How to survive in polar bear country
Talk us through it.” Expedition leader Jamie Annetts is sitting in the cold air well of our tent, surrounded by soup flasks and a stove melting snow for the day. He is balancing a rifle across his legs.
“Far left is always safety off,” he gestures with his arm towards the left of the rifle. “Centre is a central mode where you can just cock it and release the bullets. Far right is safety on, so you can’t fire the weapon.”
He unloads four rounds of cartridges and puts them on my thermal airbed, turns the rifle around to look into the barrel and taps his finger in front of the opening on the other side to make sure it isn’t blocked. He swiftly reloads the gun, switches the safety to the far right, squeezes the trigger once. There we go.
Muscle memory has taken over, ingraining the movements into our hands. Every morning we test the gun to make sure it didn’t freeze up overnight with the moisture from our breath. It is a last resort, but essential protection in bear country.
Our safety is paramount. Apart from the rifle we carry flare guns, and every night we set up the trip wire system around our tent to give us early warning of an approaching polar bear.
But all of these precautions don’t bring a lot of reassurance in the nights spent out on desolate polar plains. Sleep is light and nervous and scenes of polar bears ripping through the side of our tent play in our heads.
Nothing like this happened. None of the 3,000 polar bears that live on the island crossed our path.
This is Svalbard, Norway, a 13-day, ski and snowshoe expedition, crossing the island from east to west.
It’s just one of the polar trips run by Exped Adventure; others head to Lapland and the Hardangervidda plateau. The team is currently gearing up for the bigger stuff in Iceland, Greenland and the Poles.
Jamie explains: “The Hardangervidda and Lapland are a good challenge for a stand-alone expedition, but they could also be the stepping stone for progressing to more extreme expeditions – either polar or higher altitude. For me, polar exploration is daydreaming material. Famous explorers and adventurers have done their bit to make us dream of pulling a pulk through icy wilderness and being self-sufficient in the world’s bleakest, but most beautiful environments.”
But committing to a polar journey is bold, and not many people are prepared to go for it.
So how do you get what’s needed to go to those far-out places?
Jamie has pulled together eight things you need to know before you sign up:
1. You won’t know whether you can do it until you commit to it
“Committing to an ambitious goal is the best way to make sure you achieve it. Booking the trips and your flights early is the perfect way to kick-start your training. It will help you push through painful moments in the gym when you’re ready to give up, or drag yourself out of bed on damp mornings for an early run. Achieving smaller challenges along the way, you’ll start asking yourself, ‘If I did that, what else can I do?’ Your goal of crossing Svalbard, Greenland or the Poles will start to sound more achievable.”
Gary Fletcher, Hardangervidda crossing 2016 with Exped Adventure, signed up for Svalbard 2017
2. It’s not all death and glory
“We respect the environment we’re in and prepare ourselves for it. The Cairngorm plateau is the perfect training ground for polar travel, and is where we run our pre-expedition training courses. If you can deal with wind gusts, snow and poor visibility up there, that’s a great start. Our expeditions show that the polar regions are not just the territory of gutsy adventurers. Months of planning, preparation and pushing your comfort zones will get you there, and the thrill of being and safely operating in the polar environment makes it all worth it.”
Jamie Annetts, expedition guide and director of Exped Adventure
3. Take food you like
“Hauling a pulk in low temperatures for long days means you burn up to 6,000kcal every day. The food we take is there to keep up your calorie count, but also your morale. Think about which snacks you genuinely like eating, as you will be eating them every day for the entirety of the trip. We found that chocolate bars and tubes of cheese freeze below -15, so think about different options for Svalbard.”
4. There’s a lot of looking at white stuff
“There’s a lot of snow, a lot of ice and a lot of looking at white stuff. There are some days with extremely low light merging all the features around you. You’ll wake up with ice on your sleeping bag, you’ll walk up and down steep slopes, through snow, over frozen lakes. The silence can become overwhelming. If you don’t like being alone with your thoughts, having music or an audio book to listen to is a good idea.”
5. You’ll truly connect with an extreme environment
“Your friends will probably think you’re mad for ‘camping in the snow’ but you’ll have gained an experience that they can only dream of. If you can find suitable adjectives to describe the place, that is. The photos do not do it justice. They don’t show the sheer scale of the place; they do not play back the hiss of the drift, the crunch of the snowshoes on untrodden snow as you leave camp in the morning. And they certainly don’t portray the close bond and secure teamwork that you’ll build up with persons who are, essentially, total strangers. I think that operating in this kind of environment does that to you.”
Tom Theobald, the King’s Trail 2015, Hardangervidda 2016 with Exped Adventure
6. Pulling a pulk is a much easier than carrying a backpack
“Honestly, it’s much easier than I imagined to tow and far easier than carrying an equivalent rucksack. For the most part, you don’t really know it’s there. Obviously, it’s the hills (up and down) when it really makes its presence felt. You are towing approximately 35kg, after all.”
7. Make use of your guides’ knowledge and skills
“Our guides were knowledgeable, qualified and professional. Jamie offered an abundance of help before and during the trip: from kit advice – where to shop, what brands are best value, what works best in the environment and temperatures expected – through to camping routine guidance – i.e. make sure you get the stove on first once the tent is up for a warm brew – he helped you at every stage of the trip. Your guides want you to be comfortable and safe, so make use of their knowledge and skills, they are brilliant.”
Emma Hazell, Hardangervidda crossing 2016 with Exped Adventure
8. Listen to the adventurer in you
“Right now there must be something telling you that you should do this. A gut feeling, a tiny voice in the back of your head, the flutter of your heart even at the thought of it. If that’s the case then sign up, because that’s the adventurer in you needing to do something exactly like this. I’m glad I listened to those feelings because the sense of adventure and achievement I was looking for was exactly what Exped Adventure delivered.”
Exped Adventure run mountaineering, trekking and polar adventures around the world. Contact us to start talking about your aspirations and options for your next adventure.