Adventures — 14 August 2016 at 6:42 pm

The Iceman

Jamie Pattison / Emergency Medical Technician / UK

In April 2016, EMT and Mountain Rescue Team member Jamie Pattison competed in and won the Berghaus Iceman Polar Race: an event billed as the world’s toughest Arctic ski race. The race was based in North Eastern Greenland and involved teams of three skiing over 100km of remote Arctic terrain. He returned a changed man, having smashed his personal physical limits and learned the true value of just getting on with it.

It was December and I was looking at the coming New Year and what I hoped to achieve and do with myself in 2016. Researching into various locations and challenges around the world. One evening I opened my emails to find a message from one of my friends with the fateful words ‘How about doing this?’ along with a link to a website. I must admit the rather large red letters emblazoned across the header screaming ‘world’s toughest’ escaped my attention as my eye was more keenly drawn to the spectacular pictures of polar ice and smiling faces pulling pulks through perfect polar postcards.

That was it; I didn’t need any more convincing than that. My heart was set on attaining the finish line of this challenge. While this was all very romantic, I knew it would be a huge challenge personally. I would spend the next few months meticulously planning and training in the most varied and effective ways that I could. It would be a long road to even get myself to the start line.

Forged in Fire

I enjoy training. I studied sports’ science earlier in life. I try not to be too rigid with my planning; training schedules are as tedious and as boring as you want to make them. It basically comes down to all the small decisions you make every day. I planned long runs and many, many hours in gyms of various designs, boxing, Crossfit, with the best coaches and training partners I know. I liked to think of myself as a Formula 1 car: a big team, putting together many parts over a long period of time to build the optimal machine for the challenge ahead. Having brilliant people around me overcame the days when I didn’t feel like pushing myself. I also decided to incorporate every aspect of my life into training in some way for Greenland.

I have always wanted my life to be an adventurous one. I found that if you make training and adventure fit into your life, there is much greater reward and satisfaction gained. This resulted in my organising training trips to the Cairngorms in Scotland, Telemark in Norway and the French Alps. However there was always this ulterior motive for these trips besides preparing for the Iceman race. Two birds, one stone if you will.

The trip to the Cairngorms was originally planned as the annual Mountain Rescue winter skills training. We head there to train as it provides the best and most consistent winter conditions anywhere in the UK. There was a reason the Norwegian commandos of WW2 chose the same corner of our beautiful island to prepare themselves for their missions in fortress Europe. The conditions that year were ferocious. Low temperatures combined with high winds produced significant wind chill and temperatures down to minus 30 Celsius. Just being out on the hills in these conditions was a challenge on so many levels. But knowing I could operate, and look after myself and others in these conditions gave me confidence that I could cope when things became properly Arctic.

The second training trip was to Rjukan in Norway. Funnily enough where the aforementioned Norwegian commandos conducted some of their operations. I again had the opportunity to expose myself to real cold. Before each day’s climbing antics I would get myself up early while my friends slept, a challenge in itself, and would ski 5-10km around the local cross-country trails in the pristine conditions. I enjoyed seeing the sunrise before some challenging climbing for the rest of the day. This time was extremely valuable. I learned a lot in those lonely, cold hours.

I tweaked every bit of kit, laying them out in my living room for a number of days, before doing one final pack. Food was organised into separate meal bags ensuring I had at least 5000kcal per day for the least amount of weight.

Time to Go

All too soon the months of training were over and it was time to put boot to ski. Travelling to Greenland was an excellent affair. I had to get myself to Reykjavik in Iceland, where I met the rest of the participants and my teammates for the first time. We drove up the west coast of Iceland into the northern town of Akureyri where we caught a chartered Twin Otter plane to Constable Point in Greenland. The Icelandic airport is about the same size as the Costa in Heathrow. I was very impressed by the lone Icelander, who alternated between check in attendant, duty free server and airport security, changing his uniform each time.

Boarding the twin otter was where the adventure really begun. Taking my seat next to our pile of our skis and several bags of onions and (I’m quite sure) a box of live chickens, the pilot delivered a safety announcement over his shoulder and offered to turn the heating up should we need it.

The flight was cold but pleasant, with fine weather allowing us some spectacular views of northern Iceland. The sea started to fill with flecks of ice pretty quickly, developing into large icebergs and pack ice. The rugged Greenlandic coast of myth and legend was soon beneath us. It was truly a sight to behold.

Once we’d landed safely at Constable Point we met Paul Walker and the Snow Dragons team from Tangent Expeditions who’d organised the race. The baggage reclaim consisted of putting our kit into skidoo pulks and we were then taken to our base for a briefing. We discussed one of the big risks of operating in this environment, Polar Bears. To guard against them we would camp together every night inside a ‘bear fence’: a series of 5-6 posts around the tents, which support two lengths of string. Each piece of string is tied to an alarm. When a bear approaches the tents it will step through the string, pulling the pin from the alarm and alerting us of its presence. However more often than not, it would alert us to the fact that someone had got up to go to the loo in the night.

Other ‘anti-bear’ measures available to us were several levels and sizes of flare, which would (hopefully) deter any bear and scare them off. The last line of defence – and the last resort – was a rifle and ammunition. Each team carried a rifle, ammunition and flares throughout the race.

On the start line

After a day of sorting and drilling with our equipment we were all set to head to the start line. The weather in the morning of the race was clear as expected and about minus 10 degrees Celsius. The only bad weather predicted was for the second day, so the race organisers planned to halt the race until it passed as a safety measure during the polar storm. Known as a Pitteraq, these storms can tear your tent to ribbons.

As we lined up on the start line, everybody was in high spirits and with a burst from a shotgun we were on our way! For the first hour or so we were skiing over the edge of the fjord towards the entrance of a valley; myself and my team mates, Scott and Nat, forgoing the usual traditional single file polar plod, skied together side by side enjoying the bright morning.

Everyone experiences an adventure individually as well as part of a team. We’d agreed that if anybody needed to stop at any time then all that person need to do would be to just speak up. Quite early on I realised that my ski boots were a little too tight and slightly uncomfortable. I quickly loosened them off in an attempt not to slow us down: I really should have spent more time to ensure I had done them up properly, but the start line excitement still coursed through me and I adjusted them far too quickly.

After a couple of hours of skiing, the sun was high in the ski and it was a glorious day, which made balancing pace and managing personal management (such as eating, drinking and staying on the right side of chilly) challenging. Around lunchtime self-doubt began to creep in and I began to ask myself, “What am I doing here?” I had four more days to go and was already suffering on the first day.

At that point my team came across our first signs of polar bears – a set of large tracks entering the valley from the west and following the line we planned to take all the way to the end of the pass. These certainly occupied my mind.

We skied all the way through the valley until we re-joined the main fjord. I spoke up and mentioned I’d like to tape my feet. I was beginning to have a couple of hot spots, a sign of oncoming blisters, due to my rushed boot management earlier in the day. We skied onwards and down back on to the edge of the fjord, and began heading out to the Faroe Islands, across the sea ice, where our camp for the night would be. As we began to ski out to the islands, which lay roughly 5km away (but were clearly visible) the skidoo support team came across the fjord to say hello. Skiing on sea ice is a strange experience. You can see where you’re trying to get to from a very long way out, and after what feels like you’ve been skiing forever, you don’t seem to get any closer. The fact that you’re standing on just over a metre of ice and then several hundred metres of water is quite a thought too. Only when the skidoos turned back to the island did I comprehend the scale of the landscape around us.

Storm Bound

We arrived at the camp after skiing for about six hours. I sat down and began to question myself: why was I finding it so hard? Why didn’t I feel fit enough when I’d trained so hard? And would I be able to get to the finish line in four days’ time? I was sat on my pulk despairing and trying to catch up on fluids when the expedition cameraman came over, asking how my day had been. Despite (or perhaps because of?) my mental state, I decided to be honest and told him my day had been tough and that I had some things to think about. As the words left my mouth, I realised that the sun and cold had badly dried me out: I hadn’t managed my hydration very successfully. I realised I needed to step away pride and ego, that this really was the toughest thing I’d ever taken on.

I was nominated as inside man for the night. This was a blessing and I remember being so incredibly grateful to get the weight off my feet. My duties involved sorting out the inside of the tent for the rest of the team – setting out sleeping kit, getting the stove on and a brew started and organising the foam flooring for the tent. After sorting out our camp we settled down for the evening.

In the morning we woke to strong winds and very poor visibility. The Arctic storm had arrived as predicted. The race organisers decided, today, nobody would move and we would spend the day tent-bound. I was secretly a little pleased about this as it gave me a day’s grace to catch up and sort out feet, food and fluids. And despite being confined to my tent for 36 hours, I really rather enjoyed it. The next day we packed up our kit and were all set to go. I had just forced my painfully blistered feet into my cold ski boots when we were told that today would not go ahead either. The storm had not blown through as predicted. However, as a team decided that since we were ready, we would ski out to a cabin on the other side of the fjord and back again. It was satisfying to know that we could handle the demands of a polar storm.

Never Named, Never Climbed

After returning from the cabin (and another night spent in the tent) we were up the next day to glorious blue skies without a breath of wind. We had 20km to cover across the sea ice, then up into the Kalkdal valley and down to our camp at the tongue of the Horsens glacier. I was determined to manage myself better and be more vocal should I need to stop. The terrain was uphill for most of the morning and finished on a nice long downhill.

The Kalkdal valley is a beautiful part of the world with awe-inspiring mountains on either side. None have ever been named, let alone climbed. Once again we set off skiing together despite the nature of the terrain and having to break trail later in the day, and we found a brilliant rhythm skiing in traditional linear fashion.

Due to the hard ground and physical effort I skied much of that day in only a base layer. We arrived at the foot of the Horsens glacier after travelling for seven hours, pitched our tent and tried to dry out some gear. The next team arrived around an hour after us and everybody was in high spirits. The sun went down on the horizon and the temperature dropped significantly in the shadow of the mountain.

To the Limit

On the third day, we woke to very cold temperatures. The sun was still hiding out behind the mountain. It would be the final day of skiing due to the lost storm days. However the route ensured it would be the longest and hardest of the entire race. It would take us up the Horsens glacier for around 10km to a col (the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks) where we would then drop down to the tongue of another glacier that flowed out into a fjord. From there we’d hang a right and start heading up another as yet unnamed glacier for 10km, then drop down the other side into the Sodal valley to the finish line. Due to the danger of crevasses and the nature of the terrain, we were roped together for the duration.

The morning started well and we left on time. It was comfortable working hard in the cold. We skied in single file to the col and started down the next glacier surrounded by unclimbed mountains and awe-inspiring scenery. Things went well despite some mishaps with pulks on downhill sections and were soon at the foot of the glacier.

With nothing to really do but put one foot in front of the other, there was plenty of time for new perspectives on life back home. I solved problems and thought through some deeply personal ideas. I certainly came back from the experience changed. I hope for the better.

Once we arrived at the glacier edge there were at least 8km of uphill skiing still to be done, and by now the sun was bearing down on the team. Again I skied for most of the day in a base layer, yet despite this I sweated hard. It was at the second last false summit of the tortuous glacier, when we checked the GPS and discovered we still had 6km to go, that my mental endurance reached its absolute limit.

With very painful feet and suffering from being too hot when moving and too cold when stopped, the little voice in my head became bullish. At our scheduled rest stop I took my skis off and sat down on my pulk. I’m not ashamed to admit I shed a few tears. I was in the middle of this place that I’d dreamed about coming to since I was a kid, I had been the weakest member of a team (which is not something I’m used to) and I’d pushed myself to my absolute limit. When you push yourself so hard, beyond all of your expectations, you enter a strange mental place.

Every step I took hurt more, despite the strong analgesia. The question of whether I’d be able to make it to the finish became louder in my head. I have nothing but admiration for my teammates. They gave me some time and helped me sort out my food and drink. They got me going again. Two pieces of advice kept running through my head. The first was from Jens-Anton Poulsson, a member of those Norwegian Commandos, who said:

“A man who is a man goes on until he can do no more and then he goes twice as far”

The other was a fragment of a conversation I’d had with an ex-special forces commander. When I had asked him how he coped with the mental anguish, when everything was going wrong, and everything seemed against him, he replied, “I’m sorry I have nothing else to say, you just get on with it”. The most simple, yet profound piece of advice I have ever been given. With this in mind I got up, strapped on my pulk, clipped into my skis and decided to get on with it. I hadn’t come this far to stop now.

We finally reached the top of the glacier and the finish line lay below. From here it was all downhill. We unroped and skied the last of the powder-covered glacier to the skidoo team in the distance. I was relieved to be done. To my horror, they said they would see us at the finish line… a further 2km down the valley. I could only laugh, grit my teeth and once again, ‘just get on with it’.

Finally, we crossed the actual finish line after skiing for over nine hours. We finished in the most beautiful orange light. We had done it. This is what we had been aiming for all of those days. I had pushed myself past every single limit and survived the Iceman Arctic race.