off in a whirlwind of white and then, quite suddenly, we were left in to survive in a silence like nothing that I have ever experienced before.
The expedition had begun. Within hours of skiing we were setting up camp- the sun was skirting around us, never rising or falling, just encircling us and offering little warmth as we struggled over the infinite white.
That first night must have been one of the coldest of my life. My sleeping bag simply wasn’t up to the job of keeping me warm- I didn’t freeze, but I didn’t stop shivering either. With my bobble hat pulled down tightly over my eyes and a hot water bottle I must have managed a few hours. ‘Man-up’ I can remember telling myself- though not really taking on the advice.
The routine of the day was always the same- breakfast, pack, tents down, ski, snack breaks, tents, food and then sleep. It can get monotonous. We were efficient- a ten day expedition was quickly reduced to four days as we skied for long hours, took few breaks and kept a strong pace.
The ice and weather had been good to us- by the final day it felt like we were home and dry, but like heading towards the summit of a mountain, I kept telling myself ‘it ain’t over ‘til it’s over’- anything could happen right up to 90*N, and in fact- it did.
At one point crossing a frozen over lead (channel of open water) a sickening crunch split the graceful polar silence. We froze in fear but the ice had begun to move. Water suddenly appeared- bubbling menacingly around my team mate’s skis. He was half way across the lead and the solid ice he has stepped onto was now morphing before our eyes to liquid.
We retreated as fast as we could on skis with heavy sledges. Looking back to where we had tried to cross the landscape has completely changed. This happened twice that last day to the Pole- we really were on thin ice as we covered those last few miles. The spring melt was on its way and where we stood would soon be ocean- it was time to reach the pole and get out of there!
The moment finally came after a long day- our team lined up on the crest of a small ridge and surveyed the flat plain of ice beyond us. I imagined all the lines of latitude gathering in this small area- this was the point where all time zones met, where you can ‘walk around the world’ in a matter of seconds and where for a moment or two you can stand with the entire planet beneath your feet. But first we had to find our goal of exactly 90 degrees North.
The sea ice was moving fast and so we seemed to skirt on the edge for some minutes- finally Alan got the exact reading on his GPS- this was it! We hugged, we cheered and I think some even got teary eyed. A toast was made and as the shot of cognac hit the back of my throat it burnt like fire- the liquor had almost congealed to syrup in the cold. I felt sick for a good half an hour.
The night was spent drinking hot chocolate and whisky and calling friends and loved ones on a satellite phone. One of our team mates nearly set his sleeping bag on fire in excitement and could have died in an inferno, which would have been quite ironic considering.
Back in the UK I am missing being on expedition already. These environments really are accessible if you can save hard, train hard and are willing to suffer a little. The things you see you will never forget- the sun surrounded by a halo of light, the infinite expanse of white and blue and the transformation in yourself as you adapt to life at minus 30.
For now I am back on the rock and looking forward to a summer climbing in the UK and in the Alps. That’s the great thing about these cold places: even England feels like the Caribbean when you return… for a few hours anyway.
Even though I completed my challenge, by reaching the North Pole on the 13th of April, you can still help me to raise up to £10,000 with my sponsors VocaLink by topping up a pay as you go mobile phone at an ATM, during May 2011.
Thank you to my sponsors VocaLink, MPTU and YourCash for making this trip happen and enabling the public to donate to such a worthwhile charity.