On 12th July 2012 my new series of expeditions was announced. The ultimate goal will be the North Pole, unsupported, via a new route in the polar darkness of winter. Please visit north2012.com for more infomation.
This wasn't originally intended as a metaphorical article title that applies to daily life but if it works in that way, all the better!
This is a subject which is very rarely tackled, yet is fundamentally important to expeditions. The question is of when it's the right thing to do to ski, scramble and haul, or to stop.
On one hand there is always the pressure of racing against the clock. Even on expeditions without ambitions of speed-records, there are deadlines which are unavoidable. Miss them and you'll lose your ride home, run out of supplies...or run out of ice. This means that every moment when I'm sat on the front of my sledge eating the copious calories which keep me going for ten or twelve hours hauling a day, or fixing broken bindings, I could be making precious miles. There's also the macho desire to keep pushing on when the wind is strong, visibility low and sledge feeling even heavier than normal. You think, 'don't stop now. Only the weak stop now and you'll fail.'
On the other hand, the reality of polar expeditions is that the intelligent win and the naive and impulsive lose, or worse, don't come home. There comes a point when the energy expenditure and inaccurate navigation in whiteout conditions or crazy headwinds becomes counterproductive. Also, equal only to the frustration of having to stop and put the tent up when you'd rather be making progress, is the feeling of unadulterated relief when you dive through a tent entrance and escape the violent chaos that is the world outside in a polar storm.
There are a plethora of examples of expeditions which have failed to succeed due to spending too much time sitting in a tent. There are equal numbers which have been thwarted due to an unwillingness to play the long game. Some did not return home. There's no magic formula to making one of the hardest decisions a leader has to take responsibility for - when to move and when to stay put. It's a matter of judgement and often, gut instinct.
When do you stop skiing?
Conscious of the recent lack of public events, here are three! All London-based for the moment I'm afraid but hopefully spreading further afield in future.
I'll be signing copies of The Long Haul and my newly-published photographic book Kalaallit Nunaat in branches of Cotswold Outdoor on three Thursdays this June. All will be 1pm to 2pm and at the following locations:
Cotswold Outdoor Islington 14th June
Cotswold Outdoor Holborn 21st June
Cotswold Outdoor Piccadilly 28th June
See you there!
It's always a contentious topic but important to tackle every now and again. Environmental issues are forever linked with polar travel and so it's not something we can ignore.
There are some facts:
- Contracts/permits are now being issued at an increasing rate for drilling and mining in Arctic territories.
- Humankind requires energy, minerals, metals and other resources.
- Shipping routes are open now in the summer, which previously weren't.
- Conditions on permanent icecaps and in sea ice regions are deteriorating.
- Ice levels fluctuate and sometimes are an increase on the previous year.
- Some estimates of ice loss year on year are vastly exaggerated.
- Headline grabbing claims of ships reaching super-high latitudes are misleading. For example, the 2009 Greenpeace voyage to the Hall Basin in the Nares Strait was due to an anomaly in the ice (ice arches not forming either end of the straits) which has not occurred since.
I have some misgivings about the current relationship between polar travel and environmentalism:
- Green claims are shamelessly used to enhance the worthiness of a proposal for sponsorship.
- Expeditions, even those labelled as responsible and carbon-neutral, are not good for the environment. They burn fuel and use resources.
- Campaigning by polar travellers can lead to bizarre 'saving the world' slogans when their understanding of the science can be non-existent. It can often be more for personal egotism.
So, where do we go from here? I'm a firm believer in the free markets and to a broad extent, capitalism. It fits in well with my understanding of the way the real world and the natural world works. It therefore makes sense that isolated and idealistic attempts to campaign or lobby will ultimately fail in the fight against profits and bottom lines. People, naturally, will tend to be most generous and 'green-minded' when they have spare cash. To that end, in my mind the only way to make serious inroads against any human-caused damage to the global environment is to make it commercially viable and profitable.
Those who control the direction in which large sums of money are invested need to decide that mining minerals and exploiting fossil fuels is not the best way to make more money. Recycling is a good example of this - one of the few success stories. Using existing waste materials, like plastics, to create new products has proved more efficient in the long term than starting from scratch. Until the conceptual and technical leaps are made in other fields, I don't believe anything will change, no matter how much good-intentioned campaigning there is.
I think that the reality is that the vast majority of us want the same thing - a pristine natural environment, a conserved natural world and a prosperous civilised world. What can be harder to take is that the practical way to achieve this might not be by appealing to a person's better nature, but to their wallet. The same end result, but a route which works with human tendencies, not against them.
Sleep is one of the best parts of an expedition. You've toiled all day to an intensity which drains the life out of you in conditions which sap your energy. Because of this, getting a good night's sleep is one of the vital aspects of any journey. The noise of the wind, the extreme cold and moisture can make this very tricky indeed. Thorough research and preparation is therefore vital. The choice of what you sleep in is a good place to start.
Polar expeditons are not all made the same. Some are at altitude - some at sea level. Some at -40 degrees and some which vary from freezing to thawed temperatures. This makes the choice of a sleeping bag complicated and also critical to the success of a long expedition. Poor quality rest will degrade someone's ability to work in extreme conditions over many weeks or months. Here are some of the decisions that I make when choosing a sleeping system.
- Down bags -
Bags filled with goose or duck down are a traditional method of creating insulation through loft and a warmed air layer. It's enormously lightweight and allows the bag to be compressed down very small for storage in a sledge or rucksack (I tend to keep my tent-bag in a rucksack on my back - partly so I have a life-saving sleeping bag should my sledge be lost in a crevasse or lead). They do however perform less well in the wet. Moisture from a sleeping person and items drying in a bag will move through the inner lining and into the down (unless a VBL is used). This wet down will then lose its loft and stop insulating to anywhere near its original ability. This moisture will most likely freeze on the down and will not escape through the water-resistent outer shell easily. Water can also enter the bag through this outer shell which, by way of being breathable, is not fully waterproof.
Once water and ice-logged, drying out a down bag is difficult. On icecaps where there is potential for reasonably flat, stable surfaces and periods of sunshine, the bag can be left on top of a sledge and the ice allowed to sublime out. The down will then recover and loft up. On sea-ice or heavily crevassed ground, it's impractical to have the sleeping bag strapped to a sledge and so drying it out is harder.
- Synthetic bags -
There is an alternative; using bags which replace down filling with other man-made fibres, often Primaloft or similar. These are a lot heavier and harder to pack down than their down counterparts. It's harder to therefore get such a low temperature rating for a given weight. One great advantage of these bags is the fact they keep their insulating properties even when wet or ice-logged. This is great for when it's impossible to stop moisture entering from within (e.g. when having to dry lots of clothing inside the bag) or when the ambient temperatures are straddling zero degrees, meaning that ice/frost melts and enters from the outside.
VBLs (vapour barrier liners) are waterproof bags that sit inside a sleeping bag and stop moisture from a sleeping person entering the bag. This can result in a clammy night's sleep and a silk liner within can avoid the 'plastic bag' sensation. Socks and gloves that need drying and keeping warm are usually put between the VBL and sleeping bag.
So, the big question is what would you use for different conditions? There are various opinions on this and no clear answer with so many variables. Just because, for example, you're skiing over the sea, an Arctic Ocean expedition would not necessarily need a synthetic bag just to protect from water as the temperatures are averaging so low - there are other factors.
Greenland icecap (spring) -35 to -5 degrees - DOWN
e.g. Mountain Equipment Snowline, Iceline or Everest depending on how warm you sleep
Greenland icecap (summer) -20 to +25 degrees - EITHER (down if weight-conscious)
South Pole/Antarctic (summer) -40 to -10 degrees - DOWN
North Pole (spring) -55 to -10 degrees - SYNTHETIC (due to lack of opportunity to dry out bag during day)
Iceland/Norway (winter/spring) -25 to +15 degrees - SYNTHETIC (due to wetness of freeze-thaw alternation)
(NB Northern Outfitters, a USA-based manufacturer, are producing impressive equipment but I've yet to test them)
Essentially, synthetic is the 'safe' option but is heavier and harder to achieve low temp ratings with than with down bags. Hopefully the right decision results in a good night's sleep!