Shortly after I arrive in Trondheim, Petter Thorsen from ATE of Norway walks into the Radisson SAS airport hotel, where I am sat in the bar, with Rhodri Lewis of Nordic Life beside him. My course colleagues and I then journey across the border with Sweden to the tiny, almost forgotten skiing town of Storlien. The group is an eclectic mix of outdoor enthusiasts and writers with whom I am looking forward to spending some time. Each has something interesting to add to the group dynamic. In particular, Ed Douglas, former editor of the Alpine Journal and columnist for the Guardian is a writer I have followed for some years. For each of us, discussing our personal outdoor experiences in a base camp tent, comfortably stretched out on Exped mats and huddled around a roaring Primus stove, supping Aquavit, is without a doubt one of the highlights of the trip.
A little bit about ATE of Norway. Our guides Petter Thorsen, Bengt Rotmo and Geir Vie are variously former Norwegian Special Forces and polar explorers/guides as well as men who know, love and spend much of their lives in extreme conditions. There are few who have shown me as much courtesy, patience, understanding and hospitality as these quiet, unassuming and utterly professional outdoorsmen. It was my fortune to experience a little of the world they operate in and begin a continuing friendship with them.
As we arrive in the Fjellstua in Storlien, an agreeably cosy and comfortable hostel overlooking the lake on which we are to camp our first night, I can feel the snow beneath our feet is thick and fresh. It is cold, well beyond double figures below zero according to the thermometer by the door, and I feel the painful sharpness of the frigid night air against my face. The evening is a relaxed introduction to each other and to the aims of the course before we head off to get a good night's sleep in advance of the next few days which, I then anticipate, will be hard work. We are surrounded by forest through which cross-country ski tracks are plainly visible.
The morning brings with it classroom lessons and assisted kit selection. We learn the fundamentals of polar thinking through clear, concise bullet-points with video footage to demonstrate the fundamentals in glorious technicolor. What sets the Norwegians apart from the Brits seems to be the emphasis on ensuring comfort above misery. Suffering, they admonish, is not what Scandinavian polar expeditions are about. So often they have dealt with UK expeditions where the emphasis has not been sufficiently on comfort and the consequential benefit to morale it brings. Those expeditions have either failed or been that much slower as a result. Polar thinking requires a positive mental attitude. We watch with interest a video about a charitable expedition across Greenland where their charge, a woman with limited extreme weather experience, is told to bring a treat or present for each day - something small but which will boost her morale when it is low. Given she reacts badly to the food and cannot stop throwing-up to begin with, the letters from home and tiny gifts she has brought for herself are the only thing, along with the good humour of her guides, which get her through those initial days.
Cross-country skiing is the preferred method of polar travel. I have little in the way of alpine skiing experience let alone cross-country, and I spend much of that first afternoon picking myself up off the cold snow. It leeches my energy and I can readily see that good technique, as well as recognising injuries and fixing them quickly, is key to conserving energy. Were I to be undertaking something of the magnitude as that undertaken by Alex Hibbert in the Dark Ice Project, I would have to become an expert cross-country skier first. Get that right and the rest will follow. We head back to our camp, having pitched before the ski tour. All our kit is carried by pulks and pitching did not take long. We are in two or three man tents - the heat produced by two men (or women) in a tent serves to keep the ambient temperature inside warmer than it would be with each of us in individual tents. It is a cosier arrangement and requires teamwork to get things done but that has the effect of meaning we work better as a team, and small units within that larger team, for everything else too.
So many small things come together to make survival, and comfortable survival at that, in extreme cold that much easier. I could go into them in detail but that would detract from the course which is about using the knowledge we had gained rather than just amassing theoretical notions. Nevertheless, here is a summary of some of the things I took away from the course:
When camping in snow, you can easily secure for yourself a level pitch by stamping down the snow and if you dig a trench in your vestibule area not only will be more comfortable sitting in your tent, on your insulating mat with your feet in the trench but the cold air will sink into the trench increasing the ambient temperature in the rest of the tent. Shovel snow on the outer flaps to stabilise the tent and prevent ingress from wind. Choose a two man tent instead of two one-man tents - it will be warmer and personal administration such as cooking will be easier.
A gasoline stove will perform better and last longer than a gas canister stove in extreme cold. Boil water before going to bed to warm the tent a little (it won't last long but you'll be warmer when you get into your bag and more likely to stay warm) and put that boiled water in flasks for the morning - this will make breaking camp and getting on the move (and consequently warm) easier and quicker.
Get into your down jacket or sleeping bag when you are already warm as it's your body heat which warms the air trapped by the down. Go for a 15min walk before bed to warm up. These are all tips most winter wild campers will know but they are key to survival in extreme cold. A down jacket with 320-350g of high-quality down will do a great job in -20˚C.
Dry quick drying stuff in your sleeping bag overnight - socks, gloves and so on. Frozen gloves will not be warmed by your hands the next morning. Padded knees are very good for kneeling in snow and doing work - think about sewing a butchered CCF mat to the knees of your salopettes.
Calorie intake - eats a nuts, raisins and chocolate mix to get energy and ensure you hydrate even more regularly than usual. Porridge with whatever you have to make it interesting is a great breakfast - it has slow release calories and is warm. Tea with powdered milk and sugar is well worth the effort both for a morale boost as well as warming you up.
Mittens are far better than gloves for getting/keeping your hands warm.
Take a moleskine notebook and a pencil everywhere on trips like these. Keep your camera outside the tent with a cover on (and, for my money, tripod attached) as any moisture in the tent may collect on the mirror and then freeze when you go outside. Keep the battery warm next to your body when you're not using it otherwise it will not discharge effectively.
A CCF mat plus a warm insulated mat like an Exped Downmat is a very good combination: you need the extra insulation, the CCF mat tends to stop the mat sliding around and either can be used to sit on in camp.
Put extra long grab loops on your tent pegs and on your zips - especially the main zip of your jacket. Get a snow shovel (Black Diamond do a light one) and sew gear loops onto your rucksack to attach it. An ice-axe is good enough to dig a trench but much slower. Down booties make camping and walking around camp easier - get some specifically for cold weather/snow use.
This is just a selection, but each and every one, however small, adds something to making your life easier, conserving your heat and therefore energy and keeping your morale up. There are more, of course, such as learning how to fix your stove if it breaks, the value of duck tape for almost any situation, remote first aid techniques, how to pack a pulk and so on, but learning that requires spending time with the likes of Petter and his colleagues. However, there are a few things I learned which might seem a little controversial:
Brynje really works. Whatever your view of this rather intriguing mesh system, polar explorers love it. It dries fast, the air trapped between the mesh and whatever mid-layer you are using is almost always warmer than a damp base layer (which of course will be damp if you are cross-country skiing) and is extremely lightweight.
Almost all polar jackets are somewhere between a hard-shell and a soft-shell - waterproofness is less important than breathability and wind-resistance. A fur lined hood is critical to keeping wind and spindrift off your face and big pockets for stuffing mitts, food and other essentials into are key.
My Rab down-bag (good down to -9˚C) was not compressed so as to be ineffective by the addition of a synthetic bag wrapped around it and zipped up. And when in your bag, wear as little as possible. The heat from your body is what warms the air trapped by the down and a lot of that heat is incapable of warming the down if clothes get in the way. I slept in Brynje mesh only and was perfectly warm at -20˚C with a -9˚C bag and a mid-weight synthetic bag zipped up around it. It seems counter-inuitive, I know, but it works.
If the weather is clear, and you have the bag for it, sleep outside your tent. One of us had the guts to do it and she had a great night. Embarrassingly for us, it was the third night she had ever spent in a sleeping bag but hers was a Marmot down monster rated down to -40˚C. She just watched shooting stars and satellites until she fells asleep and told us the following morning it was one of the best nights she'd ever had.
Feel free to comment on any, or all, of the above and if you'd like to know more about the Trøndelag, check these sites out:
Husky Adventure (I'll be posting on this next time)
My sincere thanks to my friends at ATE - to Petter, Bengt and Geir. You are gentlemen and I am better for knowing you.