Sky Run – Peak District


With trail and ultra running ever growing in the UK it was only a question of time before the sky running series made its way to our shores. Big in the Alps the race formats are normally marathon plus distances in the mountains with the aim of taking in peaks and ridges along the way.

At one extreme you have the Salomon sky run along the Aeonach ridge, a grade 3 scramble to others which are much less technical. This weekend was much less technical in comparison but with 29 miles and 2000m of ascent it wasn’t to be sniffed at. Especially when this height gain to distance ratio puts it in a slightly more aggressive category than UTMB or the Lakeland 100. Admittedly despite that fact being floated about, those races are a much more incredible feat of human determination and endurance.

A short recce the day before took me to the top of the first climb, Solomons Temple near Buxton with great views over the course of the following day. A final bit of race preparation was enjoying an incredible meal at the Samuel Fox inn, potentially a tad much for a pre-race meal but with this being my first outing back into ultra racing for a couple of years my aim was to enjoy the day and start getting back into it.

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Solomons Temple

 

Wondering amongst the competitors it was great to chat and hear stories of competitions completed and planned for the coming year. From quick dash fell runs to the rather more brutal races such as King Offas Dyke 185 mile race or the 268 mile Spine race in January along the pennine way.

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Pre-race kit prep

The race commenced and we made our way quickly up to Solomons Temple with short pauses as we were funnelled onto single track. Despite the forecast being of overcast conditions I was glad I had packed some sunglasses for the day with the sun beaming down on us. As we rounded the temple with a bagpiper playing up top we began to spread out as we started our decent already. This was going to set the stage for the day with every ascent marked soon afterwards by a descent and slightly demoralisingly loosing all the height just gained.

The route took a course along ridges, through moorland, bogs and of course up a number of hills.

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With a well marked course we could concentrate on the running and getting our feet in the right spot. With plenty of opportunities for twisted ankles amongst the rocky tracks being light on our feet and an emphasis on twinkle toes was the name of the game.

The only slight mistake came when chatting to another competitor about his up coming race in Oman. Taking the wrong turn we led out towards a farm building only to realise we had gone half a mile in the wrong direction. Slightly devastating as was the sight of maybe 20 odd runners who had followed on behind us. Quickly making up the ground we had lost we all made our way back into the course and meandered back down the hill side.

Running through one boggy area I came across a pair of Oakley sunglasses that had clearly dropped off one of the runners in front and were gently perched on some long grass. Picking them up I handed them into a later checkpoint. You never know when you might be in a similar situation. I didn’t have to wait long!

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About 10 mins later the course was incredibly beautiful and one I would have certainly wanted to capture more of it wasn’t for the fact I dropped my phone. Fortunately it was picked up by one of the other competitors not far behind me. A quick snap and with it firmly packed away for the remainder of the race after learning my lesson and not fancying a repeat before heading on.

The course meandered on and my pace ebbed and flowed as the terrain and distance took its toll. The three food and drink checkpoints on the route hit the spot every time. With the opportunity to refuel on chunks of banana, succulent orange slices, flapjack, soreen and of course a wide array of other goodies. I try to make these as quick as possible and continue to eat as I walk along out of the checkpoint. Partly this is to not get too comfortable and I would much prefer to finish sooner.

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Chatting with some of the fell runners it was great to see them descend in front of me. I still don’t understand how they did it so quickly other than through a bit of experience and raw tenacity to descend quickly! I envisaged face planting a rock face first if I tired the same so clearly an area I can improve on.

The route went past quiet a few climbing and bouldering spots with chalk marks on some and people clambering about in the sunshine on others. Unfortunately it would have to be  for another time.

As the day wore on I went over on my ankle. With my run going well this was pretty disappointing but deciding to walk it off for a bit I soon managed to break into a trot again. Some of the rocky ground though became much trickier to negotiate as my ankle seemed to get twisted on even the smallest of stones.

Finally the town of buxton came back into sight. I was delighted despite not being able to increase my pace a huge amount. One guy asked if we were to have a sprint finish. As much as I wanted to my legs and ankles had run out of juice. I was happy to finish the race at a plod.

Within moments of crossing the finish line I was welcome by a flat coke, my trainers coming off and my wife looking at me in a slightly sorry and apparently “grey” looking state.

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So good getting the shoes off!

Despite the ankle it was awesome getting back into the running again having been out of ultra running for a couple of years. I was remembering all the elements i had learnt about through training runs, competitions and chats with numerous runners and trainers. I finished middle of the pack which may not have been my best result ever but it was one I will certainly remember. I would certainly recommend checking out the sky running series with a greta mix of terrain and distances.

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A race to remember

Helvellyn Circuit


With a weekend of spectacular weather on the cards and a wide range of walks across the Yorkshire moors, Dales or the Lake District to choose from we were certainly spoilt choice. After much debating over these options and gaining some local knowledge we set our sights on Helvelyn in the Lake District.

With a choice of routes to go up Helvellyn including the famous striding edge it was set to be a fantastic outing.

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Our Final Route

Waking the next morning and rushing for the curtains I was welcomed to a view of low cloud and overcast hills. Not quite what we expected. Stepping outside the cool weather was perfect for walking and so I began filling a couple of flasks with hot water in preparation for some cooler ascents.

As we headed out along the a66 with awesome views over the Pennines the cloud began to lift. As we drove down onto the western side of the pennines we were greeted to glorious sunshine. The temperature began rising and the thought of no sun cream along with the hot flasks of water all began to seem like daft ideas.

Arriving in Glenridding the car parks were jam packed with rucksack and map carrying hikers. Brilliant to see but dashing our thoughts of being in the wilderness. Gathering a few final essential supplies including the sun cream and chocolate bars we were ready to begin.  The chocolate unfortunately did not make the journey as it was eaten in advance before we started.

We headed on up the valley.

Wondering along side the stream that flowed through the village. Huge chunks of it were missing and the foundations of some houses completely exposed showed just how powerful this meandering stream had become in the floods over the winter. There was still a decent amount of work to be done before everything was back in order. Still evident from the number of trucks, diggers and reinforcements being put in place.

The route up was a path that carved its way up the hillside with only a short detour taking us away from the swathes of groups heading up the hill. In front and behind of us were a steady stream of harden walker to enthusiastic opportunist, young and old, tourist and local as well as a few dogs thrown in for good measure.

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As we reached a small plateau in front of us we could see striding edge with the silhouette of walkers making their way across it. The sun was beaming down on us and it’s safe to say the sweat was beginning to stream off me at least.

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Striding Edge

The edge itself was great fun, certainly in this weather. Despite being occasionally exposed it wasn’t like tryfan or crib goch in Wales and in this dry and sunny weather it made for a great outing. Despite this you there were reminders to tougher times with a memorial to Mr Dixon who fell off it in 1858 whilst running with hounds, as well as  the occasional scrape from crampons left over from a previous winters. It would certainly be a challenge in cold, wet and icy conditions. One for another day! Darting over the rocks we paused occasionally to soak up the views and let some of the blockages on route ease up. The final chimney proved to be the biggest pinch point of the ridge yet despite this we watched as one guy virtually ran along the length of the ridge swerving round people while a rather elderly looking gentleman made this chimney look a piece of cake. There were of course many others for whom this was not quite so simple but seeing the elation and satisfaction from everyone on conquering striding edge was awesome to see.

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Memorial to Mr Dixon, 1858

Making the final ascent up to the summit which flattens into a great plateau we reached the top. To beautiful views over the surrounding valleys. Sitting down with our feet dangling over one of the slopes we munched on some sandwiches as we watched the start of some fell runners coming up from the other side looking remarkably fresh. We briefly joined the throng of supporters cheering on the competitors before they made their descent.

Surveying the surrounding routes we opted to not go for the well trodden path up Catstye Cam but to meander round along a flat ridge line. The sights and smells brought back memories from many a previous trip up into the hills.

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On reaching what we thought would be our final summit, with us both still feeling pretty fresh and the day still young we set our sights on a further peak and ridge line. Passing school groups and walkers relaxing on the slopes whilst soaking up the afternoon rays of sunshine. It was definitely far too hot for the still steaming bottles of hot water I had packed in the cool yorkshire morning.

We made our way along a final ridge with hardly a soul about. It felt much more like the walk we had both expected being slightly more out in the wilderness. With the sun beaming down on us the occasional sip on cool stream water was incredibly satisfying.

The final descent into town was through a field packed full of blue bells lit by the soft evening sunshine. It was a pretty spectacular find for the end of the day, especially as this bit had been an unplanned extension to the day. Before the final descent into town.

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Sitting down to a plate of chips and a pint of coke was a delight. We could relax enjoying the evening and the feeling you get from being outdoors all day. A mix of tiredness and satisfaction at what has been achieved. All that was left to do was get some flip flops on, essential after any walking trip and head back to yorkshire for the night.

 

Scottish Ski Touring


After much deliberating over the last few years I finally took the a spur of the moment to get some ski skins after chatting to one of the team at a local ski and mountaineering shop in Perth. For those who haven’t heard of these, it is a material where all the hairs lie in one direction so when stuck to the base of the ski they allow the ski to slide in one direction but hold in the other. Along with a touring binding the whole setup allows your foot to pivot up and down so you can trek up hill.

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midnight prepping of the skis

The first trial trip was just at the end of a beautiful days skiing at glenshee however this coincided with the wind picking up. With the temperature plummeting and the skins flapping around I learnt a lot about the equipment and using it in poor conditions. Some of which I should have checked in the warmth of the house! The short notice of good conditions in the hills meant for a quicker trip and slightly rushed prep as I cut the skins to shape at midnight the evening before heading off.

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After the initial delay I was off. Gliding along the snow, over snow drifts, heather, ice and rock. I was rewarded with views from the high point across the valley. You could see the snow line across the valleys and the winding road up to glenshee. The nearby stream gleaming in the sunlight. All topped off by a great ski down. The little bit of effort rewarded with untouched Scottish powder, not quite the depths of the alps or further afield but powder nonetheless. I passed a couple making a similar journey up the hills.

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The second outing was much better with perfect weather and the snow was due to be good in bits despite the recent warmer conditions. Being in the hills covered in snow is a beautiful sight as was meeting a few like minded people up there. I stopped to discuss route options and snow conditions with a fellow ski tourer. It also gave me the chance to cool down despite the cool breeze I was vastly over dressed for the constant trekking and “warm” weather. If it had been the arctic I would have definitely been sweating far too much. As it brought back memories of the tougher days we had whilst trying to minimise any sweating to an absolute minimum in order to prevent our clothes from freezing.

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Glorious views, Glas Maol, the hill with the bowl on the left was where i was heading

Some of the more exposed slopes were quite icey. I don’t mind skiing down ice but skinning up hill in a zig zag fashion makes the turns quite interesting. Still perfecting my technique I slid back occasionally on the turns as I shifted round.

 

overheating in the exceptionally warm weather

It was slightly gutting every time about the loss in hard won height despite it only being a tiny difference. Once at a decent height it was time to head down hill. Skins off, realising I had forgotten the gauze that makes them easier to pull apart, I packed them away eager to hit some fresh snow. Heading down into some of the bowls the skiing improved and I could carve out some turns down the hill between clumps of heather. Before slowly making my way back to the car.

It was a great experience learning a new skill but there is the greater satisfaction knowing you put in the hard graft to experience and reach the area you wanted to ski in. I learnt about how using normal ski boots although does work is not only much heavier but you don’t have nearly as much flex in the ankle which ended up giving me a couple of blisters.

End of a good day

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Despite skiing in Scotland being a bit of an experience compared to the likes of the alps. It often involves some rock, streams and heather avoidance. Its close, you can get some incredible conditions particularly if your willing to put some effort in and I will certainly be doing it again! Skiing and ski touring in particular in Scotland is certainly on the increase with the snow lasting well past spring if your willing to go away from the ski areas. As well as allowing you to visit areas with potentially more snow and certainly a lot less skied on gives that adventure and exploration experience.

If you have some ski or other touring experiences why not share the story or the pictures here or on Instagram #Mytour

Reflections on 2015


2015 can only be summed up as a year of some serious highs and lows. It began with an incredible expedition which at points had some interesting ups and downs. Despite that Jamie and myself had learnt a great deal, saw some amazing sites and experienced the Arctic in all its harsh beauty. Although it wasn’t a trip that broke records and I’m not sure if we were or weren’t the first people to ski up the east coast of Baffin Island the experience humbled us. It showed what was important in an expedition; seeing new places, meeting new people from different cultures and pushing our comfort zones. We were helped by a huge number of people back in the UK and all across Canada and particularly on Baffin Island

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Pond Inlet 2015

On getting back to the UK I felt raring to go. I had a game plan of what I wanted to do for the remainder of the year. First up and even I would admit a rather bizarre one which was a desire to make croissants from scratch. This came about part the way through the trip in a rather random train of thinking during a ski session and it had stuck.

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First batch of croissants
Then followed it up with an interview on radio scotland.
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A day at BBC Scotland
Not long after getting back and following what sounded like a seriously tough eight months of physical and mental preparation my brother passed out of the Royal Marines. It was a fantastic weekend watching them march out, heads held high and their pristine uniforms. Despite the torrential rain it was still an awesome sight.
Once the formalities had finished he showed us some of the areas they had been trained on to give us a snippet of an insight into their daily training regime. It was like an adults playground and looked incredible, I can only try and imagine the sight of it early on a cold wet morning is probably a lot less appetising.
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A damp pass out
I got into some new sports which made for a change of thinking, one of which was trying my hand at a spot of kite surfing. Dragging face first through water was a new experience. Never the less a good one as I’m keen to do some more and hopefully some kite skiing at some stage.

There was then a huge curve ball. One that has continued to make me think deeply about family, friends and loved ones.  My dad was diagnosed with a stage four brain tumour. It was one of those things that you don’t see coming, there had been no signs just one day after work a call from my mum. It has changed my perspective on, well everything.
My plans, ideas and thoughts evaporated in the space of a short phone call.
Up till Christmas has been spent with regular trips back to Scotland, visiting hospitals, Macmillan centers and hospices as well as time spent researching into the diagnosis and the possible treatments available. I can’t comprehend the number of friends which have stepped up and helped everything from just being on the end of the phone to many a kind gesture, for that no words can describe how lucky and thankful we are for that.
As I said it made me stop and think. Like an expedition you begin to appreciate the simple things. Moments of happiness and laughter are held tighter than before and time together is suddenly invaluable. There has been some serious laughter and of course some tears too. I realised that something’s I planned on doing I was waiting for no reason.
Since going back to work after my expedition I have been living and working in Yorkshire. I had been thinking of it for a while but I decided that I wanted Laura to be permanently in my life. I got her up to Yorkshire and after a bit of persuading she agreed on marrying me in 2016.
Now you maybe thinking why am I telling you this? Is it some sob story, raising awareness of the work cancer charities do or the NHS. Although they all do a fantastic job. However the answer is no. As I write this I’ve had a video of my dad walking again which may sound small but it is something I am incredibly proud of and amazed at his strength to continue and aspire to better things. He has since been walking down the road, which a few months ago we were only hoping for. I don’t know why I feel compelled to tell the story other than to ask that after reading this you pause, reflect and learn from our families experience. Try and spend time with friends, family, loved ones and do stuff that is important to you. There is one thing certain in life but how we get there is what’s important.
Everyone’s life is for living and open to adventure whatever that might be.

Bear Necessities


The morning started like any other with the normal rituals of life in the arctic, which after 3 months were running pretty slickly. We were getting the final part of the tent away when I heard an almighty noise. Looking up I realised it was just Jamie sneezing. You forget how quite and soundless the arctic region is. The only sounds we hear are that of our group, the wind on the tent and the odd raven that fly’s past. I had only just started sorting out my sled when a small noise from erupted from Colin’s direction. This could have been a bark or, and probably far my likely, a sudden release of air from one of his other orifices. Jamie looked round. The next word I heard in normal situations wouldn’t make me bat an eyelid in this environment however it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up while your pulse rises rapidly as adrenaline shoots into your veins. 

BEAR!

Spot the Bear (this was it leaving after everything)
Spot the Bear (this was it leaving after everything)

Looking round I immediately see the ambling cream coloured figure of a bear. There was a momentary pause, as you think wow look at that. Then the far more urgent one that this bear was only 30 – 40 m away, which was close enough for us to need to do something about it. Within moments I had my shotgun as did Jamie. We had discussed and run through our plan for this kind of situation particularly after our last encounter, our rapid reaction force known only as Tala was released. Colin was kept by our side partly for security but mainly because he is more likely to run in the opposite direction. Tala chased down her target, barking aggressively until she was closer to the bear. 

Tala had clearly expected the same reaction as with the mother and her cubs, which ran quickly off into the distance. She returned victorious arriving back to a hero’s welcome of belly rubs and food. Being a lonesome young male bear it had other ideas and held his ground. At which point there was a stand off between the two of them. The bear was still obviously trying to work out what we all were and what we were doing in his back garden. They approach down wind lifting his nose in the air to get a better whiff of us and occasionally getting higher on his back legs to see and smell us better. Irritated and distracted by tala he made a little run forward but she kept him at bay. He was only testing the water but the move had Jamie and me on edge.

We didn't get the cameras out when it was closer...
We didn’t get the cameras out when it was closer…

With tala keeping him busy this gave Jamie and I time to load up a few bear bangers to fire at him. The guns are kept with live ammunition as the first option so we have to assess the situation before using bangers. With a loud crack and flash of light they started going off around his feet and one bouncing off him. They took effect immediately on both dog and bear as they paused mid stand off each unsure of what these explosions of noise were. These first few didn’t unfortunately budge him much as he only wondered off a few steps and certainly not far enough away. Before beginning a slow shuffle back in our direction. 


Time seemed to go incredibly slowly. Other than a couple of bangers we kept my shotgun on live rounds as a very last resort. There was the incessant barking from Tala, I had joined in shouting at the bear, Colin well I will come on to that while Jamie loaded up more bangers. This second round of explosions and with everything else he turned on his heels and routed, clearly deciding this was not worth the effort. Tala continued to follow him with continued aggression until we called her back. 


As he wondered off he clearly heard a noise from a seal. Rising on his hind legs he dived into the ice. Nothing, he was not having a good start to the day. We stood watching carefully as he then continued his long walk into the distance. 
Now that he was further away we could appreciate the sight of this magnificent animal as he meander about icebergs with the sun rising behind him. It was a beautiful sight seeing a polar bear in it’s natural environment. They are certainly an animal to both admire but also respect incredibly highly.

Surveying the scene in front of us, it had been quite an experience, we had fired 8 bangers which later when we walked over to see his foot prints you could see the small blast radius’s left as they had exploded about him. Looking from his perspective highlighted just how close he had come. Despite only being 9.30 in the morning we both felt like we had been up and moved a considerable distance already. You don’t appreciate how being on edge even for a short period of time takes it’s toll on the mind and body.  
Finally with some decent distance between us we felt comfortable enough to finish the remainder of the packing and make a quick get away onto whiter pastures.

Colin Chilling
Colin Chilling


Now throughout this entire fiasco Colin who had raised his small alarm had made one of two decisions. Either the situation was all under control and didn’t need his assistance or in one final last stand of pleasure he would look the other way and lick his bollocks. We were both delighted that Colin was the first to highlight the bears presence but then incredibly frustrated that the dog selected for his polar up bringing and likely handling of a polar bear had come so short of the mark. Despite this though he has certainly grown on us particularly over the last few weeks as he still shakes off the effects of 2 years of a harsh upbringing and his lifetime experience where human contact was limited at best. He now nudges me at each break with his nose and licks his lips in hope of receiving some flapjack, which as long as it isn’t cappuccino flavour or ginger choc chip if he has gone to Jamie, he gets some. His confidence does seem to be improving with him now slowly reaching up with mouth opening round and in the direction of the flapjack that we are about to eat ourselves. He is incredibly gentle though feeding him by hand he eases it away from you as if it were a delicate relic from centuries ago rather than the semi frozen block of food that it is. We have resorted to warming them up in our chest pocket before hand to stop some flavours breaking our teeth. Tala on the other hand has been trained under the careful watch of Jamie and the occasional addition by myself to balance food on the end of her nose, having her leave it for a few seconds as drool dribbles from her mouth before flicking it up with her nose and grabbing in her mouth. It is then munched down with such a ravenous tenacity that you would think the flapjack is about to come alive.

Tala Being Rewarded
Tala Being Rewarded

ARCTIC LIFE


Something that takes up a large part of our day and one which we haven’t really spoken about is what it is like on a day to day basis. Having spent over a couple of months travelling in an Arctic environment we are certainly building on our previous cold weather experience. The main priorities of the day are water, food, warmth and sleep. So pretty basic things. Our days roughly start at 5.30 am. In our bid for freedom, getting out of our sleeping bag resembles something David Attenborough would commentate on. Try and imagine the voice…

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“Here in the Arctic tundra the small and now hairy faced Jamie/Benno wakes for yet another morning in this cold and wintery environment. Making an opening large enough to squeeze their arms and head….”

You get the idea.

We begin our day trying to avoid a freezing cold shower as the moisture in our breath freezes to the edge of our sleeping bag. As you open it down sprinkles tiny little ice crystals onto your sleepy face, any method of avoiding this is a bonus. Then comes the start of our daily tasks melting snow, boiling water, cooking up food (pouring hot water into our food to rehydrate it) and in typical British fashion a cup of tea to start the day. All of this is done whilst in our sleeping bags. The pans have to be constantly topped up with more snow, even a full pan of snow melts down next to nothing. Whilst this is going on we get ready as much as we can without leaving the warm cosy oasis of our beloved sleeping bag. They haven’t got names yet but they are defiantly our happiest places and out attachment to them makes a duvet morning on a Sunday look like child’s play. A morning isn’t complete without using our pee bottles; where despite lying down, it is possible to have a conversation in your sleeping bag without over filling or spilling a drop. If you are feeling clumsy the whole process is slightly easier kneeling. The important bit, particularly if it’s still quite dark, is keeping the now filled bottle away from the drinking bottle as they are exactly shape the same except in colour and in the past it has been known for people to have almost made the mistake of taking a gulp before the smell hits their nostrils and they realise their error. Best not to risk it in the first place. Then there are the socks and tent booties to get on. Trying to get the down booties on is hard enough for myself. Jamie opts to test out his sleeping bag yoga to get his socks on. It seems an impossible task but with a few groans, some weird facial expressions and some impressive moves, success! One sock done, one to go.

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Wriggling down into our bags we finally make enough space to eat our muesli, or porridge if we are lucky. The short straw is something called hot cereal start. It resembles a warm brown sloppy mix with unknown ingredients bar a few raisins thrown in for good measure. It isn’t our favourite but apparently it goes down well with others.

Despite being in the Arctic and surrounded by ice and snow the area is virtually a desert with very low amounts of precipitation throughout the year. The snow tends to get blown off everything and instead collects in snow drifts generally around the rough ice and is where we tend to collect it. This is a bit of an issue as it means every time we get close to camping we have to think is there enough snow to melt and just as important; is it far enough from the sea ice to not have become salty? It is really not a great start to the evening when you have collected enough snow, started melting it only to find that your hot chocolate at the end of the day is salty and you have trundle back out for more snow. Doing this twice in a row is just gutting.

Following a hearty breakfast we pack up and hit the trail. In sunny conditions this is fine. However in windy ones we have to plan out each step to make sure nothing blows away mainly so we don’t get too cold before starting the day. This is particularly the case when going to the toilet. The hole is dug, the paper is ready and you’re thinking about how quickly you can get your trousers down, business done and them back up again before your bum feels like it’s been left in the freezer for too long. No one wants frostbite down there of all places!

Once we start skiing things settle into a natural rhythm. Ski for an hour. Have a break for a snack and a drink. This makes up part of our daily 4,500 to 5,000 calorie diet. It ranges from flapjack, cakes (our favourite being the Eccles cake), nuts, chocolate, biltong and Maximuscle protein bars. This pattern continues until about 5 to 6pm when we stop.

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We spend the entire day constantly thinking how do my toes, fingers, face and general body feel. They can’t be too hot or too cold. Too hot and the sweat freezes when you stop. Too cold and you’re at risk of getting a cold injury. We have a selection of gloves we can change between which is pretty straight forward to do. Less simple is the task of removing our thermal top if we get too warm. Having to strip down to bare skin and then get your jacket back on is nippy to say the least. Despite being hot and sweaty at -30C your nipples can cut glass within seconds of taking your top off. It’s not a particularly pleasant experience although we do tend to do this only when it is sunny and little or no wind.

Finally when it comes to the end of the day the process is repeated in reverse. Tent up, snow melting, hot chocolate followed by a meal and a cake. It doesn’t get much better than having a warm drink tucked up in our sleeping bags. Lights out is normally around 9pm depending on when we finish. Although, with daylight gaining about an hour every 4 days it will be less of a lights out and more of a pulling our hats down over our eyes. With the increased daylight we are hoping the tent temperature doesn’t drop to the -40s we had at the start where we would diving into the bags with almost as many clothes on as during the day despite the huge amounts of insulation on the bags.

We have also upgraded our sleeping arrangement. Caribou hide. Jamie manage to locate one first in Clyde river. Despite looking really quite dishevelled it had made a big difference. I on the other hand manage to find a very plump and hairy one. The downside is it is malting. Everywhere. Fortunately it is now in a bag that keeps most of the hairs in but within an hour of testing it out hairs were turning up in our mugs, water bottles, clothes, food and just about everywhere else you can think of. Even after being sealed up we are still finding them several days later. Then repeat from start to finish.

Summing up the day to day Arctic life ignoring all the beautiful scenery, obvious good company and conversations musing over the meaning of life. Cold and monotonous probably cover it very well. Having the chance to visit local communities, meet hunters, look after a couple of dogs and of course each other make it a far more interesting trip.

INTO THE FJORDS


From the warming lights and RCMP hospitality in Clyde we travelLed North West into the otherworldly coastal fjord System. We had yet to cover such ground, a mixture of frozen fjords and overland traverses littered with moraines from receding glaciers. It was unknown to us but the visual rewards were full of promise so we took a westerly turn from the direct route north to travel through this area.

Tongue like fjords linked by overland passes, littered with glacial moraines and debris, awaited us and it took us a full day of hard work to cross the first small “small” moraine. The promise of a further two more to escape Stewart Valley meant we hit the ice with a renewed vigour. A big motivator being that over last few days, on the flat fjord ice, we had annihilated our average per day mileage. Luck was now on our side; the ice was pan flat, the wind on our backs, as it swept off the rolling glaciers now behind us and slabs of steep rock face towered above us curving out of sight. It was majestic.

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We soon found large sections of clear ice where you could see into the depths of the fjord beneath our feet, littered with bubbles of air, trapped until the melt. Not that you could see much, the snow covering the majority of it prevented much light entering and peering into the darkness beneath we wondered what sort of fish lurked beneath us- maybe even a Baffin version of Nessie. We were zipping between the slower snow cover and this new found friend of “perfect” ice, where for a brief moment our sleds felt almost weightless and we could let our minds wonder without having to concentrate on picking our way through debris.

Our time was spent admiring the chutes and bowls that could be skied down as well as the numerous cliff faces that may or may not have been climbed. We dreamed we would come round the corner to a huge base camp of climbers on their own winter expedition; ideally with some seriously heated tents, food that was not rehydrated and, best case, a cool beer to sip on. It’s sad and not particularly surprising to say that we didn’t find any.

Ahead of us loomed moraine number two, according to the map and GPS it was certainly shorter than the first but still we dreaded it. From a distance the options didn’t look great- a high wall of rock and mud starting on the right hand side and sweeping across the glaciated valley with the odd dip until land on the adjacent side. There did look to be a tight but potentially skiable path on this far side. As we came closer and could see further it gradually opened up to provide a passable route. Our initial fears of spending a day trying to get over it were brushed aside as we found ourselves cruising down a frozen stream on a gentle sloping gradient with massive grins on our faces. Colin did not have the same feeling as he scrambled around, like Bambi on ice, unable to grip and looking as if he might die of terror at any moment. I tried putting him on top of my sled and he looked pretty happy, especially as he had been sneaking onto them to sleep each night, until I started moving again at which point he jumped off. I hadn’t expected that, I was more expecting him to pee or poo all over it like he had done on the a skidoo ride, which although messy was certainly easier than having him slip and slide whilst attached to my sled.

Two moraine hurdles down and one to go. Despite the sun beaming down on us the days were cold and the temperature was plummeting again with forecasts of -39C which was not great to hear. This made the final section that much harder as we donned masks and goggled up with the breeze of the ice caps chilling exposed skin in seconds.

Approaching the final moraine, which on the map was as foreboding as the first one which had hampered our progress. It brought back still fresh memories and the question of was it worth the detour for these spectacular views? There was meant to be a small stream but it wasn’t that clear on the ground where this was. Spotting what appeared to be a valley and praying for a similar situation to the last frozen stream we made a beeline for it. It was our only option as the rest of the moraine up close was impassable with pulks.

A route briefly opened up before we had to scramble over some rocks. Maybe our luck was up? To our relief a frozen stream lay on the other side. Feeling physically tired we took a short break- it was a perfect spot for filming. Whilst in the process Jamie shouted over that some water was gurgling up under the pressure of the lake behind it and instantly refreezing in beautiful forms on the surface of the established ice. That’s pretty cool! Then we spotted some more and then another patch, this was becoming less cool and a bit concerning. The issue was that a layer of ice had formed with some water running between it and the thick ice that lay beneath. As we moved the pulks occasionally sunk into the weak ice becoming trapped as the water froze around them. We donned skis to spread the weight and focused on our route. Although the water was not at all deep we did not want to get any of our kit wet as it would freeze and make for a particularly unpleasant period depending on where and how wet it got. Even in the tent on the warmest night the temperature wouldn’t be higher than -10C, once wet and then frozen kit would remain frozen. To our relief this weaker patch of ice only lasted a short distance as we carefully and safely made our way through before we were zig zagging the meanders of the river back down to the sea ice once more.

fjords2

We then exited Stewart valley with high fives, fist punches and a hug all round- dogs included. It had been quite a detour and a mini adventure within this journey north. The tough going had certainly taken its toll on us and each night we had collapsed into our sleeping bags hoofing down our meals and any other calories, not thinking of them as food only fuel that we had from that days rations. It had become simple numbers game. When we reflected back on the escapade it is easy to question whether it was it worth it or not? Observing this natural region of jaw dropping beauty made the answer easy; of course it was, now we were out of it!

We now made a straight line crossing past the spectacular Sillam Island with its glaciers falling off its steep sides, skimming Scott Island with its angular bow like rock face rising from the ocean floor, towards another overland pass and our first and only depot. We weren’t sure what to expect from the pass. Our opinion of going overland had been tainted by a few experiences. It certainly didn’t conjure up positive feelings but with lighter sleds we had a positive mind set.

Entering it and despite the views being impressive the pass just didn’t compare to what we had been seeing so recently, we had been spoilt and were in danger of becoming geography snobs. Following the river we met the tracks of our dog sled friends and skidoo drivers Levi and Boris. For the next few days we followed these tracks and as our sleds got ever lighter and the going got easier despite the patches of rough windblown snow and occasional rocky outcrop or the hills that neither set of drivers seemed to wish to avoid. Our map, although sufficient, lacks the detail for micro nav meaning we were hoping they would take the easiest path. We crested another hill again only to find the valley we had been following linked below us with only a small detour which would have avoided all those meters gained to lose them again. It did provide Jamie the opportunity to test out his telemark skiing skills as he glided down in control even with a Pulk. This is an almost impossible task when you have Colin attached to your sled as I did. As the sled picks up speed going downhill it gets closer, panicking Colin decides to increase his pace in a bid to get away from the one object he is tied to on a fixed length of line. This only results in the sled careering into me at higher speed and almost taking my legs out from beneath me.

We are however slowly making progress with the lovely chap as he certainly seems happier and less timid than when we first got him. Falling asleep on top of our sleds certainly shows an air of confidence he didn’t have before and a clever streak that he has managed to keep very well hidden up to now. A beautiful and almost hot (-20C) day brought us nicely into the hut and our depot stop. Sitting by a frozen lake with pristine snow, mountains and glaciers in the surrounding area, it is certainly a beautiful spot.

wandering

The almost unspoilt view excluding the defecated patch where around 20 or so dogs had been with the sled teams which I am sure you can imagine was less pristine. You could see where all the dogs had slept with these small round melted depressions in the snow and the area was littered with the pitter-patter of paw prints. Compared to our previous hut finding days with strong winds and snow this felt a lot better plus the “it’s obvious to see” is very true when the weather is good. We could see it from a good distance off! Unpacking our supplies and re-measuring for the umpteenth time how far the next section is. Concentrating on what we would encounter initially the first 15k are going to be tough with our heavy sleds again as we cross the remaining bit of land down to the sea ice. We are making the most of the opportunity with a day to rest up and to organise ourselves before taking this and the remainder of the journey on.

One slight surprise whilst packing up was the sound of an engine followed by another and then nothing. It was as if a skidoo had stopped outside but we were in the middle of nowhere! Two people suddenly appeared through the door. It was a group heading up for the dog sled race taking place in Pond in about 10 days time. We joined them for hot drinks and the freshest sushi of Arctic char cut straight off a whole fish in large slivers. It was delicious. The remainder of the afternoon was spent chatting away with the group, admiring the caribou gloves they had, packing up the remainder of our kit and patching up some of the gloves which have taken the full brunt of this environment. It isn’t the sort of place that takes any prisoners, the slight sign of weakness in any bit of equipment and it soon unravels. In the case of our gloves my favourite pair is now held together more by my quality sewing (it is anything but this) than the original stitching. The seriously dry air also has the habit of causing fingers and lips especially crack as we begin each day and finish each night with increasing levels of moisturiser including Mushers secret hoof and paw cream for my feet. Jamie has a particular liking for some lotion with self tanning in as he glows ever more orange. At least I can spot him from a distance even without his Baffin jacket on. Onwards and upwards!

Baffin Island