Adventurer Justin Miles took a little time out to practice arctic skills and drills with the man behind the Ice Warrior project, Jim McNeill.
Lewis shouted through the door at one twenty-five am. “Just? Just mate you have to get up”. He didn’t need to. From the first moments that I climbed into bed just after midnight I had a concerned Labrador and a panicking cocker spaniel scrambling all over me, so sleep just didn’t happen. Experience has taught them what happens next when I pack a bag full of clothes and odd looking pieces of kit.
When ‘polar fever’ first took its grip on me properly a couple of years ago I meant to get in some formal cold-weather training, I really did, but it just never seemed to happen.
Heading off to the depths of the Arctic or Antarctic for an expedition is a dangerous undertaking and anyone thinking of taking part in ‘something polar’ should make sure that they’ve been on a comprehensive course, or series of courses, which cover everything including health and safety, navigation, camp-craft, fitness, nutrition and first aid.
Polar training isn’t a ‘nice to’, it’s a ‘must do’. Training brings competence, gives confidence and could just save your life.
When you’re choosing a man, a mentor to take you in to the polar regions and teach you as much as you can absorb about surviving and thriving on expeditions who better than the man that even some of the most recognised names in the world of adventure turn to for advice? Enter Jim McNeill of Ice Warrior.
The first thing that Jim did when I’d booked on to the Intensive Arctic Training course in Svalbard (a ‘pleasant in a strange way’ place a little higher than Norway on the map) was to email me a kit list – everything that I needed to survive the cold environment of the arctic without central heating and an electric blanket.
Toothbrush – check. Watch – check. Coat… errr. Hat…errr… Gloves…. Errr
I needed help! A chat with Jim on the ‘phone and a few hasty emails later and all was set. Jim would get the gear together for me so all I had to do was turn up, try it on and take it away.
‘You’re a bit of odd size’ said Jim. ‘It’s not too often that we come across someone your height with a 46” chest”. I wasn’t quite sure as to whether or not it was a compliment or a criticism but most of the clothing fitted. I had to get a bigger jacket and borrow a pair of bottoms from Jim because the new pair that I’d ordered needed about four feet trimmed from the legs. The Sorel Glacier boots that I’d ordered in a size seven and a half were far too tight and the size sevens too sloppy – go figure.
The hat was a great fit though!
The one thing I was sure of was that the kit would work. Jim never supplies anything unless he, or people he knows, have tried and tested the equipment in real life – once you’re out on the ice the last thing you need is for something not to work – you can’t just pop to the shops to get it changed
As is usual with almost about everything that I do, packing was left until the very last minute. I had to leave home at a little before 2am to catch the first of my four flights to Svalbard but the day seemed to run away with me and before I knew it I was still packing, or ramming kit unceremoniously in to tight spaces in my bags, just before I hit the hay at a little after midnight for less than an hours sleep.
Jim met me, and the other two guys I’d be sharing a tent with at the airport as I was dragging my new Karrimor SF baggage from the luggage carousel. Having been ‘on the road’ for the best part of 23 hours I was in a rather bedraggled state; I was very tired, very hungry and very dehydrated. Still, I was excited to be there, full of anticipation and happy that my fellow students for the week, Matt and Adam, were easy to get along with and great fun.
On the first morning we wasted no time in getting stuck in. A quick breakfast of everything on toast (caviar spread, pate, Norwegian ‘toffee’ cheese, regular Swiss cheese, various salamis, pickled gherkins, cucumbers and topped with jam) was followed by our first classroom session and then on to put my new skis together – and then came the first physical ‘bit’.
I put on my layers (we talked about how to use the polar cold weather clothing efficiently in the first session) and headed out clutching my virginal skis with a degree of trepidation. None of us had skied like this before and now we had to learn by skiing in to town for a coffee.
Matt was a natural and straight away was skiing at a level that suggested that somewhere in his family bloodline was a bit of Norwegian (Norwegian kids must be born with skis on their feet). Adam, the hilarious ‘sailing chef’, was next in line and was making good way towards town. I was slower to pick up the technique so relied on just wiggling my little legs as fast as I could to keep up – the draw of my first coffee for a couple of days was quite a good motivator!
Skiing unencumbered was complicated enough but then Jim threw in the next challenge; to pull a heavy pulk (sled) behind us as we made our way around.
On the first day of man-hauling the sled I have to admit that I relied on pure ‘grunt’ to get me through the hours for my technique was about as graceful as a pregnant epileptic hippo on speed performing Swan Lake in over-sized wellies whilst blindfolded.
By the time we came to a halt on the first day, put up the tent (a hilarious act in itself with lots of mumbling and fumbling and chasing tent poles as they slid off down the hill), ate our delicious rehydrated freeze-dried meals in a combination of flavours (cooked by our very own highly-qualified expedition chef!) and slipped in to our sleeping bags I was more than ready for sleep. Sleep, however, wasn’t at all easy. The tent was echoing with the jungle-like sounds of snoring in different pitches, mutterings in God only knows what languages and dialects and even more strange whimpering noises coming from one sleeping bag and on top of all of that, as if to add insult to injury, I had a lumpy pillow. And, because the sun never really goes down, every time my eyes opened at the sound of another elephantine snort, I sat up thinking that we’d overslept and it was time to get a wriggle on – not funny.
We each took it in turns to ‘take point’ of our little daisy-chain of explorers in the making and on day two I found myself skiing in line behind Matt. As we skied I watched Matt glide along with minimal effort and tried to emulate his movement a little. It worked. As my ski technique improved the energy that I was using decreased and I actually finished the second day feeling in far better condition than the first. Other than struggling to have any control over speed and direction on down hill sections (imagine trying to downhill in loose fitting wellies rather than ski boots) my skiing was sorted.
Skiing, falling over and getting run over by my own pulk on slopey bits became part of daily life but that was only one part of the learning process.
The syllabus also included subjects such as identifying and mitigating risks, medical hazards, cold weather survival, how to use the equipment, polar bear encounters (my version is simple – just make sure that I can ski faster than at least a couple of my team mates!), immersion drill, clothing and we even dug a snow hole (to shelter in – not a toilet!)
Jim McNeills teaching technique was brilliant and made learning an effortless process.
Through a combination of theoretical lessons and discussions, many of them in the field and hours of practice we took on vast amounts of information leading us to being better prepared for whatever polar travels lay ahead for each of us.
I won’t go in to too much detail about exactly what we learned from the Ice Warrior, that’s for you to find out on one of his courses, but I did learn loads and being in the climate where it’s all going to happen reinforced the lessons with dramatic effect (like don’t lick frozen metal!).
You can find out more about Justins adventures or his fitness training for adventurers at www.justforthechallenge.com
Jim McNeill has developed a whole series of activities within his Ice Warrior project from training courses and polar equipment supply to his quest to take a team to the ‘Arctic Pole’. For more details about Jim McNeill and the Ice Warrior projects take a look at his website