The polar expedition involved pulling a sledge weighing 85kg/13 stone whilst protecting himself from temperatures as low as minus 38 (and that was before wind chill). He met an Olympic gold medalist, a Welsh Rugby International, a former Prime Minister and Prince Harry on his travels. In this exclusive interview, he describes what a typical day was like, what makes someone want to do such a thing and what he feels he has learned from the experience.
FIRE: What did you do?
LH: I was one of a handful of people this year who skied over 120 miles (two degrees of latitude) to the Geographic North Pole as part of a Russian expedition. I did this as part of a personal challenge and to raise money for the Fire Fighters Charity.
FIRE: What was it like?
LH: I found it to be much tougher than I anticipated, both physically and psychologically, despite training for the last 18 months, including winter training in Spitsbergen, Norway and Baffin Island, Canada. I knew it was going to be hard but this was extreme; not just the temperatures which touched minus 50 (with wind chill) on one occasion but the sheer physicality of skiing and hauling my sledge over wave after wave of ridges of blocks of broken ice was tough. Many people think that the terrain is flat but the ridges occur as ice floes crash into one another due to Arctic Ocean currents and wind. Of the team, two got frostbite, one quite badly on both hands, and one fell through the ice into the freezing water which could have been life threatening. That was an interesting afternoon!
FIRE: You say this was a personal challenge - what was your lowest point?
LH: On the second day, I had taken some additional fuel from a colleague and some additional team kit (which equals additional weight) and whilst this only amounted to about 15kgs, it felt like ten times that amount. Psychologically I knew I was carrying more than the previous day which was tough enough as it was. I spent all day thinking what weight I could dump and calculating the exact weight of any non essential items. That night, I offloaded 3kg of food I knew I would not eat (Russian ration packs were not great) and non essentials, even my copy of Shackleton's epic voyage South and my IPod charger which clearly did not like working at such extreme temperatures. The following day, all was good again but having to cope with psychological as well as physical pressures at the same time was quite a challenge.
FIRE: Did you work well as a team?
LH: I would like to say yes but in reality this was not the case. The team consisted of two Russians (one of which was the guide, who was a former Olympic Biathlete, and the other was a Russian General, whose English was as good as my Russian), a former Belgian National Judo champion, a Belgian businessman who had recently returned from the South Pole, and me. We had not trained together (apart from one day's familiarisation before we left as we were all experienced in Arctic travel/survival). However we did not know each other's strengths/weaknesses and the biggest problem was that the Russian guide was not able to communicate with the non Russian team members.
At times it was like a practical version of a leadership/communication exercise and looking back, we had some amusing moments but in such a dangerous and testing environment, I should have ensured I had an English speaking guide. His technical skills were great but unless you know the Russian for polar bear, gun and help (not necessarily in that order), it could have been even more of a problem. Several times I looked around to see who might be able to help me overcome a specific hazard and was disappointed that no one offered to help. It was only later that I realised that each of us were struggling with our own issues and didn't have much left in the tank give to others - that was unusual for me given the team based approach I have been used to in the Fire and Rescue Service.
FIRE: What was a typical day?
LH: The routine was invariably, up at 0800, melt snow, have breakfast, change into skiing kit from the much warmer camp kit, get the tent down, skis on, harness secured to the sledge and ski constantly for eight or nine sessions each of 55 minutes, followed by a five minute break for snacks and a drink, then skis and harness off, get the tent up, melt water, eat rehydrated food, read/diary, bed. On average we were doing 12 miles a day towards the pole; the most we covered in one day was 14 miles but that day the ice was relatively flat and we had smaller pressure ridges and open water leads which meant we could make greater progress. We calculated only the direct distance remaining to the pole so all miles covered walking around wide leads or to compensate for the ice floe drifting were wasted. In reality therefore we covered much more than the 120 miles we needed to do. I was on the ice for two weeks.
FIRE: What was the high point? Reaching the pole?
LH: Yes absolutely. Standing on the top of the world is always something I have dreamed about. My toy soldiers as a boy were invariably dressed for arctic warfare and I remain fascinated by the polar regions. We knew we were close to the Pole as we were paying particular attention to our GPS but come the moment we were standing in three different places, albeit within about five metres of each other, each of us convinced that we were at the correct place. The discrepancy resulted from different decimal points associated to respective GPS systems but just to be sure we ran round each other's point of reference. It would have been a shame to have come so far and missed it by five metres. The Russians have an interesting way of celebrating which involved firing live ammunition into the sky and drinking copious amounts of home made vodka (some said it was actually ethanol alcohol) but it would have been rude not to have joined in. Going to bed after watching the sun high in the sky at midnight whilst camping at the North Pole is a memory I will always treasure.
For the full article, see the June edition of FIRE magazine.
Posted on June 7 at 1115 by Phil. Comment by emailing email@example.com