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Spirit of Endurance

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Spirit of Endurance
 

The Shackleton Polar Skills Challenge
Written by Harriet Osborne // Photography by Tom Warry

We head to Finse, a remote car-free village in western Norway, for the Shackleton Polar Skills Challenge, a six-stage programme led by renowned polar explorers Louis Rudd and Wendy Searle, delivering all the necessary skills required to ski-tour and camp in extreme environments.

‘Dig a trench inside the foot of the tent,’ expedition leader Louis Rudd shouted over howling 50mph winds as he hammered heavy tent pegs into the deep snow. I took my shovel and dug a neat pit 1m wide, using the excess snow as weight to stop the tent from blowing away. I had no idea what the pit was for at the time, but I knew we needed to set up camp before the setting sun plunged the frozen lake into darkness.

The pit, or ‘Pit of Despair’ as Louis named it, would later be used to dispose of dirty water from cleaning our mugs and cutlery (to keep the tent tidy) and to store our snow-capped boots (to keep our sleeping bags dry). Even away from the army, former Royal Marine Commando and SAS soldier Louis ran a tight ship. Such selective, organised, and automated processes are essential in polar exploration, where all energy is conserved for decisions that can be the difference between life and death.

It was 6.00pm in Finse, a remote car-free village in western Norway, and day two of the Shackleton Polar Skills Challenge – a six-stage programme led by renowned polar explorers Louis Rudd and Wendy Searle, delivering all the necessary skills required to ski-tour and camp in extreme environments. After a fireside briefing inside the iconic Hotel Finse 1222, where explorers Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, and Ernest Shackleton trained over a century ago in preparation for their expeditions to Antarctica, we ski-toured across frozen lake Finsevatnet to the foot of the mountain in search of shelter.

Louis broke trail in his steel-edged expedition skis, and two other amateur explorers followed one behind the other with Wendy at the back. I focused on my skis through steamed-up goggles, occasionally losing my balance on the wave-like ridges on the surface of the hard snow. I wasn’t sure if my breathlessness was from being physically tired or mentally scared of being so far out of my comfort zone – the biggest risks of prolonged and ill-equipped exposure to the cold are hypothermia, frostbite, snow blindness, and polar thigh. I thought about Wendy’s solo 42-day crossing to the South Pole – the seventh woman in history to do so – and gained some perspective. ‘No matter how exhausted I was, I always found energy reserves out of necessity,’ she told me. ‘It made me realise how much more we are all capable of.’

 
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Wendy wasn’t born into a family of adventurers. A mother of four children with a full-time job, she wanted to see what it would take for an ordinary person to do something extraordinary (although, having spent the weekend with her, I sensed that she was extraordinary to begin with). I asked how she stayed motivated during her crossing of the white continent. ‘I gave everything names. My tent was Wali Herbert, an Arctic polar explorer from the 1950s, and my pulk was Wilson the incredible pulk. It was just me and Wilson in the wilderness. My other personal crutch was audiobooks. They kept me going knowing I would be skiing for 11 hours – not just doing it once, it’s doing it over and over again, which is mentally extraordinarily difficult.’ Wendy also wrote quotes on the inside of her tent. ‘The one quote that really kept me going was, “Stop crying and start skiing”. It’s a bit harsh, but sometimes you’ve just got to go out there and put one foot in front of the other and keep moving towards the goal.’

Putting one foot in front of the other, I began to understand why polar explorers are so selective with their thoughts. Often your mind gives up before your body does, so it helps to carry out simple tasks on autopilot, saving all your energy for decision-making in difficult situations. ‘I’m really particular and methodical about how I do everything,’ Wendy explained earlier that day. ‘During the crossing, I did everything the same way at the same time every day. I kept my lighter in the same pocket so I knew it would always be warm, I plugged my electrical items into the solar panel in the same order every night, and I ate my snack bag in the same order every day – first, I’d have chocolate buttons, then I’d have cheese and salami. It made sure I didn’t make any mistakes or leave anything behind.’

Behind every good decision was carefully considered preparation. The kit list for this training alone was detailed and expansive – merino wool underwear, socks, and base layers for its moisture-wicking, temperature-regulating, and odour-resistant qualities (most explorers go with one or two sets at most for an entire expedition). A windproof and waterproof Shackleton outer layer, designed by Louis, with a generous fur-lined wire hood to create a microclimate around the face. A down jacket is kept in the pulk for warmth during breaks.

We borrowed robust and light expedition skis with mohair skins and heavy-duty binding, expedition boots and liners with gaiters for warmth, carbon-fibre ski poles, and a fibreglass pulk with a microscopic layer of acrylic that melts the snow to help it glide. Other items included tent boots, gloves and liners, wristlets, hats, buffs, and glacier goggles. Then there’s the safety equipment – rope, karabiners, bungee cords, a transceiver, a snow saw, an ice screw, and a shovel. Not forgetting the tent, sleeping bag, cooker, gas, and food.

 
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Inside the tent, we fired up the stove and filled the kettle with snow. As we waited for the water to boil, Louis took us back to the beginning of his journey into polar exploration. His earliest memory was reading the Captain Scott Ladybird book when he was 12 years old. After 34 years of service as a Royal Marine Commando and SAS soldier, he and his friend and fellow explorer Henry Worsley became the first people to retrace Amundsen’s journey unsupported from the Bay of Whales to the South Pole. Louis described weaving their way across flimsy snow bridges in temperatures as low as –53°C between reading chapters of Amundsen’s diary from 100 years ago. The kettle boiled, we tucked into our freeze-dried vegetable risotto, and washed down it down with a generous glug of whisky.

Breaking off a block from a bar of Dairy Milk chocolate for dessert, Louis told us how he did a solo crossing in 2018 as a tribute to Henry, who sadly died from a stomach ulcer attempting to do the same thing. ‘My psychological coping strategy was breaking the journey into 10-day expeditions. My food was in 10-day sacks and at the bottom of each sack was a freeze-dried chocolate pudding. It made it more manageable than thinking about the whole 1,000-mile journey.’

My watch told me I slept for nine hours that night. There really is nothing quite like the satisfying exhaustion of pushing yourself physically and mentally and achieving more than you ever thought you could – and this was just a taster of the Polar Skills Challenge experience. Cocooned in a polar-grade sleeping bag, I thought about how much I had learnt from Louis and Wendy’s stories and experiences. How we should make decisions once so that all of our energy can be spent on what really matters. Be selective with our thoughts and remove any that don’t serve us. Prioritise the essential things we need to survive – warmth, shelter, and food. Make it fun. Be mindful of the information and entertainment we consume (audiobooks and podcasts are a great place to start). Be prepared (it will make things easier later). Respond with calmness and composure when things don’t go to plan, and rewarding ourselves when they do (chocolate pudding is always a good idea).

Back at the hotel, I warmed my hands around a mug of coffee on a burnt orange sofa by the fire and watched the snow drift outside the window. I hadn’t checked my phone since yesterday and felt no urge to either. All around me, people were engaged in conversation with friends and family with renewed connection after shared experiences outdoors. Even though our group arrived as strangers, we left as friends. The snow train pulled up to take us back to Bergen. I soaked up every second of the journey overlooking fishing villages with wooden cabins in mustard yellow and falun red. As snowscapes turned to city skylines, I felt a huge appreciation for the natural world and people who encompass the spirit of endurance.


Harriet Osborne was a guest of Shackleton Challenges. Six days on the Finse Polar Skills Challenge with four nights stay at Hotel Finse 1222 and one-night camping costs £6,495pp. The next expeditions take place between March 5th and April 15th, 2023.

Social/Website Links

Written by Harriet Osborne // harrietosborne.com
Photography by Tom Warry // @tomwarryphoto // tomwarry.com
Featuring Louis Rudd // @louisrudd
And Wendy Searle // @betweensnowandsky
Supported by Shackleton // shackleton.com

 

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