Day 1, 5th February 2009.
Wake up, PANIC! Convinced that I’ve forgotten something. Sarah and the kids great, wishing me a lovely farewell. Left in good time or Heathrow and arrived early! Mass confusion at check-in as SAS try and charge Mike extra for everything!! Apparently everything we have is overweight.
Flight to Oslo then delayed, we sit on the tarmac for an hour before the plane even moves and then it takes us twenty minutes to get to the business end of the runway, connection to Alta becomes doubtful and Mike tells us that we’re going to have to deplane as quick as possible!! Cabin crew fantastic and when we do land we get off the back of the aircraft. Mike, Ian, Sheldon and Chris then go off to organize transfer of the Pulks and Skis to the Alta flight while I’m left with Laura, Helen, Jaki and Wendy to get to the gate. Mike et al are then informed by staff that they’ve broken the rules for us and the gear is already headed for the next aircraft!! Brilliant! Through security again and the Milk powder in Helen’s hand luggage once again causes an Anthrax alert, and then we head for the gate, I’m out front and panic as I glance at the board and see that the gate is closing, cue a short sprint and more extremely helpful Norwegian airport staff who’ve held the flight for us…although some of the looks we get as we scramble onto the plane and with the biggest hand luggage you’ve ever seen aren’t particularly friendly!!
Amazing the difference between the staff at Heathrow and those at Oslo Gardermoen, the chaps we encountered at Heathrow seemed uniformly sullen and unfriendly whereas the Norwegian staff were all smiles and extremely helpful.
Landing in Alta everything becomes immediately real, for one thing its
-22°C! Ian’s ears freeze almost immediately and my fingers aren’t far behind. On arrival at Alta Strand Camping us boys are lodged in a Chalet at the back of the campsite while the girls (and Mike!!) have a mansion, which will form the base of operations. Straight out for pizza, and a revelation – a Kebab pizza!! Seems like a great idea and being 1. Northern and 2. A cop, I have to have one!! Mistake!! Turns out its basically a lettuce pizza with garlic and chili sauce……
One last note for Day 1, I’ve spent the last 2-3 months nursing my right earphone along since the back came off, nice earphones, didn’t want to have to buy any new ones….get on the plane, iPod out, plugs in…..no sound in right ear….TYPICAL!!
Day 2, 6th February 2009.
Lie in!! Up at 0815 hours!! Left over Pizza for breakfast, Kebab pizza hasn’t improved with age!! Mike goes off to buy last minute supplies for expedition and Lunch while we all start sorting out ski bindings. I manage to get mine sorted and comfortable and help Sheldon to sort out the others, then go off around the campsite for a practice, I realise very quickly just how very different this Nordic lark is to Alpine skiing! Spend about an hour tooling about before I realise that I’ve got the skis on the wrong feet! So then spend another hour re-doing them for the right feet.
Mike arrives back from Alta with fuel, bread and local cheeses for lunch, one of the cheeses has orange in it! Despite initial disbelief, it turns out to be rather good. We all sit around have a general “get to know you” session and telling war stories for a couple of hours before starting to pack the Pulks. I’m assigned the fuel and Mike explains the rations and how he sees them working – 4100 calories per day including lots of chocolate…..dissent begins to set in when certain members of the team claim they don’t like Mars Bars….you know who you are!!
Then back to the mansion for <ahem> a number of Gin and Tonics, then out for Chinese (minus Helen and Jaki, who has fallen quite ill, all very worried), very good food and a great waiter who’d been everywhere….London, Manchester, Birmingham….okay, not everywhere…..
A note on Norwegian restaurants, they only have one member of staff and they do everything – waiter, chef and barman!!
Back to the mansion again, no improvement in Jaki, cloud descends as we worry she may not be able to start!!
Last night in a soft bed for a while.
Day 3, 7th February 2009
Bad news this morning, Jaki is still ill and if anything is worse, Sheldon (luckily, a Paramedic) advises that she be taken to hospital and so Mike takes her off for tests. We’re left to make sure all the stoves are tested and that we all have an idea how to work them. As Chris, Ian and I start to test the three that we’ll be using in our tent, disaster strikes and all three begin to leak from the bottle tops!! Mike is contacted and he sets about finding replacement pumps.
Once we’ve made sure the stoves work by connecting them to the three safe fuel bottles we slowly drift inside to sit and wait for news of Jaki, after what seems like an age Mike returns – Jaki is being transferred to a bigger hospital for more tests and won’t be starting with us, but there is a possibility that she might join us after a few days.
So after a lunch of bread more orange cheese, final checks are made and we set off in a taxi for the trail head at Stilla, we all look resplendent in our windproofs for the first time and a little anxiety begins to creep in, nervous smiles are exchanged and then in an instant we’re at the start. A sheltered valley and a curving uphill path mark the beginning of our adventure, Mike takes the lead and I follow, its hard work and the pulk seem to put the brakes on with every third step, I hope I can get into some kind of rhythm which will counteract this. As we rise out of the valley the wind picks up and blows into our faces and almost immediately we begin to lose the light as the short Arctic day begins drawing to a close. With the wind and what seems to be a constant uphill drag this is really hard work! The pulk seems to be intent on dragging me back down every hill and I just cannot get the skis to grip despite the skins, eventually, just as I’m beginning to think there has been some horrible mistake and I’ve accidentally signed up for the marines, Mike crosses his sticks in the air and its time to camp. I’m gutted, I feel like I’ve got no chance of finishing and we’ve only just started. Duvets on and one-by-one we drift into the campsite, Laura arrives having had a fight with one of her ski poles and won, although later back in civilisation she finds a dreadful flesh wound, she stands there and I can see she’s having the same thoughts as me regarding the marine corps, so I grab her duvet and make her put it on before she gets too cold.
Mike tells us its -28°C but with the wind chill its nearer -40°C. The tents go up in reasonably good time and Ian and Helen dive straight in to their respective tents to get the stoves going (the boys’ stoves had been repaired earlier after the good people at Intersport in Alta cannabalised their stock for spare parts), while the rest of us set about digging the tents in and ensuring everything is squared away securely for the night. This is a long and important process, the valances of the flysheet have to buried with snow to ensure that a: the tent stays where it is and b: the drafts are minimised. Snow also needs to be piled in the porch of the tents to be melted for cooking and drinking water for the evening and morning, doing all of this now means that the only reason for leaving the tent later and letting the heat out is to poo!!
Eventually we drag ourselves into the tents for the best cup of soup ever, followed by a rehydrated shepherds pie, but any hopes of relaxation are immediately dashed as Sheldon explains to us all the jobs that need to be done and the amount of fluids that need to be consumed before bed (at least a litre and a half). First task apart from drinking and eating is to dry everything that is in anyway damp, inner layer of socks, gloves, hats, balaclava, windsuit and so within minutes of getting into the tent the drying line around the dome is full! By now the tent is beginning to warm up, although ice is already visible on the bottom foot of wall, however as long as the stoves stay on this won’t creep any higher and in the top of the dome its positively tropical.
Just as I start to get comfortable perched atop my bedroll a dreadful feeling comes over me……I need a crap! Now peeing isn’t an issue, this is done in the tent into a bottle and then poured away in a corner before it freezes, the urine just drills a hole straight down into the snow (hence no groundsheet), however, for obvious reasons the brown and nasty has to be evacuated outside and away from the tent. So I find myself leaving the tent in just my thermals and squatting, bare arse to the wind wondering just how long it will take for frostbite to attack my gentleman’s area.
Within seconds I’m back in the tent having managed not to crap on my boots and I’m beginning to warm up again.
Later, after we’ve eaten and drunk everything we need and all of the kit is dry, we decide its time for bed…..a major logistical operation, the problem being there are four of us and none of us are exactly small!! First things first and the stoves are turned off, packed away and stored in the porch, the temperature drop in the tent is instantaneous and ice begins to climb the walls where our breath and vapour from cooking has made them damp, next, two by two we unroll our bedrolls and inflate the thermorest mats. All the while I can feel the cold beginning to bite, eventually its dossbags out, but wait, what’s this? I can’t just climb into my bag and go to sleep, no, first I have to get into my “vapour barrier liner” or in other words climb into a “fucking orange carrier bag”, hereafter known as an FOCB, now the science behind this is sound – if you sweat during the night, the sweat will be absorbed by the filling in the sleeping bag, it will freeze, the filling will collapse, lose all insulating properties and thus you will freeze to death. So, you sleep in the FOCB in the bag, simple. However because you are in a plastic bag (with, may I add, a bottle full of hot water) you sweat anyway and so you awake in the morning lying in pools of your own “vapour”. Nice.
Day 4, 8th February 2009
Despite a night punctuated by trips to the toilet (that’ll be the litre and a half of fluids before bed) and what seems like an age lying there trying desperately not to touch the tent wall. At one point I’m so cold I have my balaclava on and a fleece headband pulled down over my eyes with only my nose out! I wake up feeling quite chipper at 0615 hours and Mike shouts from his tent that it’s a balmy -27°C……!!!
The morning routine is as important as the evening, again fluid intake is paramount and another litre and a half of fluid has to be consumed, all of it warm/hot, cold liquids would only lower your core temperature. Breakfast today is Jordan’s Cereal, this is eaten with milk powder and hot water and to be perfectly honest is about the worst thing I’ve ever had the misfortune to place in my mouth but, knowing that I will need the energy for the day ahead I force it down. The liquid intake is either tea or a fruit infusion, as we only have a limited number of tea bags the “brew” can be a little on the week side and there’s no milk or sugar, for someone used to NATO tea (strong enough to stand the spoon up with milk and two) this takes a little getting used to. However I’m more worried about Ian, I can see a nervous tic beginning to manifest itself as he realizes there’ll be no coffee, actually I’m less worried about Ian and more worried about what he’ll do to the rest of us, I make a conscious decision to keep sharp things out of his reach……he’s a big espresso fan.
Another chore is drying the FOCB, so while eating and drinking I sit with the inside out FOCB stretched across my knees while my “vapour” re-vapourises so that when packed away in the pulk it doesn’t freeze and require defrosting at bedtime. A drink for the day must also be made, this is a litre of warm water with an energy drink powder dissolved in it, carried in the front of the pulk wrapped in a duvet jacket so as not to freeze. Lunch is also made (salami and tortilla sandwich) and chocolate and nuts are doled out for snacking on during the day. Finally it’s time to exit the tent and break camp and so with much plucking up of courage I make a break for it and it’s out into the fresh air and straight on with Duvet Coats (stored in the pulk overnight, if taken into the tent they would become logged with vapour and then we’d be into chocolate fireguard territory). While Sheldon and Mike stay in the tents to refill the fuel bottles for the stoves the rest of us run around like headless chickens wondering what the hell we’re meant to do. The bottles are quickly filled and thankfully Mike and Sheldon reappear and a sense of order is quickly restored. The tents are quickly dismantled and packed away, skis and harnesses are donned and we’re off. From waking to hitting the trail has taken us around two and a half hours, which, given that my normal routine at home is jammed into less than 30 minutes, is quite leisurely.
The trial is straight and vaguely up hill, running along the side of a gentle hill, which falls away to our left. As dawn breaks the sky brightens and there is even the odd glimpse of blue sky. The loose snow on the trail is quite thin with hard packed snow and ice underneath and it becomes incredibly hard going on skis. Strange how one becomes totally focused on making something work, it was only when Helen appeared at my side on foot and said something the lines of “Aren’t you struggling on the skis?” that I realise just how hard I’m having to work, I’ve already been on my backside a few times and when I look round I see that Helen isn’t the only one on foot, Laura and Mike have also dispensed with the skis. Mike reckons that if there’s and inch and a half or less of loose snow it’s better to walk, so I whip off the skis and start tramping. An instant improvement, and progress begins to be made. Although we are definitely a team, we all walk/ski at our own pace for reasons of temperature control, walk too slowly and the cold would start to creep in, too fast and you’ll sweat, losing fluid, so the group begins to stretch out until we cover a couple of hundred metres. There is no particular hierarchy as to who leads and so we all take turns depending on who’s pace has taken them to the front, the only rule being that if you’re at the front you should be able to see the last person in the line. At first break, taken on a small frozen lake at the bottom of a long, easy downhill section I take the opportunity to adjust my socks while inhaling a mars bar. As Ian arrives at the break site it is apparent that he is in considerable discomfort and when he takes of his boot we see why, he has a massive blister covering the entire ball of his right foot. His feet, unused to the skiing action, are rebelling, (which makes a change, normally they’re just revolting, ha-ha!!) and he too dispenses with the skis.
The morning continues and the trail gently undulates until lunch and our first experience of the salami and tortilla sandwich, which due to having left it in an outer pocket is frozen solid and requires considerable gnawing!! After lunch we descend onto a frozen lake, the first of a couple of impressive expanses of ice, Chris and I take the lead and power on, I’m feeling really good at this point with lots of energy from the salami and we seem to eat up the distance. We then pitch camp on the ice at the end of the second of two large lakes, while pitching we are passed by two skidoos and about half an hour later one of them returns, a young Norwegian lady gets off and walks up to us, her first word is phrased as a question
I feel she already knows the answer, it would appear that we have something of a reputation!! After a brief conversation with Mike and Sheldon which appears to confirm her initial assessment that a gang of escaped loons are on the loose she gets back on her steed and speeds off to inform the authorities, leaving us to bury our tents in the snow.
Day 5, 9th February 2009
A worse night than the first for me, incredibly cold and I could have sworn it was snowing in the tent. A constant fear of touching the inside of the tent wall and covering my self in ice combined with an almost permanent need to pee afforded me almost no sleep and I was so cold I found myself trying to snuggle into Chris…..he either didn’t notice or understood that such behaviour is perfectly acceptable in certain situations.
I cannot stand Porridge, I find it has a texture akin to a mix of vomit and wallpaper paste and the flavour of wet papier-mâché, no matter how much salt, sugar, golden syrup or even whisky you add to it, I still cannot stomach the stuff. Ready Brek, on the other hand, is ambrosia. It is creamy and delicious and I love it, so imagine my delight when, just as I was expecting another attack of the Jordans, out from this morning’s ration pack was produced a bag of the aforementioned heavenly manna! Breakfast on this occasion was a delight!
Weather is miserable, although it doesn’t feel that cold, we march into the wind and there is almost constant snow from the overcast sky. The terrain is all ups and downs but it feels like there are more ups than downs. My pulk, or Tallulah as I named her before we left England, has developed a mind of her own and like most women has no sense of direction. She is constantly drifting off down hill or getting caught on rocks or coming to a sudden halt as she hits a ridge of deeper snow. Even on relatively even ground momentum is lost with every third step and I feel a, now painful, tug on my midriff. My hauling belt has lost the ability to maintain one size and so over the course of the morning it expands to its full circumference, slipping down onto my hips, it would drop further if it weren’t for the constant backward pull of Tallulah. Despite all of these problems I have a reasonably good morning, after lunch however I begin a rapid descent into hell. I find the snow blowing into my face almost intolerable; my feet feel like bloody stumps and my arse, dear god my arse! Over the course of the day my buttocks feel like somebody has been at them with a wire brush!
I very quickly drop to the back of the line (you could say bringing up the rear), where Sheldon pries the truth about my delicate problem from me. One of Mike’s rules is that any injury or problem no matter how small must be reported to Sheldon and himself to ensure that they do not become links in a chain, which could lead to even greater problems. In the diving community I believe this is referred to as an Incident Pit, where one incident leads to another and to another and eventually you’re at the bottom of a hole from which you cannot escape and so very quickly the rest of the team become aware that I have two rapidly expanding patches of chafing on my butt, the only thing that keeps me going is Sheldon’s promise of Sudacrem. As the day’s travel draws to a close I find the agony of this growing and growing, in the distance I see the team cresting a small rise, which is actually the bank of the frozen lake we have been crossing and finally I see Mike cross his sticks in the air, time to camp. As I catch up, I’m almost in tears, the pain is so intense I have trouble taking a step and all I want to do is load up on painkillers and lie down. So there I am, bent almost double, my sticks the only thing keeping upright, with a thousand yard stare when Laura walks up, looks me straight in the eye and starts singing Hakuna Matata at the top of her voice. At this point a lesser man would have beaten her to death with his sticks but all I can do is laugh, she saw exactly what I needed and it helped immensely, getting me through the process of pitching the tent. I’m first in after Ian and as I collapse across my bedroll the tears come, and I get a hug from my big bruv. Strangely enough although there is sympathy in spades I get no offers to help in the application of the aforementioned healing balm!! As the evening progresses the painkillers do their thing, the sudocrem does what it says on the tin and I begin to feel human again. So tired though, it is a real chore to eat. However, we’ve reached the halfway point.
Day 6, 10th February 2009
When we went to bed last night it was a relatively balmy -12° on waking this morning, however, it has dropped to -25°! But it is a beautiful clear sky, a vast improvement on the unpleasantness of yesterday, if someone was to ask me to describe an Arctic scene, this would be it!!
As we set off we see a parahelion, the first of four we’ll see today, an amazing atmospheric effect. Today is to be spent crossing a chain of frozen lakes, the largest of which is called Iešjávri and is over 7 miles across. Despite the ice being flat the snow covering it, is pushed into little drifts by the wind, this means that with every third step Tallulah jams herself into thicker snow and slows right down, making the going quite tough, but I manage to turn this into some sort of rhythm and it becomes almost hypnotic. After lunch Chris gives me an hour and a half break from the fuel pulk and I take his. It can’t be much, if any, lighter but the psychological boost I get from this is incredible and all of a sudden I’m leading the way and enjoying the scenery and when I’m reattached to Tallulah it doesn’t seem half as bad, after another 45 minutes Mike calls time and we stop for the day on the shore of a lake, on the bank there are a couple of boats that have been pulled out of the water for the winter. Mike then asked if any of us had heard of Elephant Island, a few of us nodded pensively knowing that this was where Shackleton’s men were stranded for four months in the Antarctic while he went for help and wondered what the hell Mike was on about, he then asked if we knew what they’d used for shelter, “lifeboats” we answer as he turns and points at the stranded boats on the shore with the words “No tents tonight, we’re sleeping in those” Big joke and a few worried faces!! As we bury Mike’s body and pitch the tents, we realise we’ve only got 2½ days to go.
Day 7, 11th February 2009
Wolves!! Just as we were all settling down to sleep last night across the ice came the eerie howl of a wolf, movement was heard around the tent during the night as well and the lake ice cracked loud enough to wake some but not all of us (not me, strangely). All in all an eventful night!
As we were striking camp this morning another human being appeared! He was on his way to get water for his sled dogs from a run off from the lake. This did strike us as amusing as we’d happily been quaffing melted snow all week and this bloke was walking over a km to a river……what did he know that we didn’t?!? The target distance for today was 11 and a bit miles and it became immediately apparent that most of that was going to be uphill. We see an amazing sunrise and an effect whereby there appears to be two suns, one following the other into the sky, caused by the sun reflecting on the ice, beautiful.
The constant uphill as we approach a plateau really takes it out of me and by lunchtime I’m vaselining my feet and popping vitamin I. However, a second wind ensues following tortilla and salami sandwiches ably made by Chris with a hand that hasn’t been washed for five days…….
As the day draws to a close and the sky takes on a glorious reddish/purple haze, Mike stops us suddenly and points off to our right, as I peer into the dusk and my eyes become accustomed to the gloom I begin to make out shapes moving around and then I realize it’s a herd of reindeer, hundreds of them, an amazing sight and very soon we’re all snapping away….except me, for some reason I decide it’ll be more fun to take photos of the others as they take photos of Rudolf….what an idiot I am!!
Later in the evening someone announces that they think they can see the Northern Lights and we’re all out of the tents, eyes raised to the sky. There is a band of white light across the sky which, although not the waving bands of green and red light, is still pretty special. What is also special is the Milky Way, with a complete lack of light pollution the skies are filled with stars not just a few pinpricks but clouds and clouds of stars, one of the most amazing, beautiful, stunning things I’ve ever seen unfortunately its, well, bloody cold so back into the tent it is!
Day 8, 12th February 2009
An amazing start to the day, sunrise over the mountains which form the border of Finland and the promise of an easier day from Mike. As the sun rises a parahelion forms in the valley below the horizon, Mike says it’s the first time he’s ever seen this and we all agree it’s a glorious sight.
The morning is pretty uneventful and at one point we pass a large wooden house, the owner’s dog comes out to say hello followed by the owner, a Sami chap who greets us with a cheery if bemused look.
There are quite a few little downhill stretches and much hilarity ensues as most of us get wiped up by our pulks as they catch us up!! Lunchtime arrives and we all sample a little reindeer poo (chocolate raisins dropped by Helen when no one is looking) and then disaster strikes! I reach down to tighten my ski binding and the strap snaps in my hand, never mind I think, as I set off, I’ll just walk. Then as I round the next bend and start to descend into a valley I drop into deep snow up to my knees….the one time I need my skis they’re strapped uselessly to my pulk! The going gets harder and harder until I’m waist deep in the white stuff trying to get up a very steep hill on the side of the valley and struggling to move myself forward never mind Tallulah! Eventually and reluctantly I have to admit defeat and hand my pulk off to Sheldon to get to the top of the hill where I retake my burden. Despite the difficulties, the day and the landscape are both beautiful and after a few more ups and downs we are at the top of the valley which falls away to the river which will take us into Karasjok. The decent takes us down a winding trail through the tree line and into the forest. Due to a broken karabiner this descent takes a couple of hours but as dusk falls we reach the trail head at Assebakti, and then, onto the frozen river to find a camp site. By the time we find a suitable spot its dark and -32°C so we pitch the tents by torch light, ice screws needed for the first time as there’s not much snow cover on the river ice. Its our last evening so we finish off all the goodies and even manage a proper cup of tea each! As we sit chatting there is an almighty, loud crack as the river ice shifts in the current under us, I have to admit sleep did not come easy having heard that!
Day 9, 13th February 2009
Up at 0600 and its -21°C according to Mike’s thermometer, by the time we leave the tents and start packing the pulks its dropped 10°! IN AN HOUR!!
Looking around we realise we’ve been overlooked by a couple of cabins – CIVILISATION! However the doubt creeps in…..was anyone watching while I was outside having a poo!?! As we set off I begin to realise that we’re going to make it, we’re only about 6 kms from Karasjok. I make a conscious decision that I want to cross the finish line with Ian and so we stick together for the last stretch. As we approach Karasjok the scattering of riverside houses gets thicker and thicker and eventually Mike stops and gathers us all together saying that we’ve only got about 400 yards to go to the bridge which marks the finish line.
What he doesn’t mention but which should have been bloody obvious is that we’ll have to get off the river and up the bank, hence the last 20 yards are up a steeper than 45° bank! But we do it and there’s lots of banging of ski poles and hugs and slaps on the back and congratulations all round and I feel seventeen feet tall and superhuman.
We find ourselves standing on the footway of a normal suburban road in the middle of a fairly large town. Picture the scene from the point of view of a local resident if you will – you’re driving along in your car, in your town centre when you come across 8 strangely clad individuals with skis and five-foot sledges standing by the side of the road….the looks we got were hysterical! We find a Café that opens early for us and its burger and chips all round and a proper toilet with hot water and soap and everything :0) We then get a Finnish taxi back to Alta, it appears, however that the driver is Mika Hakkinen’s older brother and its 90 mph all the way.
Back in the chalet at Alta Strand and the inestimable pleasure of a hot shower and normal clothes. I speak to Sarah and realise just how much I’ve missed her and the kids. Tears fall. She makes my day telling me she should be able to meet me at the airport.
The Final Chapter
On the plane to Oslo writing this – have spent that last day and a half helping Mike get kit and shopping for the next trip and buying pressies for Sarah and the kids. Looking out of the window down at the frozen countryside its amazing to think what we’ve done – but give me a tent and a stove and I’d do it again (only with more toilet roll).
From a personal point of view I’ve been very lucky to share this experience with some great people and I feel I know my big brother a little better, we’ve shared a few moments – tearful and otherwise. Chris and Sheldon are top blokes, it would have been hell if they hadn’t been. Helen has looked after us all, like me Wendy has struggled but she made it and all respect to Laura to come away at the tender age of 24 knowing no one at all and spend the entire trip with a big grin on her face making the rest of us feel great.
Nine Months Later
So, where am I now? Well I came away from Finnmark with a new outlook on life, for a start I’m fitter than I’ve ever been, I even ran a 10K race a few weeks ago. I feel now that nothing is impossible and am always looking for new challenges and in 2010 I plan to start torturing my young family with camping trips. Has the group stayed in touch? Yes, to an extent, whether it be lunch in London with or just the odd e-mail. Friends have been made and I believe those friendships will remain, in fact we’re all about to meet up for a reunion. All that remains to be said is heart felt thanks to Mike and Fiona for the opportunity to change my life……Oh, and can anyone sponsor 35 grand for a trip to the south pole……