Northern Norway – an Arctic Adventure
The word ‘Antarctica’ has extreme connotations, and many people probably conjure visions of windswept icy plains, severe weather conditions, and isolated research posts. However, fewer have even actually been there, and fewer still journeyed on to the South Pole.
No – I have not been, but I was recently in a very privileged position in meeting a group of women all training hard to become the first all-female British Army expedition to cross Antarctica via the South Pole in late 2017. Named the ‘Ice Maidens’ after the name the Army has assigned the expedition, they have been training in similar conditions in Northern Norway, far inside the Arctic Circle, as they ‘up the ante’ in an effort to refine the team and hone their skills in extreme cold conditions.
Flights into Lakselv airport, in the northern state of Porsanger, are via the northern hub of Tromso. From London it takes three flights and I arrived on a 37 seat Dash-8 prop plane. December in the Arctic is very dark – officially we would only experience 45 minutes of actual daylight per day, which would drop completely to 24 hour darkness in the new year. The weather itself was also unpredictable. Picture-perfect snowy scenes could easily be interrupted with white-outs or storms, and temperatures plummet extremely quickly.
The drive, taking us due south on the arterial E6 from Lakselv, is absolutely unreal. The glorious mountains and frozen lakes of Porsanger are centred around the Fjord to the north, the Porsangerfjorden, and are all bathed in a pink dusky hue as the sun sets in the middle of the day. The views become limited as the ‘evening’ looms – and once the light fades, in the darkness you see nothing but the snowflakes whirl and bluster in the headlights.
Meeting the Ice Maidens out in this remote environment, it quickly becomes clear what they have been enduring. Pulling their own body weight on pulks in temperatures regularly far in excess of -20 Celsius is no mean feat. By the time we catch up with the team leaders, Nat Taylor and Nics Wetherill, both doctors in the Royal Army Medical Corps, they have been doing so with varying levels of support for nearly two weeks.
Complete with British training staff and native Norwegian Arctic survival instructors, the Ice Maidens have been put through their paces. Not only are they achieving these trekking distances, they are learning how to survive out here. As well as overt survival tips, such as how to survive and navigate out of a crevasse, I see Nat, Nics, and the team as they learn more subtle tips for the conditions: how to avoid frostbite; the best way to go to the loo in the cold; how much snow you need to melt to boil a hot drink.
Fatigue can also be detrimental to a team’s survival. Luckily the Ice Maidens have been training hard and are succeeding through the relentlessly positive and ambitious personalities they all possess. I didn’t witness a single argument, upset, or tense moment whilst I was with them. Leadership, humour, and steely-eyed determination hang in the air; cohesiveness is key and it is evidently working.
I also dabbled in some aurora hunting whilst in the area – one of the most renowned parts of the world for catching the Northern Lights. Whilst all the indicators were low (around one or two on the Kp index, on a scale topping out at nine – one is pretty much non-existent, whereby nine is the point the lights would be full on shimmering in your face) there were some green smudges above the horizon on the final night. The photographers I was travelling with succeeded with some long exposures but my personal attempts to capture the aurora will have to wait for another time unfortunately!
The tundra of the Antarctic will be different to the coniferous terrain here in Norway: flatter, no trees, far less civilisation. It will be relentless, eternally light, and probably twice as cold as the temperatures experienced here. However as I made my journey back to Lakselv, I reflected on the fact that despite Antarctica being the final, most inhospitable frontier left on earth, from what I’ve seen these Ice Maidens stand an extremely good chance of succeeding in their goal – and entering the record books in the process.