Preparing for an Arctic expedition, when you have never done anything in that ballpark, is really quite tough. I put everything I could into my training, and into researching the best gear to take, so I suppose I ought to have felt prepared. However, the huge unknown left me feeling like I had no idea what I was going to be letting myself in for. I knew I would be skiing, but for how long? I knew I would be camping, but what would that entail? (I had camped before but had a feeling it would be slightly different in the extreme cold).
I think what would have been really useful in those early days I was trawling the internet would have been a peek into a typical day. While I was ready as I could have been in some ways, I felt like a greater understanding of what the expedition would entail would have helped me feel mentally prepared too.
So here you have it – a typical day on an Arctic Expedition…
0600: Wake up, breakfast, get dressed
This was the toughest part of the day, emerging from your sleeping bag and letting that icy hit you. It was made slightly more pleasant by the fact that we were awoken by our guide who would appear at the tent entrance, with a smile on his face and a thermos of coffee in his hands. For breakfast we had muesli and hot water, eaten with a spork that we kept in our pocket at all times. Washing up the plate essentially meant swilling it with a bit of snow. You get dressed, but as you sleep in your base layers, it just involves piling on more warmth – salopettes, maybe a fleece, your windproof jacket and your down jacket.
0700: Pack down camp and pack up the pulks
I could never explain why it took us so long to pack down our tents and get out on our skis again. There was a lot to do – packing all our personal items into the right bags, wrestling the sleeping bags into their cases, deflating sleep mats, brushing all the snow out of the inside of the tent (it forms quickly as the condensation from your breath freezes to the canvas), rolling up the tents, filling in holes we’d dug for the toilet etc, packing up the pulks, repacking the pulks as we tried to distribute the weight in the best way. But ultimately I think there was an awful lot of faffing.
0900: Get skiing
First thing in the morning was one of my favourite skiing times. You’re feeling fresh and the light in the sky is so beautiful as it’s in a state of dawn for a really long time. It’s always best to set off without your down jacket, even though it’s freezing, because before long, your body temperature warms up because of the exertion, and you have to avoid sweat at all costs. And it was such a faff to stop, unclip your harness, put your jacket away and get your harness back on, so we always said ‘Be bold, go cold!’
1030: Snack time
We’d pause for some water, some snacks (usually a handful of nuts or some dried bananas) and a wee. We’d put our down jackets on as soon as we stopped but we’d want to get moving again quickly as you really start to feel the cold.
1045: More skiing
As the day went on, we’d really get in the flow, powering along as quickly as we could. We skied single file, taking it in turns to go at the front and blaze a trail through the snow (which got exhausting, hence the swapping.) I would usually just get lost in my thoughts as we went along, but other team members listened to music or podcasts.
Stopping for lunch was always tough, as we’d get cold really quickly. If there was any wind (which there was most days) we would pitch one of the tents so we could shelter. For lunch we ate freeze dried pouches, adding hot water which we carried in thermoses that had been boiled on a Primus in the previous camp. The brand of food we used was Real Turmat, which was the best adventure food I have tried. There is a huge range of meals, including a wide variety of vegetarian packs, and they are tasty and filling. We would pretty much wolf down lunch, maybe have a sugary drink to get some extra calories in, then we’d get the tent down and strapped to the pulk as quickly as possible.
1245: More skiing
We’d get back on it trying to get some more miles in, knowing there wasn’t much daylight left. As the sun started to set, the light was beautiful, but this was the toughest time of day physically as your body starts to feel tired. Often in the last hour or so of the day, I would mildly hallucinate, thinking I was in the desert, or seeing a tree in the distance and thinking it was a reindeer.
1430: Set up camp
This was the time when we wanted to curl up immediately and rest, but of course there was work to be done first. We’d put some more warm layers on – I’d add some fleece leggings over my thermals and put another layer on top. We’d pitch the tents one by one, which was a raging battle when it was windy and we had some snapped tent poles. As ordinary pegs wouldn’t do much in the snow, we anchored the tents using skis. Then we buried the edges of the tents in snow to weigh it down, so we’d be secure no matter what the weather did overnight. Each of the tents had a porch, and we’d dig out a huge hole in the front of this, so we could essentially stand up under canvas outside the sleeping area, for organising our gear, brushing the tent or cooking. All of the snow had to be brushed off of our gear before putting it in the tents. This was an arduous task, particularly with backpacks and duffle bags where the snow got in every last nook. We’d have to dig out a toilet (ie. A big hole), blow up our inflatable mats, and organise our tent spaces. If we were near a lake, we’d go out and drill down through the ice to get fresh water for drinking and cooking. If there was no lake nearby, it meant boiling snow, which is an extremely long and fuel sapping process (a lot of snow makes not a lot of water).
I say relax; there is little relaxing about -30 degree temperatures, but it’s down time. This time was spent lying in our sleeping bags, trying to keep warm. Before getting in I would run around camp to get my body temperature up, then jump inside and eat a bag of nuts and sweets, listening to Harry Potter on audiobook. Sometimes I’d write down my thoughts and feelings, but mostly we’d talk, laugh, make up songs and get really, really silly. We’d have a bit of a therapy session, talking about our biggest challenges, what we were getting out of the experience and asking each other what our biggest weaknesses are. We’d talk about ideas for future adventures and our hopes and dreams. Then we would improvise podcasts and musicals and make each other giggle. It was really tough lying there in the cold, but those were some of my favourite moments.
The most highly anticipated time of day. We were really lucky with the dinners we had – our guide had prepared full meals with vegetables, beans, soya etc and freeze dried in in advance, so we had really hearty dinners. We would all gather in one tent at dinner time and huddle up together. It was a time for team bonding, laughter and happiness.
Exhausted, we would go to bed early. The best thing to do to keep warm was to fill a Nalgene with boiling water and make a hot water bottle to cuddle in your sleeping bag. The nights could be really tough. I slept very well, and still felt like I was awake, freezing a lot of the time. Other team members barely slept at all. But sleep made all the difference for a good day after.
AND THEN WE GOT TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN!!!
Hopefully this gives a sense of what life will be like out in the Arctic. If you have any questions about what we were doing, or what it was like, leave me a comment down below and I’m happy to go into more detail.