AN ARCTIC ADVENTURE
Updated: Jun 3, 2019
I've been sitting on this post for some months now. In February I set off on my first Arctic expedition crossing Norway's Finnmark Plateau from West to East and I've been wondering how to put the experience into words since I returned.
The story began in 2018 when my old work colleague Lucy shared a snowy picture on Instagram with the caption 'Always wanted to explore the Arctic? Now you can! March 2019'. I've always dreamed of exploring the world's cold places but never really dared to imagine I would do it for real. I didn't consider myself to look much like an adventurer (whatever that is) and suffering from a pretty rubbish form of the circulation inhibitor, Raynaud's, I don't typically do well in the cold. That aside, I had a momentary fit of bravery and asked Lucy to send me more information. She did and once I'd read about the expedition - 9 days in total, 6 days skiing, dragging our food and accommodation behind us on pulks - I asked her if it might be possible to reserve me a place. I was sure she'd tell me the team was full but lo and behold there was indeed a space for me. And so it went on until I'd paid my deposit, then balance and it was almost time to set off.
Earlier in the year I mentioned the trip to my friend Alice who decided to come along and I was glad to be going with a friend. Together we trained at the gym, not quite knowing how to train properly for something so far removed from anything either of us had done before but, blindly, we trudged on, interspersing indoor cross training with hilly hikes, at the top of which we rewarded ourselves with picnics and views for miles.
When the day finally came for us to head to Norway I felt sick with nerves. But meeting Lucy by chance at Departures I needn't have worried. My nerves quickly dissipated with excitement and I couldn't wait to meet the rest of the team. In Oslo we met Liv, who would be our guide along with Lucy, and Marianne. In Alta, the team was made complete by Steph, Will and our esteemed four-legged companion, an Alaskan husky named Snø.
The first few days were an adjustment. We went from a group of strangers to knowing, nay, celebrating, the intimate workings of one another's waterworks in next to no time. (The toilet was probably our number one topic of conversation for days!) We started out easy with a couple of days overnighting in log cabins where we learned to put up the tents and pack our pulks. Despite packing many layers and pairs of gloves the cold niggled away at my hands and I began to wonder seriously if I was going to be all right. Every time my hand touched the metal tent poles I could feel my fingers turn to ice. But on we went.
Our first day skiing was brief and a little tricky to get the hang of - adjusting to 30+kg pulling on your hips as you try to move forward takes a little getting used to but once I did I really enjoyed the weight of the pulk and the sound of skis as we glided along. We spent this day on snowmobile tracks so it was relatively easy to move quickly. My hands were sore but I tried to focus on moving fast - this helped - and ignoring it. We were all cold.
Day 2 was our first full skiing day and we woke up early in the morning to temperatures of -33 degrees Celsius. That was nippy. Going to the toilet block, less than 100m from our cabin, was enough to turn my hands - under 3 layers of gloves - to ice. But it was a clear, bright day and once we got going I can honestly say I loved it. We stayed on tracks for the morning before swapping to fresh snow in the afternoon. Although it's a little tougher to plough through the snow there's something magical about it; like you're an explorer discovering a place for the first time in history. We were relatively undisturbed, save for a few snowmobiles early on and some huskies being trained for the annual Finnmark sled race.
This was our first night in tents. I remember suppressing a wave of mild panic when we arrived at camp after the sun had set as the chill in the air bit at the little skin I had exposed between my nose and mouth. Tired from the first full day on skis we put up the tents - unable to feel my fingers I was next to no use in this endeavour - and got our new homes ready for the night ahead. I'm not sure why, but I was shocked that, even inside the tent, it was still so cold. I honestly don't know what I had expected. We moved slowly - rookie error kidding ourselves that we were conserving energy, and made up our sleeping bags and liners at sloth-speed, wondering why we were still so cold. Thankfully, before we could dwell on that too long it was time to dig the toilet, build a fire and eat.
Everyone pitched in and this is where I learned a valuable lesson: everyone has something they can bring to the table. It turned out that I was not very apt at putting up the tents; my hands just couldn't cope. However, I can dig, and so, dig I did. I dug everything I could: porches, toilets, fire pit - whatever. Anything to keep warm and be useful. I moped that I wasn't able to help peel birch bark off trees for kindling or put up the tents but when Liv handed me the shovel and I discovered digging I felt a sense of relief that there was something I could do for my team.
While the first night's camping was hard, the second night was harder. Sleep was interspersed with intense fits of shivering that woke me up. My hands were in agony and no matter how often I put them on my stomach or under my armpits my body didn't seem to hold the heat I needed to bring my fingers back to life. I recalled a blog by a woman who skied the plateau from North to South and her words haunted me in the darkness: You will never feel comfortable. You will never feel warm. By the time morning came I resolved to put my big girl pants on and get on with it. Everyone was cold - this pain is normal, right? Wrong. In the words of Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts: Big mistake. Huge. I should have listened to my body because by the third morning I had developed frostbite in 8 of my 10 fingers and from then on it was a race to prevent it from escalating further. We had another two nights in tents before we'd see another cabin - or person - again. This was lesson number two.
It's amazing what the fear of losing your fingers can do to a person's attitude. My natural inclination when I'm struggling is to keep quiet and use all my brainpower to push said struggle to the back of my mind so I can get through it. It turns out this is one of the stupidest things a person can do in an extreme environment, and probably, in a normal one too. Luckily for me I was with a pretty incredible group of people - I can't imagine a better collective to be part of. Once I admitted I was struggling the group swept me up and made sure I was all right. I had a little cry, afraid that I might not be able to finish or contribute to the team as much as I wanted to, but chatting to Liv reminded me that we were all in it together, taking care of each other, and everyone had something they could do. I got back to digging and by God I dug the best toilet you've ever seen in your life. And you know what? Once you start to open up, other people do, too. I think it's really important to note here that while there was a real danger of my frostbite getting worse I felt 100% safe remaining on the expedition. Liv has spent her life outdoors, on the Plateau in fact; is an officer in the Norwegian Army and a highly trained first aider. I can't really put into words how grateful I am that she worked with me to enable me to continue. I followed her instruction to the letter and as a result I made it to the end with my team - fingers in tact and with a massive smile on my face, too!
We carried on and by the third day it felt like we'd really found our groove with different pairs navigating and leading the team across the plateau. We enjoyed lunches in and out of tents, shared snacks and drinks, and ran around like headless chickens trying to keep warm. We laughed and joked constantly. I thought back to the blog I'd recalled during the first night and thought, this feels pretty great. Yes my hands were still a massive pain in the arse but I was happier than I think I've ever been. I felt as though I was in exactly the place I was meant to be. Some of my favourite memories are from our lunchtimes. We usually had to put up a tent to eat lunch, when the windchill was high, but on a couple of days we were able to sit outside, our backs against the lined up pulks, savouring the view. It was magical - miles of unspoilt land, stretching out in every direction you looked. Come that evening the tents seemed to go up faster, sleeping bags unrolled easier to make beds more promptly. We seemed to have hit our stride and it felt good.
Contrary to popular belief, the plateau is not flat. This came as a bit of a shock to me as we suddenly had to pull our pulks up rather a lot of steep hills but the biggest surprise was that I loved it! I even looked forward to it. I never expected to be so impressed with my body, especially since only a couple of days earlier I cried over how it was letting me down. For the first time during the trip I felt really strong. There's an almost euphoric feeling about getting to the top of a really steep hill - it's tricky. You can't ski the same way you would on the flat because you just slide backwards. Plus, the pulk naturally wants to drag you back to the bottom so you really have to grit your teeth and either go up sideways or kind of make scissors with the skis. Being able to master this gave me such a huge sense of achievement and I looked forward to every opportunity I got to practise.
The hills weren't the only surprise on the plateau. Our last night's camping came to an abrupt end with a hell of a snowstorm that threatened to rip the tents apart. At the crack of dawn it was all hands to the pump to get them packed away. My hands were still a bit useless so I stayed in the guide tent and packed away the sleeping bags and mats to prepare it for the team to take shelter once the other tents were packed away. The wind howled but everyone soldiered on and got everything packed away swiftly, non-plussed by the storm. We had all learned to expect the unexpected by then. The team did such a brilliant job and both Lucy and Liv beamed with pride when they came back to the tent for breakfast.
Our final day on the plateau was a rollercoaster. I spent much of it feeling totally overwhelmed at where we, and I had come from, but also that our adventure was almost over. It was also the day of my 35th birthday and I remember so fondly how we sat having our final lunch together and the group gave me a present of peanut butter M&Ms, which we snaffled for dessert. I felt so lucky to have shared this time with this group of people and was sad when we finally came over the last hill and saw Kasper, one of the guides from Turgleder who had come to meet and take us to Karasjok.
The sense of achievement that came from completing the trip was brilliant. I came away a little in awe of the human spirit and body and with a host of new friends with whom I can't wait to go on more adventures. I'll forever remember the smiles and how we each overcame our struggles with fondness. On our last evening together, Marianne recorded us in conversation, at the request of her local radio station. We all sat around in our room at the Engholm Husky Lodge and reminisced on the week that had been. I'm so glad to have this memory of our trip - here it is if you would like to have a listen:
After the trip we pooled our photographs - many of these are owned by my teammates who have kindly granted me permission to share them with you here. I know I'm a little biased but these are really some of the greatest people I've had the pleasure to spend time with. Their adventures continue so if you're looking for inspiration from down to earth explorers give Liv, Lucy, Steph, Alice, Marianne and Will a follow.
In the meantime I'm planning my return to the Arctic next year. I had a great experience with Lucy and Liv from Turgleder and am excited to go on another, longer expedition with them both in the Spring. Next stop: Svalbard.
If you'd like to have your own adventure, I can't recommend Turgleder highly enough. They are thoroughly experienced and a joy to spend time with. And if you're lucky enough to end your trip at Engholm Husky Lodge be smarter than I was and stay for more than one night. It's magical. Lucy's written about the trip from the other side - from the point of view of a guide. She has lots of photos and videos of this and her other adventures on her website - worth checking out though do be prepared to be bitten by the adventure bug when you do!
I hope you've enjoyed reading this post. Over the coming months I'll share more including some tips and tricks on making your first big trip one to remember, for the right reasons!
See you next Sunday. Until then, keep wondering,