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The Iceman Polar Race – part II

I'm sure something is following me
I’m sure something is following me

The next morning the wind had died and weak rays of sun fought their way through high, wispy clouds.  I dug out my tent, packed my pulk and all of us set off on skidoos to the valley of Kalkdal.

Crossing Hurry Fjord seemed easy enough, but the high winds of yesterday had left deep powder snow in Kalkdal.  The skidoos sank repeatedly and had to be dug out, tracks made and tried again.  What an incredible change of scenery Kalkdal was.  Huge towering buttresses of snow-clad stone, 850 m high, with a deep valley cutting across them.  There wasn’t a foot print or mark of man or beast to be seen.  In five hours we had travelled 21km, because of the powder and we decided to camp.  The skidoos turned for home and waved us goodbye.  For the first time on the trip we were truly alone.  The sun was fading as camp was built, and with the requisite bear fence around us and we bedded down for the night.

The next morning it was still snowing and the forecasted sunny day was a dream.  Occasionally the sun did show itself through the snowflakes, but is was only a ghostly spectre of its true self.  Paul’s toes felt very cold and immediate action was taken to warm them up. In a climate such as this, you don’t suffer in silence.  That can only bring damage and despair.  I stuffed my mittened hands into his boots as he massaged his toes, and soon all was well.  One frostbite sufferer in the group was already enough.

We struck camp and headed up the pristine glacier towards Soldal.  At first the pulks were ok to pull, but the slope and deep powder snow soon made any progress exhausting.  We had our fair share of falls, losing skis and dignity to the deepening powder on a regular basis..  To quality off piste skiers, this would be heaven, but when your drawing 100lbs of kit behind you and going uphill, it was a killer.

After six hours of hard and freezing slog we ascended onto a huge empty plain.  Occasional peaks appeared from the mists and it proved to be a truly beautiful arena in which to spend the night.  After our hard pull, everyone had a good chat (pulk pulling is a solitary business), and laughter rung around the camp.  A little sunlight tried to fight through, but I was soon tucked up in my tent, pulling Icicles from my moustache.  The snow fell all night in a gentle silence which had buried much of the camp by dawn.

What a difference a day makes..!  The thick cloud and snows of yesterday were replaced by blazing sunshine and a gentle breeze.  It was Easter Monday and The Lord really was shining down on us.  The major problem with such a sudden change is the fact that your tent melts and fills with condensation.  This was soon rectified by opening both porches and letting some breeze through.  It was still cold, but wonderful.

We clipped on our skis and went touring for the day.  All around us were beautiful peaks and it was a bit of a problem choosing which to pick.  We decided to descend into the valley a little and climb two connected by a long, sweeping ridge.  The ascent was simple enough, although we roped up due to the threat of crevasses at one point.  As I climbed the last few feet, a huge expanse of mountain and ice came into view.  Hurry Fjord faced north, south, with Jameson Land and Milner Land stretched out in the east.  Jagged peaks, reminiscent of the Alps were contrasted with rolling icecaps and glaciers.  What you have to remember is that all this land lies under 1000m.  This is not the Andes or the Himalayas, where ice frequently doesn’t start until 6000m..!

The air was filled with the click of cameras, as everyone was in awe of the stunning surroundings.  We were soon off the first peak and along the ridge to the second, where even more jagged peaks stood sentinel above the glaciers.  We ripped our skins off and ploughed through the powder to the base, and this is where ski touring really comes into its own.  Climbing can be quick, particularly in deep powder, but descending is even quicker.  If the weather changes for the worst, you can off the hill in no time and down safe.

After a short lunch break we headed back to camp.  “Should we stay, or should we go out again..?” Was the question.  There was another noteworthy peak that we could try, and four of us did.  My skins we’re playing silly devils on my skis, but I summited well and in a freezing wind, descended safely back to camp.  The breeze followed us down and it wasn’t long before we were all in our tents, stoves roaring.  One question I do get asked is “how do you go to the toilet when it’s freezing outside..?”  The answer is simple – take a bottle…

The next day dawned bright, and the suns rays were so powerful that we had to get out of the tent, or boil.  The delicate aroma of Arctic travel had begun to rise and a breath of fresh air did the atmosphere the world of good.  We left camp in good time and headed into Soldal, for the last day in the hills.  The sun was briefly obscured by wispy cloud, but otherwise it was a brilliantly sunny day, warm with little wind.  The whole team skied well and we descended the immaculate powdered slopes at speed with our pulks behind us.  You must keep control in such places and not race for speed.  If you fall with a 100lb pulk attached to your waist, then you’re in real trouble.  The scenery was as stunning as yesterday and it’s always a dilemma what to photograph as everything was spectacular.  The onset of digital photography has made the task a little easier, but you end up at home with hundreds of photographs to sift through upon your return.

Soldal was the only place that we saw any signs of life.  Arctic Fox tracks criss crossed the snow, and they looked very fresh.  Unfortunately we didn’t see a single fox.  I stripped off layer after layer as the sun kept burning, and as we exited the moraine field, I heard the first of the skidoos coming to meet us.  Within minutes the entire team had been reunited.  There was much laughter and hand shaking, before the pulks were loaded onto the skidoo sleds and we headed back to Constable Point.  The snow conditions were excellent and we sped swiftly back to base.  There was a deal of unpacking and kit sorting which everyone got stuck into, before many rushed for the showers.  I held back, happy to wait for the rush to go and enjoy the silence left behind.  I sat alone, surrounded by tents, skis and steaming gear, reflecting on the trip.  I was hoping to race, but it wasn’t to be.  I’d had an excellent few days in the hills, ski touring and pulk pulling, and once again experienced Arctic conditions.  The trip wasn’t over yet though…

The last two days consisted firstly of an off piste Telemark trip, where three of us skinned up a local peak (three hours) and cut some great turns on the way down (fourteen minutes..!), followed by a high-speed skidoo trip to Scoresbysund.

I’ve skied Telemark for years, but losing my toes has made it a real challenge.  You need delicate balance and edge control even on the piste, so I threw myself down the hill with abandon and did what I could.  It was wonderful to be with other mountain skiers, on an empty slope, gauging every moment the change in snow conditions and laughing all the way.

Driving a snow mobile is great fun, but also exhausting.  50mph might seem slow on the road, but bouncing across the ice it felt like light speed to me..!  The throttle on a snow mobile is operated by your right thumb, which is fine if you have one.  The stump I have struggled after a time, but I enjoyed the experience and just wonder if we’ll ever get enough snow to drive one on the roads of Derbyshire..?  We almost got bogged down in the sea ice as we entered Scoresbysund, and was happy to be back on dry land.  The ‘city’ as it’s called is perched on a steep, southwest facing hillside against the sea.  It’s multicoloured houses are dotted everywhere, and the only idea that any streets exist are the rows of metal lamps.  There’s hardly a real centre, but a supermarket which sells everything from crisps, to hardware, to rifles, and a small church and a tourist shop.  The community is traditional and so are their pastimes.  Muskox and Polar Bear skins hang drying on racks around the settlement.  This caused for me a dilemma. I’ve hunted all my life and have no issue with eating what you hunt.  However, I cannot understand why anyone would want to hunt endangered species.  I’ve seen the same in Africa and India, and it stuns me.  Saying that, do we have a right to tell traditional cultures in the world what to do..?  Should we stamp our western values wherever we travel..?

The sun came out for our journey home and I whizzed across the frozen fjord back to Constable Point, where we had out last evening together, before the journey home began.  Flights to Reykjavik and then Luton, before the drive north to my native Derbyshire.

So what did I think about the trip..?  Well it wasn’t the race I had initially hoped for, but it was a wonderfully rewarding experience.  The deep powder would have made racing almost impossible anyway.  Many lessons were learned by the organisers and I fed back all my thoughts for future events.  Whatever your experience in the mountains, things change by the minute and new lessons are always learned.  Will there be another race, I hope so.  Will I come back again..?  You bet…

I was interviewed by the BBC upon my return home.  Here’s the piece…

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