I thought that it would be good to have a little look on the backgrounds of arctic travelling, before plunging into the gear. The gear is chosen to work well in certain conditions and for certain style of traveling and knowing the backgrounds helps to understand the gear choices and function.
Weather, snow conditions, etc.
In April the weather in Svalbard is quite tolerable. The temperatures can vary from -40 Celsius to single digits above zero but the most likely temperature range is between -30 and -5 Celsius. Because Svalbard is an island in the middle of Arctic Ocean the wind conditions are likely a bit more challenging than those typical for Finland. There will be likely some wind on most of the time and occasionally it will be so stormy that skiing will not be safe or even possible. The gear should provide protection from serious coldness and stormy winds, and in the worst cases at the same time. But it should also be easily adjustable and comfortable as we’ll use it for three weeks. And because of the longish duration and remote location the gear should be definitely 100% reliable.
The snow conditions can vary greatly during the expedition. We will ski on sea ice, on glaciers, climb up steep fell slopes, etc. There shouldn’t be too much soft energy sapping snow to plunge through and even if there would be, a fourteen people expedition makes quite a track and around fifth skier or so things should be easy. Mostly the surface should consist of hard wind packed snow, so the skies need to have steel edges but not necessarily that much floatation. And because of hauling heavy pulkas the skies should have good grip, usually meaning ski skins. There are crevasses on the glaciers and occasionally we might need to rope up and possibly use crampons because of slippery ice. White outs can make life hard as skiing without seeing the horizon or having any contrast is though. In 2005 a Finnish expedition had several days of constant white-out or near white-out conditions. That would be mentally challenging, and also challenging regarding photography. So I really hope that we will have mostly clear weather.
Skiing in near white-out conditions in Sarek National Park in Northern Sweden.
As Svalbard is so far North there won’t be much dark. At the end of our expedition the sun won’t set at all, meaning that there is not much need for a headlamp except maybe in the tent.
Duration of the trip
The expedition lasts for three weeks, mostly far from civilization, resupplies and easy evacuation.
Constant three weeks in the wild is by far the longest time I’ve ever spent on trip. The gear choices are affected by the long duration combined with the harsh environment with freezing cold and wind, not much natural windbreaks, no trees for shelter or fire, etc. My goal is not to make any kind of record or become famous but to enjoy the rugged beauty of the arctic wilderness and have a good time. This means that I want my gear to be comfortable with some extra room in the tent, having the ability to warm the tent and dry gear, to have enough variable food, etc. All this means that the pulka will weight quite a bit. I have recognized several possible ways to reduce my gear weight but as I don’t have enough experience from the arctic I plan to play it safe this time, even though it means some extra weight.
Roomy and warm tent is a sheer luxury after a hard day of skiing.
Traveling with a big expedition
Making progress with a big group requires routine, common rules and in some occasions clearly defined chain of command. Ultima Thule 2011 expedition will follow tried and true style of travel based on the marching routines of the Finnish army and tested and adjusted for arctic travel on several expeditions of the Airborne Ranger Club of Finland.
The day will start by waking up in a frost covered tent around 7.00. We take turns in lighting the stoves, so the other guy can leave the warmth of the sleeping bag when the tent has warmed up a bit, instead of immediately getting to enjoy the crispy -30 Celsius air. The morning chores include making breakfast, melting a bit more snow for the day and packing up. There is a compulsory radio listening at 7.30 where Vaiska, our expedition leader, will confirm the day’s program.
Weather permitting, a bit before 9.00 we leave the tent, pack our pulkas, take down the tent and strap it on top of a pulka. At 9.00 the expedition should be on the move. The day consists of six to eight legs. One leg means 50 minutes of skiing followed by 10 minutes break. The two-man tent teams take turns between every leg leading the way, navigating and opening the track.
A typical day:skiing in a row, hour after another.
After four legs we’ll have a lunch break. If the weather is good lunch break will be about 30 minutes and if the weather is bad it will be a bit longer and we’ll pitch couple of tents for shelter. After lunch the skiing continues until we have reached the objective of the day or skied the planned legs.
After skiing it is time to set up the camp, get the stoves fired, melt liters of snow, cook dinner, etc. The communications group will write and sent daily dispatches using a satellite phone as a modem and they will also receive our daily e-mails and news updates from the outside world. At 20.00 there is a voluntary radio listening where news and e-mails are read. Melting snow and eating are the main activities for the night but there is also time to write diary, maintain and repair gear if necessary and maybe even clean up a bit. (Three weeks without a shower doesn’t sound that appealing but some moist towelettes and a tooth-brush should do wonders.)
I’m personally planning to get over eight hours of sleep every night, preferably nine, but I don’t know how it’ll turn out in real life… If we are camping on or near sea ice there will be a polar bear guard duty through the night but if we are deep in the main land everybody can have a decent time to sleep.
If the weather is too bad for skiing or we are well ahead of our schedule we might take a day off and stay in the camp for the whole day (or explore the surroundings is weather is good). Essentially we should be able to stay in the tent for couple of days in a row as there is enough food and fuel for that, water is melt from the snow and the apse can be used as a toilet. But I don’t see doing that but under the worst imaginable circumstances, and even then I might stick my head out for photos. But the apse is a nice toilet if weather turns out to be nasty…
Trying to progress in a blizzard in Sarek National Park.
A strict routine like the one described above is necessary to keep big group effective and organized. If moving with a smaller group things could be a bit more flexible and there would be more daily freedom of choice but I am okay with this system and adjust to it. As said earlier, this will of course have effect on gear also, but more about the gear soon. (I am actually still busy making and adjusting it…)