Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The Arctic Circle

A report from one of our members travelling and researching in the Artic Circle.

I stepped off the stairs onto a small airstrip and immediately fell over only then realising the whole thing was covered in ice, I hoped this wasn’t going to be an omen for the next 111 days. We made our way from the airport, in what would seem in a couple weeks time as the moderate temperature of minus eight. It was 3 o’clock in the morning and the sky was a dawn blue. This was, as I later came to realise, the last time I would see night for a third of a year.

The first week was spent in a small camp about 40km from the one town on the Svalbad islands. We spent the week acclimatising to the cold, getting used to the stoves and the tents, fitting the sledges (pulks) that we would drag behind us and we would keep our world in, and on some basic mountaineering. We got the first taste of dragging the sleds (pulking) as we travelled to where two of the leaders had spent the first part of the winter. Here we spent three days taking down the wind turbine which would be used to charge the radios and sat phone, the lavu (a kind of tipi) and digging the base camp tents out of 4 feet of snow and ice (not fun at minus fifteen).
At winter base camp we were introduced to the polar bear protection, the brothers Balto and Zakko the two most unsuspecting guard dogs I’ve ever come across. We also got our rifle training on some big game rifles should we come across a hungry bear. We were taught rope work and some more advanced mountaineering. We also began to learn cross-country skiing on some Norwegian army issue skis (non-edged, non quick releasing wooden skis that became known as two by fours).

It was only after digging out the tents that I realised I had frost nip on most of my fingers, something that would be the bane of my life for the next month. To begin with the tips of my fingers felt like I had burnt them. After this big white blisters covering the tips appeared (some turning to blood blisters which subsequently popped). Then the top layer of skin died and turned brown and finally it peeled off leaving me with no fingerprint and red tips. The whole process isn’t that painful but I lost sensation in the tips for a few weeks, which was annoying.
We pulked 15km over fjordic sea ice to get to where we were setting up our base camp. This experience was incredibly hard (my only training before was dragging a tyre along Chesil beach) The sea ice briefly broke which left a lily pond of small ice blocks floating in the bay, the challenge being to jump from one to another and not fall in.

We began to get ready to pulk to our home for the next month but were delayed by 3 days as a blizzard hit us and buried the tents in huge drifts making it impossible to venture outside. On the fourth day the weather cleared and we made way on a 40km trip over a mountain pass and along sea ice. Here we got a chance to taste our first experience of ‘extreme’ pulking. At the top of the pass, which had taken us a day and a half to walk up, we unhitched from the pulks, sat on the back of them and proceeded to cruise down to the sea ice in just over an hour (much shorter if you happen to be tied to a dog). It took us another day to reach our base for the next month. We set up camp on Cap Napier a small spit of land that juts out just in front of a 3km glacier face as it calves into the sea ice.

For the next month we travelled roughly 300km across a huge peninsula called Dixon land. We met a trapper who had been living on his own for the past 25 years, and his main claim to fame was being featured in Michael Palin’s ‘Pole to Pole’. We also travelled to a Russian mining settlement which had been abandoned in ’96 in a fashion that looked like the inhabitants had had an hour to gather their belongings and leave. It is hard to describe finding a small town in the middle of an arctic wilderness. The town was made of 16 or so large 70’s utilitarian style buildings (most of them living areas), a sports hall, several office blocks and a hospital (all speckled with hammer and sickles CCCPs and the occasional bust of Lenin). From what we saw of these places it must have been a truly austere existence.

We pulked back under clear azure skies, in a heat that we weren’t used to (minus five) which led to us pulking topless and some very burnt backs. As we made it back to Cap Napier the melt was now noticeable, and we could see the sea ice had started to deteriorate. We made preparations for the Queens Jubilee beacon, dragging driftwood which was becoming exposed on the shoreline up onto a large glacial moraine.

Just as the helicopter that had been filming us lighting the beacon for the BBC finished its final circle we set off along the sea ice with the beacon burning behind us, because it was obvious that the ice would not be there for much longer. After pulking for 30km we set up camp just where the sea ice stopped. As the sea ice melted it cooled the water making it denser and giving it an eerie mirror calm. We bivvied out in the night and were woken by the sound of Bulger whales surfacing for air just ten metres from the point we had camped on, then disappearing under the ice edge.

For the next two days we lived by the tides because the sea ice had stopped short of where we had expected and so were forced to travel on a thin strip of tidal beach under cliff gullies with constant rock falls to keep us alert. Now that the sea ice had gone we were forced to carry all our equipment and fibreglass pulks on our backs in relays under the cliffs. (Some of us suddenly found our pulks swapped for 6-foot rescue pulks that had been dragged by the leaders - I am still at a loss to explain this bizarre phenomenon!).

We finally made it back to base camp and took some rest days to relax and prepare for the science phase of the expedition. The projects included the diatonal mating habits of the Snow Bunting, Alluvial deposition of sediment with relation to size, the nesting habits of pink-footed geese and the ptarmigan; with the research going mainly to the Wetlands Trust - a couple of peoples PhD’s. The work mainly consisted of 24hr observation of nests (I pulled the blizzard watch) and measuring rocks on alluvial fans – not really my forte, but interesting enough.
The science did give us a lot of free time when it wasn’t our shift, which gave us time for some mountain climbing, scree running and drift wood crafting which turned out a throne, some bridges, benches, huts, a raft and a sauna.

As the end of the expedition came closer people began to reflect and think of home. With 3 days till we touched down at Heathrow we packed up base camp and waited for the boat to pick us up and take us to Longyearbyen, the one town on the archipelago. It must have been an odd sight in the small town as everybody was in down jackets and warm clothes and we were dressed in t-shirts and sandals, and, as we were told by the librarian as we tried to access the internet, ‘”I am sorry there have been complaints. You must leave, you stink.” (We were not sure if this was down to a poor grasp of English or a very good one!).

We touched down in the drowning humidity and heat of Heathrow’s confusion, and after the final good-byes got into the first traffic jam I had been in for a long time, and prepared for the forgotten experiences of seeing stars and feeling rain. There would also be the novelty of using my front teeth to eat with for the first time in a while.

..Now I find myself back in the ‘real world’ I ask my self - do I miss it? Of course – Do I want to go back right now? Let’s just say at the moment I am enjoying flushing toilets.


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