June 2007 - Post Race Report Part 4/6
Gabrielle Finn - Polar Challenge 2007
Polar Bear Encounter No 1
Once the thigh pain had disappeared we made good progress (even some downhill ski-ing and sledging) towards Dundee Bight ( a straight frozen stretch of water towards Check Point 1. The sun was shining and we were in good spirits. Tina and Rachel had dropped behind some time back. Suddenly we heard them shouting and pointing into the distance. We looked up and saw the silhouette of a Mother Polar Bear with cub. They were too far away for us to take decent photos, ( some may say fortunately ! ) The whole area however was covered in Polar Bear footprints so we kept a watchful eye out for the rest of the evening
With an average of 4 hours sleep per night plus an overnight session to reach CP1 , the symptoms of sleep deprivation were kicking in. I hallucinated bus stops (wishful thinking, I reckon ) , wooden houses, and writing in the snow. I heard people calling my name and even the distinct sound of jazz music. When I saw a pair of goggles in the snow I knew I was hallucinating but then a strand of common sense sifted through to my sleep-deprived brain. It occurred to me to look back and realised that they were for real (Thom had dropped them and claimed them back later with much relief !)
With 24 hour daylight it truly was the land of the midnight sun.. The only clue to the time is that the temperature drops significantly in the early hours of the morning resulting in the condensation on the goggles freezing. My line of vision deteriorated until I had a small fog-less hole to see though. This did not help my sleep-deprived state but halted the hallucinations. I staggered on following the red dot of a pulk bag in front of me.
The Polar Challenge staff Ady , Sarah and doctor Fred welcomed us to CP1. Bacon butties (in my case a veggie burger) were promptly devoured by the weary and hungry travellers. Messages from home were presented to us on a lap-top. I was overwhelmed by the supportive content and by the sheer quantity of messages I’d received by my friends and family all over the world. It meant so much to me.
Hallucinations to Check Point 1 (CP1)
As we re-grouped, rested, cleaned and re-stocked our supplies at CP1 , Ady came to our tent asking us to consider whether we’d take on an additional member to our team. Rachel had withdrawn from the race and Tina would be forced to withdraw unless some other team took her on. Tina had strength and determination and maintained good speeds for her size ( 5 foot 1). I was very happy as it would give me some much needed female company , some lighter relief and escape from sharing a tent with Thom and Gary !!
I left the security and relative comfort of CP1 feeling a little daunted. This feeling grew stronger with the on-set of a severe head-on wind. The wind picked up furiously blowing snow in our faces. A blizzard had started. We’d had the choice to go around the island (longer but flatter) and risk polar bear encounters or to climb steeply uphill then descend over the island. We’d all agreed on the latter choice. We were on a steep uphill climb with no way of knowing if any precipices lay ahead . (Our maps , though the most recently published , were still old and unreliable at times) Navigation was difficult and we were making little progress. Visibility was particularly poor for Thom (who had an eye infection) and Gary who was struggling with his fogged-up glasses and goggles. Tina was getting cold and began to get quite stressed about the situation. I too felt very uneasy, very cold and thought the consequences could be dire if we battled on. The others agreed but by this stage we were in a state of disarray. I calmly stated that all we needed to do was set up the tent methodically and light the stoves , no need for panic. 20 mins later we were settled inside the tent with hot drinks and were able to re-focus. Some 2 hours later , when the worst of the storm had passed and visibility improved , we packed up and went on to discover that there was indeed a severe drop not far from where we had camped up. It had been a good decision to stop !
After the blizzard on the island , we were relieved to hit the relatively flat terrain of the sea ice. We were a little daunted by the 65 mile reading to our next waypoint on our gps but at least was it wasn’t uphill ! The ocean freezes in many different styles. The pancake-flat ice is the style competitors most desire for obvious reasons but this is relatively rare . We were able to circumvent some of the intermittent ice structures - huge slabs of turquoise and emerald ice piled on top of each other- by walking round them , but it did increase the distance. The worst kind for competitors is the boulder field style , as if the ocean had frozen in a split second snapshot mid-tempest. It is better to tackle this kind of ice rubble head-on by side stepping or herring bone steps up the slope and ski-ing down the other side (often acquiring bruises as the pulk followed and hit you in the back of the leg !! ) We cursed our way through this . Tina’s classic of f*, f* and f* again was particularly amusing as was Gary’s lanky ‘Basil Fawlty- Style’ of bashing the ice with his ski poles whilst cursing profusely after a fall. The Chumbawumba song -Tubthumping - “I get knocked down but I get up again” often played in my mind. Taking off the skis helped sometimes but then the pay-off was the random sinking in the snow. Gary once shouted for help , I turned around to see that he had sank so deeply into the snow that only his head and shoulders were visible. Even though we often made more progress walking , ski-ing was less tiring and therefore less energy consuming – an important factor particularly for me.
It is of course preferable to get on with one’s team mates. We did however have our ups and downs. Signs of anger, frustration, tears, impatience , an occasional blame culture and a lack of empathy were evident. The tough Arctic environment can bring out the best and worst in people. I saw both ends of the spectrum in myself and in my team mates. We pulled together often and helped each other out when necessary but often tempers were lost as the going got tougher. Tina however helped me personally by adding joviality, conversation and more importantly empathy.
Polar Bear - (stuffed !)
New Team member
Heads down in head-on wind
Ice Rubbled landscape