From February 1st to 15th I visited Norway to take part in a ‘polar training course’. Before then I had never had any real polar environment experience or even cross-country skied, and although I have done some downhill skiing the two are so different that didn’t help much. The course was run by two polar experts; Carl Avery, with many crossings of the Greenland icecap under his belt, several seasons in Antarctica and guiding and climbing on lots of mountains. Hannah McKeand was the other; a veteran of no less than six full journeys to the South, more than any other person and in 2006 set a world record for skiing from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole; a 690 mile journey she completed in just 39 days, 9 hours and 33 minutes. With these two polar titans teaching me how could I fail to learn?
The course was based in Haugastøl near the small town of Ustaoset. Haugastøl is just a few miles north-east of Hardangervidda national park. This is where the Norwegian and polar exploration legend Roald Amundsen trained, it was also the only place he ever nearly died. This was due to the extreme weather conditions found on the Hardangervidda Plateau, which are still the same today. A combination of wind, cold, snow and unpredictable weather are very hard to find anywhere but Greenland, the Arctic or the Antarctic, all of which are expensive and not 100% safe, and are thus not ideal for learning.
The two weeks were structured so that each day we had a lesson in the morning and then in the afternoon we would practise all the skills we had learnt that morning. On the last four days we went on a mini expedition around the Hardangervidda Plateau and the surrounding area.
On the first three days I had to learn how to cross-country ski, obviously a key skill to have in this expedition. I learnt first how to cross-country ski with no skin, which is needed for grip when pulling the heavy pulks. The advantage of learning with just the ski is that I was able to get a good technique maximizing the distance to exertion ratio meaning in Antarctica I will be able to use less energy than if I had started with skins and had a worse technique.
Over the next five days I learnt the basics of polar exploration including; setting up camp, cooking, equipment, packing, clothing, fundraising, planning and training. After the practical subjects like setting up camp and cooking in the afternoon we went out and practiced these skills. While during days when we had non-practical lessons such as fundraising and planning we just went our skiing to continue to improve my technique.
The next day we went on a day trip with pulks to get used to the weight and skiing technique while pulling them. Then over the next four days we went a mini expedition to put all the skills I had learnt to the test. The experience was a very good one as I got to do all the expedition preparation and get an idea of the day to day routine of a polar expedition. I also got some limited experience of wind and a white out which will be fairly common in Antarctica so it was good to have that experience.
Over the two weeks I went from a complete polar novice who had never even cross-country skied before to someone who had all the rudimentary skills for polar exploration. As well as this I had a very good time and it was really good fun. Still, I needed practice all the skills I had learnt even more so I could perfect them all for my final expedition. One month from when I got back, I would be heading to Greenland on a two week long practice expedition, in order to hone my skills.
From March 22nd to April 7th I went to Greenland on a two week long expedition in order to hone all the skills I learnt in Norway on my ‘polar training course’. I was really excited to get out as I wanted to put my skills to the test and to get a chance to really experience what a long period of time in a polar environment would be like. Carl Avery, one of the people who ran the ‘polar training course’ in Norway, led the expedition.
I met the other members of my team-to-be in Reykjavik, Iceland, a necessary stop over point as there are obviously no direct flights from anywhere else as relatively few people want to visit Greenland. It was on our first flight that I got my first taste of a common phenomenon involved with travelling to polar environments. Cancelled flights. The first day we flew for two hours to get right over the airport in Greenland but couldn’t land due to low visibility and snow on the runway so we had to fly the two hours back to Reykjavik.
The next day we tried again and this time we were successful. We landed at Tasiilaq airport on Sunday 24th March and it was really great to finally be in one of the three major polar areas. That day we just settled in and wandered around Tasiilaq, a town of around 2,000 people, making it the seventh largest town in Greenland; an indicator of just how under-populated Greenland is. On the next day myself, Carl and the four other members of our team went on a round trip to a nearby mountain. We did this for two reason; firstly we still had to pack, meaning we would have left during the afternoon, not allowing us enough time to cross the fair distance of frozen sea that we had to cross before we could camp. Secondly none of our group had extensive experience on cross-country skis so Carl thought it would be a good idea to have a day without pulks. When we reached the mountain we got a breathtaking view 360 degree view including Tasiilaq, fjords, mountains and the sea.
For the entirety of the two weeks in Greenland we had the most unbelievable weather. So what was it? Blizzard force winds, heavy snow fall or freezing temperatures. Well… It was none of these, it was sunny, with clear sky’s almost every day and the few days that weren’t were still very good by polar standards. Half the days we were down to thermals with rolled up sleeves and even then we were sweating a fair amount. This was good in one way but bad in another. Obviously it the trip easier in some ways and gave the scenery a constant glorious and almost mythical look. However it could have done with being just a little colder mainly for comfort; at times it really was just too hot. But also for experience it would have been good to see what really bad weather can be like so I could be a little more prepared.
When we arrived back, we got packing in preparation for our departure the next day. By this point I had got to know my team fairly well and it showed just an international and multicultural affair polar exploration is; there was an Australian, a New Zealander, a Dane and a Brit as well as myself and Carl. We began our trek by crossing some sea ice, as our expedition went on we would continually go from sea ice to land almost without noticing. For the next 11 days we traveled 120Km, cross-country skiing to our target; the Knud Rasmussen Glacier. Named after the great Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, this glacier was great to see and although we couldn’t get too close due to bad ice break up at the foot of the glacier but it was still quite a sight and a rare opportunity to see a glacier up close. A cool point about the glacier is that it was just before we reached it, we crossed into the Arctic circle.
Along the way we also stopped off at a village and chatted to some of the local towns people, as well as talking to some villagers. Luckily Danish is a language spoken by most Greenlandic and the Danish member of our team was able to act as a translator. Through him we were able to learn about Greenlandic culture, which was very interesting and added an extra dimension to the trip.
Having completed my first extended time in a polar environment with a polar schedule I was even more exited and positive about getting down south to Antarctica. I built my skills up even more and I was able to see what a polar expedition is really like.
The pictures you can see on the homepage are a combination of photo’s by myself, Bjørn Lindhardt Wils and Jonathan Smith who were both on the Greenland expedition with so a big thank you to them for sending me the photo’s.
Gary’s Gym Training Write-up
With Lewis committed to undertaking such an arduous adventure in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, we had to make sure he was as prepared as possible. The length of time the adventure will take, the repetitive nature of the physical exertion, harsh environment and isolated nature meant injury prevention had to be a prime concern, along with developing suitable muscular endurance.
After initial physical screening, strengths and weaknesses were identified along with any mobility issues and an initial programme designed. The first steps were to ensure mobility restrictions were removed, any muscular imbalances addressed and Lewis was taught the techniques that would become the foundations of his performance programme.
Rehabilitation work reduced the impact of any limitations, which would also ultimately lead to improved performance. Including prehab exercises added another layer of protection from injury, the last thing anyone wants while alone in the wilderness. The compound exercises then set the foundations for effective movement in a coordinated manner, which not only led to increased work capacity over time, but meant Lewis could be more efficient in his performance. More efficient means less energy is used during exercise and less wear and tear on the body.
As training progressed Lewis worked through cycles of muscular endurance and strength training. The general idea is to be strong to help prevent injury and reduce the daily demands of the expedition compared to his maximal capacity (so less fatiguing). This along with the muscular endurance training means Lewis can perform for longer at the relatively lower levels of exertion that will sustain him day by day and be able to call upon higher strength when required.
Muscular endurance sessions also went a long way to develop aerobic endurance along with a mixture of running, rowing and playing rugby, which is important for sustained exertion. I’m sure one of Lewis’s favourite sessions was when he got to use the Prowler. This is a sled type device that Lewis would push, pull, or sometimes both to stress his lower body, posture control and cardio system. Nasty but effective is all I will say.
Lewis has prepared well and shown through his training expeditions that he can cope with the physical and mental demands of the challenge ahead. Sustaining the effort all the way to the pole is not something that can be truly rehearsed, but Lewis is ready for the challenge.