Arctic Expedition – Ryan Scarratt

  • Start point: Resolute Bay
  • End point: Grise Fiord
  • Total distance in kilometres: 480km
  • Time it took: 30 days
  • Daily average: Massive variation between 2km and 40km

So tell us, how London businessman end up on an Arctic expedition?

Well that started a couple of years earlier. I was watching BBC news having my breakfast and a guy said he was asking for volunteers to go to the North Pole with a group called Ice Warrior.  I filled the form in when I got to work that morning, passed an initial selection weekend in the UK and went to Resolute Bay in the Arctic the next year for two weeks of training.  The experience was my first in that environment and in two weeks we had a tent destroyed in a storm, a -55 centigrade day, carbon monoxide poisoning from a stove and lots of exposure to the realities of that environment, I was hooked but things didn’t work out with that group and I thought that would be the end of Arctic Adventures. Nearly two years later one of the instructors on the course, Mark Wood, got in contact.  Mark had set up his own company doing treks to Everest Basecamp, he asked if I could guide for him, we guided a trip to Everest together during which we discussed  the plan for the polar trip. 

Tell us about the planning and logistics; how did you choose the route? what issues did you consider?

The plan was to originally to travel via the Frozen ocean from Resolute Bay around Cornwallis Island, across Devon Island into a connecting Fiord and then via the sea ice to Grise Fiord.  The benefit of travelling by the sea ice is it is much easier to pull the pulks/sledges over the ice which has relatively small amounts of snow on it.  The disadvantage is sometimes your drinking water made from melted snow tastes a bit salty!

Unfortunately for us the sea ice conditions were very bad with sections of broken ice all along our preferred route.  We instead had to take an overland route across Cornwallis Island to minimise travel over sea ice.  This meant a climb to a couple of hundred metres to get on the top of the island plus harder conditions to pull the sledges.

The initial days of the expedition were very difficult as the novice members of our group got used to the weight of the sledges, in the first day of pulling we achieved just 2km of travel.  Later in the trip the sea ice issues would return to be problematic.  Crossing from Cornwallis Island to Devon Island is 40km, It took us five days. We had to find a route through broken sea ice, with blocks ranging from the size of a brick to the size of a house.

Once we go to Devon Island Mark and I decided to review our situation as we had used half our time to complete a third of the journey and realised we would not make Grise Fiord at that rate.

Normally you pull for a set period of time to achieve hours in the day rather than a set distance.  We changed this to deciding to not stop pulling until we had achieved 21kms a day, regardless of how long it took.  We had previously averaged 6.5kms a day.

The next day of our new plan we had a blizzard and we travelled the whole day with very limited visibility.  By the end of this day having achieved our 21kms but the team was very tired.  Despite this we maintained this average distance and with some updated satellite information managed to get onto some decent sea ice, so for the last portion of the trip we were averaging 40km’s a day easily and ended up arriving in Grise Fiord a day early.

And what about physical training?

In the 6 months before expeditions I do gym work to add strength.  I have a standard programme that builds whole body strength which I have found protects me when the expedition starts and the weight of the sledge is heaviest.  I expect to get fit doing the expedition to a certain extent, as it is not possible to simulate pulling a sledge 12 hours a day without actually doing it.  Injury though is the biggest risk as there is very little opportunity to recover if you want to progress.

In the 30 days of the expedition I lost 30lbs/13.6kg in weight, given the food I was eating I must have been using between 10,000 and 13,000 calories a day on average.  

Space must have been pretty limited, what did you take with you?

For five people we had two tents, so two sets of cooking equipment etc.  In addition to my own equipment, my sledge had 35kg of fuel in it plus some of the shared kit for cooking etc.  I estimate it must have weighed around 100kg. I tend to need lots of water during the day so had three flasks of water to drink while travelling.  For the 30 days I had one change of base layers, so day 15 was an exciting one!  Additionally we all took a luxury item, normally something to eat that surprises everyone else that night which is good for morale.  Typically we eat dehydrated foods, by melting snow and then have snacks we eat hourly throughout the day.  My normal routine was to put my snacks in my pockets first thing in the morning so they would be defrosted by my bodyheat by the first hourly stop.

How did you get along with the others?

I have been invited on other expeditions so I think ok!

What were some of your favourite moments?

When you stop for a break and start a conversation with the rest of the team it is great as everyone has been in their own thoughts for a couple of hours, it is sometimes hilarious. On all expeditions after a few days most conversations somehow drift towards food though.

When I am pulling I take moments  to realise the next person in a certain direction would have to be in Russia or reaching the top of a hill and thinking it is unlikely another human has ever been here.  I always assume it is the last chance I will have to be there and make sure I enjoy it,

ALONE

Were there any surprises along the way? Animals encounters?

For the whole trip we would see footprints of polar bears and their cubs.

About halfway through the trip we had a polar bear come into the camp in the early evening.  One of the team saw it as she was outside the tent and by the time I came out it was about 10 metres away. I had a shotgun loaded with flares and shot over it’s head a couple of times and it ran away. For the next few hours we stayed awake to see if it would come back but it didn’t return.  The bear looked to be in very good condition and so I think we were fortunate it was not desperate to eat and just inquisitive.

FOOTPRINTS

Were there any low points?

Very early in the trip one of the team had to drop out with stomach problems.  It takes months to build up to these trips and that is very disappointing.

I had one day where I changed my snacks to peanuts for the day as another team member didn’t want them.  I found that my mood really slumped and I felt very selfish doing a trip like this that took me away from home for 6 weeks.  That is quite difficult to deal with when you don’t have much to distract you.  I guessed what the issue might be and changing to my normal nutrition system improved things almost immediately.

From a practical point of view I have quite big feet and was breaking a lot of Ski bindings.  One evening as we were running low on spares I had to create new binding from some velcro straps and a cut up binding.  I was worrying as ultimately the trip would be over if the fix didn’t work.  Luckily it did and I skied on my homemade bindings for 200km.

What piece of advice would you give to someone planning a similar adventure?

To do it as soon as possible.  I think we will see the end of Arctic expedition in our lifetime as the sea ice is so diminished.  It is likely already that only winter expeditions are going to have good conditions.

Are there any particular books or films that inspired you?

I have read most things Ranulph Fiennes has written, I like his matter-of-fact storytelling and he has done a lot to promote interest in Arctic and Antarctic expeditions.

An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean Antarctic Survivor  by Michael Smith is good for shedding light on a remarkable man only now getting some attention.

For anyone interested in the Arctic I recommend The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath.  It is about how Canada forcibly relocated the Inuit to places like Resolute and Grise Fiord during the 1950’s, it is a piece of history that illustrates how remarkable the people have been to create a life in that environment and essential reading to understand the Canadian Arctic.

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