During February we completed our final polar training expedition before attempting the South Pole expedition in November. We spent 3 weeks in Haugastøl, Norway (60.5° N 7.9° E) to train with Expeditions365 directed by Carl Alvey. Carl has run many polar trips including crossings of Greenland and Norway, as well as 4 Ski South Pole expeditions, mixed with plenty of kite-skiing as well.
Our first week was comprised of small day trips to local mountainous areas across the Hardangervidda National Park. Not only is it one of the largest national parks in Norway (3,400 sq. km), it is also home to one of the largest populations of reindeer on the planet and is absolutely breath-taking. It’s well worth a visit just to see the sunlit spectre halos and diverse local wildlife which includes, amongst others, artic foxes and lemmings!
Refining our layering systems in the -20°C to -30°C temperatures was vital. Sweat kills – it’s a simple statement but also very true on polar expeditions. You must walk in a state of warm but cool, not too hot and not too cold. Failure to do this can lead to rapid cooling and clothing becoming encrusted with ice as nothing dries once wet in those temperatures. Ollie and myself would run through exercises to experience the effects of overheating or sweating and feel the consequences it delivers to your body. Equally important is wind protection, any skin left exposed in winds above 25mph will result in frost nip or frost bite. Being shown plenty of graphic pictures of the reality of frostbite was enough to ensure we were fully covered up by our gear.
Some of the biggest learning points included putting up our tents in the most systematic and efficient way. Losing one of these would be fatal, and not hard to do in winds of up to 80 knots! Communication and planning is essential to carrying out this task in Antarctic conditions. We would be putting these skills to the test in the second week of the expedition where we would be skiing across the Hardangervidda Plateau for 6 days, dragging all of our equipment and supplies with us.
The plateau itself is, as you would characteristically imagine for Norway, a wide expanse of rolling mountains surrounded by countless Fjords. It is certainly a world away from what we are used to in the steep and rugged mountains of the UK. Trying to imagine what it is like in summer compared to winter is an interesting challenge; everything is covered in deep powdery snow. Fjords the size of villages are hidden and easily walked over, mountain huts are buried and footpaths or ski tracks are a rarity at this time of year.
Setting off, we were under no illusion that this was going to be a tough experience. The first day consisted of pulling our 50kg pulks up steep terrain to access the plateau. Dragging a pulk up a 40-degree slope is nobody’s idea of fun! It was so steep that is was easier to take the skis off. At the first camp, we had our first practice at putting the tent up as speedily as possible and realised just how grim conditions were going to be.
As it got dark, the condensation set in. The thing with condensation at low temperatures is that it builds up…on absolutely everything. Every activity you do produces it; breathing, cooking, sweating, eating, having hot chocolate – so much moisture! It was unavoidable and led to a constant drip of water onto our sleeping bags. We couldn’t move or touch the inner of the tent due to the risk of a free shower down the back of your neck. This set the scene for the rest of the trip, but, in a way, it was exactly what we wanted – conditions that would prepare us for the worst in Antarctica.
The next two days were spent dragging the pulks over 8 hours and 15km. One person would take the lead for an hour and break trail, we’d have a 10-minute rest to shovel as much food in as possible and continue. It was important we kept eating and stuck to our 5,500 calories a day as far as possible – this meant shovelling down Pringles, chorizo and peanuts as fast as we could every time we stopped for a break.
At the end of the third day, as we got to camp, the forecast was showing 50 mph of wind for the next day. We bunkered down and buried the tents to reinforce ourselves for the conditions that were to follow. We got in our wet sleeping bags and tried to sleep with the increasing noise of the wind rattling the tent. We awoke the next day to hurtling winds and spindrift accumulating on the tent – there was no way we would be skiing today. Instead, we were confined to our somewhat damp home; a frequent occurrence in Antarctica. The only good thing was the wind was so cold it froze the water and our tent even began to dry! But boredom was soon looming, the conversation ran out and not even the 100th game of ‘I spy’ could not entertain us.
On the fifth day we could move once more. Reenergised by the rest, we struck camp and made a path back towards Haugastøl. Our guide, Carl, left us at the end of this day and from there on in, we had to navigate for ourselves, pitch up camp for one last time and survive in the harsh conditions.
Arriving back at base after six days and five nights was a great feeling and we had our heads held high because we knew we had the skills to move through this environment effectively and safely. Knowing that we had survived the most challenging conditions we had ever experienced was a great morale boost for Antarctica.
But for us it wasn’t over, we both had another week of kite skiing to go. We had both flown kites before, but combining this discipline with downhill skiing, whilst dragging a pulk is a different kettle of fish! We soon found out we were in for a very steep learning curve. A quick ski assessment by Carl down some local ski runs confirmed the fact that we ski very much like Brits! We will get down it but not stylishly at all! Why is downhill technique important? Because kiting relies on you skiing on your edges and leaning against the force of the kite. Practice was needed, and we had little time to get to grips with everything. We were living by the seat of our kite skiing harness! However, we soon made progress and before long were traveling at speed and in control. We would use a variety of kites depending on the wind speed, ranging from a 9m, 11m, 15m or 18m kites. In low wind speeds of 10-25mph we would use a 15m/18m kite and in 25-35mph winds we would switch to the smaller 9m/11m kites to help maintain control.
Towards the end of the week we learnt to read the wind, feel the power zones and use it to travel upwind. This increased our confidence and meant we could travel up to 25mph whilst dragging a pulk, you had to lean so much that your upwind shoulder would be kissing the snow. We would spend hours in the harness travelling on one tack downwind. Being able to apply the pressure through your skeleton and have equal pressure on both skis was essential to maintain our pace. Perhaps the most noticeable change from our three weeks in Norway was the rapidly increasing size of our thighs!
We left Norway feeling prepared and ready for the bigger expedition ahead, we knew what to expect now and what level we needed to be at. We need to be training 5 times a week and within that be dragging car tyres, clocking lots of miles on the mountain bikes and be putting on excess weight to eventually loose in the harsh environment of Antarctica. If all goes to plan we should be landing in Punta Arenas (Chile) on the 10th of November and then onto the Antarctica ice shelf soon after. More to follow then!
Images by Håkon Mæland/ MLandPictures