You learn a lot about yourself while lying in nothing but your underwear on a bed of ice at -15°C. You learn how much pain you can bear in your hands before heading back to the warm of Longyearbyen’s Guesthouse 102, what led you to take part in this madness, pushes you through it and, despite warnings not to be competitive, that you are damned sure that you’re not going to let the trainee from Mexico, José, tolerate the freezing cold longer than you.
Our leader, Jim McNeill, the Ice Warrior, stood over us in his warm, fur-lined jacket. He watched for the signs of mild hypothermia; uncontrollable shaking or difficulty in thinking* and speaking. Exposed in just our thin base layers we lasted 18 minutes before the risk of tissue damage became too great and our language too coarse.
The reason behind freezing the team was for us to observe the onset of hypothermia. Doing so would help us to recognise the symptoms in ourselves then deal with them immediately.
The re-warming back in 102 felt worse than the refrigeration. Pain shot through my icy fingers as peripheral capillaries, shut down by the cold, reopened and received warm blood from my core. Each digit throbbed in agony like they’d been pummelled by a hammer.
Our Quest for the Inaccessible Pole starts in February 2016, at the tail-end of winter when temperatures will be twice as low and there will be little light to see. In January, Longyearbyen has no sunlight to warm the polar day, or our spirits, at all.
Instead there’s a ceaseless night; 24 hours of starlight augmented by the mystical green glow of the Aurora Borealis. And whisky.
In Maslow’s Arctic Hierarchy of Needs, self-actualisation get’s bumped down the pyramid. In the cold shelter becomes prime objective, closely followed by water. To that end we camped out to solidify skills learnt on previous trips to Svalbard like pitching the tent, storm-proofing it and getting ice melted for food and drinks.
New skills learnt included storm-proofing a tent pitched on solid ice, without ice screws, that’d be too easy! One technique involved carefully tapping the ice with an ice axe, so not to fracture the ice, until the tip stuck. A 20 mph wind that gusted down the valley from the Longyear glacier helped expedite the application of the lesson.
A following evening we slept in holes carved from a bank of snow that had drifted into a layer thick enough to build a cosy retreat for two. Lisa, who suffers from claustrophobia, built a snow trench instead and covered it with our emergency shelter, or bothy. She slept uneasily in the cold ground and likened her shelter to a coffin.
Svalbard is home to approximately 2000 people and 3000 polar bears. For protection against the bears, and drunken Norwegians, we were armed with flares, bangers and a rifle. We also set a rotating sentry to guard over the camp.
Fortunately the only bear we saw was Jim pretending to be a curious one. I pretended to shoot him anyway when he approached our camp. Memories of the hypothermia test may have swayed my decision to pull the trigger.
Ice Warrior training involves plenty of scenarios based around crisis we may encounter. Our final day, instead of heading to the pub, we ran through another one. Our indefatigable team member, Peter Penny, went missing and we were charged with a search and rescue mission: Operation Find a Penny.
Initially we applied a scatter-gun approach which failed to find him, disrupted communications and resulted in areas being checked twice by different teams. So we switched to a systematic sweep of the area and located our stricken colleague.
With hypothermia setting in and a broken femur (which Peter added for his own amusement) time was of the essence. Our helicopter evac responded rapidly and with 5 minutes to get him to the point of extraction, we bundled him onto an empty pulk and dragged him to safety.
The exercise marked the end of training for which I felt relieved. I found the constant dark played havoc with my mood and energy levels and I spent a lot of time yawning in quiet reflection.
Exhausted mentally by a barrage of knowledge and physically by the cold, winter training had been the toughest yet. I also learnt more about myself as a team leader and team member than previous trips. I came away feeling that I’d pushed my limits and been rewarded.
Upon seeing the sunset from the return flight to Oslo I smiled. It felt good to see the sun again.
*After agreeing to lie in the snow in our pants, you can safely assume we already struggle with thinking.