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.

Alternatives to Chasing Heroes

Deception Island - Shackleton's Intended Destination Maybe I'm being a little harsh. Bear with me. Everyone of us has a great adventure at the root of our existence. To some it may be little more than a one off, to others it the ultimate destination in a life of outrageous achievement. The problem is this: most people will never realise their full potential. Are you shocked? I hope so, because you should be. What I've just stated is that the vast majority of the world's population will never make their dreams real; your heroes will be as untouchable as ever.

Why? Why do we find it so hard to follow in the footsteps of those who inspire us? Or, looking at it another way, how do we so easily let our dreams slip between our fingers?

For many people it's simply a case of time - there's not enough of it. The constant demands of work, family and social lives can, if we're not careful, be draining. Our hopes and aspirations are consigned to a twilight world; a fantasy world that exists only in our minds. There's nothing wrong with spending time with people you love and care for, but it can be all too easy to let your dreams be discarded.

Some of us are lucky enough to be in that enviable position of being 'carefree'. No, this doesn't mean they're happy to close their eyes and walk into moving traffic - it's about not having anyone who needs your direct support e.g. children or elderly parents in need of constant care. I have several friends who are fortunate to be in this position. One mate in particular made a grand announcement - he was going to climb Mount Everest. Was I jealous? Do dogs do a funny dance when you itch the base of their spines?

Sadly he failed in his attempt. I don't mean failed as in, 'got halfway up the mountain and then collapsed.' No, he never even made it onto the plane. Why? At the last moment he let fear overwhelm him. I felt genuine pity for him, not least because this one trip had been his dream; the flicker of adventure he'd nurtured into a blazing inferno and one so easily extinguished by doubt. After all the training, he came to question his own abilities.

Another problem many would be adventurers face is the sheer cost of mounting an expedition to some far flung corner of the planet. My friend had self-funded the trip to the Himalayan mountain - a cost of about $60,000. Most people can't afford those sums of money. Of course there are ways to raise the cash: sell your house, find corporate sponsorship or, as I've done, set up a business. I'm using the skills I've learned to deliver a series of mentoring and motivational presentations and workshops. But not everyone has the time or inclination.

So how can you achieve your aims without breaking the bank, ruining your love life and driving away all your friends?

Easy!

Jump into Mini Adventures

Ever thought about cutting your dream down into smaller chunks? Make it easy on yourself, your finances and your loved and go micro. Instead of climbing K2, head out to Ben Nevis. Forget the full Artic trek and hop over to Sweden and ski  part of the Kings Trail (a 440 mile path through some of the most beautiful Scandinavian scenery imaginable - as long as you like snow and mountains). Think the Marthon de Sables might be a little much for you body? Try the Ocean Floor Race - still a long slog, but not as tough as MdS.

If some of those options look a bit too much, then you can go more niche and closer to home. Try a weekend of canoeing some of the rivers and canals that cut through Britain. Compete in a Spartan Race (great fun, especially 'The Beast'). Cycle across the county you live in.

Those are just a few ideas. I'm sure you can think of more.

Tired of not getting more out life? Then maybe it's time to stop chasing your heroes.

I'm Giving Up Aspiring

It's not the destination that matters, but the path we take. Quite a few years ago, there was a young boy who saw the world as a wonderous place. He read books, watched films and listened to tales of heroics and adventure. To him, there was only one direction in which to take his life - mimicking the men who had influenced him so...

This young boy embarked on a journey. He carried iconic images - tough guys who were unflinching in their duties - and started to reshape himself into a carbon copy of those men. He learned, trained and changed his views to fit the values and beliefs of the his heroes. In time he grew and, as he slipped from child to man, he continued on his determined path, his aspirations fixed in place, immovable.

If he didn't succeed, there was nothing more for him.

Time passed and that man started to look back over his life. There was no doubt he had been successful in most of his ventures, but he couldn't help but something was amiss. He spent time analysing his voyage and came to the conclusion he'd taken a wrong turn.

Now, that's not to say he regretted any aspect of his life so far, more that his aspirations had been based on the wrong information. You see, the things he did, his achievements, were all for the benefit of someone else. They had been a demonstration that, as our American cousins are fond of saying, he had 'the right stuff'.

Problem was nobody was there to listen. His trajectory in life had been chosen to impress others and, as it turned out, those 'others' weren't interested in the detail, only the end result. They cared about him, but cared little for the steps he followed and more about his ultimate success.

It was time to stand back and take stock of life. He'd learned many lessons that could be put to good use; validation of his willingness to endure extreme physical and mental hardship in order to reach a chosen goal.

And you might ask, 'What is the difference between then and now?'

Simple.

No more aspiring to set routines and fixed destinations. Instead, a path was chosen. The endpoint was picked, but the specifics of how he arrived at the destination no longer mattered.

I know some of you might think the path and aspiring to a given goal are one and the same. I disagree.

You see, this man knows that some of his ideas and plans might now work out. Circumstance has a habit of intervening and bulldozing even the most carefully laid plan. And this is where the path becomes the most important aspect of the journey.

Why?

Because the path is littered with failure. Through failure we learn to adapt and overcome. We become more resilient, our minds more flexible and able to cope with life's lows. In essence, we reinvent ourselves as we find new ways to rewrite our aspirations into something more valuable and enduring - a path.

As for me, I've decided to put aside my aspirations of singular goals and instead to focus on finding a route that will reward me with the life I forgot to have; a world that, for a time at least, was hidden behind my aspirations.

The Adventure Seekers Packing List

A little too much for a trip to Tesco! I've just realised it's now a little over six months and we'll be heading off to Barneo ice station to prepare for the journey north. Pretty excited. I'm still working on sponsors and we already have a couple of pledges. This is the one area that concerned me most about the whole endeavour - money. Trust me, if there was a way to get to the North Pole for free I would find it. But putting together an expedition like this needs more than cold, hard cash. And that's what I want to talk about today.

Back in the old days, my kit was always ready to go - the job demanded short notice moves; some taskings would see us deployed from base to a hotspot in as little as a few hours. Those days are gone and now my approach can be a little more sedate. That said, I've carried forward a few ideas that you might find useful when planning your own adventures. 

Visas and Passports

Visas can be the bane of your life. There are many countries where simply getting across the border requires huge amounts of preparation, a lot of patience and, occasionally, a little 'sweetener'. The FCO has a dedicated page offering travel advice - https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice - scroll down the page and you'll visa requirements for the respective country (but no details of any 'facilitation payments').

Filling out the paperwork can be a a long, slow job, but do you really want you trip of a lifetime tripped at the last hurdle just because you left your visa application until the last minute?

Insurance

I know, there's no need to tell me - insurance feels like a tax, but it's necessary. Do you have a family? Kids, maybe? Partner? Mortgage? Outstanding finance? Answer yes to any of those and you're going to need to insure yourself. Cost of insurance varies depending on where you're planning to go e.g. mountain biking across the Hindu Kush then it's fair to say you're going to be hit with a pretty big premium. Prices will be lower for more sedate adventures such as riding from Land's End to John O'Groats in a rickshaw.

Whatever you do, make the insurance covers you for every eventuality. Also be aware a trip that takes you through multiple countries on different modes of transport may require several policies.

Maps

No need for a map at the North Pole as the place is one vast expanse of shifting sea ice. Now think about somewhere like South Africa and we're looking at the complete opposite. On a few occasions in my past, a map has quite literally been a life saver for me. Paper maps are the best. Failing that, you can use an app for your smartphone.

Depending on your destination, you may find it difficult to obtain up to date mapping. Don't panic - even old maps are sufficient, especially in places like the Sahara desert (trust me on this one - we were using maps made in the 1950's during this trip and they were more than adequate for the job).

Planning Your Route

'Yeah, I'm just off to climb Mount Everest!' Cool, well done. Question is this: who knows where you are at any given time? Let me make this clear - create a route card and make sure you leave it with someone you can trust and agree a method of passing updates. This person is then responsible for notifying authorities in the event you don't check in. On top of a route card, you need a communications plan (mobile phone, satcomms, email... whatever it is stick to the schedule). If you're off to the wilds of somewhere like Kamchatka consider using a GPS tracking system.

Scorching Heat or Frozen Tundra?

It goes without saying that you need to pack the right kit for the climate or the regions you'll be trekking through. Very cold, like Siberia, and you'll need lots of cold weather gear. Alternatively, if you've decided to run the length of the Gobi desert you're going to need to travel light and with cool clothing that protects you from the sun. But there's also a middle ground you need to consider - hot places where the temperatures can drop below zero degrees Celsius.

The Sahara desert is hot by day and bitterly cold at night. Know the environment you're going to be travelling through and pack accordingly. Do your research before you go.

Vaccinations

Fortunately mankind has done a pretty good job of eradicating most of the nasty bugs that cause us to grow a second head or outright die. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security - there are plenty of nasties out there just waiting to find an orifice via which they can invade your body. See you doctor, get the necessary vaccinations and be safe.

You may also need to visit your doc after a trip abroad. Sounds a little counterintuitive, but you never know what you're bringing back with you. Trust me when I say ringworm are cunning little buggers who can hide under even the sparsest of beards so beware you newbie globe trotting hipsters.

Specialist Equipment

Some destinations require the use of specialist kit. A prime example is one of walking to the North Pole. Not only will you need extreme cold weather gear, dehydrated food and a portable hygiene system (baby wipes), you may also need to take some form of self-defence. In the colder, more northerly regions of the world you're going to need a rifle to keep polar bears and Norwegian ski tourists at bay. At the far end of the spectrum you might need to consider employing guides to see you through areas of tension or war zones.

Bottom line - don't try to dabble with Death as he tends to have the upper hand.

Summary

That's it for now. Just threw some ideas out there. If you have any further thoughts/tips, please put your views down in the comments below.