My first big adventure was when I went to Svalbard with BSES (now British Exploring) in 2005. It was to be trip that built my confidence and gave me the drive to eventually do my first solo traveling.
I was 17 at the start of the trip and 18 when I returned. Yep, I turned 18 on the ice fields of Svalbard, not most people's idea of an 18th celebration but it suited me.
I found out about the trip when I was in my first year of 6th form. It didn't take much reading about the expedition to get me excited and determined to take part. I dragged my mum along to an open evening and whoever delivered it did a good enough job to convince my mum it might not be a bad idea.
As soon as I signed up, every bit of money I earnt from my Sunday job went towards it. I had to fundraise by doing small events, like be totally silent during school hours! However my greatest success in raising money for the trip came when I submitted an application to the local Rotary Club, I was awarded a large chunk of the cost of the trip from them. I felt so proud every time I paid off more of the trip, I was making it happen!
The only problems I had were finding women's B2 boots that fit my feet. I panic bought a pair but three days before the trip I couldn't stand the boots any longer. I didn't want to say anything to my parents though, they had spent so much time with me trying to find them in the first place. Two days to go, I was packing making sure I had nothing left to get. I can't remember what I was missing but it wasn't anything major however my mum drove me out to another outdoor store to get it. This was a shop we hadn't been to before and they had some different women's B2 boots! I tried ones I hadn't come across before and finally, I found some that fit! I remember putting them on and knowing instantly they were the ones for me! I was so happy and relieved. I didn't have time to break them in but I knew they would be much better than the ones I already had!
Finally the day came to head out to Svalbard. I met the expedition group at the airport, this wasn't the first time we were meeting as we had attended a training weekend earlier in the year together. There were something like 60 young people on the expedition and we were split into sub-groups called 'fires'. Each fire had a different scientific research focus. I was in the Botany fire, when I had signed up to the expedition biology was one of my favourite subjects. I remember there being a glaciology fire, geology fire and human physiology fire.
From the moment we had met at the training weekend my Fire bonded. I guess there is something about going on a month long expedition that makes you want to be friends with the people you will be cooking, sharing a tent and having adventures with. There were twelve of us, together, facing the Arctic wilderness and our two amazing leaders.
We flew to Longyearbyen in Svalbard, at the airport we were greeted by a stuffed polar bear, our first glimpse of Arctic wildlife. From Longyearbyen we were taken by boat to our base camp, to a part of the island where we could directly access the glacier.
Once base camp was established, short drop toilets and mess tent included, the training began. The risk of polar bears was taken seriously by all the fire leaders and gun training was one of the first things that we did. Each Fire was given a gun and every member was taught how to use it. I thing the biggest reason I remember this so clearly is because there was a Swastika stamped into side of it. We were also shown how to set up trip lines. During our expedition none of the Fires saw a polar but one fire came across some paw prints.
Another part of the training I really enjoyed was learning to use crampons and ice axes. We spent time learning different ways to walk in them, side ways, forwards, backwards and the one I will never forget, La Canard i.e. duck. Ice axe training was my favourite, we must have spent half a day throwing ourselves down a snow slope learning all the different ways to stop ourselves. This was the first time I had had training with winter tools and it formed the base on which everything since had been built upon. It turned out to be a very good base! Below is a photo from 9 years later on a trip to the French Alps!
I like I say, this trip was what sparked the confidence for me to start my future adventures.
So, I'm out there and I've done training, this trip was a long time ago so what I remember now are the really good moments, the highlights, so at this point in the blog things may not be described in chronological order any more, because I can't remember the order.
As I was in Botany Fire our scientific research was based on the plant life in the area. Early in the trip we did do some field data collecting, identifying plants, gathering density and frequency data on certain plants. We also went to a hut that had been built by BSES explorers many many years ago.
Now you don't find plants of glaciers, so we were exploring in the tundra around our base camp while doing research. We could see the tongues of the glaciers coming down towards us at base camp, and opposite one of the glaciers was ending in the water, huge tower of ice. That's where we all wanted to go, was the ice and the snow, so after a few days it was decided that our fire would head up onto the glacier, who knows, we could find plants. . .
I believe we spent 19 days in total exploring on the glacier. To do this we packed our equipment into pulks, there was one pulk per tent team, this meant that we could take turns with it. Pulling the pulk took a lot of effort to move, especially up hill, one day I think we only moved about 2 miles because we were pulling the pulks up hill on the glacier.
While travelling on the glacier we were on old touring ski's, this was my first time travelling in this way and I loved it. I got the hang of going up hill fairly quickly, in fact I was one of a few of us who could pull the pulk while skiing up hill. Down hill was another matter though, this was the bit I was most excited about doing. The first time we went down hill I had the pulk on still, one of my team mates was in front of me attempting to show me how to snow plough, I thought I was doing pretty well. Then the snow changed, before we had been on some soft fluffy snow that was really easy to glide through, it then changed and became crunchy on the top and with this change came more resistance to the ski's. So imagine, I'm carrying a bit speed and then suddenly my ski's slow down, the pulk doesn't have breaks and is still on the slippy soft snow, oh and it's attached to me by a harness with metal poles going to the pulk. So, I stop and the pulk shunts me forwards, the result is a spectacular superman into the ground. After that I passed the pulk on when ever we were going down hill.
There were some days, not many where we couldn't move because the weather came in. Every day getting out of the tent and putting on your frozen boots was the hardest thing and on some mornings there were would be inches of ice hanging off the tent and especially the ice axes.
Operating in cold temperatures meant that food became an all important topic of conversation. We were on freeze dried rations for dinner and porridge for breakfast, lunch was crackers, squeezy cheese and other goodies. There was a limited number of options for freeze dry rations and everyone soon worked out which ones they liked the most. After a while we got bored of the limited choice so the next step was to mix different ones together while cooking, this proved such a great success that the porridge soon received the same attention. The porridge oats in the morning was the worst thing on the menu, there was no powdered milk to put in it and all the hot chocolate powder in the world had no effect. We discovered though that if you added the apple custard freeze dry ration to it, mmm, a breakfast you could eat. That particular ration pack became a commodity and you could gain a lot of other food if you were willing to trade one.
Those 19 or so days on the glacier were soo much fun, I remember snowball fights at lunch, singing in the morning to get ourselves going, I had a harmonica with me and at any opportunity annoyed the team by playing the only song I knew. We slept on the side of a nunatak one night in our bivi bags, I would day under the stars but it was 24 hrs daylight there.
Most of the time on the glacier I remember there being snow and so we used our skis to get about on, there were times when we were roped up, but not very often. Our journey on the glacier had been a circular one and as we descended back towards base camp the glacier became dry and it was lot more tricky to manoeuvre the pulks, we would sometimes have to carry and pass the pulks over small rivers of melting ice.
Once back at base camp it was decided that we should go and collect some more data for the research as shockingly we hadn't seen any plants on the glacier. Our science leader decided we should do a bird nest count on one of the near by cliffs. I enjoyed this research, we split into small teams, identified which nests were to be watched then rotated around in our teams counting the birds that flew in and out of the nests and at what times. It was daylight 24hrs a day so it never got difficult to count the birds and it was pretty cool just being sat at the top of a cliff watching all this wildlife wing by.
Another thing I remember from the trip is jumping in the small powerboat and going pretty close to the glacier that was opposite base camp. This huge wall of ice, I had only seen it from afar and I had failed to comprehend how tall it really was. Whenever you went on the power boat you would have to wear these insulated orange suits in case you fell in, I think they gave you an extra couple of minutes before you died of hypothermia.
We also did a 24hr solo towards the end of the trip, I remember being told that two of the guys got bored during it, found each other and then proceeded to draw a Z on the floor using fuel and set it alight like Zoro, I think they tried it a few times and it was never as good as the movie.
It felt like all too soon when the final night around base camp was upon us, looking at us around that fire you wouldn't have thought we had been strangers to each other only a few weeks before. We spent part of that evening passing around a piece of paper for each person and writing something down on it for them to take away. I still have mine, along with the letter that I wrote to myself during my solo, it was posted to me a year later by our leaders.
I don't really feel I am a good enough writer to do this trip justice. I loved every moment of it, made some great friends and had such an experience that it formed the platform of experience from which all my future trips were launched from.