My feet had hardly settled from walking in South Africa, when another trip called. I had been 33’ south on the Cape in late march and suddenly I was heading to Greenland, 72’ north. +30C was about to be replaced with -30C. I was tired, but thankfully organised for the ICEMAN Polar Ski Race…
I’m not a lover of gymnasiums. I cannot understand why anyone would want to enter an air-conditioned box, full of sweating people working on machines, when there’s a beautiful world outside to train in. All winter and spring, my trips climbing, walking and skiing had been training exercises for the ICEMAN Polar Race. Carrying big bags, walking miles and skiing what’s left of my feet off is far more enjoyable, than being blue toothed into a world which assesses every heartbeat, every calorie and every pace. I’m not a robot…
Spring had come early at home. Its warm sunshine had brought the bluebells out, and only a few hours before my journey north, I lay, surrounded by them as I stared up at the trees. What simplicity nature can show us, if only we allow it into our lives. Rain may have greeted the morning flight to Iceland, but a little woodland peace still lay inside my soul.
An alarm at 01:45 began my journey. I drove to Luton Airport, boarded the flight north and by midday I stood on Icelandic soil. Now I could relax. The pace of life on this land of ice and fire puts the UK to shame. The airport is a pleasure to be in (and I don’t say that about many in this overcrowded world). There are no rushes for bags, no trolley dashes and no queues. Here I met some of my fellow racers, Simon Yates, Natalie Taylor, Jamie Pattison, Matt Hardy (cameraman) and Adrian Pedley (who I had skied with on Baffin Island in 2003) before we set of north for Akureyri…
A six-hour drive followed. At home we would balk at such an undertaking due to road works and traffic jams. Here it was a pleasure. Open roads, snow-capped peaks and only occasional vehicles brought back the joy of being behind the wheel. Even the service stations were civilised..! Akureyri came into view late afternoon, nestled on the edge of a deep blue inlet. It was quiet, spacious and had both a modern and traditional feel to it. The streets were clean and the town peaceful. Jamie and I wandered the sunny fjord for a couple of hours, before the sun set past 10pm.
Tino Soloman, Debs Fletcher, Darren Harris, Tom Woodstone and Scott Webster joined us overnight before we flew north into Greenland. By midday the Twin Otter left Iceland and crossed the Denmark Strait. What began as a few white floes soon became a huge pack as the coast came into sight. I tried to sleep, but the drone of the engines and the smell of aviation fuel began to affect me (I’ve always suffered travel sickness), and feeling the wheels touch the airstrip at Constable Point was a blessing for my stomach.
This was my second time at Constable Point (or CP as it’s known) as I’d taken part in the first ICEMAN recce two years ago. It almost made me an old hand, but as we sat in the large base camp tent I looked around to see a huge wealth of experience on site. Almost everyone had a number of international expeditions under their belt, including many famous peaks, polar journeys and other remote destinations. The race, if nothing else, was packed with talent. Paul led a welcome and safety brief, before we sorted out tents for the evening and settled down.
I had been teamed up with Simon and Tino. We piled into our tent, cooked and chatted the evening away as this was the first time we had met as a group. This is never ideal, but happens on many overseas ventures.
Later I stood outside as twilight fell. There is little darkness at this time of year, and the reddening skies absorbed a little of my soul. I’ve travelled a lot, perhaps too much this year already, and this will be my final adventure for now. Wonderful as its is, my thoughts have been troubled, but the ice will do it work…
The morning dawned bright and breezy. We packed our pulks, discussed the route and weather forecast, did all this little jobs that need finishing and enjoyed the sunshine. The weather looked up and down, but welcome to Greenland..!
The afternoon saw the last practises in crevasse rigging and packing, but I was eager to go. I ran up and down the snows on my skis with my pulk behind me. Inside my energy levels had never been so high.
Evening fell with everyone cooking together, relaxing and enjoying the late sunshine.
The day of the race came and by 8am, the starting gun had been fired. Twelve racers, in four teams covering a hundred kilometres over four days, pulling pulls with all of our gear on board. The surface was hard, allowing the pulks to glide easily in the cool morning temperatures. Soon a running order was set, but this is a race with huge tactics. Do you lead, but then make all the navigational adjustments when negotiating sastrugi, deep powder and river beds, or do you follow others tracks, looking for opportunities..?
After the first hour, Scott, Nat and Jamie were well ahead. Simon, Tino and I sat in their wake for a while, but when winding through the long valley, behind the daunting peak of Potkassen, we lost them. We never saw them again until the end of the day. They were far too young and fast. The first day of any trip brings with it a plethora of teething troubles. Blisters, skis, skins and boots caused many people problems, but my preparation had been extensive, and I pulled hard, worked hard and smiled hard. I love this kind of physical exertion. You’re self-sufficient, in the mountains and working together. What more could I ask for..? What I couldn’t tell was that no matter how well my boots were fitted, my feet were rubbing and I couldn’t feel the soreness due to the lack of nerves I have left.
As we approached the island at Farne, cloud shielded the sun and I skied through the finish line at 4:59pm. I could have been quicker, indeed the leaders had been home over an hour and a half, but Tino had been suffering with his back and I came in with him. There’s nothing worse than being left alone on the ice as everyone else watches.
Camp was soon built, and we settled down to what we expected to be a howling night. The forecast was awful, and in the early hours the wind came, and the blizzard began…
The entire next day was spent in camp, dozing, eating, brewing, chatting, and generally passing the day. Outside, drifting snow-covered everything, and it didn’t stop all day. The skidoos arrived late morning for a film stop, but it was only a brief visit before they retreated to Constable Point. All afternoon it raged. People dropped by, and we did the same, making sure everyone was well, but when the weather is blowing, all you can do is sit tight. Conversation ranged from mountain festivals to Michelin star restaurants, Hollywood movies to high altitude adventures. Passing long days in a tent is not what active people enjoy, but over the years, many of us have had to endure plenty of practise.
The next morning wasn’t much better outside and after much ado, a decision was taken to remain in camp another day. The wind was still strong, visibility was poor and severe drifting forced the organisers decision. No one wanted to stay, but when the weather speaks, we should listen.
The next morning dawned bright and still. The silence was only broken by the sounds of roaring stoves and rattling tents. We had a delayed start as camp needed digging out, so at 9am we crossed the fjord and entered Kalkdal. Already teams were spread far and wide, with the steep entrance to Kalkdal stringing people out further. The sun beat down the valley as we skied the long length of it, but my left foot was beginning to give me problems. Large blisters had formed and I struggled to lift my heel without biting pain. I ended up at the back of the race, hobbling along as best as i could, but I wasn’t going to give in. Foot problems are a part of my life now and I just have to deal with them. I fought on, surrounded by beautiful snow-capped peaks, thankful for the good weather. The final run into camp was a long downhill, so I tore off my skins and raced in as fast as I could. I was still at the back, but I didn’t care. I was safely in camp and that’s what mattered. I’m not someone who fights to be No.1, the fastest or the best, I just enjoy the journey.
The camp was located at the foot of a glacier, and in a dip, so it promised to be a cold night. Others had the chance to hang and dry kit, but it was too late for me. The coming shadows soon saw Simon, Tino & I closed up in the tent with the stove roaring away.
The next morning brought back distant memories of Mt. McKinley all those years ago. Breaking camp before the sun finds you brought a bitter start to the day and my hands suffered with the cold. We set off with sunlight in our sights, and sped up the first hill until we reached its warming rays. There was still a deal of slogging up the glacier, before a long descent and then another long uphill slog. Out to the east, the sea ice ran out to the horizon, a brilliant white under the bright blue skies. Time was passing at a pace, and unfortunately it ran out on us. The race allowed a ten-hour window, before penalties began and a decision was taken to abandon the day. We were too far out, too late in the day and with heavy hearts we boarded the skidoos and headed home. Reality can hurt, but at times, we need to face its honesty.
We flew home the next morning, but not before the awards ceremony. The winning team had achieved a well deserved victory, but a surprise was in store as I was received a beautiful glass trophy for being the ‘most committed racer’. My injuries do make life in cold climates harder, and I run continuous risk of further damage, but this is what I do. Believe me, any fool can suffer frostbite, but we’re not defined by what happens to us. We’re defined by how we choose to live our lives. I’m no hero, but a little recognition is graciously appreciated.
So what did I think of the race..? Losing two days to bad weather is nothing new in Greenland, but it did have an adverse effect on the event. Such a short time window means that any time lost is a major problem. A day was cut from the race and the celebrations at the end were all to brief, but there’s little you can do when the weather takes over. The organisation was good with excellent support when needed (Debs and Elizabeth pulled out with injury) and the course was good. If only the sun had shined, but then again, that would have made life easy..!
My thanks to Paul Walker and Tangent Expeditions for organising the race, the skidoo and safety crew for keeping an eye on everyone, Coldhouse Collective for filming the race, my fellow racers for their determination, smiles and drive, Terra Nova Equipment for their continued support and my family for putting up with all my exploits.
Before you ask ‘where next Nigel’, leave it with me. Something will turn up. It usually does…
For more information about the race, click here…