Monday, 28 January 2013

Learning The Art of Polar Thinking and Survival from ATE of Norway

Every so often, an opportunity comes along which is too good to miss. And when expectations are exceeded, and eyes opened, I feel particularly fortunate. Nordic Life asked me some months ago to travel to the Trøndelag region in Norway and the neighbouring Swedish mountains for 4 days of arctic expedition training and I was, perhaps understandably, keen to go. Two separate magazines commissioned features out of the trip and there'll be a feature in Sidetracked shortly too. However, for me, it was about learning to camp and survive comfortably in extreme cold - something which I knew was a gap in my knowledge.

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:

Wild Norway
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.


  1. That's a great read - thanks for writing it so quickly after your trip!
    Now living in Norway and getting accustomed to the colder temps, even day to day living is changed for me - so the mittens have replaced gloves, and in colder temps I use a merino liner, my mitts and then Tuff Bags over the top.
    Good on the lady with you - I think I'd need a good -40C bag too, for if / when I do proper winter camping - it'd see me to -25C I reckon :)

  2. aha, the wanderer returns. Looks like a really great trip Andrew, lots of learning and that first photo is a peach! look fwd to reading more in due course.

  3. It was a great learning experience and a chance to meet some really interesting and pleasant people with whom I'll stay in touch and work with in future. As for the photography - creativity is something I am picking up from you after our chats following your Going Coastal post so thanks for that!

  4. This was a really interesting read! I want to attend one of those courses too at some point. I think I remember that building from the tv-series about the english team who raced to the south pole? Happy to see you enjoying the winter up north :). Cheers.

  5. Looks like you had a great trip and got valuable experience. Many points that I agree with but it also seems (judging from the limited information) that the technique teached was in some ways different from the one I'm used to and teach. But of course there are several working solutions and maybe we should change some ideas and experiences over e-mail or Skype (though I'll be too busy for it for the next ~2 weeks).

    But with this on I disagree: "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."

    SImple physics suggest that if you warm the air in the down bag it's heat lost from the body that you are tryign to keep warm. In a same way you could claim that the down bag is bad as it prevents the air trapped in the synthetic bag warming up but as we all know, this is not the case. You don't want to warm the air in the sleepign bag, you wan't to maintain you body heat in the optimal temperature (i.e. loose the amoun you produce). There are reason for not to wear too much clothing to the sleeping bag but this is not the reason. And in most cases if you are cold in you bag adding dry insulative clothing helps.

  6. Great stuff Maz. Lots of common sense points brought to the fore. How we forget. I never wear any clothes if in a down bag, except maybe a pair of dry wool socks. I keep my gas cylinder or meths bottle in the bag and it always works its cold way down to my feet.
    I wish i wasn't envious but i am. Good read.

  7. I'm not sure the physics is that simple nor do I know whether you've correctly stated it - it seems very much open to debate. couldn't it be said conversely that Thermodynamics suggests that heat passes to cold. Our body heat warms the air around us but because that air is a much larger surface area to heat than us, we don't have enough heat/energy to warm it all. We do however have enough to warm the air trapped in a down bag and, because we burn calories to keep ourselves warm (and because we are equalising the temperature with that of the bag's insulation it doesn't take a lot of energy to do so) your point misses that fact. Your point suggests inherently that there is only one heat source and when it has passed to the air in the bag it leaves us cold - but our body burns those calories to 'create' more heat to keep us warm and the bag makes that easier. The synthetic bag prevents the colder air outside the down bag from forcing the heat tapped inside to pass into that colder air - it insulates. You're right, it may be different from the methods you use and teach but these are guides who have real world training and experience which I trust having met them and studied their credentials. I cannot say they are correct as I'm no physicist but having operated in extreme environments for decades, I'm willing to accept what they say.

  8. If the heat from your body can't reach the down because clothing is in the way then you will be too hot and not need the sleeping bag anyway. The heat from your body has to go somewhere - through clothing and through the sleeping bag. It doesn't matter where it's trapped - if it is you'll be warm. Dry clothing will increase warmth as long as it doesn't compress the sleeping bag. Damp clothing however can make you feel chilly.

    I've never used a synthetic bag outside a down bag in cold temperatures (and I have spent many nights in temperatures below -10C - I led many ski tours in Norway, Sweden, Spitsbergen, Greenland and the Yukon Territory in the 1990s and more recently I've been touring in Yellowstone and the Wind River Range with temperatures down to -35C). I've always found a thick enough down bag fine on its own as long as it was kept dry.

  9. The reason I used a synthetic bag along with a down bag is that down bag was all I had. Rather than buying a sufficiently warm down bag, petter suggested simply adding a synthetic bag.

  10. On another note to my reply below, email or Skype would be great - you have my email and I am in the process of setting up a separate Skype account for my outdoor work. I'll let you know but I'd welcome the opportunity to learn from you as well, Jaakko.

  11. On trips where temperatures were likely to vary widely (trekking in Nepal from jungle to high base camp) I've used two down bags, with the outer bag sized to fit over the inner bag without squashing the down. This works well.

    I've slept fully clothed in a -15C bag at -25C and just been warm enough. Then I was outside in the wind and I suspect the -15C was optimistic anyway. I also once bivvied out at -25C in a -5C bag with a bivvy bag and all my clothes and wasn't quite warm enough though I did sleep much of the time.

    There are many variables of course - how tired you are, how recently you've eaten, whether you sleep hot or cold (I'm a warm sleeper), what insulation you have under you (I use two mats in winter), how humid it is (sleeping at 0C in damp weather can feel colder than sleeping at 10C in dry conditions as insulation isn't as effective). The best system varies from person to person and probably often needs adjustment to suit the conditions.

  12. Brilliant post. I think you may be hitting on something with the sleeping bag thing. I remember just getting into the bag with all my clothes on as it was cold. I was warm at first but in the early hours the bag became damp and I was cold. I had a feeling at the time that the dew point was in the insulation of the bag and it was wetting out. i figured if I had less on, my body would heat the bag more and the dew point may not be within the bag. Probably wrong.

  13. Looks like uou had some fun! Looking forwards to reading the full story (assuming you're going to tell us where they're to be published). If I'd you'd have said you'd be meeting Bengt I'd have asked you to say hello.

  14. There does seem to be some discussion on this - maybe its a personal thing but I would like to look a little more at thermodynamics to see what the principles are and how they apply to insulation.

    1. Unfortunately thermodynamics won't get you very far. You've already stated pretty much what is has to offer to the discussion: heat will "want" to flow from the hotter to the cooler body. What it doesn't get you is an understanding of how it gets there. For that you would need to imerse yourself in the wonderful world of heat and mass transfer :-)

      To chip in my penniworth:this is mostly about convection so any insulation that traps dead air will work: whats in your bag or whats in your underpants. Down just has the advantage of performing that function very well with little weight penalty. However, where your moisture ends up would seem to be a key issue. Thats the thing thst needs to be controled and thats exactly what I know from experience that I need to learn. If i were you and i realy wanted to get an answer id be spproaching rab and phd and the likes eith questions.

  15. I am loving Brynje and I agree that Páramo has a placed here - the Aspira Salopettes will do the job for me but I prefer the soft-shell/hardshell blend of Dintex which the Skald is made of for my shell rather than my Aspira Smock, although i'd happily take the Aspira Smock if I had to. I think the Arctic double beneath Páramo Aspira Salopettes and Brynje Skald on top is a great combination for skiing, or the Arc'teryx Fission SV for walking.

    As for the camera - yup, I agree. That's why I left it outside all night and did not even bring it into the tent where there was the potential moisture from our bodies. Looking at a Helsport tent now for bombproof strength in bad weather - Fjellheimen 2 X-Trem looks good.

  16. Hi Andrew, I try to reach you this way because I couldn´t find an e-mail.

    I started a blog about the nature of the Cantabrian Mountains (northern Spain), which will have a lot of information about walking and landscape, and also about wild flowers (orchids), animals and geology which can be found in this region.

    I think those mountains are a lovely place for walking.

    The link is:

    I invite you to have a look, and if you think it´s worth it, I would appreciate a link from your website.

    Sincerely yours,

    Marius van Heiningen