Arctic Training - Pink Polar Expedition – March 2013
The cold punched me in the face, an actual physical blow as I stepped onto the Tarmac. The plane had skimmed over icefields with barely a feature for over three hours, the barren wasteland increasing my feelings of isolation. I had found my way to remote Iqaluit (pronounced I-kal-ewit) in the Canadian Arctic. I was asking myself why, even before I made it to the terminal, as my Aussie blood started to solidify in the sub 30 degree Celsius air temp outside. The Inuit didn’t appear to feel it and so I didn’t look like a complete newbie, I tried to look as calm as them. However, I had concerns for my fingertips by the time I made it into the heated interior of the bright yellow hanger to await arrival of over 100 kg of equipment. The gear I needed to undertake preparation and training for the Pink Polar Expedition at the end of the year. An attempt to cross Antarctica solo, wind assisted hauling the “booblsled” to raise awareness and funds for an Aussie breast cancer charity. A German film crew and the McNair Family met my German training partners and I at the luggage belt. Inuit families jostled for their luggage as introductions where made and to my surprise my bright pink Pulk (sled) and gear arrived in entirety, now 63 degrees of latitude north. Not that far from the North Pole itself. The rest of the day was spent in settling in to Northwinds, Matty McNair’s house and nerve centre, getting a grip on what we’ d be doing for the next three weeks, and pitching our tents out on the Ice of Frobisher Bay.
First mention must be made of the Polar Pedigree of the three people involved in our training in Iqaluit . Matty McNair is a humble woman, quietly spoken but with the heart and stamina of an Ox. Her watchful eye misses nothing and she reads men and women with an eye used to picking those who will fall and those who’ ll rise to the occasion. Matty will often drop gems, ideas or techniques that she has learnt and developed over miles of hard won ice, many an expedition has been saved from failure just by taking on one small ‘“McNairism’”. Dogs are a passion and with her Inuit Huskies she proved Robert Peary’s claim to have made it to the North Pole April 6 1909 could have been done in under 35 days, by achieving this herself in 1989. A phenomenal achievement and record that is likely to stand forever, as Global warming thins the ice, making it extremely difficult for anyone to repeat the performance. Her offspring Eric and Sarah McNair share her passion for all things adventure, but have added kites to the mix to achieve a lot of their firsts. Sarah is another firebrand, with incredible stamina, knowledge of the wild places, and a deft hand at flying a kite whilst using its traction to glean miles from the wind across the icy wastes. Sarah’s people skills and ability make her a natural leader and it would be a mistake for any man to feel he could best her in distance across an icefield anywhere in the world. Eric is an outdoorsman with infinite patience and superb natural ability with skis and kites. He holds the record for the greatest distance covered by kite and skis in a 24-hour period, an amazing 595 km set over Greenland’s Icecap. Eric is a bottomless well of valuable information about all things Polar and travel. Even after living alongside the McNairs for three weeks I was nowhere near the depths of Eric’s Polar Survival knowledge.
My first night in sub 30C, sleeping in a tent was a wakeup call. One descriptive phrase word, one adjective – “bloody uncomfortable”. I’ d like to play the hardman adventurer here, but I’ d be lying. I dreamt of sealy posturepedics all night! Showers of ice smashed into my face whenever I moved, my breath froze as it left my mouth and settled on the neck of the sleeping bag (despite the vapor barrier liner). It all made for a miserable nights sleep. This was all part of it – the sheer reality of what I was trying to undertake sinking in. Re-evaluation of goals, needs, wants, abilities, what could be achieved. The McNairs had seen them all come and go, punters, pretenders, fakers and the ones that had the right stuff. I prayed I could be the latter. I sucked it up, smiled and grunted through it all. Over the next two weeks we covered all manner of topics relating to navigation, survival, dealing with cold induced injuries, travel by ski, kite, dogsled, sleeping , cooking, survival systems. Sarah’s lecture on frostbite injury I’ ll not forget, as she flashed up an image of some poor lad with frostbite of the penis. An immediate attention grabber. We all took the temperatures and frost injury more seriously afterwards. When it seemed we had all the basics down as second nature – we headed out with Sarah and Eric onto the bay. Recently scoured by a pretty serious blizzard, the bay presented its own challenges; rough ice, smooth ice, deep snow, white outs, even a windchill one day of -60C ! I’ d loaded my Pulk with what I felt I’ d need to haul to cross Antarctica in 70 days. With all my gear, food, kites onboard . It came to a grand total of 160 kg. It took all my strength initially to haul it and keep up with the team. I pressed on hour after hour, despite my body rebelling. I smiled outwardly ,but screamed inwardly. The load was pushing the belly of the pulk onto the snow and making it act like an anchor rather than a sled. We pressed on and covered between seven and nine km daily for three3 days. A mere fraction of what I’ d need to cover daily in Antarctica, to have any hope of making a crossing. I lay awake at night trying to avoid despair and panic, trying to rationalise that I’ d get stronger or snap trying. I wasn’ t enjoying this yet, the environment seemed alien, aggressive, dangerous, sapping, damaging, like a silent unblinking eye, totally uncaring if you lived or died out here. The Arctic is harsh. Each and every environment I had faced challenges within before, I’ d grown to love. The Sahara, Simpson desert, the wild Oceans, the Papuan Jungle, the Torres Strait, all uncomfortable, all tough, but soon they grow on you. You come to love the environments. To survive and thrive during a long expedition in a hostile environment, I’d always looked for ways to love the environment as a foundation for survival. It wasn’t happening here. It was cold, dangerous, uncomfortable and there was no respite, no escape 24/7.
Eric and Sarah travelled with us making all things look ridiculously easy, but they critiqued all we did, improving our skills sets daily. I had asked to camp solo, cook solo, but travelled with the group. Eric and Sarah would defy the cold and pop a head into my little tent each night for a debrief. After three days it was time to see how I’ d survive solo. Late in day four I peeled off and travelled solo, setting up my small tent behind an ice island, I began to feel and imagine what true solitude was like. That night, cramped in my ice encrusted tent, far from the comforts of ordinary life, the wind screaming at the canvas something happened. Something extraordinary. As if a switch had clicked in my head, I suddenly looked about me and realised that I was enjoying myself! I was enjoying the challenge, enjoying the strain, enjoying the kilometres gained, the navigation, the demands of making good decisions. Above all I realised I had suddenly begun to enjoy the environment., I had recognised 50 shades of white, noticed the pretty ice crystals that formed in the extreme cold, I had watched the sky and all its moods. No longer did I glumly just look at my ski tips mile after mile, I started to hum, started to sing, started to revel in the Arctic, and immediately the miles started to fall away hour by hour. The dawning of this new revelation, made me realise I had a fighting chance of making it. It could be done, now that I had the skills to relax and enjoy the Artic conditions.
The final week was kite focused, more time with Eric and Sarah mastering the Ozone 6m, 9m, 13 m and 14 m Yakuza on 80m lines. The bowls and highlands above Iqaluit provided perfect testing grounds for hauling the Pulk loaded and for making good kilometres, harnessing the wind. Kite power is most definitely my preference over manhauling to enable me to make the long distances over barren ice. The ski skills needed don’t come naturally for a coast dwelling Aussie, but I’m definitely improving over time.
Soon it was time to go, and after living so cheek by jowl with my trainers I was sad to leave. I owe the McNairs so much, their years of living and expeditioning on the ice have fast-tracked me to a much safer standing for the Antarctic expedition at years end. I can never expect to be as competent a Polar traveller as they, but I certainly now feel I can travel safe, return home and achieve all the goals we have set for the Pink Polar Expedition.
As I left the house Matty reminded me that there are two types of Polar Traveller; the first treats the Arctic as though she is a ‘“bitch’” that needs to be tamed, beaten, conquered, hates the environment and determines to challenge it. The second humbly bows his head, treads lightly and with respect, hoping that by treating the environment well, she will quietly let him pass unhindered. I choose to believe I have learnt how to travel through with a minimum of fuss, not stirring her to anger, enjoying her moods in all of their shades of white, day by day getting closer to my goals.
Follow www.pinkpolar.com.au to see how the journey pans out.