Fjallraven Polar 2015 – Part 3 – “Let the music go on and on…”

Have you ever played a video game, or watched a movie, or listened to an album, that is just so good, you don’t want it to end? You just want the music to go on and on. I’m assuming you’ve probably been on a holiday that feels like that. Normally it’s just because you don’t want to go back to work, there being this completely unrealistic expectation that if you stay in the hotel room, or beach house, or chalet, that you can continue to do what you’e been doing for the last seven or fourteen days…living the life of riley, doing fun things, not having to work, at least not on your own terms. Of course, reality is that if you did that you’d probably run out of money very quickly, and even if you could generate wealth, your ‘holiday’ would very soon turn out to be just your typical everyday existence. Inevitably that would become work. Personally I don’t trust anyone that tells me they are glad to be back from holiday and back in their day job, unless they’ve had a holiday from hell, or their family drives them up the wall. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy my work, far from it, I’m just saying that when you are sat there on holiday on your last day, work is typically the last thing you want to think about.

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The thing about the Fjallraven Polar was it was no different. I didn’t want it to end. But it’s taken me some months since Part 2 to write this Part 3 because for that very reason I didn’t want it to end. Once I’ve written this final part then it is effectively over. Of course, all good things must come to an end and in reality the Fjallraven Polar ended well over 3 months ago. No doubt the frozen lakes we crossed have now melted, signs of our camps have been eroded away by the elements and the dogs have probably forgotten the twenty eight strangers that fed them and made sure they were warm and comfortable enough in the freezing night. Needs must. In fact the very competition that won me a place on the Polar has just launched again, trying to find this years winner. I’m going to enter, I don’t expect to win, far from it, but that is not the point, not this time. Enter here.

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Anyway, back to the Polar itself…

So, the night before the final day we arrived at the camp at Sevujärvi. Once all teams had arrived we were summoned by Johan Skullman for some training. First up was how to build a fire using birch bark and firesteel. A relatively simple process that the rest of the group took on board fairly quickly…tonight we WILL MAKE FIRE!!! Much beating of bare hairy chests ensued as the menfolk looked on and tutted at the posturing females. Ok, that didn’t quite happen but it helps the story. Johan then proceeded to tell us that we would be sleeping outside that night and how we should prepare for it. We needed to dig a trench large enough for two people, use our water bottles with hot water to make ‘heaters’ and do things like put the bottom of the sleeping bag in our polar parkas. This was something I was looking forward to, but there was the odd worried face. Trust in the kit. It was going to be cold.

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Team UK merrily danced back to our encampment, we found our shovels and ice saw and began to dig. We wanted a bit of luxury, so we were going to build two rooms, a ‘living room’ complete with fire-pit and one large bedroom. A double room wasn’t going to satisfy us, we needed a room that was going to sleep four. We then made a bit of an error. In the excitement of arrival earlier in the day Charlie noticed the trees were covered in a kind of black hair, I still don’t know what it is, but he pulled off a clump of it and set light to it with his firesteel almost instantly. Eureka! With this in mind we hadn’t paid too much attention to Johan’s instructions on how we SHOULD be making fire. We gathered a whole arm-full of this ‘hair’ along with some dry branches and set about making not a fire, but a bonfire. It was going to be big and was going to keep us warm all night.

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Two hours later and with fairly black faces, Charlie and I gave up on our quest to make fire the ‘easy’ way. Emma meanwhile had been diligently chopping up bits of birch like Johan had been showing us…but it would have to wait, we were invited to a BBQ.

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Johnny and his ‘favourite’.

Fjallraven had invited a bunch of media types from all of the different countries taking part. We sat around a large bonfire in a small copse, eating barbecued reindeer and drinking hot chocolate whilst the media folk engaged with us. A band played some songs and high in the sky the faint shimmering of the Northern Lights danced with the tunes, there was even a meteor. Magic. All too soon and it was over. We went back to our camps, and now, employing our secret weapon, Emma, the bonfire sprang into life! Time for bed.

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Our bonfire…

To this day I don’t know why, but that night, under the stars, in -15C temps, in a sleeping bag with not much else, I had the best sleep I’d had for months. I swear, I don’t think I moved the entire night. I wish I could sleep like that every night. Bliss. Consequently, waking the next morning to sunlight just touching the tip of my nose felt like the best feeling in the world. What was most surprising is that everyone else had pretty much the same experience. No one was cold, we all used our kit properly and it protected us from the elements. For one night only it felt like we had returned to nature, we’d abandoned our artificial shelters and opened our souls to mother nature and she had rewarded us with a gift, a recharge of the batteries way better than any holiday on a beach in the Maldives, or wherever.

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Our camp. Image courtesy of Hakan Wike – Copyright 2015

It wasn’t long before everything was packed away, the dogs were fed and attached to their lines on the sled. It’s surprising just how quickly you pick up the technique of harnessing the dogs and just how quickly you forget about how unhygienic the whole process of living and working with pack animals is, you just get on and do it. Sten started with his favourite trick of being the village idiot, wailing like a banshee and trying to pull the whole sled himself. Rap told him to shut up on numerous occasions. We were held at the start until every team was ready, they wanted us all to go through the start line one after the other, for the media of course. Some of the other teams took a while to get ready so we had to hold for a long time. Consequently when we set off the dogs were full of beans. We were rocket fast. It wasn’t long before we’d left the other teams behind, we were out of sight. Emma and Charlie were up front, then me, and then Tom at the back, shooting lots of video, talking into his camera, trying to be the next Bear Grylls or whomever. Today, our final day, wasn’t going to be very long, about 45 kilometres, again over frozen lakes and through forest. This was easy, just standing on the sled runners on the back. The sun was blazing, what a feeling. Just the panting of the dogs to disturb the peace. That was until I made a bit of an error of judgement.

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Image courtesy of Hakan Wike – Copyright 2015

I had attached my GoPro to the handrail and was filming the sled moving forward from a fixed point when I decided to turn the camera to face the other way. Choosing a section of the trail where we crossed a flat frozen lake, I stood to the side of the sled so that the camera would capture Tom behind me. Of course when you put all of your weight on one of the runners the sled tends to slide in that direction. The trail was quite hard but the snow to the side of it was very soft. My left runner, the runner I was standing on, suddenly sank a little into the snow, enough for me to lose balance and step off. Still holding the handrail I tried to run with the sled, but the snow was too soft and I couldn’t keep up with it, I had to let go. I had actually slowed the sled a little so Jan, Emma and Charlie were quite a way ahead, but without anyone to brake the sled the dogs just kept running. I shouted something to alert the three ahead whilst I jogged on helplessly. They all stopped and Charlie deployed his anchor with the intent to ‘capture’ my runaway dogs. He jumped off his sled and into the path of my dogs who without the weight of me to slow them down were going at quite a pace. Rather predictably at the last moment they ran around him, but the sled behind them didn’t turn, instead it ran straight into Charlie, striking his legs and throwing him five or six feet clean into the air. I saw his leg twist and he landed in a crumpled heap. He didn’t move. All sorts of things flashed through my head at that point. At worst he’d been killed (unlikely, but when you can drown in 6 inches of water…) at best he’d broken his leg. I felt sick, and not just from the running. Arriving at the scene Charlie was moving. He stood up and groaned. He’d taken a big hit but miraculously he hadn’t broken anything. All he’d done was gain a rather impressive bruise. Thank goodness for that. No more GoPro shenanigans, but an Oscar for Charlie next year please, great acting, or stunt work, whichever it was.

As we got closer to the finish our altitude steadily dropped, we crossed more lakes and descended more small hills and the snow cover seemed to get less and less. I could sense we were nearing the finish as things began to warm up, it felt almost springlike. Layers came off and with each one I got a little more melancholy, it was almost over. We stopped a few kilometres from the end and allowed the other teams to catch up, it has to be said, that took quite a while (damn, we were fast!). Eventually we set off in convoy over the last few kilometres. Finally we turned a corner onto a large frozen lake and there it was, the finish line, about 500 metres ahead. To say I was gutted would be an understatement. I cried. Of course they were tears of sadness, but also of joy to have experienced such an amazing thing. Knowing that I only had a few more moments with my team of dogs was heart wrenching though. I’ll admit that at the start, despite being a ‘dog’ person, I’d struggled to really bond with my dogs, but the hours spent watching them run, witnessing their characters, their little habits, feeding them, ensuring they were warm enough at night, looking after them, and them returning that favour tenfold by tirelessly hauling my fat arse through the Scandinavian wilderness, well by golly, I was going to miss them. This was it.

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Team USA doing handstands at the finish.

We crossed the finish line to applause from the media and Jan immediately took us away from it, we continued up a small track by the huts near where we were to spend the night partying, deployed anchors and disembarked. Yep, gutted. Instructions were received about where to pile the equipment we weren’t allowed to keep (the tents, the sleeping bags, etc) and we removed all of our personal effects from the sled. One final surprise, Jan needed us to mush the dogs to his trailer a few hundred metres away up a track. It was only a few hundred metres, but I’m so glad we got to do them (not everyone did). Unencumbered by a heavy payload the dogs flew, I mean seriously, it’s scary how fast they can go. If the rest of the Polar was a marathon, this was the 100 metres sprint. Wow. Massive respect to the dogs. We helped Jan put the dogs in the trailer, careful not to put certain dogs with others (they’d fight) and then we manhandled the sleds onto the roof. One final goodbye to the dogs and that was it. All over.

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Katri saying goodbye.

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Fredrik.

I won’t go on about the party we had that night, or the sauna and the ice hole in the lake (brilliant), the free flowing alcohol, the great food cooked by our personal chef for the evening, the emotional speeches, the thank you’s, etc…even the terrible dancing by some of the participants. Those are special memories shared only with my twenty seven new friends. It’s safe to say the Polar really was a once in a lifetime experience. You can go dog-sledding anytime, but this was something else. Twenty Eight strangers all gathered together with one common goal, to learn new skills and complete the Fjallraven Polar. We all did it, it was tough at times but by no means hard. It was character building. It was full of incredible highs and some pretty rubbish lows. However, everyone kept smiling, everyone had fun. It was brilliant.

Thank you Fjallraven and Outdoor Photography magazine.

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Me and Rap 🙂

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Fjallraven Polar 2015 – Part 2 – “The Sound of Silence”

Find Part 1 of this Blog, Fjallraven Polar 2015 – Part 1 – “It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside” here.

Can you hear that? The sound of silence.

My four legged friends, they howl and bark,

Then chaos gives way to full compliance,

Eager to run, whether light or dark,

Only their panting breaks the sound of silence.

                                                                 G.W.

It’s all too easy to sound overly dramatic when someone asks you “So, how was it, the Fjallraven Polar…Life-changing?”. Not quite for me, but could I say it is perhaps one of the best things I’ve ever done? Yes, probably. As I stated before, it’s had a profound effect on me. So, what makes it so special? It is a potent mix. Twenty-eight people of all backgrounds, religions (probably) and nationalities, thrown together to tough it out in the Arctic. Everything is organised, nice lodgings and great food, an itinerary such that you are never left wondering what to do, tried and tested instruction, more outdoor kit than you can imagine, personalised where appropriate, and stunning isolated landscapes. Alone that would be enough to make it a special. Then throw in the weather and most of all six willing four legged friends who just absolutely love pulling you on a sled, well, then it becomes special. As someone has since said to me ‘a sum greater than all of its parts’. Perfectly put.

After the euphoria of the snowstorm and the problems that created with regard to logistics, the route needed to be shortened and we needed a new start point. The plan would be to cross the border between Norway and Sweden by coach and start mushing from Abisko. A shortened second day avoiding the main mountain plateau, tundra and permafrost region (a big shame as it was this area I was most looking forward to experiencing and perhaps photographing). Our estimated travel time was 3-4 hours. We’d harness the dogs, load the sleds and we’d be off, probably at about lunchtime. Wrong. As with the flights from Oslo, and the weather the previous day, if things can go wrong, then they inevitably will at some point. Moving 210 dogs, 35 sleds, snowmobiles and equipment to a new start point must have been a logistical nightmare…but the guys in charge handled it brilliantly. Occasionally you could overhear the heated phonecalls and see the grimaces on their faces. The least we could do as participants was make it as easy for them as possible. What right did we have to complain?

After spending about an hour at a service station, eating frites (chips) and getting to know each other better, we received the green light to get back on the coach. The dogs had crossed the border and now it was our turn. Twenty minutes later we were at the Norwegian crossing…along with a few dozen trucks and cars. The road was closed and we had to wait for a snowplough. Snow was still falling over the passes and blocking the road. After a relatively short time the plough turned up, the gate opened, and most of the vehicles proceeded in convoy. A couple of miles later we reached the Swedish crossing…and ground to a halt. Sitting stationary on a coach for four or five hours is never going to be an option, not when there is plenty of the white stuff around. Twenty-eight adults suddenly rediscovered childhood…

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Avalanche!!!

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Max’ Somersault

The thing was, as much as it wasn’t great, all the delays, they gave us all a chance to really bond as a large group. I think that is a powerful ingredient in making this experience unforgettable for all. Twelve hours of frustration turned around by the sheer positive attitudes of all involved, that is pretty rare and quite special. Of course, spending the best part of the day on a coach rather than mushing across the wilderness is going to have a knock-on effect with the plans. When we finally managed to cross the border and crawl towards Abisko along the icy roads it was obvious it was going to get dark soon after we arrived. I don’t think I’m the only one that thought the organisers would just put us up in the cheapest hotel they could find at short notice, or make us sleep in our tents by the road. But, as the coach neared it’s destination, headlights lighting the road ahead, Johan made his announcement…

“Everybody, once we arrive, make sure you have absolutely everything. Get your headtorches ready, we will load the sleds, the dogs are harnessed and ready to go as soon as we arrive!”. Wow, we were going to head off into the night on the sleds, with only our Brunton headtorches to light the way. This was going to be special, very special. No other Fjallraven Polarists have had this chance, and we were going to do it, most of us complete amateurs on a sled. Once we arrived it was organised chaos, again. 210 dogs all barking is quite something, it appeared to be complete madness, but it was actually working like a finely oiled machine. The guides had got all the dogs ready to go (except my dog Sten, he was tied to a car, his insatiable desire to pull would have left him with bloody paws on the hard surface long before we managed to set off if he had been on the line with the others). As soon as the sleds were loaded, Sten was attached to my line and then…we were off, into the night. The dogs were fresh, and so so powerful, we were racing into the night, leaving the noise behind us and entering a world of darkness and peace, only the soft panting of the dogs for company. Along a narrow track and over a few bumps and turns, it was crazy and we were going fast. Moments later we went down a small incline and emerged onto a frozen lake, nothing ahead of us except the darkness. And so it was, for the next 2 hours we traveled through the night in our small groups, towards our camp.

Arriving in pitch black on the edge of a frozen lake near Kattuvouma at about 10.30pm, we had to move the dogs on to a static line, remove their harnesses, feed them, put their jackets on, put up our tents and dig trenches for them and cook our own meals. Given that the waterhole was out on the ice, in the middle of nowhere, and the snow was soft powder under a hard crust, this took a long time. Even with snowshoes on I kept falling through the snow on top. When this is every step it is exhausting. Needless to say it took a long time to get every job completed. As I turned in at 3am there were still folks working hard. However, there was a small reward for all our effort, the Northern Lights came out to play.

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Kattuvouma Aurora

The next day we awoke at about 6.30am, today was going to be the longest in terms of mushing. The clear skies of the night had been replaced by thick cloud and there was a touch of melancholy in the air. The routine of the night before had to be repeated except in reverse (although no matter what, the dogs were always fed first). The food for the dogs was a type of sausage meat, chopped up and left in boiled water for about 20 minutes, then served together with a healthy dose of dry mix. The stoves for boiling the water for the dogs (10 litres each stove) seemed far better than ours, something I think every one of us noted. Whereas it took about 15 minutes and half a bottle of paraffin to boil 10 litres for the dog food, it seemed to take hours for us to boil barely enough water to fill half our flasks. The Primus stoves were good, but I’m not convinced we ended up using them most efficiently as we had been shown. After some more training about how best to use our sleeping bags (something we needed to understand for the following night), we hooked up the dogs and were ready to roll.

In the excitement I must have missed the first team get away, because when we set off I was convinced we were first. It’s not a race, but the competitive nature of our team from the UK (and Sweden) meant we were desperate to take the lead in the event and be first down the 50% hill. A comical start left some of the other teams picking up trailing rubbish in our wake (sorry guys, but when these dogs start, they want to START). We set off across the frozen lake at speed, through snow showers and flurries. At times the Sun even tried to make an appearance, casting an eerie light across the landscape.

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The dogs are lively today, they just want to run!

Top left is Choco, with Schnapps on the right. Abalbo middle left. Unknown dog middle right (let’s call him Blackie). Rap bottom left and Sten bottom right.

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Team UK stretching the ‘lead’.

After about twenty minutes I noted the small figures of another group ahead. We weren’t first we were second…but we were catching them! Another two lakes over and about an hour later we had caught them. I thought that was it, we’d just sit behind them, but no, Jan our guide took his dogs around the outside…and where his dogs go, ours follow. It was probably the slowest overtake you are ever likely to see, not quite in the same league as Formula One, but it was an overtake. The guide on the other team didn’t look happy, but Jan was a rule breaker, a renegade. I don’t recall seeing him even wear gloves or a down jacket for the entire trip, in even the worst conditions. Only Johan is harder (fact). We left the other team in our wake…sorry guys.

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Keep on Mushing!

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Across the frozen wastes.

On and on we mushed, kilometre after kilometre across the frozen lakes of Sweden. Silence. This was perhaps my favourite time on the sled. Others said they found this bit a little boring, preferring the winding trails through the woodland, but I liked the apparent solitude. There was little danger of falling off the sled during these times, you just had to stand on the skids, the dogs did the rest. We even perfected a YMCA dance routine between our four sleds (Jan I think was oblivious to this out front…or just didn’t care much for 70’s disco). It was silent out there, all you can hear are the sled runners over the snow, a kind of swooshing sound, and the soft panting of the dogs. Wonderful. And then of course, occasionally, some magical light…

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Where You Go We Will Follow

We stopped for some lunch and gave the dogs a snack, and then we resumed our course. The long frozen lakes gave way to short stretches of forest, and then rivers. The track got more technical and we found ourselves rapidly learning how to get the sled around tight corners at speed. Jan gave us a little advance warning of the 50% hill (so called because 50% of polar participants fall) and we gave each other a little extra room. Coming around a tight right hand bend I saw Charlie ahead turn sharply left, almost tip his sled and disappear downward. Emma was stood on the corner ahead warning me to slow down. That confused me because she was supposed to be on the sled in front of Charlie. Of course, she had fallen at the bend. My dogs didn’t slow down, they didn’t want to. I touched the soft brake and the dogs took the apex of the corner tightly, too tightly. I ended up cutting the corner and almost tipping my own sled. Goodness knows how I stayed on but I did. Seeing the hill for the first time was a heart in the mouth moment, it was steep, short but steep…and at the bottom were about a dozen camera crew and various persons connected with the Polar. A welcoming committee, ready to laugh at everyone who fell. I made it. As did Tom behind me. Emma was the only one in our team to fall. We were the 75% club.

A few more kilometres passed by until eventually we reached the camping area at Sevujärvi where media from around the world were waiting to interview some of the participants. Luckily they left Team UK alone. We started the routine we had learned the night before. It was much quicker and easier in daylight. The other teams filtered in and I took the opportunity to do a little photography. There wasn’t much ‘landscape’ around so I decided to try to get some nice photos of some of the participants and their favourite dogs, and then it was time to prepare for our night of survival…

–   –   –   –   –

In Part 3 of this Blog, I’ll share some of those images, it’s our last night on the trail and this time we are sleeping without a tent. “Relight My Fire!”.

Fjallraven Polar 2015 – Part 1 – “It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside”

It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside. Not quite the same sentiment as for ‘Your Song’, and as I’m not an overly sensitive fella (most of the time), I honestly wondered what all the fuss was about when talking to previous participants who said it was a life-changing event, but taking part in the Fjallraven Polar really has had a profound effect on me. At the moment I can’t put my finger on it, I think it’s too soon to tell, only 72 hours after I got back to the UK. I miss each of the 27 other participants, most if not all of whom I hope remain life-long friends, and our guide Jan, and the watchful eyes of Major Johan Skullman (more on him later) and the other organisers…heck I even miss the photographer (Hakan Wike) and the TV crews who followed our every move. Most of all I miss my six dogs who tirelessly hauled my ass across some rather inhospitable terrain in the Arctic. I’m sitting here kicking myself because I only learn’t five out of my six dogs names, it just didn’t cross my mind at the time, but now I regret it…small things.

Anyway, let’s wind the clock back a bit. In terms of out and out blogging about winning Outdoor Photographer of the Year and thus a place on the Polar, I decided to keep fairly quiet about it. Of course it was discussed on social media a fair amount before my departure, but I was really trying not to rub anyone’s noses in it, a lot of the folks I know on social media had entered the competition themselves you see. Truth is I also didn’t really know what to expect. I had read blogs from previous participants of course, but even so, we didn’t get our full itinerary until a few days before our flights…indeed some of the folks didn’t even get their flight details until a week before. I was literally told to get myself to the airport along with a small bag of personal effects (camera, toothbrush, etc) and that was it, it would all be taken care of. It’s a bit difficult telling folks about what you are about to do when you don’t know yourself.

As some background the Fjallraven Polar began in 1997 and ran until 2006. It was designed to give ordinary people with ordinary jobs and lives the chance to experience the outdoor life in winter. There was a hiatus until it was revived as an event in 2012. Each year folks from various countries create videos and campaign for votes to get to go. The top placed person in each country gets an automatic place, the second place for that country is determined by a jury based on the quality of their application. We are not just talking about a few hundred votes either, the ‘rest of the world’ winner, Tseren from Mongolia, this year managed to get something like 50,000 individual votes…I wonder how many votes in their constituency the next Prime Minister of the UK will get on May 7th.

The other guys from the UK were Tom Reader, a mid-20’s ex-model who had just taken part in the TV programme 10,000BC, and Charlie Smith a 19 year old student and outdoor gear designer (anyone want a stove system that can boil water in 45 seconds?). I had gotten to know Charlie beforehand, having met him when I received my award, but Tom was an unknown quantity. I met Charlie at Birmingham Airport as we were on the same flight schedule and Tom would join later in Sweden. We arrived at our hotel in Sigtuna (the first capital of Sweden) and met some of the other early arrivals. Having been a model and having been a reality TV star (sort of) my hopes for Tom being a ‘salt of the earth’ type chap weren’t high. However, from the moment I met him I liked him and he proved to be a great asset to our little team from the UK. The same went for everybody who turned up to take part, everyone had a story and everyone was just overjoyed to be there.

We received some education about what to expect and then we were given our equipment that we would need to survive (and be allowed to keep afterwards). I won’t go into the specifics but it was a lot, and we all had fun trying on multiple layers designed to keep us warm in -30C temps whilst we ran around a +20C hotel…phew! We then learned that we would be split into groups of four consisting of two teams of two plus a guide, five sleds per group in total. People were teamed typically by nation and with three participants from the UK that meant that Tom and Charlie were teamed together and I was teamed with Emma, from Sweden. That might not have been a great match-up from a language point of view, but let’s just say Emma has no language problems. One minute she sounds like she’s from Sydney, the next Cape Town, and the next Oxford. In fact she speaks better English than Tom, Charlie and me combined!

Anyway, let’s fast forward a little because you don’t need to know about the amazing meal we had cooked for us, or the early start to get to the airport the next day. Two flights later we land in Tromso…not all together though. A rather unhelpful check-in person in Oslo decided that our merry band needed to be split up and put on three separate flights. We should have taken note of this at the time because it was the start of things not going to plan. We arrived in Camp Tamok about an hour after landing, for more education about how to put the tents up properly and how to use the stoves (Primus Opti-lites). Then it was to bed, in our case in a yurt type building (I forget the proper name) sleeping on reindeer skins…awesome.

The next morning we departed to head to Torneträsk where our 300km adventure was to begin. Unfortunately mother nature had other ideas, a rather severe Atlantic depression was sat off Norway and was driving wind and rain (and thus snow) right at us. The event was to begin in a valley where it was relatively calm, but within minutes of the start the track wound up a mountainside and out on to a Mountain plateau. Reports from up high were saying 70mph winds and whiteout conditions. From the relative calm of the valley, to the casual observer, you would ask what the problem was, but having hiked in mountains a fair bit it was easy to see that high up things would be dramatically different. So, what does a responsible company like Fjallraven do to 28 inexperienced dogsledders, they send us back to camp right? Wrong. Well, just a little bit wrong. It was important to give us a taste of what conditions would be like if were to proceed as originally planned, so we were going to go on a two hour jolly with relatively empty sleds up to the plateau and back…yay! This would also allow us to meet our dogs, begin to form a bond, and learn to handle the sled. I think Jan gave us something like ten minutes of instruction. We’d figure it out pretty quickly I guess.

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Torneträsk

For this ‘jolly’ we were only given five dogs rather than six. The sleds were relatively light and we weren’t going to travel far so it made sense to keep some of the dogs fresh for the following few days. At the front I had Choco, an experienced lead dog. I saw him straight away and hoped he was going to be my dog. A light chocolate brown with white markings and vivid blue eyes, he really stood out. Next to him was Schnapps, a young bitch who seemed very timid and wary of new people. She didn’t seem comfortable next to Choco and I wondered whether they would make a good team. Next was Abalbo a black and white spotted dog, who again seemed quite timid.

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Choco

At the back were the two big boys, the powerhouses. First there was Sten, he looked like he had a bit of German Shepherd in him, he also wailed…a lot. Whereas other dogs had barks or howls, he yelled, constantly. It was annoying and funny at the same time. He also didn’t seem to have the highest IQ of the bunch because as soon as you put him on the line all harnessed up he wanted to pull and he did so with frightening strength. On more than one occasion later when we had stopped and deployed our anchors, he could single-handedly pull the 100kg sled and the anchor out of where it was embedded…strong. Finally there was Rap, a mainly black dog with piercing blue eyes. He actually ended up being my favourite, mainly because of how he ran, I could just watch him for ages whilst on the back of the sled. He would tollerate Sten for a while, put up with the constant pulling and the yelling, but then he would put his foot down, or more specifically his teeth. These guys could be quite ferocious, but there was no question in dog terms who was in charge in this team, Rap was the man…or the dog.

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Rap

Once all the dogs were harnessed we stowed our anchors and released the ropes from the trees and we were off, at quite a speed, these dogs could pull! Very soon we were heading upwards, having to jump off the sled to run and push occasionally, otherwise the leaders would turn their heads and give you dirty looks, quizzing you as to why you weren’t helping. Despite being a few pounds heavier than I wanted to be, I was quite pleased the fitness work I had done before the trip was paying off. It was tough when pushing, but not exhausting. Once we broke the tree line things started to get interesting. Clearly Jan thought I was struggling a little because he gave me an extra dog, I thought I was doing ok. That’s when things got a little more difficult. The extra dog made me extra fast, and in the conditions it made the sled hard to control. I was falling all over the place. To add to it I had Johan Skullman behind me…pressure. Getting a little bit hot and bothered by having to push occasionally was one thing. Falling and trying to jump on a sled whilst it was still righting itself after tipping up, with those dogs pulling hard, well that was exhausting. To add to that the weather was closing in. At times the wind and the blizzard conditions were so strong I couldn’t even see my dogs, it was a complete whiteout. We rapidly turned around but had to leave the hard trails to do so, entering an area of deep soft snow. There were numerous delays whilst people in the long caravan near the front clearly had trouble. Back where we were at one point, turning a corner and going down a hill, I counted four sleds go past me without anyone on the back. Everyone was having difficulty, this wasn’t a walk in the park. At no time were we in any real danger, but you did get the sense that things could get seriously bad at any moment. We were on the edge, Johan and his team had taken us to the limit…back in the UK the health & safety nuts would be calling for an inquiry right now.

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Image courtesy of Fjallraven, copyright Hakan Wike 2015

And yet, despite this, we all made it, no injuries, no lost dogs, no harm done…and everyone was buzzing. I lost count of the times I heard phrases like “that was soooo cool!”. It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside. It’s a feeling people get when you take people beyond their comfort zones. A potent mix of adrenaline and endorphin’s. Euphoria.

For those interested I didn’t take my camera on this ‘excursion’. Not knowing how I would handle the exertion, let alone how the sled would handle, coupled with knowing how bad the weather was likely to get, I decided to leave all of my camera equipment at the start. We had the professional photographer, Hakan Wike, covering the the event and numerous other folks had Sony action cams (provided by the organisers) to shoot stuff, so it wasn’t as if the event wouldn’t be recorded. Given some of the images I’ve seen since, I was perhaps being a bit too cautious with my equipment, there was opportunity to get some really great imagery, but all things considered I’m just glad I have the memory.

Johan Skullman

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Before I finish this part 1, earlier I mentioned Johan Skullman. This man was our teacher for the trip and very few people have the skills to match his outdoor knowledge, think Bear Grylls, then dismiss the 5-star hotels and boorish bravado. Once a Major in the Swedish Armed Forces, he has spent over 30 years in nature’s most unpredictable environments and climates. He has held numerous seminars and is also the author of books such as, ”Soldat I fält” (Soldiers in the Field) and ”Vintersoldaten” (Winter Soldier) that are still used in the Swedish Armed Forces. Today he works at Fjallraven as an equipment expert and test manager. These skills and knowledge he brought to us in a friendly, humourous and easy to to learn manner. By the end of the trip he had a reputation for being the father of Chuck Norris (obvious references to to Chuck’s modern day social media personna). He was incredibly kind and is somewhat a legend amongst current and previous polarists. I hope I one day get to meet him again.

In Part 2 of this blog it’s all dogs harnessed and ready to run as the Fjallraven Polar 2015 finally gets underway – “Mush!”