Friday April 13
There is something a little ominous about travelling to one of the most inhospitable places on the planet and leaving home on this date, especially when the reason for the delayed departure is Russian helicopter problems.
The set-up of the ice station – Camp Barneo – was delayed, and this in the context of a four-week window: too cold and dark most of the year; not enough ice on the ocean as the temperature rises for the rest of the year.
I am sad to leave home. I meet half the team at Heathrow and we fly to Oslo. The advanced party of special forces minders are already up in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, at Longyearbyen, getting the kit ready.
Alan Chambers, Wayne Hoyle and Jason Fox are always ice cool, no matter the temperature.
Saturday April 14
From Oslo, we fly to Longyearbyen, at 78 degrees north, via Tromso. In Oslo, I had discovered the hidden card tucked away discreetly in the kitbag from my wife Caro, beautifully written as always. Caro says a little star aka Freddie will be watching and saying thank you for being the “best daddy in the world to me”. I cry, again.
It is on the second flight of the day from Tromso that everything becomes very real. We cross the Arctic Circle. Greenery disappears. The ocean starts to freeze, to a depth of seven feet. The temperature drops to -40. The sun will not set. The vista is extraordinary, frightening. A quick transit to the hotel, then out for team dinner. I turn down the whale starter. Post-dinner briefing from Alan and Wayne, one from Scunthorpe and one from Halifax, men of incredible humility and integrity. Royal Marine veterans with 60 years’ service for our country between them. Bright daylight at midnight is still a little disconcerting. Hardly slept.
Sunday April 15
Full day prepping kit and working myself into a quiet panic. This was the most frightened I had ever been: my inner chimp chipping away at my energy and confidence. It will always be my greatest weakness; trying to control the uncontrollable. Lot of work; sled to pack; food to separate into day snacks, breakfasts, evening meals; boots to try on, tents, ice screws, flasks, sleeping bag, spare skis to distribute. All the time, the cold of Longyearbyen is screaming down my lugholes, warning, “I am coming for you!”
First-ever effort on skis with skins on the bottom, allowing you to walk up slopes on ice and descend without racing off. I have to squeeze my size 13 boots into a binding pulled very, very tight. Then, it is time to practice putting the tent up with my tent-mate Alex K. We are useless in the car park with the wind blowing. How would I do this at the Pole wearing thick gloves? Why am I doing this now for the first time just 12 hours before setting off?
At lunch, we have a kit brief from Wayne to assess if we have all the required kit. I feel short of gear. I am not alone. We dash to the shops and empty the shelves. The following morning when I put my Pole kit on at 6am, I notice I have bought Ladies XL fleece bottoms. Out for our final team meal, pizza and chips, one pint of lager. Funnily enough, I sleep fitfully.
Monday April 16
Up at 6am. Check my kit 17 times. Passport packed. The Russians may want to see it. Breakfast. Make up a ham and cheese sandwich on Alan’s instructions to enjoy at our first stop on the walk. Genius tip. It proves to be the greatest sandwich I have ever eaten. Plane looks OK from the outside.
Inside? Comical. Plywood. Fuselage open. Jason tells me it is luxury because “it has seats”. Wayne lies across the kit on the journey to 89 degrees and 34 minutes – the location of Camp Barneo. The pilot looks like Robbie Coltrane. As we approach Barneo, you can see the curvature of the earth. We are heading north! I was expecting Armageddon, tornado winds, zero visibility. Instead glorious sunshine. Very, very cold, -35. But beautiful and white.
Alan and Wayne go straight in to operational mode. “Get sleds over there”. “Grab seven fuel cartons”. “Get empty fuel cylinders, five each.” “Pack skis on your sled face down”. “Stay low as you approach the chopper”. We jump on and we take to the skies and fly to 89 degrees and 30 minutes. We land at 1.24pm. Thirty nautical miles (50 km) to travel. We grab sleds; we don skis; Alan points north. We start walking in single file. Beautiful conditions. Within 40m, privately, internally, I hate my skis, pronating on the edge.
Alan lets us know that the day is split into two sections of two-hour walks with a 20-minute break. We cover 3.3 nautical miles in four hours on day one. I walked in two pair of socks, merino underwear, one thermal layer top and bottom, a merino beanie under my Maidenhead beanie thermal, glove liners, mittens, goggles and then Gore-Tex top and bottom hand warmers permanently refreshed and inserted in mittens. You still start cold. You have to start cold. The North Pole advice is repeated to me many times – “You sweat, you die”. When you walk, you heat up and you find yourself a comfortable temperature. It is all about layering. The second you stop, you drag the sled between your legs. At the front of the sled, your warm coat comes out first, and it’s straight on. You sit on your sled, straddling it.
Grab your snacks and consume over 1,000 calories at a time. You drink pre-prepared soup or hot chocolate, two flasks per person per day, half a flask per stop on a normal day of four stops.
We stop on day one at 89 degrees 33 minutes and 39 seconds. Time to grab the tent and get it up quickly. Alex and I struggle – nearly 50 minutes. We could not get the poles in the ice. Putting a tent up with three coats on, glove liners and mittens ranks right up there as the hardest physical task I have ever done.
Then into the tent, roll the mat out, and get the blow-up mattress in. The tent floor base is put in first. That’s three layers to get you and your body away from the ice when you sleep. Snow is piled all around the outside of the tent using your shovel to keep the wind out. Sleeping bags are rolled out, with a pillow case ready for your warm jacket when you strip down for bed, making a homemade pillow.
The special forces boys cook. Alex and I pile into Wayne’s tent for food and watch a master at work. One of the takeaways from this trip is less strength/gym work and more yoga. Every night, these fellas sat looking comfortable and chatting away, legs folded, bending at the hips, as small as they could make themselves. I was a tent rhino, knocking everything everywhere every day.
Food night one, spaghetti bolognese, spiced up by Wayne’s “scran rescue kit” – Tabasco sauce. Exhausted. Crash out at 9.45pm.
I need a wee from 3am. We had a pee pot each in our tent. You don’t want to leave your tent once you are stripped down in your sleeping bag. But the psychology of peeing into a bottle next to Alex is disconcerting. By 5am, I have no choice: I open up the pot, pee and close the pot. To stop it freezing, the pot joins me in my sleeping bag. Warms the feet. I sleep fitfully, any moisture terrifies me. You have to keep your tent dry. You learn so fast up there.
Tuesday April 17
Alan had informed us to be ready to leave by 10am. He wants us up at 6.30am. It takes that long, to get up, use the loo, eat, pack away. Less haste more speed, but don’t dawdle. Alex and I are way below par: a disaster zone in a comedy way. I have my first Arctic poo. I found an ice boulder close to camp, went behind it, dug a hole. I unzip my clothes, poo fast, wipe, and bury it in the snow using shovel. I use favourite toilet roll brought from home.
Four 90 minute-walks are planned with 15-minute breaks. We leave at 10.15am. I am astounded by the beauty: the turquoise blue ice of boulders forced up in pressure ridges; the icebergs we are lucky to see, broken off the Siberian ice cap, and floating north. Huge.
“Leads” – gaps in the ice – have formed, some recent and dangerously thin, others needing a few hours to refreeze and to be safe to walk on.
Unbelievably cold: take short cuts here, and fingers, toes, even lives can be lost.
We remove our skis for the first time. The ice is so ragged, so high, that for the amateurs traversing in skis is time-consuming and dangerous. We strap them to the sled, bindings face down so they don’t catch on jagged edges. Your sled is dragged behind you by hand, gripping at the knot in the trace, which connects your harness to your sled.
Skis back on, and away we go. We come across “one of the biggest pieces of ice” Alan has seen in 15 years of coming to the Pole.
After lunch, more danger. Traversing a recently formed lead, 20 metres apart, slowly. I find myself mid-group. “Stop, don’t move, listen” screams Alan. Two ice sections are coming together 30m away, a pressure ridge forming: millions of tonnes of ice, a harrowing noise. The hairs go up on my neck.
We crack on with a subtle increase in pace. I break my first ski. The plastic attaching my binding to my ski sheers off. We call for the spares.
Different members of group have the skis, others the tents. I count the skis: not loads. More anxiety.
Camp at 89 degrees 42 minutes 24 seconds. Tent up in 35 minutes. We are getting better. Into Alan’s tent for supper. Alan is sharing his tent with Uzi. An absolute hero, he never stops making us laugh. So warm. A little shot of whisky. Bed by 10. A little less clothing worn in the sleeping bag. Increasingly confident about warmth of tent and safety. Sleeping bag tip: if your socks are a little damp sleep with them under your armpit. Warm in no time. Starting to love this trip. I mean really bloody love it.
Wednesday April 18
Up at 7.15am after a comfy sleep. Happy to clean my teeth this morning, to change my socks: tasks beyond me on night one. Alan’s tent for brekkie.
Laughter and smiles replace apprehensive grimaces. Eat well. Pack up faster. Toilet super swift. Away we go. Dean gets his giant right ski stuck on a piece of ice crossing a small lead. Arse over tit. I am directly behind. I stifle a laugh. Nothing said, but we wait until the next break. “Is it OK to laugh now?”. The smile says it all. Foxy and I rip into him. We are confident enough to start joking.
We cross thin ice – Wayne tells us it is known as “Margarita Ice” – still a little slushy and the tip of the ski pole goes in easily. At 14.30, we hit a giant lead – 20m of open water between our target and us. We sit, we rest. Wayne whips his harness off and heads west to see how far until he can find a crossing. We are lucky to be just 400m away. But we need to move fast. You can hear the ice coming together. You don’t want to be anywhere near it when it starts forming a ridge. I wobble on my skis a little as we cross the lead. You don’t want to fall back into that! A guiding hand in the small of my back from Wayne and I am off and safe again. Dean Mumm notes we can now add ocean crossing to our achievements.
Last hour of the day, and a ginormous snow boulder field. One hour taken, 400m travelled. I break my second ski, Foxy his first. Alan decides to camp. 89 degrees 51 minutes 49 seconds. Tent up in 20 minutes. I am never going to claim I am an adventurer but quietly proud of personal and team efforts and ability to adapt. We have bankers, dentists, fashion photographers amongst us. Eat in Wayne’s tent. Joey brings round a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label – the adventurer’s whisky – chilled to -35. Absolute nectar.
Thursday April 19
North Pole day – if we get a wriggle on, eight nautical miles to cover. I commit my biggest error of the trip. We have duvet boots, thick padded socks in the shape of boots, for the tent and excursions from tent to tent. I decide to walk to the loo in them. 50m from camp, I hit a snow drift and drop in waist deep. I panic for a second, hop out, and have no duvet boots, I am just in socks. I dig, uncover my boots, which are full of snow. My socks are getting wet. I do my business. I head back, tail between my legs. Bad error, but it could have been a lot worse.
Today will be a Great Day. But before the glory there is hard walking to be done. Doing some filming for the group on GoPros. I go through a small low. I find myself tired, a short distance between me and the pal in front and behind, and still six hours to go. As I trudge along, I become aware of my shadow walking alongside me. A thought flashes through my mind. Little Freddie is with me: “Keep going, Dad”. Shoulders back, I remember why I am here. Time to smash this thing.
It’s tough. We stop about 300m short of the pole. But there is no sign, just a vast expanse of snow where you can see the horizon 360 degrees around you. Alan’s GPS system can’t lock on. Finally, Alan tells us we have made it – seven and a half billion people are below us. I am the most northernly man on the northernmost part of the planet. I am rotating slower than any person on earth. It is a special feeling after 18 months of planning and fundraising and commitment and hurdles and milestones done.
A North Pole sign is put up between two skis, a cup of tea brewed. Then, photos, as many as your cold hands can muster. Video messages are recorded for great friends and supporters. We are on top of the world.
I said I would walk to the ends of the earth for my little boy Freddie and I have. We hope to raise raised over £600,000. Personally, I have reached £350,000 for Borne, a charity set up to fund an incredible medical team led by Mark Johnson into the causes and possible prevention of pre-term labour.
Caro and I heard the awful words: “There is nothing we can do” on the 19 September 2002. We decided we would like to help, in our small little way, to change one word. For all the parents out there, we want it to always be: “There is something we can do”.
To donate to Will Greenwood’s Borne Arctic Challenge: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/will-greenwood-arctic
To find out more about the journey: https://www.borne.org.uk/support-us/borne-arctic-challenge/
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