Back from the Polar Realm

Good Morning on the Ides of March,

I can’t believe a week has gone by since I finished my polar training program. My apologies to those I had worried by my silence–I came home with a wicked case of carpal tunnel that makes typing a challenge and a busy week that had me on the other side of the province for two days. But alas, it’s a glorious Sunday morning, I’ve had my cup of tea, and I can know reflect on that what I learned and experienced north of sixty!

The morning we were packing our sleds, I was in no way, shape or form prepared for what Matty prescribed for our sled weights. We’d training the week before with two bags of dog food (20 kg each-close to 90 pounds total). I’d been figuring when it came to expedition time, we’d ditch the dog food and replace with our expedition gear, food, and fuel. I was wrong. Instead of ditching the bags, we added a bag and with our gear, essentially doubled our sled weights in a heartbeat.

As we set out and my sled dragged so heavily behind me, I was miserable. I couldn’t believe we were carrying more weight just to carry weight. I couldn’t find a smooth rhythm so my sleds jerked and bobbed like a dying fish and I instantly wanted to quit. The first hour I had quite the dialogue with myself about how hard pulling this amount was feeling and how I hadn’t trained my body enough, and how it was “stupid” to haul for the sake of hauling. My mood did not improve when Matty skied easily by with her dog food-free sled and said I was hauling more than I would need to on a supported North or South Pole trip. I wanted to sit in the snow and cry.

After our first break, we traveled into “North Pole terrain.” Traveling to the North Pole involves pulling sleds over miles and miles of jumbled ice pushed up by pressure into a wave after wave of obstacles. We started with our skis on but quickly abandoned them to the greater pulling power of our boots and/or snowshoes. The work was intense and we were all quickly doing the evil deed of sweating. Some of the ridges were so steep it required two or three of us pulling and pushing together to get the sleds through.

Traversing this terrain took every once of mental and physical power I had and soon all extraneous thoughts and self-pity fell away. I was consumed by the task of straining against my harness and lifting my teammates sleds. At one point, I connected with my chi and uttered a guttural “ah” aloud when I mustered the force to free a huge sled. I loved traversing the terrain, the sense of teamwork, and the absolute focus required. We got through to clear ice and set up our first camp. I was tired and happy.

John Huston and Tyler Fish are skiing to the North Pole unsupported this spring–we met them at Matty’s. You can follow their expedition at http://www.forwardexpeditions.com/

The next morning the packing went pretty well and we were underway again-this time through easy North Pole terrain. I found pulling through the gentle undulations challenging and instantly hated my load once again. I was slipping on my skis and quickly falling to the back of the group. I put my head down and gritted my teeth and kept trying to find a good way to pull. Matty skied by and suggested I put snowshoes on again. I agreed through felt the sting of being the only one on (on what felt like remedial) snowshoes. As it turned out, a few others ended up using them as well.

After a few hours of frustration, the terrain moderated even more and I changed back to skis. I could now get the sled to move decently but the going was some hard. I was icing up all over from breathing so hard and I wondered how long I could keep exerting at that level. Soon after that, Eric skied up and noticed that my harness was not fitting well and had me pulling way too much from my shoulders and not nearly enough from my hips. We worked together to adjust it better and voila, my misery was abated. I could suddenly stand up straight and get the sled to move with pulling jerkily against my lower bag. I could move the load more easily and everything eased. It didn’t need to be as hard as it was being. Phew! The constant thoughts of wanting to stop and quit stopped flowing with every step. (Take home lesson…when something is significantly harder than I expect, perhaps asking a few questions about it earlier might save some work and frustration).

Much of the second night I was awake with my hands on fire. The intensive pulling and gripping of ski poles over the previous two days had tweaked my carpal tunnel. The range of sensation than bothered nerves can pump out is truly amazing but does make sleep nearly impossible. I was also still coughing lots from my cold. I wandered over to Matty’s tent to let her know that I was worried about how to keep my hands safe in the cold since I was having periods of numbness. She suggested I give up a bag of dog food to ease my load so I wouldn’t have to have such variations in body temperature (to help the cough) and I was happy to ease the load on my wrists. Eric received the first of many bags of dog food he would rescue from us. Eric is preparing for a big year where he will attempt to go to the North Pole, South Pole, and summit of Mount Everest in one year. His website is www.savethepoles.com.

Losing the 45 pounds was a gift and suddenly my load was very manageable. I could now lift up my head and soak in the beauty of my surroundings. I could notice the wispy clouds painting the sky with streaks of white, the subtle contours of snow placed in waves by the wind, and the kiss of rosy skin on the cheek closest to the buffeting wind. My thoughts could shift from survival mode into daydreaming mode and the experience began to have some elements of fun. As sled weights went up and down for team members, we learned of what I’ll call the “tipping point.” The point at which a sled’s weight becomes unmanageable and sometimes it can be a matter of five pounds either way. I worked hard through the rest of the trips to keep my wrists in neutral position and hardly pull with them when I could avoid it. Every night my hands visited Hades and I grew more tired each day from the lack of sleep.

I had stupidly not brought my wrist splints on the expedition because they had not acted up at all in the first week. One night of the trip ranked in the “Top Three” most miserable nights of my life when I had to leave the tent twice during a minus 35 degree night to take dumps, when I could barely get my hands to function enough to unzip and zip my sleeping bags, and where I pied myself because I couldn’t get out of the tent fast enough because of my hands. I was also pretty worried about them since the symptoms seemed to be escalating and spreading into the daytime hours. I started taking anti-inflammatories and tried to stay positive despite the great discomfort and lack of sleep.

By the third day, we were getting very efficient with our group travel. We would ski for an hour and then break for ten minutes. While pulling, you can’t wait to stop. While stopped you can’t wait to start pulling again. Kinda funny. It’s so cold that you can’t stay stopped long. If you’re efficient, ten minutes is enough to put your parka on, pee, drink, eat, drink, eat, adjust, put on sunscreen, eat, drink, take parka off, fasten sled, and be ready to start skiing at the ten-minute mark. In minus 30-degree weather, you cool off so quickly and your hands start to go that the first 15 minutes after a break are consumed with getting your hands to have some circulation back.

It’s called core-shell shunt. Your brain is selfish. It takes care of itself. When it perceives a lowering of the body core temperature, the brain shunts blood away from the extremities into the core resulting in cold hands and feet. That’s why the old adage, when your feet are cold, put on a hat. So for us, after a break, we had to use centrifugal force (big arm swings) to drive blood back to our hands and to start skiing to generate more heat overall. In the kinds of temps we experienced on the expedition, you don’t get warm by accident. You both generate and maintain heat through deliberate, mindful systems that enable you to get a delicate line ahead of the cold.

Over the seven days, I came to trust that I could always get my hands back and gained greater confidence in my ability to manage severe cold using multiple strategies. This was my number one goal for attending the program and one I’ll take with me into all future expeditions. At the end of our third day, we camped beside a polyna. “Polyna” is a Russian word meaning “an enclosed area of unfrozen water surrounded by ice.” We saw it from long away because of the steam arising from the “warm” water. The air temperature was minus 31 and the water temp just above 0 so the water was truly warmer than the air. We would experience this the next day as we went “swimming.”

As explorers head to the North Pole, they often have to cross “leads.” These are areas of open water or recently frozen water. Sometimes they can provide highways to ski on amid the jumbled ice if they happen to run North/South. More often, however, they provide a terrifying obstacle that threatens to swallow/dunk/submerge the wary traveler. Some expeditions carry “swim suits” that allow them to swim across leads and then pull the pulks across saving miles of skiing around them. The suits are waterproof and fit over bulky boots and clothing. On the coldest day of the expedition, with temperatures nearing minus 42, we each got a chance to go for a swim and try to climb out of the water on thin ice.

The swimming went quicker than anticipated (who wanted to spend too much time standing out in those cold temperatures) so had to decide what to do with the rest of the day. Matty and Eric were leaving us later that afternoon. Eric was leaving because he’d gotten some frostbite and Dong decided he’d had enough polar experiences to last a lifetime so we had some tent rearranging to do, equipment to divvy up, and so decided to stay put for the day. None of us minded missing being out for the coldest day (though in retrospect it might have been good to really experience that level of cold).

The snow machines came in around four to pick up folks and extra dog food. Simulating how sleds get lighter as an expedition progresses, people could send home a bag. A former student of mine who’d moved to Iqaluit drove one of the skidoos. Small world. Once Eric and Matty drove off, the team gathered in the large group tent, the Emerald Igloo, to discuss the next day’s plans. We were alone together. We now had to look after each other since our instructors were gone. Matty wanted us to do one hard travel day of at least 10 nautical miles (18 kilometres) so we elected to take that on after our rest day.

Our big day dawned sunny, calm, and warm (minus 18). We put everything we’d learned into action and managed to covered our distance in 8 hours. We kept our breaks on track and everybody healthy. We were thrilled with the accomplishment. Another 8 nautical miles brought us within shouting distance of Iqaluit and we skied triumphantly “home” the next morning. We quickly unpacked, repacked, enjoyed one last lunch at Matty’s and headed to the hotel. Here hot showers waited as well as a grand celebration that evening. Now, a week later, the team is scattered back around globe and I’m sure are telling stories and showing pictures. For me, the training provided an excellent confidence building experience, some new ideas about clothing and gear, a new commitment to shakedown before expeditions, and some new avenues for polar dreams (and mountainous ones as well).

One teammate Antony is still up exploring in Baffin Island-you can follow his travels at
http://www.antonyjinman.com/index.php?s=special and another teammate, Pinar, has posted a wonderful photo journal of the trip at http://picasaweb.google.com/pinar.ayata/BaffinIsland#

So, my hands are numb so I should stop typing and give them a break. I’m off to Alberta tomorrow and a great excitement for the week is getting to present at my niece Rayne’s school. Thanks for coming along!

TA

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