I’m snowed in. Not technically, more like I can’t drive the car out of the road, and everything in England is shut. I’ve enjoyed the training opportunities (and the strange looks as I dragged my not insubstantial children around town on my childhood sledge) but it’s also the ideal time, without distractions but will all things cold and snowy on my mind, to capture some of what happened on my Polar Expedition Training course in Norway last month. Wow, that makes it sound ages ago. It’s both fresh in my mind and one continual surreal memory where the days blur into one. You think you’ll remember each and every moment, but I’ll have to make do with the stand out memories (which clearly I’ve remembered for a reason!).
People have been asking about the food, so I’ll spend some time describing that, although I learned a lot of non-food-related lessons too….
First, a little about the course. Run by Hannah McKeand, who has spent years working and travelling in Polar environments, we couldn’t have been in better hands. I was intimidated by her reputation – she is Amazonian in stature and previously held the record for the fastest coastline to South Pole journey. I needn’t have worried – she was generous, gregarious and utterly fantastic – I think we were all a little bit in love with Hannah by the end! It was brilliant to have a woman course leader and another woman – Denise Main (also with an impressive Polar CV) as assistant. It wasn’t mentioned as remarkable and it being so normal was great.
The first week was spent in the fairytale surroundings of the Hotel Finse, at Norway’s highest railway station. We arrived weighed down with kit, and stepped off the train into swirling snow and freezing temperatures, the shock of it was probably the worst part of the whole trip! Aside from the hotel and a few cabins, there isn’t much to it, and the hotel was only a few paces from the station. With turn-of-century grandeur in the dining room, and a dance floor in the basement made out of the hole left by a World War Two bomb, the hotel has a rich history. Nansen, Amundsen and Shackleton came here to train for their own Polar journeys, the Norwegian Explorers Club meets here annually. It was snowing hard, and the drift came up to the second floor windows. The hours of daylight were short, and when darkness fell, candles were lit in cosy corners and hotel guests gathered round huge open fires. If there was any temptation to stay inside, this hotel was surely it!
But we were straight into the course tasks, which started as we arrived. We’d taken over a class room and spent the first evening meeting each other and going over what we’d be doing during the two weeks to come. Week one was classroom work in the morning, learning how to live in a Polar environment, and week two was the mini-expedition itself – six nights out in the Hardagervidda National Park. I won’t go into too much detail about the course, as that would be giving away all of Hannah’s secrets!
Three of us had come together to train for our upcoming Greenland expedition. Lou, who had done South Pole journeys before, Pete, who owns a tattoo shop in Hereford and has had a colourful background, and me. Aside from that, Heshan was a Sri Lankan who moved to Australia and wanted to do a coastline to Pole journey, Leandro, who wants to cycle to the South Pole, Tasleem, who aims to be the first Yemeni to reach the South Pole, and Jan, who had already rowed the Atlantic and been to the North Pole (but a few years ago now).
We tried cross-country skiing and sledge (or pulk) hauling, tested out gear we’d brought and added to our expedition kit with a shopping trip to nearby Geilo. There is no road access to Finse, you can only reach it in winter by train or on skis. I’d brought my running gear, thinking I might run round the frozen lake or something. I was completely wrong about that. As soon as you stepped out of the hotel, you were almost instantly knee-deep in snow. There’s a reason Norwegians are so good on skis, if you want to go for a walk, you can’t. You must go for a ski.
Blog #1, the food edit:
So we set out, day one, with our pulks loaded up with tents, cookers, warm kit – everything we’d need for the next six days. The day before, we’d packed all our food. You need far more calories when you’re skiing and hauling for 8 hours a day, and expending energy keeping warm. I weigh around 57kg (I lost 3 while I was away and haven’t been able to put it back on yet, despite my best efforts with éclairs). A woman my size going about normal daily life usually needs around 2,000 calories. I eat a lot more than that at the moment as I’m training most days (and I love eating….). When we were out, I took around 4,000, and would probably take more for a longer expedition.
That 4,000 is made up of dried meals – breakfast and supper, powered whey protein and hot chocolate, and grazing bags. You don’t stop for long between legs. You ski for 60 minutes, stop for five minutes. While stopped, you need to pee, take on food and water, adjust any layers, and you’re off again. There isn’t time to stop and cook up a proper meal, so you take high-calorie snacks which should be a good balance of the nutrients you need. I’d carefully bought and weighed out six grazing bags full of exactly that. Day one, when I stopped to shovel some snacks into my mouth, it all tasted lovely. By day three, just the smell of the snack bag made me want to retch. I’d used far too many savoury things – chilli peanuts, dried peanuts, crisps, cheese. Even the little chocolate I’d brought had peanuts in it. I can even smell the grazing bags now, sitting here weeks later! I had to eat, so there was nothing for it but to shovel some down and get on with the day. I learned a valuable lesson though. I definitely didn’t eat as much as I should have, as I didn’t much care for it. I’ll be taking all my favourites next time. Buying them in the UK before I go will be a definite. Shopping in the Norwegian supermarkets was a bit of a lottery (Fruit Skum anyone?)
The dried meals were better, but I’d added lots of butter (too much) to up my calorie intake. I’m also vegetarian, so all my meals were yellow; macaroni cheese, salmon and cheese, you get the idea. Yellow, buttery slop every night wasn’t the most appealing, but it was hot, and so I ate it. The first night, I added whey protein to boiling water and ended up with it separating into a watery mess with lumps floating in it. Hannah watched me struggle with it for a while until she took pity on me and told me she’d brought spare!
The hot chocolate was, I’m glad to say, problem free and tasted fantastic with breakfast.
On the morning of the second day, we were striking our tents from our campsite on a frozen lake when I saw a little brown furry ball scurrying across the snow. It was so easy to spot against the white. We think it was a lemming – and given that we hadn’t seen another living thing for 48 hours, it caused great excitement. Clearly it hadn’t seen many humans before, on skis or otherwise, as I was able to get really close to it and take some pictures.
The next morning, in a location around 10km from the day before, we spotted another lemming (or maybe it was the same one who had hitched a ride?!) in the tent. He was casually scampering in and out, and I wondered what the attraction was. I soon found out – when I looked at my snack bag from the day before, it had a little hole nibbled in it. I was soon almost hand feeding him with chilli peanuts – at least someone liked them!
Day 4- the macaroons. This was a momentous moment. A lot of expedition accounts revolve around the weather, the distance covered, the food, and back to the weather again. This account revolves around the single most important one of those: the food. We’d run short of cooker fuel and descended to the nearest station to pick up a resupply. We were also saying goodbye to Tas, who’d done all she could and was heading back to Finse.
We spotted Denise from hundreds of metres away, heading towards us with supplies. As well as the fuel, she had a huge bag of buns and other goodies. In the station, someone had left us hand-made macaroons.
One of my fellow Greenland team refused the extra supplies, and I could totally understand why. The moment it’s easier, some of your resolve leaves you. Some people went into the station to warm up or to use the loo, but I was unwilling. If I enjoyed the warmth, would I want to go back out onto the trail, or would I feel like heading back to Finse with Tas? I didn’t want to risk it, so I also declined the macaroons. Hannah couldn’t understand why, but encouraged everyone to eat them. I refused unless my team mates did too. Hannah gave them such a hard time about not eating them that eventually they accepted. Once they did, I could too. I fell on the buns and ate till I felt full. But then I ate a macaroon – they were sweet, salty, soft, crunchy, cinnamon-y mouthfuls of pure heaven. I think I ate about four in the end, despite being full, and they were the best things I’d ever tasted.
I think if I hadn’t eaten them, I wouldn’t have made it to our campsite that night, which was a hell of a climb back out of the valley from the station.
I’ve learned I like favourite things, and variety. I’ll be including lots of sweet things (some of those macaroons would be rather good – they fared excellently in low temperatures). When we head to Greenland, it’ll be a long 570km with yellow slop and peanuts every day, and I can’t rely on lemmings, or any other wildlife, to help me out!