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Yukon Expedition.

So if you read my last blog, well mostly looked at photos, you will know that our plans took a bit of turn when we met up with Sarah in Vancouver. Originally we were going to return to Squamish and climb some more around there, then head back to the Rockies and do a bit more alpine style climbing. This did not happen. We ended up leading an expedition for British students in the Yukon. Here is how that came about and about the expedition.

When we met with Sarah in Vancouver at some point fairly early on she told us that her adventure expedition leader had been taken ill and was no longer able to join the expedition to the Yukon, the company were trying to fill his place but she wasn't sure how long that would take. Off hand I said to Sarah that Matt and I could do it. She thought about this for a while and then asked if we were serious, if we were she would let the UK office know. So, Matt and I talked and thought and came to the decision if they were willing to fly us both out to work on it then we would do it. The role was a volunteer one but all our expenses would be covered while in the Yukon and it would probably be the only way we would get up to the Yukon while we were out in Canada.

So Sarah passed on our interest and it wasn't long before we heard back. They would prefer to send someone who had worked with them before because paperwork would be easier but they would take as much paperwork as we could provide in case that person never materialised in the time frame they had. We had a big advantage at this point because of the time difference, while they were sleeping Matt and I were able to send them copies of all our qualifications, police checks and CV with references. This was met with some surprise on their end at how fast we had got that all sorted so they sent us the next stage which was some of their paper work, again we delivered this back in a short amount of time. We were doing all this while having a lot of fun in Vancouver with Sarah.

Impressed by our keenness because of speed of our returning paperwork, they put us in touch with the Chief expedition leader who was already in the Yukon. After a short chat with him about are experience and our lack of jet-lag it became clear that we were likely going to be heading to the Yukon. We had met Sarah on the Saturday and the phone call happened on the Monday, now we were just waiting for final confirmation. We got that on the Tuesday just after Sarah continued on her way to the Yukon.

Our flights were booked from Calgary on Thursday morning, this may seem strange as we were already in Vancouver but we wanted to leave our car safe with friends in Golden a few hours from Calgary because it had our whole lives in it. We also needed to grab a few extra things from storage in Golden. So after we said goodbye to Sarah Tuesday morning we hightailed it back to Squamish where we had left our car in the good hands of Steph and Stu. A quick farewell to them and we started the 8 hour drive back to Golden.

We made it to Revelstoke that night but we were too tired to go any further. We woke early the next day and got to Golden to start packing, and view a house for the winter. Our amazing friend Rosa let us crash with her and sort all our kit out, she was also going to look after our car and take us to the airport the next day. The next morning we woke at around 2 am to get to the airport.

It had all just been too smooth, too good to be true and so we had to hit a bump in the road at some point. Unfortunately there had been an accident on the highway and we were stationary on the highway for nearly 2 hrs. We arrived at the airport as the plane was taking off. Frustrated, it looked like we would have to spend a night in a hotel near the airport to catch a flight the next day. After confirming this with the expedition, we rang back the flight company to confirm the new flights and we were told that they had worked out if we paid 7 dollars each we could be upgraded to business class, not have to pay for checked baggage and fly later that afternoon. Of course we agreed.

We got to spend a few fun hours living the high life in the business class lounge before boarding the plane to the Yukon.

When we arrived in the Yukon we were greeted by Bruce the expedition leader, it took us all about 5 min to realise we had met before in the UK at a climbing crag a few years ago, small world. We were taken to a campsite in Whitehorse and given a briefing by Bruce, he tried to give us as much info about the area we were going to as possible to help with planning. Due to our late arrival our group had already gone to base camp without us, we would join them in a couple of days.

We were also reunited with another friend of ours, Alice, who worked with us at OB. Small world again. Alice was one of the Canoe leaders.

I should explain a bit more about the expedition and its purpose at this point, especially as for me it wasn’t just on a total whim that I wanted to join it. In 2005 I went on an expedition to Svalbard with BSES, it was one of the best experiences of my life and I have already written a blog about it if you want to find out more. As with happens with a lot of companies over time, they changed their name and re-branded to keep with the times and they are now BES. This was who we were volunteering for. Our expedition team comprised of 8 young people from the UK who had all put in a lot of time and effort to get themselves on the trip. The expedition had a two fold purpose, adventure and science. Matt and I were the adventure leaders and Sarah was the science leader (Sarah being a bad-ass is also qualified to be an adventure leader too). Hopefully we would deliver an adventurous expedition where the team would learn new skills, develop themselves, contribute to the scientific community and have an amazing eye opening experience. I was super excited to be delivering this expedition and I know that all three of us wanted it to be the best and most worthwhile experience for the young explorers.

On the day we went to base camp we had a few hours to kill and as it would be a long drive we went and found some food to take with us. We found the biggest sandwich ever and then off we went to base camp.

When we arrived at base camp all the other teams were leaving and either returning to the UK or heading out on the canoe phase with Alice. Our team had base camp all to ourselves. Sarah met us off the bus and gave us a tour around the camp before we greeted the team. The biggest thing about operating around base camp was making sure it was always bear safe. We had electric fencing around the tent area and latrine area, all food was stored in a locked trailer away from the tents and toiletries were in sealed barrels inside the electric fencing. It was a very tightly run operation.

We spent the rest of the day getting to know the young explorers, why they were there, what they wanted from the experience and general camp activities such as collecting wood and preparing food. We also started making plans for the rest of the expedition, trying to work out how many days to allocate to which areas and logistics of carrying food and water. Our main objective was to spend as much time and explore as many of the mountains in our area as possible while setting up wildlife cameras. Our biggest difficulty was working out where we could get water from. Due to a lot of exploratory mining in the Yukon there are large areas where the water is no longer suitable to drink, we couldn’t just drink out of any stream we came across. The water would need to be tested or it could only be collected in pools where it had been siphoned off and purified by the vegetation around it. This made planning harder but not impossible, we just had to come up with plans A, B and C.

We decided that it would be good to go for a camp by the lake Ladue for a couple of days, giving the group an opportunity to practice camp craft skills and get to know each other better.

Sarah, Matt and I had all decided to share a tent to save weight and so no one would have to sleep on their own. Although we never changed this arrangement when we went into the mountains Sarah and Matt were not best pleased with me. I had bought a new camping mat in Whitehorse and it was huge!!! I took up more than my 3rd of the tent that I was entitled for. We literally had our own mini border wars in the tent at night.

It was a beautiful area, the weather had become a bit too chilly for a dip in the lake but we had a good time exploring it and setting up camera traps. We also took the opportunity to do a bit of team bonding in the evening. Everyone loves enforced fun.

Eventually the rainy weather caused the area around the lake to become a bog and although our camp was high and dry we were keen to head back to base camp and get ready for the going up into the mountains.

We spent a day at base camp working out how much food and fuel we wanted to carry. How many days we could realistically plan for and what objectives we wanted to achieve. I’m making this all sound like it was going very smoothly, on the whole it was but you have to remember our team was made up of young people aged between 17 and 21, when they were on it, they were on it, when they weren’t it was very very slow. Something that Sarah, Matt and I were very keen for was for them to take ownership over their trip so as much as possible we were getting them to make decisions and do the organising. They are young and had a lot to learn.

Once all was organised we were headed up into the mountains to advanced camp. At advanced camp there was a small electric fence with a water stash and fuel. From base to advance was about 8 km and just over 1000 meters of accent. It was a fairly steady upwards path but felt brutal because of the weight of our pack. The views at the top were worth it though.

On the hike up we came across several animal tracks, they all appeared old but some of them were big, especially the bear one we found.

When we reached advanced camp we took account of the stash, we were dismayed to find that we had been misinformed about the fuel stash, there was none! We had only brought up enough fuel for a couple of days thinking there was more up here. Decisions had to made and Sarah came up with best one. We would stay at advanced base camp for the night then Matt and I would return to base camp early and bring up fuel the rest of the fuel we needed. Meanwhile Sarah would take the team for an explore of a small nearby peak called Ramblers.

Bruce and Kate the exped doctor had also headed up into the mountains ahead of us to do a recce of an area no groups had been to yet. They were able to meet up with Sarah later in the morning which was just as well, one of the team became unwell on the hike up Ramblers so they started to return to advanced camp. Kate and the student both felt it would be wise for him to return to base camp for him to recover. Matt and I were just making it back to advanced camp when we came across them all on the main trail.

The weather had really started to close in that morning, rain and wind both battering us. We used a tarp to make a quick shelter to make lunch under and make a plan. Although the weather was grim the team were still keen to push on to another camp, so instead of heading up a ridge line and getting exposed to more of the elements we dropped down into a valley. The trails stopped at Advanced camp, everything we did now was bushwacking and forging our own trails.

By the time we got to the next camp the weather had cleared.

We spent the next few days effectively peak bagging. We were surrounded by them and the team were eager to do as much as we could. On our first day just before we left camp we heard a lone wolf howling, there group spent a little while listening to it and howling back. Everyone agreed it was a very cool experience and we hid the food up a tree just in case.

One of the best days up in the mountains is when we managed to do the whole ridgeline around our camp. We had to go over a couple of peaks that we knew no other groups from BES had been up before. There was some scrambling to be had and it was good distance to cover.

On one night we saw our first Northern Lights. It was a small display but it was still impressive and we heard wolves again.

Eventually we started to run out of food and a return to advanced and then base camp was inevitable. We also only had less than a week to go before our transport came to take us back to Whitehorse. We camped on top of Rambler for our last night up in the mountains. The next day Matt, Sarah and I decided that we didn’t just want to walk down the big track to base camp as an end to the mountain phase. So we made the group follow an old trappers path back down, it started our fairly reasonable but the further along we got the more and more dense it got.

It got to the point where we could no longer follow the track and had to bushwhack our way through the forest. We thought this was great fun, the team was less amused.

By the time we got to base camp we all felt thoroughly in need of a rest and a shower.

The next few day consisted of doing more science surveys and collecting camera traps we had left out. Retrieving equipment left at advanced camp and taking down base camp. We also played more Swedish skittles, a game Sarah introduced us to earlier on in base camp. Another game that became very popular was Bananagrams, if ever there was a spare moment to be had the team would start playing it.

One of the best things about having a bit of time at base camp was the cooking. Our exped rations left much to be desired but when we were at base camp we really went to town. We had huge bags of flour so we used this to make pancakes in the morning with powdered egg and milk, this was what the 2 jars of Nutella was saved for. We made curries, pasta dishes, we even did a sort of big mexican pot and had wraps. For Matt and I setting a good standard of base camp cooking at the start was important, it is where you get refuelled for your next adventure and also if you can cook good food on a fire in the wilderness then you can cook good food anywhere, including when you leave home.

The next few days past with fun, hard work and reflections on everything the team had achieved and learned over the exped. On the final night we had a huge bonfire of all the wood we had collected and not yet burned. As it went dark and talk turned home the most amazing Northern Lights came across the sky. The display lasted most of the night and a perfect end to the expedition.

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