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Holiday? What holiday?!

Holiday? What holiday?!

“Going on another holiday again?”

People often think I’m off on another holiday when I commit myself to another expedition.

Truth is, I haven’t been on a holiday since 2011. Expeditions of my type are not a holiday. They are everything but. Yes, I look forward to them and get a sense of escapism from city life, but those are the only comparisons. They are hard going, they take grit and determination to get to the other side and a lot of questioning on why I’m doing it. They are often uncomfortable, scary, exhausting, make me hurt in ways I didn’t know could hurt, involve lack of sleep, (lack of oxygen a lot of the time too), are too hot or too cold, take a lot of brain power worrying and then there’s the making of quick life determining decisions. I cannot say enough how far away from a holiday they are.

The last time I went on a holiday! The difference!

The last time I went on a holiday! The difference!

Not looking my best! Sunburn, no shower, cold!!!!!

Not looking my best! Sunburn, no shower, cold!!!!!

On Denali, myself and Tim swore to each other that our next trip would be a beach holiday with no bag carrying. I can’t see that beach holiday happening anytime soon but I must say I do long to be by the Mediterranean! Of course at the same time I look forward to getting my teeth well and truly into the next big trip. It’s what I live for and I’m not complaining in any way about the toughness of them... The tougher the better!

Coughing my way up! Feeling pretty exhausted on this photo. Not a holiday but a test!

Coughing my way up! Feeling pretty exhausted on this photo. Not a holiday but a test!

The feeling of vulnerability and having to roll with whatever nature throws at you is a humbling experience. You have to know what you're doing otherwise things can easily get out of hand. Knowing you have a situation under control is a rewarding experience however, if anything goes wrong it's easy for that rewarding experience to turn nasty and life threatening. 

I know it’s a privilege to be able to actively put myself into such a challenging and extraordinary position but it is something I work hard for in order to make happen. I thrive on the better person I become after each trip and I am addicted to making wonderful, proud, incredible memories and addicted to the bonds I make with teammates that go on to become the closest friends life can give.

So next time someone uses the word holiday to describe one of my expeditions I’m going to crack down on them. I came back from Denali and it took me over a month before I had caught up on sleep and recovered. A month of bad sleep, lack of oxygen and being cold does that to you. I could not keep my eyes open after 12 noon and had to retreat to bed for 4 hours! Thankfully, I’m over that now and I’m now back after that hardship again.

This is what we woke up to every morning. We breathe in the night, our breath freezes to the tent, it snows on us in the morning. Not a pleasant start to the day and I'll never complain about getting out of bed again.

This is what we woke up to every morning. We breathe in the night, our breath freezes to the tent, it snows on us in the morning. Not a pleasant start to the day and I'll never complain about getting out of bed again.

Having hardship means that you appreciate everything again which is another addiction of mine. One moment that sticks with me after Denali was when we flew out from the glacier. A very short plane ride from the bottom of the mountain back to Talkeetna was out of this world. We went from full expedition mode in freezing temperatures on a barren mountainous landscape to landing in Talkeetna to their summer.

Leaving the mountain behind!

Leaving the mountain behind!

It was full of greenery, the smell of flowers was in the air, warmth on our skin and we were met by Sheldon Air Service crew who carried a plate full of fresh fruit all cut ready to eat! I’ve never felt so high in my life! If ever I’ve felt immensely happy to be alive, that was it!! That’s the closest that came to a holiday! (And knowing a shower could finally be had!)

Balancing work and play... Or in my case, not very well

Balancing work and play... Or in my case, not very well

I was told a memorable bit of advice when on an expedition in Svalbard for 10-weeks in 2011. For the whole team, it was the first long haul expedition we had ever been on. We had no outside contact at all, were completely self-sufficient in the Arctic wilderness. We were moving, climbing and partaking in science work for the duration and it took some of the team more time than others to adjust to this life. We were told that it would take each person different times before our 'spirit' traveled from the UK to Svalbard.

The idea being that our spirits would be left at home when we arrived in Svalbard whilst we adjusted to life in the Arctic. But when we were in the swing of things and the expedition became our world, our spirit would return to us and we would feel whole again. It would take even longer for our spirit to return to us when we got home. For many months post expedition it would be left in Svalbard as we adjusted to civilian life again. Thing is, I don’t think my spirit ever came back, my spirit is essentially always on the next adventure. That’s not a cry for sympathy, I love my civilian life but what makes it so great is that I can keep adventure a part of it. Without it I would have a big piece of me missing.

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Two girls alone in the Arctic

Two girls alone in the Arctic

We were just two ordinary 18 year old girls, with a German Mauser bolt action rifle, pulking through the Arctic...

I thought I'd write something about what it feels like to be at the mercy of the environment. So often in this day and age, people forget what it's really like to lose control. It's ever so easy to feel unimportant once you're out in the wilds. I find this sad, because it's the wilds where I feel most at home, it's the core from where we've come from. Yet it's somewhere if slightly messed with, it can kill you. Easily.

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Ellie and I were 2/3rds of our way through our most exciting adventure yet. It was 2011. We'd been in the Arctic of Svalbard over a month by this point, and were really starting to understand what how to live out there.

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It takes a lot of discipline, managing yourselves and looking out for one another. The people you sleep next to are the ones that you must be willing to risk your life for.

Ellie and I were on our way to what was called the 'goose hide.' This was an already set up tent in a specific position to count various kinds of geese. It was all part of the ongoing science our group were doing out in Svalbard. Now it was our time to leave the safety of our fellow team mates and fend for ourselves and get on with the science.

We were excited to be independent. I love Ellie to pieces and we both work so well as a duo. This was a great excuse to put our skills to the test and have a little peace and quiet at the same time.

Svalbard is a beautiful place. I honestly think it's the most beautiful place I have ever set foot. Every day spent there was pristine beauty. This day was no different. We left base camp with our skis on and headed north following a compass bearing.

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Despite leaving base camp for a couple days, our packs weren't light. Arctic travel involves enormous amounts of kit and food for one to even have the remote chance of surviving. Ellie and I were used to pulling heavy pulks and carrying heavy loads by now, so this was no biggy. Our bodies were so much fitter than when we'd left Heathrow. We had both become very petite but still incredibly physically and mentally fit. The fittest we had ever been. I'd lost my bum (completely) and even the tightest of my clothes would hang off me yet Ellie's thighs had increased in muscle so much that she was excited to test them out when she got home to dance on them again. Ellie also developed an incredibly fetching sunglasses tan!

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We were skiing uphill, laughing and joking about how funny it was that here we were, two 18 year old girls, alone in the Arctic. We were proud of ourselves and our compliments bounced off one another giving us this overwhelming sense of achievement and positivity for the future. "We can do anything we want to do" we told one another. It was true, it is true and not just for us, for everyone.

It was that moment that we both stopped simultaneously. We both looked to the ground, then looked at one another, then back at the ground.

It was a print. A huge animal print. We'd seen these before when with the team, yet this was fresh, this print had been made very recently. It was, of course, a polar bear print. It's claws were easy to make out as it had lifted its paw off the snow and taken another pounding step. The prints went up the hill, right  in the direction that we were headed.

Action stations. Ellie took the rifle from my backpack and handed it to me whilst I  reached into my front pocket to get my bear flare. Ellie retrieved hers too. A bear flare is the size of a pen. All of our team carried one. If the back of the pen is pulled out, it fires a small flare at your target. It is a deterrent more than anything.

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I unzipped the rifle case and took the safety catch off. We both slowly and hesitantly continued uphill. It could be just at the top of the hill, we didn't know. It could be waiting for us, was it hungry? Could it tell we were coming? Should we retreat? No. We were very much going by the thought that we were here to get on with the job and polar bears are just something to yes, be weary of, but no they should not stop us from doing things. As we skied up, we came up with our plan. Ellie would fire the flare and if the bear showed even the slightest interest, I'd shoot. I believe that the law in Svalbard states that if one shoots a bear then they have automatically committed a very serious illegal crime and will be sentenced unless it can be proved that the bear was a threat and under 25 metres or less in distance. They treat it like a murder case. (As they should of course.)

We kept our cool. This wasn't a time to freak out, it was us that were responsible here. We skied past a point where the bear had obviously laid down and possibly rolled about, I think I even remember there being hair stuck on the snow.

Finally, we got to the top of the hill, no bear. Thank goodness. We could see the tent for the goose hide but this didn't mean we were safe.

Our brilliant team work and trust for one another came into use as we swiftly set up the bear flare trip wires, then the comms (wires set up in the right direction towards base camp so that we could make radio contact later on that night). Finally it was just the loo to dig out and jump into the tent. I had cleaned the gun before we had left so we didn't risk taking that apart that night!

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It was obvious we had to have a bear watch check throughout our stay. We would take it in turns to look out the tent at night to check there was no bears checking us out. Luckily Svalbard's 24 hour day light presents itself to this and makes things a lot easier.

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We got down to counting the geese and recording what we had found although geese weren't really at the forefront of our minds!

It wasn't until 8pm that we could make contact with the others as that's when we all switch our radios on. We decided that we should let them know about our print encounter, even though we knew it would cause worry.

It was my job to inform them. "On the way up to the goose hide, we saw, what we suspect to be very fresh polar bear prints." Silence. I looked at Ellie, she looked at me. We smiled nervously as this whole scenario seemed a tad bizarre. "Are you happy to continue? Over." Ellie prompted me to say that we were "as happy as larry". The others trusted us, and that was that. The radio was off.

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The night went by and nothing out of the ordinary happened. We had breakfast and headed off. We were fine and our respect, friendship and proudness (that's not a word) for one another increased even more. As we left the goose hide, a herd of reindeer moved in to the area we'd been. It was a beautiful sight.

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We both found out on our return that when our group leader, Neale, had heard of our findings on the radio, he had headed out from his tent immediately and kept watch from on top of the hill. What a guy.

Polar bears are the masters there, not us. If it had been around and fancied a quick snack, then we would have had little control in the end. This was reinforced further when we had just all returned home and on the news reports of the tragedy that was the death of 17 year old Horatio Chapple, who was plucked from his tent by a starving polar bear.

It's all too real when you're out in the wilds. Respect of the environment makes risks smaller. Respecting it means you understand the dangers and will not fight it but instead try to go with what it throws at you.

Polar bears are dangerous but as we all know, we are the biggest threat to them with our pollution. I won't even get into how angry all of that makes me.

There's a lot to be said that it was just us at that moment. If we had been in a bigger group, perhaps we wouldn't have taken on the responsibility to take action and protect everyone's lives. The fact we had no choice made us stronger as individuals and confident in ourselves to a point where whatever life throws at us, we can keep our cool and do what needs to be done.

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Check out our ridiculous video whilst at the goose hide. Skip to 2 minutes in to find when we were letting the others know about our findings oncomms: