Minus 30 degrees – in a Primark jacket

Toby Skinner went to northern Norway to learn about Arctic survival on a trek organized by one of the world’s great polar explorers. But he learned a whole lot more than he bargained for about about string vests, pee bottles – and the meaning of life

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, May 2017. With photography by River Thompson)

You need to become an animal. You need to think like a polar bear. You need to let go of yourself completely — to sniff the air and become part of the universe.”

The great Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland is explaining the secrets of survival when it’s nearing minus 60, you’re alone, and the barren, icy landscape hasn’t changed for weeks. “Lying in your tent at night, it’s easy to be overwhelmed – by the loneliness, the cold, by what you know lies ahead. It can drive you mad, so the greatest trick of all is to turn off that switch.”

Børge knows a bit about that switch. The only person to have crossed the Arctic Ocean and Antarctica, he’s very probably the world’s greatest living polar explorer. His records are legion: the first person to ski to the North Pole alone and without additional supplies; the first to visit both poles; and the first person to cross the Antarctic, alone and un-supplied, travelling 2,845km over 64 days, with a 178kg sled and temperatures dropping as low as minus 57 degrees Celsius. He’s been to the North Pole in mid-winter, when the sun barely rises, and was the first to circumnavigate it by boat in a single season.

Today, as well as exploring, raising awareness of global warming and running the beautiful remote island resort of Mannshausen, Ousland organises trips so that normal people can experience just a taste of “the great depth of emotion” that being alone in an icy wilderness brings.

The expeditions are not for the fainthearted: the signature tour is the Greenland crossing, a three-week epic that follows the journey taken by the great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen in 1888, and which was the first big trip that Børge took, in 1986. Back then, he was a 25-year-old deep-sea diver and former special forces officer who fancied a challenge with his friends. “I found that I coped well,” he recalls. “I was good at planning, at fixing things, and I dealt well with the cold. Later, I realised, I was good at making things happen. A lot of people dream – I learned that you’ve got to define a goal, then you set a date.”

One of Ousland’s tours is a five-day February expedition across Norway’s Finnmarksvidda, the largest plateau in the country, in the empty north. It’s 120km on skis, dragging a pulk (sled) across the Arctic tundra in the coldest part of Norway, where Sami reindeer herders once roamed and where many still keep their herds. Børge has described it as a “Kinder egg of an expedition,” a preparatory tour for longer trips to Greenland, Svalbard or the poles – which is a very gentle and possibly misleading way of describing a trip which last year saw temperatures drop to -36 degrees. Somehow, the editor of Norwegian has signed me up for this very expedition.

****

At a cabin outside Alta, a day before we head off, I find myself eyeing up everyone else’s kit, as if it’s the early stages of a particularly awkward teenage disco. There are eight fellow expeditioners and two guides: tour leader Bård Helge Strand, an impish, dryly humorous 30-year-old who’s led trips to Greenland, and his enthusiastic assistant, Sebastian Gjølstad, who has been working for Børge at his Mannshausen resort.

Harald, a doctor from Stavanger, seems to have brought enough gear to disappear into the wilderness for good, while Mike, a Scottish ex-Marine, and his 15-year-old son, have a matching set of expensive-looking base layers, fleeces and tech-y watches that look like they’d survive a nuclear explosion. All the Scandinavians on the trip have string vests as base layers, which are a questionable fashion choice outside certain red-lit Amsterdam shopfronts, but which they swear are effective at removing sweat and maintaining warmth.

Two nights earlier, I’d made a frantic late trip to Snow + Rock, where a nice guy called Dave had either seriously up-sold me, or saved my life, giving me a Rab Andes 1000 sleeping bag, a Rab Batura down jacket and a pair of giant Rab Expedition 8000 mittens, all whilst explaining that his chosen summer holiday would be a walk from London to Rome.

But on the horrifyingly daunting five-page equipment, I’d missed a crucial detail, failing to realise that you don’t wear the down jacket whilst skiing, since over-heating and sweating is in many ways the big danger on these trips. While everyone else has high-performance jackets made with NASA-level fabrics, I have brought a £7.99 anorak from Primark’s Cedar Wood State range.

“Will this do?” I ask Bård Helge, nervously.

“It will have to,” he says, ominously.

Then there’s the prep, of which there’s a lot. We learn how to use the gas stoves, how to pack our pulks (sleds) and even get a nipples-and-all clothing demonstration from Bård Helge. The food preparation includes putting each day’s food (and toilet paper) into zip-loc bags, carefully splitting chocolate bars, and even putting potato chips in zip-loc bags. Everything is about “the system” — knowing where on the sled your jacket is, where to find your head torch, your first aid kit or your zip-loc’d nuts.

It’s with good reason that so much emphasis is placed on preparation. When Børge first went to the North Pole, aged 28, he had to extensively test and eventually re-design his sled, as well as his boots, bindings and skis. He spent a month in Canada’s remote north just testing the tonne (literally) of equipment that he’d brought, not to mention dragging tyres to prepare physically. As for what to eat, he had to go to a pharmaceutical company to borrow their freeze dryer for his meals, since the vacuum-packed meals of today didn’t exist.

As Bård Helge puts it breezily during our stove lecture: if you run out of matches on a serious expedition, or get them wet, you’ve basically run out of food and water. If you run out of gas, the same. You’d better evacuate, or die.

****

The start of the trek is ominous. After a few hours of driving from Alta, the first part of the journey is one of very few downhill sections. I’ve used cross-country skis once before, but going uphill. Downhill is a little different, and then there’s the pulk – so every time I feel like I’ve achieved balance on the skis, my carefully curated “system” races up from behind me, clatters into me and sends me sprawling. “Have you ever done this before?” asks one of my Norwegian fellow travelers, well-meaningly.

Once the skiing is figured out, though, there’s a meditative beauty to the rhythmic swishing across the tundra. But the difference in experience shows during the stops, which are a military-precise ten minutes every hour.

Lars Christian Larssen, who does marketing for Ousland and has been on a three-week trek across Svalbard, has a neat way of pulling his pulk between his legs, sitting on the soft bit and grabbing a bite to eat, almost in one motion. At one stop, guide Bård Helge puts his skis in the ground and leans a mat against them to form a kind of high-backed Arctic chair. At another, he pours his boiling water into a used food pack, sealing it and using it as a makeshift hot water bottle as he deftly prepares noodles. Out here, that’s what class looks like.

As Børge tells me of his epic journeys, it’s really all about the little things. “It’s about seeing shapes in the snow, sensing changes in the air,” he says. “It’s also about breaking things down. You look forward to the next break, or dinner, or reading a letter from your family. If you think too big, you get overwhelmed.”

If you think too big, you get overwhelmed.

It’s not all gazing at snow drifts, though. When it comes to putting up tents on the Finnmarksvidda plateau, the process is supposed to be as stringently methodical as Børge’s, even on night one, when the guides seem disappointed that it’s a balmy minus three. You pitch the tent with the back to the wind, and always start with a pair of skis tethering it like giant tent poles. You cover the edges with snow, build a trench inside the tent and get the stove fired up as soon as possible. If you let the little processes go, logic dictates, then the big ones might too.

The first and second days and nights are overcast, and merely incredibly cold – like, minus 15, or “fifteen”, as Bård Helge breezily puts it. But on day three the sky clears to reveal a pinkish blue Arctic sky, which casts long shadows across the plateau. The afternoon ski towards the camp is impossibly beautiful, like a white desert sunset, but nothing like what happens that night.

I’ve seen starry nights before, and I’ve seen the Northern Lights a few times. But I’ve never seen anything like the sky that Saturday night. To a backdrop of millions of twinkling stars, a huge arc of almost neon green streaks across the whole sky, shape-shifting at one end and warping into oranges and pinks, almost like a flame.

But up here the beauty tends to come with a price, and the clear Arctic night means no heat retention, and remorseless cold. As with the other nights, there’s a point, usually around midnight, when the boiling water in the plastic water bottle in your sleeping bag goes lukewarm; when the stove that you lit inside the tent is but a memory and the water in the Thermos is fast losing its heat. When you realise that, contrary to the advice of the Equipment list, peeing in a plastic bottle does not form an effective “hot water bottle”.

As I lie there in the silence, shivering, as the layer of frost builds on the outside of my sleeping bag and my damp extra socks offer little respite, I wonder how on Earth Børge did this, alone, for 81 nights when he crossed the Arctic Ocean in 2001. Even in a group, it’s disorientating and lonely. How must that feel when you’re nearing an end of the Earth, alone, knowing that there’s not another human being for hundreds of miles?

Børge, like a few other people on this trip, says that the beginning of any long expedition is the hardest. “It’s that first bit, when you see the boat or helicopter leave, when you’ve said goodbye to your friends, when you can still feel the warmth of the hotel room – that’s the hardest bit, when your mind can race with it all. Those first two weeks are crucial, but after that you move away from ‘normal’ life and become an animal, with routines and patterns. You just keep going.”

The following morning, as Bård Helge cheerily informs us that it probably hit minus 30 overnight, everything is frozen, including my eyelashes, giving me the look of a distinctly unappealing drag queen. Tired, I take about half an hour to get into my monstrous polar boots, through a mix of the laces being frozen solid and my fingers being too numb to free them (I’m not the most dextrous at the best of times).

Then, when I fill up the gas canister, I spill a little gas on the side and hope no one notices. Soon after lighting the stove, the canister goes up in flames, inside the tent, to which I can only flap and call out pathetically to Bård Helge. Luckily, the flame goes out, and even more luckily I have blackened but not ruined the canister. The same can’t be said of the plastic bowl that I grabbed from my cupboard whilst leaving my Hackney flat before the trip.

As I pour boiling water over Børge’s secret porridge recipe, I realise that I’m getting a very unfamiliar warmth around my crotch area. Suddenly panicking that I’ve wet myself (was it the shock of the canister incident?), I realise that the bowl has cracked from the sheer cold. As I eat dry, powdery porridge with numb fingers, while the boiling water rapidly cools and freezes around my nether regions, I posit that I’m surviving (just) rather than thriving.

There are undoubtedly lows on the trip. Points where I wonder what the point is, when as humankind we’ve invented things like heating, and saunas, and when I wonder about the logic of a journey where most of what you see is gently undulating snow and ice, and where lunch can sometimes consist of crunchy instant noodles, lukewarm water and a hopelessly inadequate sachet of seasoning. The six hours from midnight to 6am are, frankly, a bit miserable.

But the highs far outweigh the lows, not least in the fact of being wholly present, without Internet, choice or really any options beyond the basic acts of survival. As Børge puts it: “I was initially motivated by seeing what was beyond the horizon, but what I really went on was an inner journey. I found a balance, a harmony within myself.”

As Børge recounts, the little things on our trip do indeed start to take on far greater proportions. The tot of whiskey with ice, from a plastic bottle of Famous Grouse, tastes wondrous at the end of a long day’s skiing, as do the Real Turmat freeze-dried dinners – brought to life by boiling water – which take on Michelin-worthy dimensions, from the cod in curry sauce on night one to the rich, gamey reindeer stew on the final night. On the nights we build communal fires (I say “we” in the loosest sense), it’s easy to get lost in the flames and the shifting, spectral shapes in the fire.

Then there are the little goals, which are simultaneously humble and epic: like getting to Mollisjok on day three, where there will be coffee served by Margit E. Opgard, who was born 60 years ago in this same cluster of remote cabins, in the days when the nearest civilisation was Karasjok, two days away on horseback.

Out here, life stories are more colourful, and jokes are funnier – including Bård Helge’s five-minute corker about the transport system in the Sami town of Karasjok, which garners more hysterical laughter than it possibly deserves (basically, the joke is that the same guy drives the taxi, and the bus, and the plane – but you probably had to be there).

****

Eventually, we arrive in civilisation, at the Engholm Husky Lodge in Karasjok, a wonderful series of Sami-inspired cabins hand-built by Swede Sven Engholm, who came up here and never left, becoming a husky racing champion and hotelier in the process. In the shower, as my extremities warm up, I realise that I’ve burned the ends of my fingers on the stove, and that I still can’t feel my left big toe.

But I’m alive, and I’ve learned a few things. That people feel the cold differently; that it’s better to wear just one or two layers in your sleeping bag; that you should trust Dave at Snow + Rock, even if it’s not cheap; that a string vest really can be a desirable item of clothing; that I probably won’t do the Greenland trip, thanks very much. I’m also fairly confident that I’ve set a record, even if I’m not convinced how receptive Guinness will be to “First person to cross the Finnmarksvidda plateau in a Primark anorak”.

That night, over a gorgeous dinner of bacalao around a fire in a Sami lavvu, guide Bård Helge answers my final question thus: “Why do we do this? What’s the point? All I know is that in life, there are lots of questions. But when I go to Greenland, life is simple for three weeks. You just go east. And then you go west. Whatever the weather, good day or bad, you just keep going.”

Perhaps there’s something to becoming a polar bear after all.

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