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!”

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