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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:

People are Nice

People are Nice

People are nice. We forget this and assume the whole world is out to get us.

My faith for humanity was restored to me on the first day of my Spanish 500 mile hike that began and ended at the coast. I went through the Picos mountain range and into some very remote areas where people were sparse.

I had been walking for 8 and a half hours and my body wasn't acclimatised at all. My pack weighed 26kg (more than it should've because I'd decided to self support as well as bringing all my camera equipment.)

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It rubbed my hips with each step but it didn't seem to bother me until I took a glance at them the following evening- red raw and lumpy.

The weather was scorching and I dreamed of my next self inflicted break so that I could take a swig of water and search for shade. I never realised just how much I loved the taste of water. Every step I'd imagine it on my lips and think why had I taken it for granted in the past?!

At 6pm I still had 6 miles to go to a small hostel. I was on a quiet road that trailed alongside the mountain slope.  I took a break to sip the now very appreciated water. I sat on my bag exhausted and in my dehydrated and rather confused state, I decided to hitch hike.

I've only ever hitched with guys before and never alone. There's a lot of bad stick about hitch hiking that the only person that would pick you up would be the village murderer. I took my chances. I was hot, dehydrated and my feet couldn't take the pounding that the tarmac road brought.

I sat on my pack waiting. Nothing came. My feet throbbed with the release of my weight from them. The blood rushing back, making them swell. My leg and back muscles began to seize up thinking that they'd stopped for the day.

To get up now would be agony.

I tried to think what I'd do if I saw a car but I wasn't sure. Try and look the driver in the eye was the best I could come up with.

Around the corner of the mountains side: a car and my chance . I stood up with my map in hand. I knew I already looked haggered and desperate so I wasn't acting.. I raised my eye brows in an innocent 'please help the poor blonde girl' kinda way.

He didn't even slow down. Bastard. He looked sketchy anyway so I wasn't too fussed.

There was another car soon after his. I did the same thing, expecting for the same reaction but this man slowed down and opened the window.

I hobbled over and poked my head through the window. I asked if he spoke English. 'A little' he replied. Fantastic- the first person I had met today who could say even a word.

I pointed to where I wanted to go on the map and he signalled to jump in. I heaved my rucksack into the boot of his car. It just about fit.

His car was clean and the kind of car one buys when they've retired with their partner and only share one car between them. He was obviously married.

We shared minimal conversation on the way to the destination. He really wasn't lying when he said 'a little English'

We arrived and I felt so impressed with hitch hiking. I'd be sure not to let this be the last time.

I waited by the car as the hitch hike man went to ask about the hostel. Closed.

I scanned the area for a place I could put my tent, there was none.

The man told me to wait as he got on the phone. I was passed the phone to speak and there was a man who said hello. The hitch hike man had phoned his son who could speak good english. I was told by his son to 'Follow his father'.

I put my trust in the man on the phone and got back into the car. We drove back on ourselves.

I hadn't a clue where we were heading, but I didn't mind. I trusted this stranger but had no reason to. I had no reason not to trust him either.

We arrived at a small village. Mountains towered over the village covering half of it in shade.

A 30-something man with a beard approached on a very small bike and began circulating the car. I had a single thought; 'hitch hike man has brought me to a Spanish gang and I'm about to be sold.'

He hadn't and I wasn't.

The man on the bike was the hitch hike man's son, Juan. He introduced himself with a smile. Juan told me that there was accommodation in the village but that it was expensive.

Things progressed and it was decided I was to stay at Juan's house and he would cook me dinner and breakfast and in the morning, take me to my original starting point for the day. I couldn't believe it.

I got back into the car and was taken to Juan's house. A cute, small, wooden house. Juan and his cousin were painting the house so dinner wouldn't be until late.

I met Juan's mum. She greeted me like a long lost daughter. She had no english but persisted to make conversation and take photos of me.

The village elders sat across from the house, watching us. Juan told me they'd lived here all their lives and never had they seen a hiker walk through their village. Especially not a young english girl.

I was told to treat the house like my home. I took the main bedroom and flung myself across the bed, trying to come to terms about what had just happened.

That night, Juan shared stories and wine with me. I was so taken back by the kindness of the family and the willingness to help.

It put a smile on my face and reminded me just how kind us humans can be. I won't let myself forget that again. People are nice.

Short video of my Spanish adventure: 

A moment of panic

A moment of panic

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I was gripped into the ice wall by just the front two spikes of my crampons that were tied as tight as I could get them to go on the outside of my red plastic boots.

At this moment I really regretted not buying my own top of the range shiny new crampons. It was so unlike me; I almost always go for the gear with the best reviews from all of the gear nerds who like to refer to numbers and weight to give their review a little bit more gut than the last nerd. At least if I’d bought new crampons, there was nothing more I could’ve done if I did happen to hurtle down the side of the 6100 metres mountain. Instead I’d decided to save my money and rent out some rusty, worn out and half blunt crampons that were loose at the best of times.

It was freezing. I mean bloody freezing. I’d been freezing before, I’d spent plenty of time in the Arctic before. Arctic Lucy I’m often called. But that’s a different kind of cold to the one when you’re at the top of a mountain, after climbing for 8 hours and unable to breathe.

My body was shivering uncontrollably as the morning sun began to rise which made the crampon-gripping situation even worse. We'd set off at midnight and had climbed all night. Now the ice was warming up with the sun's rays. I could feel myself grinding down the only contact I had to the mountain wall but there was nothing I could do. My feet would move and with it, move some ice below and to the side of the spikes. I was standing up right, about ten metres from the summit. These ten metres didn’t feel comprehensible to me. I was saying goodbye to loved ones in my head. I looked beneath me; hundreds of feet below were rocks sticking out from the snow blanket. Not even the most skilled mountaineer could save themselves with an ice axe arrest here. So I had no hope.

Either side of me were my teammates whom I had come up with. I was roped to Juan but he was half the size of me, spoke very little English and had even worse gear than me. Perhaps I’d fall and he’d attempt to dig himself into the ice to save us.. Then he’d be pulled off and overtake me as I fell, then we’d fall in a chaotic mess down the mountain to our deaths. ‘Think positive’ I thought. ‘You’re Lucy, you can do this like you’ve done everything that’s been thrown your way.’ But what if I couldn’t do it? This thought rarely entered my mind, which some may think of as an empowering attitude, a ‘This Girl Can’ motivational way to live one's life.

At this point, my mind was half on ‘can’ and half on ‘you’re not superwoman.’ My legs and arms were just about to give way when a feeling of desperation to live came over me. I might not be Superwoman, but I might as well try. So I held on.

I used the little energy I had took one foot cautiously out of the hard ice and took one big kick into the ice. The spikes penetrated the wall and stuck firmly. I was secure.

We were stood still chilling our asses off due to a mountaineering traffic jam. Little to our knowledge, there had been a French team who’d camped a little further up from us and they’d left earlier in the night to get ahead. I couldn’t tell if they were pros or just simply tired from the exhausting climb but they were acting like jerks I thought. The wall that we stood on… Well, clung to. Could only manage one person. The French had already summited so needed to pass us in order to get down. They could’ve waited on the summit but instead they had fled down as if there was a clock on the matter. They spoke abruptly and sounded frustrated as they looked at us in the way of their escape. No one tried to pass any word, instead the French were soon coming towards us. My concern was that they’d use us as human steps. One French man had managed to climb above Juan and now I was in the way.

Juan put out his hand as if we were just in the street crossing over a man hole. Juan gestured down. I know now what he wanted me to do. I looked at the French man and he gestured the same thing. They wanted me to take steps down this vertical wall so that he had enough space to climb above. My legs were so weak. Usually I’d be able to rely on my arms to take my weight but even they were numb. I looked at them both. I was probably pale as a ghost with water in my eyes and jaw clenching because then they came up with another solution. The French man took hold of my rucksack as Juan put his arm out again. I was being passed over like a bag of luggage in an airport. My life was in their hands I thought. I didn’t mind this actually; there was nothing more I could do. Why not allow a man whom I’d never met and the other who I wouldn’t even trust to water my house plant. Surely they didn’t want me to die. That would be hassle. So I released my ice axe from the snow then one foot, I felt the rucksack go up as my weight went down on it. Juan violently took hold of the arm strap and dragged me towards him, until I could get my axe into the snow and ice next to him. The French man released his grip as I dug my feet in place as quickly as I could with the energy I had miraculously found in the depths of my body. I looked up and saw the summit so close, gleaming in the early morning sunlight.

Then came the next fear, I had to get down after I’d got to the top. Shit.