The Dark Ice Project is underway! This website will be kept on the back-burner for the next eight months or so. Shock horror! Until then, please do head over to the Dark Ice website and make contact via there. Alternatively, the contact page on this website will also be periodically monitored. Thanks and have a great start to 2014!
Surely the distance from one place to another is fixed? Or is it? A mile is a mile isn't it? Yes, but the story is a little more complex than that.
One of the things those of us planning and then treading the snow on polar expeditions have to consider a lot is distance. Most other aspects lead from this: our efficiency, daily mileages etc. It might sound a little pedantic but let me expand on just one side of 'distances' which can lead to quite public contentions.
Firstly, let's think of the mainland of the United Kingdom as an island and try and work out what its circumference is - that is, the distance you'd need to walk if following the coastline all the way around. If you look at a small map and measure it, you might get about 2000 miles. If you took an enormous map and measured it again, you might get 3000 miles. If you were to walk it and measure your distance travelled by GPS, it could be spectacularly larger. If you took into account each tiny 'in and out' around each individual bit of rock jutting out into the sea, it becomes almost infinite. Why is this?
It's all about scale. In order to measure the distance or circumference of a very complex shape, you need to first make a decision of what resolution you're going to measure at. This makes it very hard to compare to the measurements made by others unless you're both on the same page.
Now, let's shift this to the more familiar (well, for some at least) arena of the Polar Regions - the Antarctic continent and its permanent ice and the Arctic landmasses, plus the ocean in the middle. Distances matter a lot - one of the first things an expedition is asked about is: 'How far did you go?'. People love to be able to relate, measure, compare and contrast. My journeys don't tend to be circumnavigations, so really it's more a case of straight lines or kinked straight lines for me and my teams. Because of this, I've come up with a few rules of thumb I use for my own work, communicate to others and would suggest would be common sense in order to compare one route to another.
1) It's always tempting when vying for coverage and attention to try and embellish the stats of an expedition - we see it all the time with expeditions claiming to constantly withstand minus one million degrees when in reality it's minus fifteen and with a warm sun. This happens with distances too. During a day in the harness I will snake left and right around obstacles and essentially, will physically haul my load further than the GPS suggests is the case in a straight line. On a 1400-mile route, it could be argued that an expedition has travelled 30 or 40% further. Clearly, you can't state this, otherwise where would it end? The only way to compare fairly is to claim an 'as the crow flies' distance and then state as a footnote that the ice (when on the sea) may have drifted and the actual distance trudged is greater.
So, measure distances day to day in a straight line.
2) If you need to, over weeks and months, deviate around things, then I'm afraid that the Pandora's box of problems will explode outwards if you 'up' your travelled distance to account for the wiggling route. You have to accept that straight lines are nigh on impossible, part of the game and that a line from the start at A and the end at B is the only reasonable way to state distances.
So, full length routes are, on the scale of the whole distance, measured in a straight line.
3) Kinky journeys. Some expeditions aren't just A-B, but they are A-B-C or even A-B-C-D-C-E-A. At this point common sense needs to be used. If a route across the Antarctic with a central point of the South Pole is planned with the altered direction at the Pole greater than, say, 40 degrees, then it wouldn't be fair to measure the distance from point A-C and ignore point B, the Pole. The distance quoted would be lower than in reality and not at all representative of the journey. If the journey is split up into phases then they should have their own straight lines.
Let me provide two up-to-date examples. The Scott Expedition currently underway is an A-B-C-B-A expedition (A is McMurdo, B is the Beardmore Glacier and C is the South Pole). The Beardmore is not directly between McMurdo and the Pole and so it is fair to support the expedition's claim of a total of 1,800 miles. If a straight line from McMurdo to the Pole was used, the return would total nearer 1,700 miles. A second example, this time in the Arctic, is my own Dark Ice Project. We have multiple phases; from Qaanaaq to the edge of the Arctic Ocean (with lots of wiggling!), from the coast to the North Pole, the reverse back to land, and then a route either as before or over the icecap back to Qaanaaq. This distance is going to be in the region of 1,800 miles too. However, a straight line from Qaanaaq to the Pole and back, without the dogleg, is a little over 1,700 miles. A journey with a right-angle at the mid-point would have a much more dramatic disparity.
So, complex journeys should be measured to be representative of the constituent phases.
Food for thought when reading about journeys long or short, cold or hot and part of my manifesto for #honestexploration.
This blog will lock fairly soon in anticipation for the Dark Ice Project and from that point, please check out that website for news and updates from the far North!
It's been a good while since a post on here and the excuses are thin on the ground - a combination of being busy in the Arctic, negotiating exciting new agreements and plain old 'not getting around to it'!
Well, there's been lots of good news. Dark Ice (the Dark Ice Project) is alive and well, ready to launch this December and with a great online video offering due to go live soon. The old and fairly tired website has had a complete redesign and we're really pleased with it. In December when this website goes quiet, it'll be your hub for the lastest news of our progress en route to the North Pole in winter - tracking us and hopefully getting into a dialogue live from the ice! Here's a snap of the homepage but check it out since there's lots of smooth scrolling and designy coolness going on there.
After the drama of last winter and also the immediate ending of that crucial 'phase one' of the project, the depot-laying meant for that season was pushed back. Instead of delaying the whole expedition a year, I travelled up to Qaanaaq in the High Arctic last month (August) to lay supplies by boat with the assistance of some great people - both local and not.
Far more important than the website though is the news that the Dark Ice team has doubled in size and after months of introductions and a lot of soul-searching, I'm thrilled to unveil the new group planning to take on the polar winter with me:
They are James Wheeldon from the UK, Anastasia Kim from Siberia and Anders Rasmussen from Denmark. I'm sure that the combination of youthful motivation, experience and varied skills will give us the very best chance of success. To find out more, check out the Dark Ice team page.
Finally and on a completely different note: building a career around polar travel means building partnerships with a wide array of brilliant people and inspirational brands. As such, I'm beyond excited to be working with Wolsey as their rebirth catapults them back in the luxury menswear industry. I am representing them as a Global Brand Ambassador and although only having come on board a few weeks ago, the sheer calibre of the team and the quality of the products make it blindingly clear it's to be a great future! Lots and lots in store so look out for more news.
Formed back in 1755, they have a truly substantial background in the pioneering age of polar exploration, outfitting both British and Norwegian competitors for the Poles a century ago.
Success in polar travel essentially boils down to making a long list of decisions, topped off with that final dose of chance which you can't control. Whilst in the process of nurturing a polar idea into something ready to take onto the ice, literally thousands of yes/no or more complex choices must be made. Some are easy and change little throughout the decades: should we take skis? Yes (although in fact one recent North Pole journey used snowshoes in their place). Some are very personal and frankly make next to no difference to success: should I wear merino wool underwear from this manufacturer or that manufacturer? Some could actually be mistaken for being in one of those former categories and these are the interesting ones. It is, as we see year on year and decade on decade, so easy to blindly follow the crowd. Of course, many times a cliche is a cliche for a reason - it's the right choice. Sometimes however, well, we shall see.
On the list of 'things to get right', I'd argue that shelter is right up there. Major unsupported polar expeditions can very rarely get away with taking backups of such heavy items and so there is little room for error. A lost tent through storm, bear attack or fire is in the vast majority of cases, fatal.
It was with this in mind, and in the aftermath of my experiences on The Long Haul, where a tunnel tent was perfect, and on the Vatnajokull, where it was not, that I reassessed my world of poles and canvas. You've got to start at the beginning and work out what it is you want to achieve. Specifically, for the Dark Ice Project looming at the tail end of this year, I wanted a few things:
- Stability in winds attacking from any direction
- Quick handling to pitch and collapse
- Security to not be caught by gusts when being handled
- Good venting
- Reasonably low weight
- Breathability to avoid the miserable hoarfrost (the bane of every cold weather camper's life)
- Build quality, as there are no chances to replace damaged parts and repair is never perfect
- Easy repair in the case of being ripped by a bear
- Quietness in high winds so we can get some sleep
The 'default' choice of mobile polar parties is the double-fly silicone coated nylon tent - either in geodesic (dome) or tunnel format. When you know which direction the wind is coming from most of the time (on large icesheets), weight is critical and the sun is up in the day (or all night too), these make a lot of sense. You can get a two person expedition tent weighing less than four kilos and they are quick to use in practiced hands. However, they struggle in side winds, are cramped and cannot breathe.
I looked back at history and tried to shed the blinkers which so often stifle the innovation in modern polar travel. Semi-permanent structures are great for basecamps and non-mobile expeditions and the heavy pyramid tents (weighing over thirty kilos) had their uses, but what about that age-old design of the tipi? In simple terms, a symmetrical canvas supported by a single vertical pole. Tentipi had come to my attention some months previously and I started reading and talking to others about them. Soon, I knew I just had to try one and their Swedish manufacturers agreed to send me a Zirkon 5 cp.
There could not be fewer things in common between my old Lightwave and Hilleberg workhorses and this traditional-looking yet defiantly modern shelter. The single pole was much larger and stronger. The canvas was a single layer of polycotton - feeling more like fabric than the plasticy sili-nylon, but of course heavier. This is easier to sew than nylon if ripped and burns more slowly too. It was a single space inside, with no porches and of course, tall enough to stand up inside. On paper, for an expedition of the length of Dark Ice and also on polar terrain where the winds would be lighter yet more multi-directional than on icesheets, it seemed perfect.
Without dwelling too much on the misfortune of the past and anyhow, the episode is documented fully in Maybe, the lack of ice-time in the winter of 2012/13 meant that I could not fully complete the transition to tipi-traveller. We had used it only a few times. Prior to even that first phase of the journey though, I had asked a London-based sailmaker to make modifications - almost always the way with off-the-shelf products destined for serious Arctic use. The internal drawstrings to control the windows in the top of the tent were removed and the flaps stitched closed, leaving a velcro vent to allow moisture to escape. Double D-ring backups were sourced for the tensioning straps and extraneously additions removed to save weight. A circular piece of plate aluminium was milled from scratch to keep the central pole under compression and on the snow surface.
In subsequent tests though, in the UK and Iceland, I've been able to, along with my teammates, get a good feeling for the Zirkon. For me the clinchers were, and are the reasons why a Zirkon 7 (for a larger team of four) will be the only thing between us and the brutal polar winter this December for up to seven months:
The polycotton is the major constituent of the Tentipi and is the strength inherent in its design. Yes, it's heavier than double nylon by about 40%. However, and this is critical, it really does allow water vapour to pass through, meaning that the inner walls of the tent are not covered in frost in the morning, the humidity is kept low when cooking and therefore, insulated lynchpins like sleeping bags stay drier. The greenhouse effect of the sun beating down on a double fly tent and creating a warm air layer in between the flys is not relevant on Dark Ice and so the tipi does not suffer. A nylon inner can be added but it would be counter-productive for us. Without two nylon sheets flapping about against each other, the polycotton is remarkably quiet too, at worst being a lower-pitch 'whoop' sound when the wind picks up.
Before the tipi gains any elevation when being pitched, thereby becoming susceptible to the wind, it is already securely anchored to the snow or ice in an octagon - ice screws, skis, poles or bags of snow can be used as anchors. This is a massive safety feature and makes the loss of the tent in a storm even less likely. The circular symmetry of the Zirkon means that the wind can change direction by ninety degrees during the night, and we don't need to bat an eyelid. Dave, our dog, might want to move a little bit back into the lee of the tent though!
The central height of over six feet allows for people to stand up and dress/undress in comfort and the footprint lets kit be stored around the edges and sleeping mats arranged around the centre. A V-shape in front of the door is kept ground sheet-free for boot storage and an easy exit.
This is probably the most under-rated reason for having one tent over the other but could even be the most significant. Perhaps only those with multi-month journeys under their belt can fully appreciate its importance. Is it a nice place to be? The psychological impact of your home, when away for vast tracts of time, being inviting and easy to live in can make the all the difference. In this respect, the tipi really does have the X-factor. I can see myself calling it home for the vast majority of the winter, spring and part of the summer of 2013/14.
I might even start to consider the Tentipi for use on icesheet expeditions too. Food for thought.
I'm sure some of you followed my brief training expedition in Iceland last month. I spent some time in the snowed-over Northern Fjords, the western peninsula and ice-covered stratovolcano of Snæfellsjökull and then joined a friend for some icecap time on the Mýrdalsjökull via the Sólheimajökull ice tongue.
Well, the point of the expedition was firstly to get out on the ice and work with a potential future team-mate, but also to run through some new systems and test out some new equipment. I, of course, wore the industry-leading staples of Montane and Bridgedale clothing I rely on for every journey and had a few other items I was keen to evaluate.
Alpkit is a unique brand from the UK who sell direct - they balance out well-thought-out products and very good pricing with occasionally limited stock levels. I've found this trade-off in the past to be well worth it, and in fact I wore one of their down jackets on The Long Haul (a predecessor to the Filo) to great effect.
This time, it was their equipment and accessories rather than their clothing I was interested in. In particular, I have been after a good, strong and lightweight base camp tent from which to launch training and preparation expeditions for a while. So, armed with a 6-man Heksa, we headed up the ash-strewn ice tongue and through the crevassed icefall, setting up our camp nearby. As expected for a tent with that number of vestibules (3), poles and guys, it took around fifteen minutes to set up (with two people very well versed in tents but unfamiliar with the exact model) which I thought was pretty good. The various components were colour-coded and intuitive to use with the fabrics, poles and fittings well stitched and manufactured.
Inside, it was cavernous (yes, there were only two of us) and I'd say it would be fine for four people and plenty of equipment. The snow valances are large and sturdy and the internal pockets well-placed and numerous. The built-in ground sheet is not entirely waterproof and a heavy-duty addition is needed on wet snow (available from Alpkit) to solve this. The wind picked up substantially over the first two days and prior to building a snow-wall to protect our camp, the tent survived well with gusty and changeable winds of speeds over sixty miles per hour. I would not wish to leave it unattended in these conditions though - I hasten to add that this applies to any large tent in conditions where gusts and wind direction changes are rife. (snow walls, double-poling and using bodyweight against a wall are standard parts of hourly maintenance needed in storms)
In all, as a fixed base-camp tent for a non-transit camp and a small/medium size team, I could not imagine it performing better. The price is half or even less than half the price of comparable alternatives.
We also used some of the Alpkit gear to integrate into my normal camping and skiing systems, like cutlery, lanterns (useful for expeditions in not-too-cold locations since the batteries can't be kept warm) and their excellent (and I really mean it) drybags which I've used for years. There's nothing about any of these additions which I would have concerns about taking on a highly-committed unsupported journey.
Since I first read about PowerPots on Kickstarter, my interest was held. Charging and electrical power on polar expeditions is a perennial headache and options usually involve heavy batteries or unreliable solar panels (when the sun is available!). The idea of essentially exchanging a little bit of stove efficiency for the ability to charge battery packs with a reliable high-power current is very attractive. Of course, there is a risk of having an expedition lose critical power for vital devices if the pot failed and so build-quality and reliability is paramount. Having used the pot on the trip extensively and not treating it with too much care, to see if it could withstand robust use, the materials used certainly do the job. The lack of moving parts is one bonus and the pot electrics are encased behind a silicone seal. The cables are again heat and cold protected in silicone sheaths and the regulator and battery intermediates are made from good quality plastic.
Upon starting the stove, the 5W current (indicated by a green LED) began almost immediately and it kept our various USB devices charged with ease. I'm particularly keen to try out upcoming 10+W models and potentially a 12V DC regulator for larger items. This gadget could be a game-changer for extended winter journeys.
Also, given the limited number of nights I've spent in the Tentipi Zirkon 5 (our main expedition tent for the Dark Ice Project) after the false-start in December 2012, we took this up onto the ice. The end result was exactly as I'd hoped; stable in winds of changing direction, quiet (a lack of flapping nylon) in wind, breathable through the polycotton fabric, spacious inside and easy to pitch/collapse.
Oh, and there were lots of horses. With Mohicans.