On Saturday the 10th Of March at around 1530 I stopped hauling for the day. The weather had been clear with a light wind from the west pushing me east up the valley. The Sun hung low in the sky, I couldn’t see it for most of the day due to the peaks to my south. My spirits were high I had just covered 19km in 7.5 hours uphill and through at times difficult terrain. My pulk had overturned twice during the day once on a tricky ascent and once on a descent into moraine. As I carry my food for the day on my back I have no need to go near the pulk unless it turns over and so didn’t smell the petrol over the rear of my pulk until the days work was done. Upon further inspection the petrol had contaminate 12 days of flapjack, ½ of my days rations and the outer of 15 evening meals, these were salvaged with drying out as there are in foil containers.
I called my home team about an hour later after much swearing and thinking to inform them I was heading back to Longyearbyen. This was a difficult decision, I could have stayed in the field for another 2 weeks doing a shorter ski tour. But I had a goal in mind and if this couldn’t be achieved with my now limited food supply. I decided to return to the UK and begin planning for another shot at 80 degrees north.
The following 4 days were spent getting back to Longyearbyen. These were some of the most demanding days I have ever done in the wilderness. Both mentally and physically. I could have turned around and returned along the route I came from Longyearbyen or head North and West. I chose the later as it would be a challenge. I underestimated how much of a challenge it was to become.
The first day after the incident (11th March) was over an ice cap called the Hellafonna, there was a 600m climb over 4km which is quite possibly the most exhausting thing I have ever done. Especially as I was still hauling all my supplies. I didn’t dump any of my contaminated food or fuel as this would have adverse effects on the environment no matter if it would have only been 10 kg of food and 2 litres of fuel.
I couldn’t put my skis on as the skins wouldn’t grip and was forced to walk through the moraine in just my boots, falling knee deep at various occasions. I cannot describe how demoralising this was after the previous day. I climbed and climbed for what felt like an age, the pulk constantly pulling on my body. My arms began to burn with the effort and my heels blistered and bled. I could feel the skin began to tear on my heels as I stressed and strained to pull myself over the top. Breaks became more frequent as my energy was sapped. At points I could only manage 20 meters before needing another break. It all it took me 5 hours to move just 4km. I chanted “Pain is weakness leaving the body” for 2 hours pulling toward the summit, a common saying with my training partners. It kept me moving one foot at a time, helping me to forget about the discomfort. When the ground flattened out the sense of relief and accomplishment was immense. I fell over and lay on my back for 5 minutes just taking in deep breaths.
During the ascent a whiteout had rolled in, the Arctic wasn’t going to let me have a straight forward descent. The world turned into the interior of a ping pong ball with flecks of black from the surrounding peaks, these helped me navigate off the icecap. I focused on 50 strides at a time, to mask the pain and keep my mind focused. On the descent I was retching from the previous effort. Forcing myself to eat, each mouthful taking a minute to swallow, all while I got colder. Later wanting to come back up as vomit as my acid reflux began to kick in. I can say this was the seconds hardest day I have ever done in the wild, the first being in the Himalayas. That night I pitched the tent, set up the bear flares, ate my food, rang my home team and fell into the sleep of the dead only to wake at 5am to enter Vendomdalen.