As our first foray into the polar world, our participation in the 2013 Polar Race was an ideal introduction. The format was simple; a 600km race across the arctic sea ice from Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island in the Canadian High Arctic, to the 1996 location of the Magnetic North Pole in the Arctic Ocean. Gareth and I already considered ourselves seasoned outdoorsmen, me as a mountaineer and Gareth as an ultra runner, but neither of us had polar experience. The polar world is like no other, perhaps most comparable to the high alpine mountain environment, but still with its own unique characteristics – the extreme and unrelenting cold, the vast distances and unparalleled remoteness, but not least the incredible and sometimes hostile wildlife. A polar bear sticking it’s nose in your tent isn’t a problem I’d had to deal with in the Himalayas!
Taking part in the Polar Race meant we received expert guidance and supply of key components of the expedition including clothing, vital items of equipment and expedition food. We would also spend the two weeks before we set off across the ice undergoing intensive training in Resolute Bay, covering all aspects of polar survival, navigation and travel. We knew that by the time we hit the ice we’d be well educated and trained, but before we got that far it was up to us to prepare our minds and bodies for the rigours of the polar environment.
Covering 600km whilst dragging 70kg sleds in temperatures down to -60oC was going to be a huge physical challenge. Man-hauling sleds is a very uniquely polar way of travelling. The vast frozen expanses of flat or low-angled ice and snow allow a form of travel that simply isn’t possible in other environments, enabling a traveller to drag huge weights in a sled that it would never be possible to carry. Training for man-hauling sleds requires specialist strength and conditioning preparation and we spent many hours building muscle in the gym and aerobic fitness out running our local trails. Most importantly though we replicated man-hauling sleds in the best way we could – pulling heavy car tyres mile after mile across the sandy expanses of nearby beaches.
During our months of preparation Gareth and I were also serving as front-line junior doctors, working long ours and arduous shift patterns, learning and honing our medical skills in the Emergency Department, Intensive Care Unit and Operating Theatre. Not long after I first committed to reaching the Magnetic North Pole and threw myself into the intense training and preparation, life threw me an amazing curve ball, something that would change my life far more profoundly and permanently than any polar expedition – I found out my partner, Laura, Gareth’s sister, was pregnant with our first child! To this day I am humbled by the incredible support Laura gave me preparing for our Magnetic North Pole expedition as she herself became more heavily pregnant and ultimately gave birth to our son only 9 weeks before I departed to the Arctic!
After months of preparation, training, fund raising, working as a doctor and seeing my eldest child come into the world, we were finally ready to be heading North, into the polar world of ice and snow.