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.

Over the Hellafonna

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.