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.

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 –

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

Assaulted by Colour

14 kilometers left. Clip in and haul. The last push before normal life resumes, work, money and socialising. All so foreign after the past 9 days of shifting a deadweight. My mind begins to conjure up images of buildings, colour and food not in a foil wrapper but on a plate. Get to the finish line my body screams, worn down by this experience. My mind asking to slow down, savour these last few hours in the wild. All too soon it will be a dream and you’ll want to be back here.

As I plod along, a smoking tower becomes visible to the west marking Longyearbyen. No longer needing my map, I have my reference now i just need to reach it. The arctic has different ideas and within 5 minutes a whiteout has rolled in. Visibility down to a few hundred meters, as if telling me to enjoy these last few hours of solitude. The tsst tsst tsst of my skis on fracturing snow, the 4 stroke skidoos whizzing past me at a dizzying 40 km p/h have become my daily soundtrack.

As the distance between me and warmth shrinks, the noise of modern life intensifies. Huskies barking, the crunching of trucks through snow and the noise of the 1355 flight into Longyearbyen sounding like a rock concert after being deafened by silence for the past week.

The world begins to speed up as I near the city limits. Time for food and to take in the view. The Arctic is such a brutal and beautiful place, will I get to enjoy it again? As I rest chomping on salami and chocolate, I begin to prepare myself for city life once more. The colour, noise and smell. After being away from machines my sense of smell and taste have become more sensitive, I choke on fumes from the skidoos and feel the kick of pepper in the salami. The smallest change in air quality detectable. My hearing is sharper than before, as if reset by isolation.

As I pull into town, my pulk in tow. The colour of the houses and vehicles assault my eyes. Looking slightly alien to me after a week of white, pastel sunsets, blacks and hues of blue. The distance between me and my pulk now seeming a mile rather than 5 meters.

I remove my rifle from my pulk for the last time, removing the rounds in the magazine. Pull the flares out of my pockets and walk into the warmth of Paulsens. Safe.

Looking down at my watch 14.37. Expedition over.

Handing over the rifle, flares and other pyrotechnics, mixed emotions rush through me. I’m happy to be safe but disappointed to still not be out in the wild, testing myself. I walk out of the warmth and zip up my pulk. The moment has come for a shower, but first a walk to the guesthouse.

Walking toward my bed, I begin to plan my next adventure. I’m not a big fan of life without direction. Desert, Jungle, Mountains, UK or abroad? Somewhere warm, definitely somewhere warm. By the time I walk the 2 km to the hotel doors, I’ve decided on the next 3 adventures. Warm and abroad, Hills in the UK and a long swim, cycle and run.

In the evening after a shower and a fresh set of cloths. My body beginning to heal. Feet and hands enjoying air circulating around them after being suffocated inside socks and gloves. I turn on my ipod and pick one of my favorite songs, lie down and listen to the opening notes. Thankful that I don’t have to be on constant alert for the Isbjorn.

This adventure is done, but soon another will rise to take its place.

Inside the Bubble

6am time to wake and get on with the day, my body asks for some more rest. My legs ache, shoulders burn and my grip is all but gone. I’m finding it hard to close my fists, i’ve strained a tendon in my right ring finger and forcing it to close is not pleasant. Falling asleep for another hour, the extra rest makes some small difference. I drag myself out of my sleeping bag and begin to eat and drink my breakfast. My mind begins to wake and I begin to pack away my equipment, today is going to be short so I don’t arrive in Longyearbyen too early in a days time. As the day begins I look to the south the sun shining down the valley warming me for the first time in days, it feels glorious to have the sun on my face.

I lace up my boots and clip into my skis turning southwest into Adventdalen, today was going to be physically easy but emotionally draining. The past week had taken a lot out of me, the expedition had failed and now for the first time in days I had time to analyse what had gone wrong. My food hadn’t been diverse enough, and was too fat heavy, leaving me feeling sick at times. My arms weren’t strong enough for the constant pulling and stabilising during skiing. I carried too much equipment around 5kgs too much. I had failed, my mind tortured by this thought as I skied southwest, all the while I wanted to ski north. I wasn’t going to give up and will be back in 2014 to have another go.

Skiidoos began to become more frequent as I neared about 20km outside Longyearbyen each train waving as they sped past me. If one had offered me a ride back and a warm bed I would have jumped on and cried, my mind and body a wreck.

I now wanted this to end, end the voice of failure in my mind, to end the numbing cold and to end the loneliness. I was fine being solo when no-one was around, but when you’re 5 meters from someone and there isn’t even a ”Hei!” just a raised arm you begin to feel like you’re in a bubble and even if you scream no-one will hear you. This was the mental battles I had tried to prepare for, I had one remedy up my sleeve, sing. Classics from the 70’s and more modern hits. As the sounds ricocheted off the valley walls the internal voices began to go quiet, soothed by the human noise.

As I rounded the final corner before camping beneath Elveneset, which my previous expedition had nicknames “Everest” due to its similar shape. I remembered the old team, oh the fun we had, I missed being part of a team, the first time I had thought that in months.

That evening I forced myself to take pictures for the first time in days, I needed to remember this place, both emotional and physical. So in the future I will be reminded of what I can do.

That night as I sat eating my sweet and sour pork from Fuizion Food, i looked back on this expedition and realised it wouldn’t go down as a failure. Yes I had failed to get to 80 degrees north and back, but would be returning home safely and I had learnt a lot about myself. Plus having gone far outside my comfort zone and not broken down too much. A sense of pride came over me, now it was time to sleep.

3 Sides Of A Square

I lay in my sleeping bag, covered in horfrost, down clumped together in the chest compartment barely helping me keep warm at -30C. I had looked at my feet the previous night they were not in a good way. Heel covered in blood and my left little toe banged up. Strapping them up I put on my socks and got on with the day. This was not the time to feel sorry for myself. I was determined to get home under my own steam, I had put myself in this situation and I was going to get myself out.

To head west back to Longyearbyen I first had to box round a collection of mountains, heading north, west and finally south. I didn’t see the sun all day it was either at my back on behind the mountains. The day was still and cloudless, perfect conditions for mountaineering. Even in my emotional state I couldn’t help but laugh and smile at this beautiful and brutal place, memories of a previous expedition flooded back causing short lived smiles, i had begun to miss the team part of expedition. In the short time I was there the Arctic had tested me constantly. A little man from Yorkshire trudging through these great valleys just to get home and begin to recover from this ordeal. The masochist smiling.

Overall the day was uneventful, all I remember is thinking I was averaging a good speed only to turn around and see the mountains not getting smaller, my mind had begun to play tricks on me. My eyes beginning to find it hard to focus on the distance with the lack of colour, my pulk a red reference point 5 meters behind me, showing my progress with her tracks into the distance. I knew I was moving but how far and fast I had no idea. Not bothering to get the GPS out and check, requiring far more effort than I had, I would find out at the end of the day anyway.

At 5pm I stopped, today had been long, I had burnt the tops of my ears from having my hood down straining and sweating to hit my target distance. As the crow flies I did 12km, but around the mountains 22km had been done. Not bad for 9 hours in the harness over some tricky terrain. I dragged myself into my sleeping bag and slept in snatches that night, waking every few hours shivering  from the cold. My sleeping bag now had a lot of frozen down in it, providing little to no warmth in certain areas. In the morning I looked through the fabric from the inside, in 3 of the 7 vertical chest baffles I could see straight through as the down had clumped at the bottom due to poor routine by myself. The strange thing about this is I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I shrugged my aching shoulders and got on with the day. I had no one to blame but myself and there was no point having a strop over it.