Arctic Expedition Training
When Lauren and I met, we both had just formed the idea of doing an Arctic expedition, each on our own and for our personal reasons. Lauren was freshly inspired by Felicity Aston's book Alone in Antarctica. Thorsten's head was full of heroic tales of Fridjof Nansen and amazing pictures of Børge Ousland's expeditions. Neither of us, however, had any clue what it actually meant to go on an Arctic expedition. In fact, neither of us had actually ever skied before. We were spending our days crawling the internet looking for every bit of information we could find on how to get started. After a bit of research, we decided our first step towards becoming Polar explorers would be an actual Arctic Expedition Training course. Quite a few companies are offering these courses, and they are not cheap. It is indeed possible to acquire the necessary skills on your own, but for novice explorers, like us, it felt like a kick-start we could not miss. After all, we still did not know if we would actually like camping in the snow and dragging a heavy pulk, and that is something we wanted to find out rather sooner than later. We were also struggling with research for all the gear we may need, and looking at what was being used on a course seemed like the perfect opportunity to get all the info we needed.
We decided to go with Petter Thorsen of Wild Norway, because of how comprehensive the course seemed, although the dates suited our schedules very well! Before we knew it, we had booked and received the kit list, and it was a lot. From down jackets, sleeping bags graded for -20°C temperatures, mitts, all the way to peeing bottles and underwear, we were missing everything. Luckily gear research and shopping are two of Thorsten's favourite activities. The course drew closer, and we were ticking off more and more items on the kit list, but without the option to rent some of the gear from Petter, we would not have gotten everything together. However, as preparations started to look better and better in this area, doubts began to mount in another.
Are we in too deep?
We had spent a weekend learning to ski in Oslo in January, but that was about the only prep we had relevant to the course. And it hadn't been exactly glorious. I don't know how many times we talked about being afraid of eventually slowing the group down and making fools of ourselves. What if one of us couldn't make it dragging the heavy pulk? What if we injured ourselves skiing down a slope? What if we would lose our mitts and the group couldn't go on? What if we burned the tent down? The scenarios got worse and worse in our heads, but at least we found comfort in the fact that no matter what, we would have each other's backs, and if we failed, we'd fail as a team.
Petter sent out information about the course about a week beforehand. This gave us a first idea about who we would spend the better part of the week with. All of the participants seemed to be quite the outdoorsy types, and all of them were men. In the space of 5 weeks I'd pulled my hamstring and then sprained my ankle, and I knew I was far from being in top physical shape. I was imagining a group of fit, tough outdoorsmen, "alpha" types who'd be annoyed by the woman slowing them down, and I became quite anxious about the whole thing. Fortunately, I had fairly recently started to listen to the Tough Girl Podcast. I decided to look for an inspirational episode while I trained on the rower one day, and discovered that my hero, Felicity Aston, had been interviewed a few years back. Within the first few minutes of the show, she'd already spoken directly to me, saying that it's not about strength, that the important things were about personal admin, self care, social skills. I was so happy and reassured I sent her an email to say thank you, and received a lovely reply, and telling me how much I'd love it. I remain hugely grateful to her for her inspiration in the first place, and her encouragement.
The day finally came when I headed to the airport. Flights to Trondheim from Vienna are not especially frequent, so I had to head out at 4:30 in the morning to arrive around 2 pm. I got to Trondheim on time and waited at the agreed-upon meeting point. The next course participant to arrive was Ant Lambert, carrying three huge bags of equipment. He was not difficult to recognise, and we started talking. He's a commercial diver, former Royal Marine, who is on a charity project to cross the five largest islands in the world using only human power together with another former Marine. They had completed their crossings of Madagascar, Papua New-Guinea and Borneo and he was now on this course to learn the skills required for their next crossing: Greenland. To prepare for that, he would spend one month in Norway and train with the military. With every sentence, my heart sank a little bit further. What did I get myself into? I am clearly out of my league. I never felt so out of place.
At least Ant had no skiing experience to speak of either, that was something. The last thing I wanted on the course was an experienced skier, who'd run circles around us out of boredom, while we'd struggle to keep up. Olivier, the next one to arrive, is a good snowboarder, but again no skiing. Finally, Petter and Rhodri showed up, and we waited together for the last flight in carrying Julian and Lauren.
Learning the Basics
Through the Norwegian winter, we drove to our base-camp, a skiing lodge close to the Swedish border. We spent the evening learning about the basics of Arctic camping and clothing. How to dress, when to vent, how to prepare your gear, so you have everything ready. We got to talk more to the other participants, and fortunately, all of them turned out to be nice people. We were still the ones with the least adventures to our names, but we did not feel that much out of place any more.
The next day we started packing our gear into pulks, prepared our tents, and talked about what we were going to do the next three days. We planned to follow a frozen river and then head back the same way. Everyone was happy with staying on flat ground since none of us had significant skiing experience.
We drove to our starting point and set out from a parking lot close to the river to make our way down onto the frozen water. The sun was out, and it was a fantastic feeling seeing everyone with their pulks, it made us immediately feel like actual Polar explorers. We skied for about an hour before taking a break for about ten minutes. Dragging the pulks felt surprisingly easy, they just needed a little pull and would slide behind us effortlessly. We went in single file behind each other and took turns taking the lead. The first skier has the most challenging job, everyone behind them can just use their track and ski on already compressed snow.
This day was all about getting the temperature management into our system. Stop for a break, close all zips you opened for venting, put on down jacket and heavy hat, and only then get your food. It turns out with this whole process and packing everything away again, ten minutes break is really not that long. We struggled to eat all our snacks in the time we had and had to focus on addressing our basic needs instead of talking too much or taking pictures. After about three hours of skiing, we stopped to get the tents up. In an actual expedition, we would, of course, ski longer than that, but Petter wanted to have plenty of daylight left to show us how to set up the tents and prepare for the evening correctly.
Having never done it before, we struggled with several aspects of pitching the tent in the cold. Finally, we got our sleeping gear inside and had the stove burning, heating water to fill up our flasks and to prepare dinner. Our first night of camping in the snow lay ahead.
A taste of the cold
We actually got a good night of sleep and were woken up by Petter at 8 am the next day. The night had been surprisingly comfortable, and breakfast in bed was wonderful. Afterwards, we packed up our camp again and set out for our second day of skiing. It was not sunny and easy this time. The weather had turned during the night, and it was now cloudy with strong winds. We were going right into the headwind, and the snow conditions were not nearly as good as on the first day. All of us got our googles out, tightened the hoods, and put on facemasks to protect ourselves from the elements. These winds were nothing compared to what Greenland or Antarctica have in store, but still, they gave us an idea of the uncomfortable side of Arctic expeditions.
It felt like with every step we had to push our skis through the deep and sticky snow instead of gliding. It was a struggle. After only half an hour of skiing, it became apparent that the portion of porridge I had eaten for breakfast had not been enough. My stomach was growling, and I felt weak. The time until the next break felt like an eternity. When it finally came, I spent gobbling up as many of my snacks as possible, which luckily helped the hunger and brought back some strength. Turns out the best snacks are ones you can eat in big chunks. I brought nuts, which are high-calorie, but I couldn't eat enough of them in the little time we had. Salami and cheese were much better. But what I was really craving was sweets. Delicious Haribos. I regretted my decision to save weight and made a mental note to always carry sweets on future adventures.
The day went on without a significant change in weather. An hour of pushing into the wind, followed by ten minutes break. Rinse and repeat. After a while, we got used to it, but we were still happy when Petter signalled for us to find a campsite.
Where the skiing was worse than the day before, the camping part redeemed our mood. Now knowing how to work the tent, we got it up and straight in no time, and were sitting inside with the stove burning before some of the others had even gotten their tents fully up. After dinner this evening, we had a gathering in Petter's tent, where we got an introduction to the Norwegian way of Polar expeditions. We had both read many stories about Polar explorers cutting the labels from their clothes in an attempt to reduce weight as much as possible. Fully embracing that spirit, we hadn't brought any excess weight. Petter, on the other hand, was carrying around a few bottles of Aquavit and had even brought fairy lights for his tent to make it cosy. Several of the others had brought sweets to share with the group. The fairy lights and sweets worked their magic, and we saw that taking a few extra items can make a huge difference in comfort. Back in our tent, we decided to adopt the Norwegian approach and get fairy lights for our own tent as well.
After dinner we headed out for a magical night time ski through the trees, and up a hill, where we enjoyed the amazingly clear sky, before heading back to our cosy tents.
We slept in on the third day and were woken up by Petter late. He had assumed we were already awake and was just coming to check if we are already packed. We prepared breakfast in a hurry and tried to get ready to go as fast as possible. This was to be our longest day of skiing, at least regarding distance. We planned to go back all the way we came in the two days prior. Luckily the weather had changed again, and the snow was now frozen enough so you could really glide, even with the skins on our skis and the pulks. We had the wind in our backs, too. Skiing was a real pleasure, and we covered ground fast. There were some tough spots, where the wind had blown away all snow cover, and just the plain ice surface was left, but mostly the pulks felt weightless, and it took little effort to drag them along. After about four hours we arrived back at the spot where we had entered the riverbed and climbed back up to the parking lot.
I discovered that going uphill with the pulk is a lot more difficult than going in perfectly flat terrain. I struggled, but I was determined to make this last bit of the journey without slowing down too much. That morning, we had decided to put both our mats and sleeping bags in my Arctic Bedding bag and put the remaining stuff in Lauren's pulk. In the flat riverbed, that didn't make much of a difference, but as soon as we were back on uneven ground, that turned out to be a bad decision. My pulk, with only the tent and the bedding, was relatively light overall, but top-heavy. In the heavy winds, and on the slopes, it toppled over several times on the few hundred metres to the car. Once the skis were off my feet, I was exhausted, but filled with excitement. We had just completed our first step towards becoming Polar explorers!
After stowing all the pulks in Petter's van again, we made our way back to Norway. Decompressing after an adventure is an important part, and Wild Norway had that bit covered quite well. Petter took us to a restaurant where they served food made from local ingredients. Afterwards, we drove back to the ski lodge and started sorting our gear. But as a final treat, we enjoyed the hot tub and sauna whilst sharing our memories and talking about our experiences.
The training course was absolutely worth the money and we are both happy we did it that early in our planning stages. It gave us a taste of what we were planning and showed us that we actually don't hate it, quite the contrary. Winter camping turned out to be the most comfortable form of camping we had ever done. Before this trip, we were concerned about the cold, but it turned out we were completely wrong about that. With the right equipment, the cold just does not bother us. Since it is below zero all the time, your clothes never get wet, and you can always put on your down jacket or another mid layer if you start to freeze a bit. You have an endless supply of water at your disposal as long as your stove is working, so cooking is a breeze that can be done easily from the warmth of our sleeping bag.
Skiing with a pulk was surprisingly easy. At least in the flat bits that is. We probably need more training going uphill and downhill because we already struggled with the short climb back to the parking lot from the riverbed. We will take snowshoes as a backup solution for steep ascents since we cannot just climb them with the skis and pulks.
Weight efficiency isn't everything. Taking a few luxuries along, like fairy lights, can make a huge psychological difference. An expedition does not have to be a grind 24/7. Having your favourite sweets after a tough leg can quite literally save your day.
We now know what gear we have to take and how to adapt and modify it. Since we are going independently, we need to acquire everything on our own, and planning for gear expenses will be crucial, but we feel prepared and ready to start work.
We would like to thank Petter and Rhodri, as well as Ant, Olivier and Julian for making us so welcome, and giving us such a fantastic introduction to the world of polar exploration.