Keeping warm in freezings conditions comes down to many things, one of which is of course kit.
I can talk about kit for hours on end but I wanted to note three important items of clothing that I think are essential for polar conditions.
You’ve obviously got the really obvious items, like a good breathable windproof jacket and warm but light down jacket but here are some things that you might not have given as much thought into…
This is one for the Ladies! These have saved my ass.. Quite literally!!! (This tends to be a lady problem due to our thighs and bum shape being different to guys.)
On an arctic expedition many moons ago, I could not understand why at the end of each day, I would get into my sleeping bag and try to sleep but would be unable to warm up my bag due to the huge blocks of ice that were indeed my thighs and ass! They weren’t in pain but the entire surface was frozen solid and these bad boys are not easy to warm up! This is a big problem at night and quite literally sucks the energy out of you. My life changed when I discovered that insulated synthetic down shorts were a thing! They come to just below the knee, full zip so easy to get on and off during the day and are super light so that not packing them doesn’t even enter my mind now. I go for Bergans brand. I put them on anytime whether it be on breaks, at the end or start of each day or even wear them on the mega baltic days. Trust me - they are an easy solution to keeping the whole of you warm!
We all know how important it is to keep our hands warm in minus temperatures. The problem when you’re on expedition is that there’s often so many fiddly things to do and sort that you end up taking gloves off to do things. For me, mittens are my life line. I treat my mitts with huge care and always know where they are, and make sure they are never near water or fire. The key features I look for in mittens are: Easy to get on: When your hands are cold, getting tight gloves/mitts on is near impossible. Your hands become useless. You need to know that you can get them into the mitts with no worry so go for a size bigger than you think. Yes, this limits what you can do when wearing them (I’d recommend differently if we were talking climbing expeditions) but in my opinion as long as you can do basic manoeuvre and grip, then that is good for these. Make sure that they have a cord attached so that you can loop them around your wrist and if they don’t have that, make your own. Then, you can easily whip them off and on to do the fiddly things. What material you choose to go for varies for what environment you are in. In arctic conditions I go for down - it’s dry so I don’t need to worry about getting them wet but their weight to warmth ratio is fantastic. I wear RAB expedition ones.
3. Base Layers
Often overlooked, base layers are your first barrier after the skin and will control sweat enormously. You want something warm but breathable, cool but comfy. There are many different brands of course, I’ve found that Brubeck base layers work well in the arctic. They retain their shape so that they remain close to the body, trapping the air and being wool they avoid smelling which your team mates will be thankful for! (Remember you probably won’t take these off on expeditions shorter than 2 - 4 weeks!) There’s a range of shapes to go for but if you are going to polar temperatures, the high neck is a great way to maintain that core heat. By keeping the blood in your neck warm, the rest of you will find it easier to keep toasty!
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to guide five fabulous people across the Finnsmarkvidda Plateau. I joined the guiding team alongside the incredible Liv Engholm. Liv literally moves mountains and is an incredible person (and friend) to work with. I teamed up with her and her company Turgleder to make this life changing expedition happen. The famous Sno joined us too, see below!
The expedition team was primarily made up with those who had no ski, Arctic or expedition experience (except one person, Will whom although being Australian, has tackled the Arctic on a separate trip with me once before).
I could tell from the get go that everyone was eager and happy to be there. There was pure excitement with a little dash of healthy nerves. I was thrilled that the energy and enthusiasm that the team had shown when I had initially put the advert up and when they had applied, was still alive and well even now they had landed fully in the Arctic world.
Our first day on skis was a short one, it’s all about easing people into what they are about to take on.. Like anything. There’s no point on doing too much too soon.
Throwing people into the deep end into -35C conditions, camping and skiing can be pretty hard mentally (not to mention makes for harder work for Liv and I) so we skied a few hours and had our first night in a hut. The sky gods were in our favour that night because a freezing cold and clear night meant for fantastic Northern lights. It was a spectacular show to present the team on their first night of the expedition… Almost as if we had planned it (I wouldn’t have put it past Liv, the woman is a force of nature!)
The morning where we’d leave the comfort of a roof over our heads came and I was happy to hear that everyone was keen to get going.
Skiing on cross country skis with a pulk is pretty straight forward but it’s making it efficient and getting the long strides that takes time. To make for learning all of this quicker, we had the morning following snow mobile tracks – these provide a hard surface that the skis can move across instead of making fresh trails.
It wasn’t long before we would leave these tracks once and for all and not catch up on them until the last day.
Our route was roughly mapped out but as with every year the conditions change and with it, so must our route. On this expedition we want to be miles away from any other possible being. The plateau is massive so we sort after the most wilderness route we could find. No tracks, no Sami reindeer herders, just us and the plateau.
We left the tracks, taking it in turns to break trail. Temperatures plummeted as the sun dropped and it wasn’t long before nostril hairs and eye lashes were frozen solid. Now we were in the elements and this continued for the duration of the expedition.
The first night is always going to be the hardest for the team but all put on brave faces as they realised just how cold it got when we were at rest (meaning rest never feels like real rest!). The beauty about the Arctic is that when you are pulking, you are generally warm - even if it means skiing with a down jacket. The body works wonders acting like an internal furnace. Sometimes it’s necessary to shake out the hands within mittens to get the blood into those pesky finger tips but for most of the travel, you are able to maintain a level of warmth.
It’s the time that you are not moving which is when management and discipline is key. There are endless Arctic secrets that one must follow in order to stop things escalating. Little tips and tricks like changing your day sweaty socks for dry ones and putting the day ones under your armpits for the night so that they don’t freeze and putting on your down jacket immediately once you stop even if you don’t feel you need it yet.
The Arctic is about the little things, get these under control and you can be comfortable. It was mine and Liv’s job to gradually teach the team these life savers without bombarding information all at once. This was something I enjoyed, handing out little gems of knowledge.
One memorable moment was day three. Liv and I had let the team go ahead and navigate. We had a high point on the plateau so that we could stay back but keep track of them.
Liv has years of guiding experience and looked at me and smiled. “Always day three” she said. I twigged on what she meant. The team were now in the flow of things. They were skiing well, they had got to grips with the camp routine and they were now navigating their way across the plateau. She explained how it takes this amount of time every trip for the team to get to this stage. I smiled back and we both looked at the team like proud parents!
The sun was shining, the sky was clear and the skiing conditions were perfect! Where better place to be!.. That’s not a question!
Later we found ourselves skiing in our down jackets, it had got bitterly Baltic but hey, the team was in good spirits and it appeared that they were in the frame of mind where they could take on anything.
This was then put to the test a few days later. It had been a windy night. I’m always half awake when sleeping in the tent, ready to jump out in case anything drastic happens. Being with Liv and guiding meant that I was even more ‘on call’.
I had checked the tent during the night, worried that we were getting trapped in snow drift from the strong gales but all had been well. I awoke early to Liv upright in her sleeping bag. She suggested we get up and start sorting the team’s breakfast early because of the conditions. I agreed and as she got out, I began to get ready. Then the wind changed direction… It was time to move now!
The team were in tunnel tents that work incredibly well when the wind is coming at them in one direction but not at 90 degrees from that. It was all hands on deck from then and there on as the tents were at risk of ripping or even blowing away. We had to get everyone’s stuff packed up whilst in a blizzard, trying not to lose anything. Then tents started to try and take off = not good. The tent is shelter, lose this and your buggered! Everyone worked quickly to get their items packed away and it took most of us to get each tent down.
The wind made for freezing temperatures. The temperature was already chilly but now I found my whole face mask and hat became an icicle.
The wind and snow battered us making for impossible visibility. Saying that though, we worked together like a dream team and got the two tunnel tents packed up. I think the overall feeling once the wind died down and the dramatic event had stopped was adrenaline and euphoria! Everyone was super proud of each other. It’d been pretty gnarly but we’d go through it. Type 2 fun… One of the reasons doing this kind of thing is so great and rewarding! It felt pretty awesome to introduce this element of expeditions to the team AND they liked it… Fantastic! (I think they might be addicted now.)
When the expedition finish line was in sight, I could sense the team starting to reflect on what they had accomplished. I can’t tell you how great it felt to finish and feel that energy and pride everyone had. I honestly felt so incredibly proud myself, and this wasn’t pride for MYSELF, this was pride for THEM. It was a fresh way to take on expeditions for me personally.
The Arctic threw a lot at them but it was so clear to see how they had grown and now they truly knew they could achieve anything. And that’s the thing, we all can achieve anything if we put our mind to it and have the right guidance and direction. Sometimes it takes that push, that SEVERE push outside our comfort zones to remind us what we are capable of. I am pleased that I can be a part of this push.
Guiding this team; Laura, Alice, Steph, Marianne and Will with Liv was such a wonderful experience. They rocked it and it was wonderful to know that we are all able to kick butt if we have that desire to. I truly hope some lives were changed because I know that in a way, this guiding expedition changed mine. The Finnsmarkvidda Plateau delivered once again!
Last week I returned from a successful Finnmark plateau crossing. This is my third time on the plateau and it was a little different as this year I was guiding a team across from West to East along with Liv Engholm.
We took a new route from my previous expeditions, one which took us well into the heart of the remote, barren plateau.
Guiding was an incredible experience and I can’t tell you how great it was to see the team grow and get familiar with the Arctic environment.
I’d love to get my thoughts down on here properly and all the great challenges there were which I will indeed do soon.
I managed to get some of my immediate thoughts on camera and a random collection is below…. Yes, it was pretty chilly!!
Sorry for the radio silence. After Tajikistan I felt the need to simply enjoy everything life had to give without writing it down and sharing it in long form. I still plan on telling the Tajikistan story - maybe some more time needs to go by. It wasn't like it was especially personally traumatic or anything, more that it gave me a new appreciation of my life due to the close edge we got to in that country.
What I wanted to write on here is the change in training and mindset I've had over the last six months since returning.
After returning from Tajik the priority was about fun and living life to the full. Of course I already felt I didn't do too badly at this prior last summer but I always felt I had more to give within myself and that I could be a better person in many ways - I needed a focus and this seemed a positive one to have.
Fun was on the agenda.
I took the pressure of needing to 'get fitter faster' off my mind with that fear of what would happen if I didn't and this changed everything.
I started having fun with my training again.
I had a new gym that proved empty of other people - perfect. I moved house, still in the big city but with the beauty of a large park with rolling hills (kind of) on my door step. This park created more than great hill running routes and fresh greenery, it provided me with imagination and childlike curiosity again.
Well, in my talks I like to ask the audience 'when was the last time you climbed a tree?' As a kid I was forever climbing trees, no questions asked and this kept me happy and naturally fit among the other things. I realised when I was asking these strangers, I was being a bit of a hypocrite! When was the last time I climbed a tree?! I couldn't remember!
So as I was switching up my regular work outs and keeping it consistent, I decided that when I was home in the countryside for Christmas, I'd put the old rope back on the old wilting willow tree and attempt to climb to the top. This was something I had not done in many years. It was something that was a key part of me growing up but when I realised I had lost it years ago, I was in denial to try to learn again with the fear of failure looming over me.
Christmas break came and I knew that in my mind it was time - I was thinking in dramatic phrases like this!
The rope was looped onto the tree, I took off my shoes and scurried to the top in my amazement. I was me again! I can't tell you how pleased and proud I was of myself! I even called over my parents to watch (something we all used to do as kids - 'Come watch me') they weren't too impressed and I think my mum even said 'Well I've seen you do it so many times over the years, it doesn't seem so new!' Well it was new to me once again and I was thrilled.
I was thrilled!
After this little moment I bought a climbing rope for my London place and now I head to the park on the weekends with it in a backpack to climb up and down purely for the fun of it. Climb like nobodies watching! The rope even joined me for a weekend in Wales!
My point is, because I've enjoyed climbing, running and gymming again, I've naturally pushed myself and found my true self again, even getting all proud and unable to hide my excitement. I get to set achievable goals just because I want to. (My next one is climb the rope with arms only).
Tajikistan might have been a wake up call to enjoy these little things like climbing ropes and trees and for that I am thankful for it. I feel ready for this Arctic expedition in 2 weeks time (heading back to the chilly Finnsmarkvidda plateau!) and for the expeditions after that and after that... Let's do this!