Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 27, 2021
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Arctic challenge

Could you tackle the North Pole? A training program in Iqaluit will give you the skills

Dangling my legs off a two-metre thick ice floe, I slid into slushy water. My “swimsuit” was no polka-dot bikini, but a screaming-red, one-piece little waterproof number I’d wrestled over half a dozen layers, including an expedition down jacket and ski boots. Air rushed out around my neck as heavy-gauge nylon hugged me. Suddenly, I was bobbing buoyantly up to my chin in the Arctic Ocean like a cherry in somebody’s piña colada.

This rare patch of open water in the sea ice blanketing Frobisher Bay is called a polynya, kept open throughout winter by strong currents. The -1°C degree seawater steamed into the clear -28°C March sky. I dog-paddled through clinking ice chunks as if I was doing laps in a tumbler of Scotch.

Hoisting myself back onto the ice sheet, the saltwater on my suit flash-froze and drifted like snow to my feet. I had come North to immerse myself in the Arctic, but hadn’t expected the experience to be quite so literal.

A force of nature

I had signed up for a two-week Polar Training Course on Baffin Island in Nunavut. It was being held by a friend, Matty McNair, the world’s foremost female polar-expedition leader with a résumé that reads like the diary of an Arctic tern migrating from Pole to Pole, three times south and twice north.

She led the first-ever commercial trip to the North Pole, was the first woman to guide an expedition to the South Pole and in 2005 earned a Guinness Book of Records plaque for the speediest surface journey to the North Pole, shattering Robert Peary’s 1909 record. Not bad for a petite 1.63-metre-tall mother in her 50s who barely tips the scales at 56 kilograms.

After years of invitations which I deflected with the excuse that I am a shameless wimp, I finally agreed to join in her crash course held each year in late February in polar bear country colder than the average deep freeze.

“Swimming” across open leads between ice floes is one of the skills you might need should you schlep to the North Pole, but the course is also great adventure for those who simply want to learn about cold weather survival.

McNair lives in Nunavut’s capital of Iqaluit (population: 5500) running her adventure company, NorthWinds. She met me at the airport, her mane of curls disheveled by a wind that was firing ice darts at my face. “You’ll be fine,” she shrugged off my anxiety. When I turned the doorknob at her house the metal stuck to my fingers, then I was shrouded in fog as icy air slams into the warm interior.

Balmy blizzard weather

By nine the next morning, the four other participants — an Aussie, a Brit, a French Canadian and a woman from Germany — were sipping coffee in McNair's dining room, chatting about their dreams of skiing across Greenland, trekking to the South Pole and dogsledding Ellesmere Island. This would be our classroom for six days of lectures and workshops before we “hit the trail” on a four day mini-expedition across the sea ice. The group would then make their way back on their own for three days.

“We’ll start with clothing and the tents you’ll be sleeping in tonight,” McNair says. I am not the only one whose eyes flickered to a chalkboard where she has posted: “Monday. Blizzard warning. Night: winds 50 to 80 kilometres an hour. Wind-chill: -35°C.”

With all our gear laid out on the living room floor, McNair explained that no clothing, not even those worn by Inuit, is perfect in the cold. Caribou is warm, but stiff when wet; sealskin is waterproof, but not warm. Gore-tex stops breathing when it freezes. Cheap gloves often vent sweaty hands better than high-end, wind-proof expedition models. She long ago jettisoned chafing underpants on expedition in favour of crotch-zips on her pants. “Now I’m the fastest pisser in the Arctic,” she grinned. Balaclavas that freeze to your face are out; neck gators, windproof cowls, and quick drying liners under gloves with stylishly large snot-rags are in. I was getting into this. I love to accessorize.

We popped up double-walled Hilleberg expedition tents behind McNair’s house in the shadow of the grocery store and alongside the snowmobile route that is Iqaluit’s mini-interstate. Fully polypropylened out, I struggled into my vapor barrier, a glorified garbage bag with a drawstring designed to keep moisture from migrating into my down bag. Inserted into a sleeping bag that was then tucked into a waterproof overbag, I felt like a sausage in phyllo pastry. But I was warm.

Frost bite at first light

After a night of howling sled dogs, I stumbled into the kitchen for coffee. Spread across the table were photos of blistered and blackened fingers and toes. Welcome to Day 2: How the Dominos Line up for Disaster. On the menu after Raisin Bran were hypothermia, chillblains, frost nip, frost bite, snow blindness, hands that crack and bleed, feet that swell into unsightly turnips.

People pay money to do this? A lot of money. Roughly US$250,000 gets you to the North Pole from Ward Hunt Island at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, and US$59,000 buys a guided trek to the South Pole. After first-aid kit advice and basic navigation, we were introduced to our “pulks,” 13-kilogram, low-slung Scandinavian sleds we clipped onto, tying a rope “trace” onto our body harnesses to carry our gear on expedition. Then we headed into the great, sunny, white outdoors.

It was not a pretty sight.

We were okay on the flat sea ice (“We’re travelling in Antarctica now,” McNair announced), but things got ugly when we reached jumbled pressure ice (“Now let’s go to the North Pole for a while.”). On ice-cubes the size of a VW bus, skis slipped out from under us like a colt taking its first steps. Bindings snapped. I tripped over my poles and did a face plant. After fretting for months about the cold, I spent the afternoon in a sweat-fest of fogged goggles and camera lenses. “Moisture control is one of the biggest problems in polar travel,” said McNair who then recited what would become our anti-hypothermia mantra — “You sweat, you die!”

Expedition skills

McNair's course is the most comprehensive offered anywhere, not only for the expert instruction, but as a unique opportunity to test skills and equipment in actual polar conditions within sight of civilization.

Frozen Frobisher Bay is a perfect stand-in for both the relatively smooth ice of Antarctica and the gnarled, crumpled house-sized-ice-slab-and-open-water route of shifting sea ice to the North Pole. There were windy days for kite-skiing — the latest choice for many polar travellers — and dogs for sledding practice.

We did it all and after a heady six-day blur we knew how to build a makeshift ice runway by lining up sleeping bags and how to wrangle funds for an expedition from sponsors. On Day 7, as we started to pack for our own mini expedition, McNair dragged out 14-kilogram bags of dog kibble to load into our pulks to mimic the actual weight of supplies — as much as 115 kilograms — for multi-month expeditions.

As our traces picked up the slack rope, gasps of shock erupted from everyone as the reality of the dead weight we had to pull registered. On our first rest break an hour later, with the skyline of Iqaluit still embarrassingly near, we were a sullen group. “Have a pee while you can still feel your hands,” McNair said cheerfully, demonstrating how to fashion a pointed “snow wedgie” in lieu of toilet paper.

Skis clattered and shimmied, pulks jammed. It was a frustrating and utterly exhausting day and when we reached flat ice and McNair stopped and crossed her poles in mid-air in the distance signalling day’s end, I wanted to weep with relief. “Stop at the Sign of the Crossed Poles,” I muttered. “Oh please, it sounds like a pub,” wailed John, showing his Aussie side.

Couscous and campfire

Setting up camp was measured multi-tasking. Pitching the tent that Tina from Germany, McNair and I would share, we each did our jobs outside as McNair got the stoves going inside. Two hours after we started, we had a makeshift sponge-bath, changed clothes and pinned our wet clothes to a mini-clothesline, sipped soup with melted cheese chunks, dined on freeze-dried Couscous Almandine and were tucked into our sleeping bags with hot water Nalgene bottles at our feet nibbling shortbread cookies. Who'd have thought I’d award four stars to an Arctic camping experience?

McNair believes in travelling in style. “On expeditions when we met Inuit out on the land, they camped in big canvas tents and finished a day firing up stoves to dry clothes and cook in near tropical temperatures,” she says.

If the North’s expert travellers hit the road in comfort, why couldn’t she? She designed a tent that sleeps six and weighs just five kilograms, dreamt up delicious freeze-dried concoctions and carried more fuel than most expeditions to crank tent temperatures to 30°C to dry clothes, which prevents frostbite. “My philosophy is that a happy traveller makes more miles,” she says.

For the next three days, we settled into a strict routine of travelling for 60 minutes, then breaking for 15, alternating between North and South Pole terrain. It was a stark, but beautiful landscape of white. A blue patch ahead signalled thin ice. Unlike brittle fresh-water ice, thin sea ice flexes and feels like you’re skiing across a wobbling waterbed. “Rubber ice,” McNair calls it.

All in the head

We practised our kite-skiing by sitting back on the snow and butt-skiing as the wind pulled us across the ice. We shrieked out polar bear drills as we waved our skis in the air, took turns navigating and calling in our coordinates on the satellite phone. And we ate, continuously, to give our bodies the 5000 calories a day it needed to stay ramped up in Arctic conditions. Then, throughout the night, we listened to the ice sheet we were camped on creak as the world’s second biggest tides raised and lowered Frobisher Bay by almost 15 metres. I found myself getting into a happy, rewarding routine.

“There is a general perception that Olympic-level fitness is required to travel in polar regions,” McNair said, “but I disagree.” Some of her clients have never skied before; others have never camped. “You train your body before you go, but polar expeditions are done 80 percent with the mind.”

On Day 4, we arrived on the shore of the polynya, steaming in the sun and surrounded with ice cream mounds of ice. A couple of McNair’s colleagues had snowmobiled the 30 kilometres from Iqaluit, pitching her Emerald Igloo for a last night celebration before she and I headed back to Iqaluit in the morning.

The rest of the group — minus one dog-kibble bag each as a reward — prepared to return to Iqaluit on their own. Blissed out in a snowmobile-drawn sled, I sat next to McNair who was making a mental to-do list for her next North Pole trip the following week. I couldn't believe that I not only survived, but I had enjoyed the challenge.

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