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Caught in a Whiteout

Post expedition blues are a well known downside to the euphoria of expeditions. When you have focused for so long on a single goal and then you achieve what you set out to accomplish.

Returning the world seems less exciting, not quite as hard. Sitting around just staring at the horizon think “Well what do I do now?” When going to work just doesn’t have the same appeal because you’re not as focused as you were.

Well what happens when the goal goes up in flames? When your dream disappears in a single stroke, one false move and it’s over. Months of hard work, late nights and early mornings wasted in a flash. All those days and weeks of pre-expedition pressure rising until you can barely handle it gone. The pressure drops, nothing matters anymore.

On the fourth day of my expedition, my small world crashed and burnt around me. One moment I was strong, happy and content. The next weak, devastated and relieved all in one. I swore a lot, picked up the phone, called it in and came home. The next few days I have written about.The real battle didn’t really begin until I was back home. Lying in my bed. Alone and broken. My family and friends were happy to see me and I was glad to be home and safe. At that moment I wanted nothing more than a warm bed. But very quickly I changed.My new testing ground wasn’t the pristine wilderness of Svalbard. It was the colourful, warm and pleasant surroundings of my normal life. I was about to face the hardest mental challenge of my short life.

I was angry, at myself, at everything around me. I smiled and laughed like I was fine, but inside I was burning. The questions were always the same, “Are you OK?” “We’re sorry to hear what happened, are you doing alright?” and “Oh What an amazing experience!, you must be so happy!”

I would nod and smile, playing the stoic. Inside it hurt, every word stabbing saying “You failed! You failed! You FAILED!!!!” Mentally I was in pieces.

I wanted to grab hold of them and shout, scream and tell them how much it hurt. The pain, the suffering how I had invested so much time, effort and money into a project to see it die in a matter of minutes. How upon my return all I wanted to do was crawl into a dark corner,drown out the inner voice and cry.

I was depressed.

I couldn’t be bothered anymore. I couldn’t exercise as the expedition had wrecked me physically. I just wanted to be left alone, but at the same time I wanted people around me. I needed laughter, conversation and work to get me back on track.In the few weeks after my expedition the only times I found solace were when I was listening to music or writing. I sat and listened, kept myself busy with cleaning, packing and repacking equipment over and over I packed my equipment finding the best system to make it a small and efficient as possible. Researching new ways to train, optimising my nutrition, anything to keep the inner voice quite. Writing down my thoughts and moods trying my best to rid myself of the dark thoughts.

Slowly my body became strong enough that I could cycle and run again. As training resumed the inner voice began to recede, slowly but surely my situation didn’t seem so dark. I could feel my cheerful self returning, it took time but each day it got a little easier to get up and focus. The fog in my mind beginning to clear.

Now after 3 months I can finally say I’m happy again. It took its time, but the mind is a complex system and like any muscle it takes time to repair.

Now why would I make this public? It is not for any kind of sympathy, there are people out there in far worse situations than I will ever encounter. It is so that if anyone is going through something similar, all you need to know is that you’re not alone. If you need any help then please drop me an email and I’ll help you as much as I can.

I suffered in silence for too long. It takes strength to ask for help, and I had none left upon my return from the Arctic. It took my older sister telling me I wasn’t “All there” to ask for help.

To everyone who sent me messages of condolence when I returned from the ice. Thank you, now that I’m better it’s comforting to know people are behind you in your darkest hour.

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Lessons from the Freezer

During my time organising and doing this expedition I learnt a lot of valuable lessons, below are my top 10.

1) Contact anyone and everyone that may know information about your challenge and how to get it done.

I contacted various expedition folk from ocean rowers to fellow polar travellers. Everything from logistics, equipment through to dealing with isolation. A big thank you to Tim  Moss, Alex Hibbert, Aleks Gamme, Cas and Jonesy, Dave Cornthwaite, Ben Saunders, Alastair Humphreys, Ben Thackwray, Mark Wood & Sarah Outen for all your help.

2) Back yourself 100%.

No one is going to do the work for you. So shift your arse and get it done. I worked 2 jobs on top of organising this expedition, plus training. I still had time for socialising and 6 hours sleep a night. There isn’t an excuse for laziness,

3) Tell everyone about what you’re doing.

Getting people invested in your expedition, giving you a base to start from. When times are low and you get an email/call asking about how the planning is going it lifts your spirits knowing someone cares. Have a good quality website, I know nothing about code and macros but managed to use WordPress to whip together a half decent site.

4) Train like your life depends on it.

None of this “Oh it’s raining crap, I’m not going running/cycling” rubbish. When you get out in the field and you don’t feel tired, you’ll be glad that you did those extra runs. It means you can enjoy the experience more, which is why you’re there in the first place.

5) Find a good training partner.

I was lucky. Two close friends are training for the Wales Ironman. So I had the fortune/misfortune of cycling and running with them. My times slowly got better and my fitness skyrocketed. I swore a lot chasing them, but it paid off during the expedition.

6) Invest in good equipment and a good gym.

Source the best equipment you can, if you can’t afford it ring the company directly and beg if needs be to use their equipment. I contacted Devold, Dragon Alliance, Cotswold Outdoor and First Ascent (I didn’t need to beg in the end). Only one piece of equipment failed and this was at -30C.

Join a good gym, this doesn’t need to be expensive. Mine was £80 for 3 months. Make sure it’s a place where people go to lift heavy weights with their bodies, not their tongues.

Dragons goggles were second to none. They gave a great field of vision, which is essential when having to keep and eye out for bears.

I would  also highly recommend Devold for anyone looking to get any Merino wool clothing, bright colours and a great fit. After 9 days of constant wear they didn’t smell too bad.

7) Take a break every once in awhile.

Organising and training for expeditions are draining. Every month I would have one day where I wouldn’t do any work for the expedition. This allowed my brain to relax and reset. After these breaks I had new ideas and made leaps forward with preparation.

8) Say thank you & stay humble.

If you ask for advice, equipment or if you have received a compliment on your challenge. Say thanks! It takes a few seconds and means a lot to people. It also means if you need to ask them again then they are more likely to help you.

  Stay humble, your adventure isn’t going to change the world, (Unless it’s a medical/science expedition, then it might) so don’t become arrogant thinking you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. I have two sisters who made sure I didn’t get too big for my boots. Have someone around who will keep your ego in check.

9) Enjoy the experience.

After all this planning, training and stressing the reward is here. So enjoy it, take deep breaths and make sure you add it to the memory bank. When you’re having a bad day, and there will be some say to yourself. “I chose to be here, this is what I love doing, so get on with it”. Very few people ever get their expeditions off the ground take pride in the fact you did and let it drive you when you want to give in.

 A few other mantras are useful, a favorite of mine – “Pain is weakness leaving the body” but I’m a masochist so probably not best to follow my advice.

10) You’re a lot stronger than you think.

I used the rule of 15 when things weren’t going my way. Go through the next 5 minutes and then you can reevaluate, then 4 minutes, then 3, then 2 and finally one minute. After this I was 15 minutes further down the road. 15 minutes away from my previous problem, this boosted my confidence proving to myself that this was possible. I would then crack on with hauling in a better mood. This would generally lead to singing, always a good thing in my book. Every day I got stronger, pushing myself hard when I could have stopped. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did on day 5 and 6 on day one.

11) Anyone can do this!

I am by no means an athlete. When I started training for this expedition I had just finished playing rugby and was fat. Weighing 16 ½ stone. My long distance running was awful but steadily over time I improved. You don’t need to go skiing in the arctic, but I’m looking for a teammate for next years expedition, so if you want to do something stupid then I’d be happy to hear from you.

Contact – svalbardsolo@gmail.com

Do something, running, cycling, ANYTHING! Don’t be one of those boring people who sits behind a desk their entire life doing nothing.