The Iceman Polar Race – part I

Evening at Constable Point

Evening at Constable Point

Months of planning, teams coming and going, injury, frustration, kit buying and chaos came to an end when I boarded the flight to Iceland.

Because of the delicate skin grafts on my feet, I prefer to train continuously, rather than rushing into short bursts.  My feet take many hours of pampering, but earlier in the year I slipped on the stairs and burst a graft.  The usual jokes were spread of how a mountaineer injures himself climbing the stairs, and even I brushed the injury off thinking it was nothing.  I was soon proved to be very wrong, particularly after the rollocking I received from the Podiatrist a few days later.  Weeks of treatment and inactivity followed, dashing my training programme and frustrating me intensely.  Only a week before the race I got the go ahead to start exercising again.  My entire race training consisted of two four mile walks and a sixteen mile bicycle ride.  Hardly what I had originally envisaged, but there was little else that I could do. There was one thing on my side, but it wasn’t what I wanted.  The race we had hoped for hadn’t come off, and this trip was to be a full recce for future events.  Good for my feet, but not what I’d planned for…

The icecaps looked freshly covered in snow as we approached Keflavik airport.  Through it was sunny, the wind was biting and the cold air grabbed at my lungs.  To some, this may seem awful, but I was in my element.  I would rather have dry, cold air, over warmth or moisture.  As I child I had suffered severe catarrh, and I still wonder if that made me who I am now.

I had been in Reykjavik only a few weeks before, celebrating my sisters 50th birthday, but the spring sunshine made the town seem so much more open and airy.  The streets and seafront were full of people out running, cycling and smiling.  After my early morning journey I felt refreshed and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon (something rare in my life).  Darren (snowmobile driver), and Pete and Paul (Montane) arrived later that evening, and two days later we hoped to fly into Greenland.  Unfortunately the weather at Constable Point had closed in and we were delayed by a day.  Frustration began to creep in, but what can you do..?  I’ve been delayed more times than I can remember, what with weather, landslides, lack or transport and the like, and I just accepted the situation.  If there’s nothing you can do about it, then why worry.

We spent the day walking further out from Reykjavik, seeing further sights, but also getting caught in wind, rain, blizzards and sunshine.  People here say that if you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait five minutes and it will change.  They’re right…

Finally, on the morning of Wednesday April 16th we boarded the Dash 8 from Reykjavik to Constable Point.  The relief on people’s faces was wonderful to see, as was the stunning, snow laid scenery of Eastern Iceland as we soared above the winding coastline.  The twin propellers drone melted away into the background as I stared down at the miles of diamond white snow and azure blue sea.  I had flown this route over a decade before, changing planes at Isafjordur, bound for the Watkins Mountains, but this time there was only one stop – Eastern Greenland.

Though clouds obscured much of the flight, the Denmark Strait changed from striking blue water to white ice pack.  After only an hour and a half, we turned hard left and approached the runway at Constable Point.  Snow soon gave way to stone and we bounced along the strip, stopping outside the wooded terminal building.  It was half buried in snow, as was every structure in the complex.  I looked out of the window and silently breathed a sigh of relief.  Not for the flight, but for the fact that I was once again in the environment that I love.  Snow, ice, blue skies and biting cold. Paul and the crew were there to meet us, as was my old tent mate Phil Poole.  Phil had sat and nursed me when I had suffered a notorious appendicitis in 2004 in the Watkins Mountains.

We were welcomed into the well organised camp.  It was made of portakabins, heavy-duty tents and the wonderfully named ‘-1 star Hilton’.  We spent the afternoon preparing kit, admiring the beautiful mountain views and getting out on skis.  I couldn’t wait to get my new toys on and fly across the ice.  I could go far because of the bear threat, but to be out on my new NTN carbon fibre touring skis was wonderful.  What a beautiful place this is.  Towering mountains, open glaciers and not a soul once you leave the airstrip.  This is one of my main reasons for taking part in expeditions.  Western society may have many wonders, but being out on your own, with only nature as your friend is truly wonderful. Ok, so I was in a small team, but the people to area ratio was very low…

We spent the evening discussing the coming recce and organising training for the following day – pulk pulling, stove, comms, camp and rifle drill for starters.

I had a blissful night in the weather haven tent and the morning glowed with beautiful sunshine.  It was an ideal day for training.  A French party left the base around mid morning as we pitched our tents and laid out the pulks.  A pulk is basically a man hauled sledge, which has to contain all your provisions for the trip.  It it attached to a waist harness by two long aluminium bars and should slide easily behind you.  This of course depends on the snow conditions.  If the snow is hard and flat then it’s much simpler than deep, dry powder.  Crisp snow allows an easy glide, whilst the latter is like pulling a bathtub over a desert.  Conditions were good, and I glid over the surface.  It had been almost 10 years since I had last pulled a pulk, but it all soon came back.

The rest of the day went well enough.  I dug my Terra Nova Ultra Hyperspace tent into a huge snow bunker and built high ice walls all around.  Tomorrow’s forecast was poor and I was taking no chances.  We then undertook rifle training.  I have taken part in country sports since I was a boy, and am competent with firearms, but the last thing I want to do is shoot a Polar Bear.  They are not the cuddly toys of childhood, but major predators on the ice and a definite danger.  We employed bear fences and can use flares to deter a bear, with pepper spray and finally firearms as a last resort.  I’m a good shot, but hoped that the rifle world stay soundly zipped inside its slip, which lay beside my bed at the ready.

It was Good Friday, but hardly a day for church and parades. We knew a storm was coming and it had begun blasting us in the early hours.  I felt safe and secure in my bunker, and hadn’t been woken by the wind.  Phil’s voice boomed through the blizzard to see if I was ok, and I dressed to join them in the maelstrom.  You might ask why..? Travelling alone in such conditions is deadly and a group was heading across to the Hilton. I can hardly describe the conditions as the snow piled through the air, reducing visibility to a few feet and buffeting you like a toy.  We followed known landmarks back to the Hilton, and peeled layers of snow laden gear from our bodies.  You can so easily see how people get lost only a few feet apart and are not found until the spring melt.  Though I was well clad, the blasting cold had found its way into my system in minutes. My fingers stung and my nose felt numb.  Thankfully a warming brew thawed me out.  Here’s a video of the journey…

The day was spent with comms training, tea drinking, tent digging, tea drinking, plan rescheduling, more tent digging and more tea drinking. We were so lucky to have a solid structure to retreat to which was warm and safe.  So many times I’ve been stuck on my tent in a snowstorm with nowhere to go…

More adventures to follow in part II…

 

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