The North Pole Lies Below

So, I am here: the North Pole. Last night we camped about half a mile away from the geographic North Pole and slept. This morning we woke and skied one hundred and fifty metres to the point where this is no latitude, no longitude - masses of man made lines converging into a single point.

How does it feel? Amazing and, above all else, a privilege. Out of around seven billion people in this planet only a few hundred have visited this place. Less have skied any significant distance to stand at the top of the world. I am one of a few who now have experienced the serenity and perfection of this barren and beautiful region.

Soon I will ski away from this thing that has for so long been just a dream. I will be picked up by a Russian helicopter and flown to Barneo ice station and then on to Svalbard. The Pole may be behind me, but the memories and images will remain with me until my final day.

I thank you all for following this leg of my path. I will post a series of photos when I return and look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.

Until then...

Chicken Curry and Random Thoughts on Polar Exploration

Cracking day - 21.52 km covered. Terrain was a little more forgiving than in recent days - only a couple of small pressure ridges to cross - and the snow has a hard crust making travel faster. Current latitude is 89 degrees 43 minutes 8.5 seconds. What that means is: less than 17 nautical miles to the North Pole!

So there are now only two days left before this journey ends... assuming the weather doesn't turn into a whiteout, trapping us in the tent for several days. I have mixed feelings: sadness and elation.

I'm sad because, in a way, this journey feels like it has only just started. I've developed a routine for life in a tent, for skiing at two hour stretches and taking food breaks where necessary. That process has only just been hammered out and solidified into one I don't have to think about - the steps are now a habit, and one I will soon discard until my next, bigger journey.

There is a sense of melancholy over the fate of the Arctic ice. The increasing instability and rate at which the polar ice cap fractures and melts may preclude future expositions to this beautiful place. If this is the case then the world will be a much poorer place.

Putting aside my sadness, I look forward to arriving at the pole, drinking a small bottle of whisky and taking a number of promised photographs. More than the end point, I can't wait to have a shower (there is a slightly less glamorous side to trekking and one I'll leave to your imagination). I want to hug my children. And I want to start planning the next trip.

Now you'll have to excuse me - my freeze dried chicken curry awaits, as does my hot grape juice.

I'll have one more update for you all and will post from the North Pole.

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Crossing the 89th Degree and More

There are small moments in life; there are big moments in life. For me, crossing the 89th degree was both: symbolic yet a small step on the way to the North Pole. Crossing the 89th was a momentous occasion as it demonstrated the resolve required to travel this far. Climbing twelve foot high pressure ridges and dragging a pulka over the same obstacle is physically demanding and many of those ice formations have been crossed to reach the 89th degree. And there in lies the symbolism - an acknowledgement of all we have achieved so far.

But boundary; this crossing from one time zone to another is a small step along the way. There will be many more pressure ridges. Vast plains of thin ice lie ahead and will be given a wide berth (an act that will possibly add miles to the journey). Open stretches of water will cut from left to right and may require us to swim across the gap and set up a pulley system for our pulkas. And then there are the fields of ice rubble that force constant changes in direction, adding miles to the trek! Now you understand why the 89th is also only a small step.

And now the journey is over halfway complete. Shortly after midday, just before hauling gear over a monstrous pressure ridge, we crossed 89 degrees and 20 minutes latitude. Another mini celebration and then on to an expanse of deep snow lay on top of freshly formed ice!

Distance covered today: 16.4km

Mood: upbeat, but tired.

Now I'm going to get my eight hours of sleep in preparation for another hard day

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Porridge and butter for breakfast!

Last night a handful of skiers boarded an Antonov 74 at Svalbard airport and flew the three hour journey into Barneo and temperatures of minus 27 C. Unpacked, kit ready to go, we have a quick brief and were flown out onto the ice. Conditions have deteriorated and the many open stretches of water now make achieving the full two degrees unlikely. Instead the distance will be 1 degree and twenty minutes (about 90 miles).

I am disappointed, but this change reflects the fragile nature of the arctic ice.

After a short ski of one and a half hours, we put up tents and caught up on much needed sleep.

This morning I had porridge and butter for breakfast, a hot toddy and chocolate. Bliss.

Today's ski will be broken down into four one and a half hour sessions, the aim being to cover about fifteen kilometres.

Aside from the landing and watching the helicopter leave yesterday, one of the most amazing aspects of this place is the utter silence and Covina the North Pole. There is an almost perfect nothingness that pervades the atmosphere (bar the polar bear tracks detected by the guide, Audun).

Sad to say, even the sound of skis on ice is like a pollutant in this serene place.

On that note, I will leave you to your thoughts.

Next update in a few days times.

Leaving Svalbard Tomorrow

  At least - we have the green light!

After eleven days and many false starts the news is we fly tomorrow, 13th April 2016!

The is a huge sense of excitement in the air and the various teams are ready to go. But there is an issue : the original plan to trek from the 88th degree to the north pole is effectively dead due to the conditions on the ice. Many stretches of open water have been seen by the Russian aircraft crews during their flights over the region. Adding in the recent delays there is now no chance of walking the intended route.

Instead, we will ski from the 89th degree to the north pole. When we arrive at the 90th degree we will turn around and head back to the 89th. Not ideal and a departure from the original plan, but Mother Nature and, probably, global warming have played their respective hands.

So disappointment turns to a racing pulse. Tonight I will go to bed early, sleep and rise at 0600 to load my pulka onto the plane.

Next update will come from on the polar ice.

Until then, here's some huskies ready for the off during a recent race, Trapper's Trail, held every year on Svalbard.

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Update from Svalbard...

I've now been in Svalbard for four days. During that time I have packed gear and prepared for my upcoming trip. There have been some delays due to the ice runway cracking: this meant heavy aircraft carrying supplies and equipment were unable to land. The temperature at the north pole had dropped to about minus 42 C and the runway was repaired by the Russian team at Barneo. The flight in is now scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, a delay of a day and a half.

Here in Svalbard, the lowest temperature was in the mid minus twenties (balmy when compared to the north pole).

I have now acclimatised to the cold weather and am now more than happy wearing only a t-shirt, one fleece, and a shell jacket (plus hat and big gloves)!

Over the last couple of days I have taken my equipment out for a test run, practised erecting the tent I will be living in and perfecting the art of lighting an MSR stove aka the flame thrower.

Now I have a little time for reflection on the events that led to this day. After,I'll be working on mentally preparing for the journey ahead.

Future images will be smaller as my satellite communications system is low bandwidth and prevents larger images from being sent.

 

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Skiing the Wilds of Finse, Norway

Well, there's only a matter of days left before I head off to Svalbard. Once there I will spend a few days acclimatising before flying off the 88th degree and the start of my 225km journey. Before the day arrives, I thought I'd better recount a little more of my journey to Finse, Norway.

Norwegian Sub-zero Temperatures

In March 1914, explorer and icon Sir Ernest Shackleton departed for a rugged, mountainous region of Norway called Finse.

The area is well travelled by many Norwegians, both in summer and winter, and recognised as a training ground that closely resembles the terrain of the South Pole – Shackelton’s intended destination.

Now, as then, the many routes through the mountains and hills are peppered with huts in which travellers can shelter from the extremes of the Nordic snow and sub-zero temperatures.

Shock to the System

At 19:14 on 10 February 2016 I clambered down the step of the SNB (Norwegian State Railway) train and shivered as the cold bit deep.

The temperature was, according to the thermometer on the platform, a bone chilling minus 12 Celsius. This was the first shock to my system.

For several weeks I’d been planning this trip – a test of the coming event in April 2016 – and had obsessed over average temperatures in Finse. The online charts suggested a constant minus 5 to minus 8 Celsius across the last ten years. I remember my thoughts: ‘it’s OK, just a blip. The weather will improve.’

Hills and Valleys Norwegian Style

The next morning didn’t feel warmer. In fact, I could feel the first signs of frostnip (first degree frostbite) developing in the tips of my fingers as I cooked breakfast.

Still undaunted, I set about packing up my tent and collecting fuel and a pulk from one of the local guides (a Norwegian introduced by a mutual friend).

Two hours later, with 50kg of equipment packed in my pulk, I set off on the first leg of the planned 32km country ski of the day.

The route I’d mapped out for this entire training trip would take in three huts and around 75km of hills and valleys through which to ski.

Now, that’s 75km with accurate map reading rather than assuming the people travelling a parallel route to me are going to the same destination as I was! More on that next time.

Very cold

Due to a late start, I missed the first hut by about four kilometres; daylight was failing and an arduous climb in near darkness was an adventurous step too far.

I was pleased that I’d managed to cover about 28km in 6 hours, but irritated I was short of my intended mark. Still, a night out in the tent would present an opportunity to refresh some skills and practise the all-important tent routine.

That first night the thermometer hit a low of minus 22 Celsius. I was cold. Very cold.

Numb feet

As I lay in my sleeping bag, my numb feet elevated up to prevent the blood from welling and cooling, I reminded myself why preparing for the very worst of scenarios is the best option – irrespective of whether this be in the working environment or planning a trip to the North Pole (my destination this April).

The temperatures there, at the top of the world, will be closer to minus 30 Celsius, and probably lower. And pretty much the same as those I encountered on my next day in Finse, which I’ll detail in my next post.

 

Some Thoughts on My Trip to Norway

A stunning sight - Finse, Norway at dusk. I pulled this from my FaceBook page as the words encapsulate much of what is going on in my mind right now.

Tomorrow I'll write a detailed post about my trip to Finse, Norway.

It's been four days now since I returned from Norway and I thought it time to get my thoughts down in writing.

First I'd like to thank everyone who has, and will, support me on my upcoming journey. Sat here at the keyboard, I'm aware that, nearly 20 years ago to the day, a group of friends and I set forth on a similar journey. Not to a cold, inhospitable place, but still a leap of faith. We were young and determined and our passage through that long year took us in new directions and grew us as men.

Looking back, the process we went through was not dissimilar to the short Norway trip and the forthcoming journey to the pole.

All of us chose to volunteer to push our bodies and minds to the limit. We accepted the likelihood of failure, yet we still volunteered. Following completion, we were shaped and moulded into something more than most of us could have ever imagined. Newfound confidence and skills manifested themselves on an almost daily basis.

On that day when we blinked our way out into the morning sunlight, each of us was a different person to the one who started the journey.

How does this translate?

Even though many years have passed, we're still all very capable human beings. I'm sure that, like me, the need for adventure is still alive in all those who elected to subscribe to the demands of the job.

History has shown we are all capable and determined. Every one of us is prepared to push that little harder to achieve their goals.

My trip to Norway was a spur of the moment decision, although the notion had been there for several months. This fact alone is reminiscent of the path we chose.

Living in the extreme cold, if only for a few days, and experiencing arduous conditions was a pure thrill, even if some of my preparatory work was less than well executed! Note: always prepare for the worst and NOT the average temperatures depicted on a graph!

Choosing to make a break from the norm and go it alone was both exhilarating and liberating. Whilst not totally isolated, the sense of being away from day to day office life was an experience that has captured my imagination and will spur me on to greater things.

Allowing myself the freedom to become truly independent reminds me of how resilient and determined we all can be when carrying a cause in our hearts.

And there's more.

My family are forgiving of my ever so slightly selfish ways and, for that, I am grateful beyond that which words can convey.

The true irony is that, in many cases, and with a family to think about, it is not possible to become independent without support. This one fact hit me hard.

I ate for ten men, pulled hard on the hills and revelled in the barren beauty of Finse.

This journey, my first true physical test in a very long time, was a defining moment. And, much like that day 20 years ago, has reignited faith in myself and the belief there is more to life than simply money and an office job (although both go towards paying the bills).

My message? Time has moved on. That matters little. What counts is the fact we all have some hidden, burning desire; a searing itch that demands to be scratched. I've raked my nails over the first flare of irritation and now look forward to the next.

For all of you that know me: I did this. I will do more. So can you.

Thanks.

Telling My Story to Carlson Wagonlit

I wasn't quite sure where to put this post, so it's ended in the dank recesses of my blog and nestled in the thoughts category. So what was the deal? A good friend of mine, an 'IT guy' at Microsoft, asked if I would come and speak with one of their customers. The reason? To give Carlson Wagonlit an insight into my journey to the north pole; the reason why I'm doing this; the chosen charities and how Microsoft are helping me get the message out to followers.

The Heart of the Presentation

This presentation was all about the charities, in particular Diana Award. I wanted to convey my passion for these amazing organisations and show Carlson Wagonlit how I intend to add a little extra to the daily reports.

As I've said in an earlier post, Microsoft have provided me with a Windows phone and Band 2 fitness tracking sports watch. Used together, these two devices will collect and store key information about my health and the distance covered each day. Every evening I'll set up my satellite phone and transmit the daily statistics back to a central server from where it will be displayed on a website. Yes, that means you too can follow along (I'll be posting the URL soon).

Did Carlson Wagonlit seem interested? Yes, and in more than just the technology (one of the main reasons for them attending). I truly believe the message - my message - carried over to them. And that message was? Help me to help these amazing charities by donating even just a little money to them.

How Did I Feel?

I was terrified. My right hand was shaking and I had to constantly remind myself of how to give an effective, rabble rousing speech. There were a couple of stammers, a repeat of a few sentences and the crackle of my dry throat as the talk moved on, but it felt good. No, better. I felt fantastic. Not only was I standing in front of a team of very senior company staff members, talking confidently, but I was getting the message across. And, I hope, doing all of this with just a little style.

But this is my view. What did the Microsoft attendees have to say? They thought the presentation was great. I put across my story, built a compelling picture, grabbed the group's attention and held it. A rapt audience. Well, all apart from the one guy who kept yawning. Oh well, can't win them all.

Why This All Means To Me

At last I've proven I can stand in front of a collection strangers, engage and entertain them (yes, I did get some laughs). This is a huge boost for my self-confidence and at least a partial validation of my speaking skills. But there is another, more important aspect. You see, over the next couple of years I aim to build up a repertoire, one that will allow me to become the voice of one of the charities I'm raising funds for.

A tall order? Probably. Can I do it? Yes! Now all I have to do is find a charity willing to give me a shot at the title :).

There was also mention of possible donations for my three charities. I'll wait to see what come back, although I'm confident and excited.

P.S a big thank you to Michael and Paul for helping to make this happen.

The Microsoft Band 2 Has Arrived

Band 2 fitness tracker Yes, I am a little bit excited because my shiny Band 2 has arrived. Billed as a fitness tracker, the device appears to have taken some design inspiration from, ahem, *other hardware manufacturers*. It's a pretty funky looking piece of hardware.

Now, in the old days, that last statement alone should have been enough to send an army of hardcore athletes speeding towards Amazon or PC World. Fortunately for online and offline retailers, the trickle of customers generated my previous comment is unlikely to swamp their servers or stores.

Okay, let's go on with it.

Microsoft Band 2: Look and Feel

Go back a couple of years and you would have found me dismissing the idea of any kind of smartwatch. The early Samsung models were too clunky for my likely. And ugly.

But times have move on. The Band 2 looks pretty cool and it's a definite step up from the first version which looked pretty like a manacle. The latest version of Microsoft's fitness tracker seems to have taken appears to have have a shot of cool injected into its sleek chassis. A combination of metal, rubber and a pretty large touchscreen combine to give it the professional look you'd expect from a company trying to capture large market share.

I have to admit that it's not the most comfortable device to wear and Microsoft could really do with offering a variety of straps. But it's okay - no worse than my Garmin GPS 410 when I first bought it.

At this point, let me clarify something: I've only had the Band for a few days and I'm guessing it'll 'give' over time.

How Accurate is the Band 2?

It's pretty good - comparable to my tried and tested Garmin GPS 410 (which, although now a few years old, is still a great training aid). The big advantage the Band 2 has over its big rival, the Apple Watch, is a built-in GPS - straps or pouches for you handset are not required thanks to some thought on Microsoft's part.

One thing that did irritate me was the time to acquire a satellite lock. Comparing my GPS 410's results to the Band's on one particular session I found a 500m difference in overall distance. Not a huge amount, but enough to put a dip in my, so far, improving times. The easy remedy would be to leave the GPS function always on, but this drains power and I'm prone to taking off at the drop of a hat for a run or pulk pulling session - flat batteries aren't helpful.

The Microsoft Health App

Now this I do like! Built-in mapping on the splits, calorie counter, session duration, HRM and all the usual features you'd expect are there. But there's more. There are downloadable training plans (running, cycling, weights, etc) and these can all be accessed via the app. In addition, the app will give you an indication as to how your fitness is improving.

The Health App is available for the Lumia range of phones, iPhone and Android. That said, there's significantly less functionality available on iOS or Android. For example, you can use the Band to control various setting, including the Lumia music player and this feature isn't available on non-Microsoft devices. Not an issue as you can download your iTunes/Google Play library to your Windows phone.

That's All for Now

I'll leave it at that, for now. There is still much testing to be done on the Band 2 and I'm looking forward to giving it a trial run in Norway (scheduled for late January). There'll be refreshed post soon after I return.