I just got back from the expedition of a lifetime in Arctic Norway. We set out to cross the Finnmark Plateau, which we didn’t complete due to challenges in weather, health, and my delightfully frostbitten fingers, but what an incredible, character-building, unforgettable experience it was.
I spent a lot of time beforehand wondering what it would be like, as well as putting in all the preparation I could, which I spoke about in this post. I wanted to share my biggest learnings from the experience, and what I wish I had known in advance. Hopefully this can be a help to other people planning an Arctic expedition.
It will be really, really hard
I knew it would be hard; days on end in extreme cold, physical exertion, few daylight hours, no alone time. I just couldn’t comprehend quite how hard it would be. For me, the biggest challenge wasn’t the temperature or the physical side of it, but it was the need to be super organised, and manage my gear effectively. Something as simple as throwing my head torch into a random dry bag absentmindedly when packing down in the morning could mean 15 minutes spent looking for it in the dark that afternoon while setting up camp. That was time where I’d be getting cold and frustrated, not being a help to the team and wasting the opportunity to get things done. I had to quickly learn what needed to be where, making excellent use of my pockets and not just chucking things in the pulk to save time. My motto became ‘What would future Seanna want?’ which helped me to stop doing things in a lazy way in order to prepare effectively for the rest of the day. At the beginning, I got really frustrated with myself at my inability to manage my gear well. I was constantly dropping gloves, forgetting my spork when I sat down to eat, or making poor decisions on how to layer my clothes. In any other environment, these things would be mild inconveniences, but in the extreme cold it could be quite upsetting.
You get comfortable being uncomfortable
It never, ever stops being difficult and uncomfortable, but you learn to accept it. You might be lying in your tent, freezing, looking at the icicles forming in the canvas, and the cold is running through your bones. But after some time, you get used to it. My tent mate Bex would say to me ‘everything is temporary’ and it really resonated. It got to a point where I was quite comfortable in my discomfort. I would be lying there, listening to Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter on audiobook, munching on my bag of nuts and sweets, and while I was cold, exhausted and slightly frustrated with everything, there was a great contentment too.
The weather makes all the difference
We experienced a huge range of weather conditions while we were on expedition, with temperatures ranging from -6 to -32, snowfall, and both stillness and heavy winds. The day we got out onto the Finnmark Plateau, it was -29 with a bit of a wind, and what a shock to the system! Of course, you’re wrapped up warm, but my face felt it the worst. That kind of cold is physically painful, and I just had to accept the pain, while I learned to use the cross-country skis.
We had some fantastic weather days for skiing. After some time, any temperature down to -15 became almost pleasant. A windless day was everything I dreamed of. On those days, we could sometimes ski at around 4km per hour for stretches of time, getting in the zone and feeling on top of the world. The sky was magical, as the sun was only up for a few hours a day, so much of the light was dawn or dusk with pink and orange skies.
But then there was Windy Wednesday. We had just had a rest day due to a team member being evacuated by the Red Cross, and wanted to power on as much as possible to compensate. But the winds were against us. Firstly, we had been buried in our tents by snowdrifts and spent hours digging ourselves out. Then we had to ski as hard as possible, while being blown around. The snow had been compacted by the wind into a hard, icy terrain, so as soon as there was a hill, we started sliding backwards, unable to stay upright. If there is a problem and the team are ahead, the volume of the wind means that no one can hear if you shout. If you need to take a layer off, or if your pulk tips over on a hill, no one knows you need to stop so they all carry on while you panic and try to catch up. On Windy Wednesday, we only covered 5km all day and it was the toughest thing I have done. Then having to set up tents in the wind is horrendous and there is a real risk of gear getting blown away. I burst into tears when I finally got into the shelter.
The weather makes all the difference, but that’s what makes an Arctic expedition so beautiful. You aren’t in control; you can only chose how you are going to deal with the situation that is thrown at you.
It makes you increasingly aware of your flaws
I learned a lot about myself on the expedition, much of which I didn’t particularly like. There is an awful lot of thinking time, both while you’re skiing and during down time at camp.
In the extreme conditions, everything is magnified. It held a mirror up to things I find difficult in myself and I occasionally got into a challenging headspace about this.
I got so frustrated at my lack of common sense when I’m under pressure, my difficulty in asking for help for fear or looking incompetent, and my constant apologising when people do help me. This was really hard after I got frostbite, as I had team members doing my zips up for me and helping me to open my bag when my hands weren’t capable. I felt helpless, and it changed the way I acted.
Hopefully the things I learned about myself will help me work on my flaws, but it is very intense in the cold reality of the challenge.
You become very sensitive to your fundamental human needs
In the ‘real world’ I don’t think that much about meeting my basic human needs. I am lucky enough to live a life where I can take them for granted. On a normal basis, I eat because I like the taste of certain foods and regulating my temperature is relatively intuitive.
On expedition, food is fuel, and it becomes about taking on enough calories to sustain your activity. Because of the cold, you are burning around 5,000 calories a day, and it is a challenge to eat enough. You eat breakfast, start skiing, and become hungry quite quickly as your body is using so much fuel to heat up, as well as to keep you powering along physically.
Regulating your temperature is a constant battle. The way you layer your socks and base layers makes a huge difference and you’re fighting to stay warm. But sweat is your nemesis as you can’t get wet, so when you’re skiing, you have to start out cold as you know your body will heat up.
You have to trust your gear too. In my sleeping bag, I became so aware of my body heat and how it was being used by the bag to keep me warm. If you’re cold when you get in the sleeping bag, you stay cold, as it simply reflects the heat you give out. The best strategy was to go for a walk or little run before you get in, so the body heat can be used effectively.
Going to the toilet isn’t so bad
As a team, we spent a lot of time researching pee, poo and periods in the extreme cold. It was a huge concern. But it actually worked out to be fine. At camp, we dug a big hole about 10 metres away, which we mostly used. In extreme weather, we went in our tent porches. It really is just a case of going as quickly as possible to reduce exposure. And you just burn the toilet paper.
On the go, during the day, you step out of the path of everyone else and just go quickly. I highly recommend salopettes with a flap for going to the toilet – I didn’t have these and had to take off all my layers to get the straps off.
You may be the happiest you have ever been
Maybe it’s because of how challenging the experience is, maybe because it’s so out of the ordinary, maybe it’s those unimaginable panoramic views with dazzling skies, but the expedition made me feel so happy. It gave me an overwhelming appreciation for my life, but also extreme gratitude for tiny things, like the wide selection of veggie options in the freeze dried food pouches.
I cried almost every day because it was hard and because I would get angry with myself for not doing things as well as I wanted, but even in those moments I knew just how lucky I was to be experiencing those feelings and the world around me.
My biggest moment of happiness was lying in my sleeping bag when it was -32 out, listening to Harry Potter with a friend who has become very, very dear to me, finally feeling a bit of warmth, after a really good day of skiing. I remember thinking ‘This is it! This is the pinnacle of contentment.’ But 10 minutes later, I needed a wee, had to leave the comfort and go out, and didn’t get that warmth back all night. Which was just a beautiful reminder of how everything is temporary – the good as well as the bad.
It was a truly life-changing experience, and one of constant learning and surprise.
Was it hard? Hell yes. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
It turns out that despite the challenge, I love the extreme cold. Now I really want to do one of the poles or something in Greenland. It’s unfortunate that cold expeditions tend to be amongst the most expensive, but perhaps a wonderful sponsor will see value in funding me.