What's this all about?

A new adventure beckons, and this is once again about my personal journey to make it happen.

It might make you laugh; it might make you cry, but by 'eck lads and lasses, it will be worth a quick skeg every now and then, tha's for sure.

Monday, 24 October 2011

You are the weakest link ... hello

Friday 21st October at 4pm saw the start of the first day of our 48-hour (over 3 days) training weekend on Dartmoor for the North Pole Trek. The first time all 6 intrepid explorers would meet and all under the wise and watchful eye of our trek lead, Alan Chambers MBE.

Despite a dud Sat Nav I arrived wonderfully early at Brimpts Farm in Dartmoor National Park; the weather was mild and sunny and exactly what I WASN'T hoping for (given I'd primarily packed for a bleak wind and hopefully some frost). Having had a quick cuppa and read the scandal and international intrigue in the local rag I went for a stroll to find a mobile signal.

On my return a slender white haired mild mannered gentleman entered the room and introduced himself; Geoff Somers our new Trek lead. Err hang on, where's the stereo-typical 'trek lead' I was expecting; hands like paving stones, 6' 6" tall with fingers missing and a scar down his face from the last polar bear encounter?

Would we really be entrusting ourselves (whoever 'ourselves' were) to this lovely gentleman who looked like he could bend in a breeze but take great care of your grand-children (if I had any, which I don't)?

This is about as stern as Geoff S. looked all weekend & I think it's because his tea was cold.

Next to arrive were friends Rob and Rowland (Rowlie for short, although as a standard rugby player with shoulder blades like the back of a wardrobe the word 'short' didn't enter my mind), who are doing the Trek as a 40th birthday challenge. They were closely followed by David who was recently back from mountain climbing, glacier walking and river rafting in India and who would have been diving off Egypt if it were not for this event. Who said Action Man was only ever a toy?

Of course it became clear from David's huge smile that despite his adventurous nature he had struggled with his Sat Nav which had led him past the Farm and on to Tavistock (about 15 miles too far) but what he doesn't know about kit, given his experience etc (and that he's a nice guy too) probably isn't worth knowing and makes him a great polar colleague.

For me the weekend was one for learning and for testing myself against a few benchmarks so I knew just how far I'd come and how far I still had to go. I knew I had a long way to go yet but this afternoon really demonstrated JUST how far!!

It started well as I declined the 'soft' option of an 8kg tyre and went for something more akin to the weights I'd been pulling across the local park. Enter a bl**dy large tyre stage left, and the initial drag felt ok despite the thick brown outdoor-type jumper I was wearing and the jeans, even up the initial incline ....

For the first few hundred yards I kept pace with Rowlie (who looked physically capable of dragging a tractor tyre, with the tractor still attached) but Rob, David, Geoff & soon Rowlie were making far quicker progress and I had suddenly started to sweat, gasp for breath and my legs felt like lead. What was going on??? I'd pulled 28kg for over 2 miles before albeit on the gentle slopes of Rothwell Park or Heaton Park.

I started to curse; getting hotter and more irate I began to repeatedly growl at myself "Come on you old fat b*^%£$d" but it was no use I simply wasn't able to keep up and they disappeared round a corner on what seemed like a never-ending incline of dirt, rocks and ruts. I had made a few fundamental mistakes including not being kitted out for a drag and not warming up beforehand. Lactic acid rules KO !

Rob was good in that he offered to swap his slightly smaller tyre for mine (hmm did you notice Rob that we were near the top of the incline ha ha) but I thanked him and said I needed to grind through this to learn a lesson.

David was good in that he dropped back and supported me verbally until we got to flat grassed ground and then Geoff Somers walked and talked me through the last 1/4 of the tyre drag, pointing out that the weight I was pulling was far in excess of the effort required to pull the pulk (sled) at the Pole.

When we returned Douglas had arrived from the States and soon after Peter arrived from Newcastle; a relatively quiet guy who I think will be a massive team member and a great boost to morale as when he does say something it's bl**dy useful, and so the team was complete. A quick chat from Geoff S and we headed back to the hotel up the road, showered, talked, ate and quickly disappeared off to our rooms to rest.

It was at that moment I had my 'Anne Robinson' moment; I was unexpectedly rubbish at the tyre drag and I seemed to be the weakest link. I needed to buck my ideas up so I didn't perceive myself as a possible liability in the Arctic circle .... 

I truly felt I had failed miserably so when I laid down I did 3 things (oh please, let's keep it clean): -

- firstly I told myself I was here to identify how much I needed to improve and learn my current failings and therefore learn I would !!
- secondly I was paying hard earned money to go on the Trek and I wondered if anyone would doubt the validity of me being there, but I was determined that it bl**dy well wouldn't pop into my mind.
- thirdly I took out a photo of me in the year 2001 that I carry with me to remind myself how I once was (the first photo below has only ever been seen by 8 other people in the world, and shows me aged 40 and clearly wearing a 'tent' for a shirt. The second photo shows me aged 45).

Portland (Oregon) at a trip to see a Scottish Power subsidiary in 2001; the 'grade 4' haircut didn't help : (

Primrose Hill in London, 2005, with two possible recruits for http://www.tribewanted.com/ (well one could always hope)

The next morning after breakfast we had a short discussion with Geoff S and set out for a brief 'drag'. I took two smaller tyres this time and felt prepared to trek up the hill. Douglas made great company at the front of the pack whilst Rob effortlessly dragged the tyre I had tried the day before.

L - R: Geoff S, David, Rob, Peter and Rowland
After food and discussion, Geoff S told us it was time for the afternoon 'drag' but he had a little surprise as part of this one. for a mild-mannered guy he had a cheeky evil glint in his eye !!

We had only walked a relatively short distance when an upturned fibre-glass kevlar sled came into sight and Geoff S revealed the surprises; we were to load the sled with 6 of the tyres we had and, as a team of 6, cross some water and take it to the top of the hill ahead of us. Geoff S would help by loading rocks in along the way for additional weight (so helpful).

And yes it dipped down a lot before you got to the foot of the hill
Douglas and Rob were keen to load the pulk and rig four people in a fan up front with Peter and I providing lift at the side and rear over the numerous large rocks and outcrops. Rather than describe the uphill effort I'd let the next few photos do the talking but just say Rob and Rowlie in particular are just dragging machines; add Douglas and David's power and then finally Peter and I, and we got to the top.

Packing the sled with tyres

Inclines, scrub, tracks and rocks (although the rocks got less as Geoff S loaded them into the sled)

Some of the incline felt extremely steep (but fortunately some of the rocks 'fell out' all by themselves on the way up)

Pack horse at the back, powerhouse in front

Near the summit (and just before Geoff S sat on the back of the sled to compensate for 'lost' rocks)

The white dot, centre right, is near where we had come from
I'm sure David would correct any error I make in this statement but just over 2 hours elapsed time from start to the peak which was 1.83 miles (almost 3km) with us only physically moving for 58 minutes of that time.

Heading back down was far easier to pull, but the navigation was terrible guys : )
Going down was much easier although the team decided to cross the small river at a point where I was unsure I could stay out of the water. At the start of the weekend Douglas had asked what worried us most about the Trek and I said thin ice; I can have an irrational fear of small sections of open water and so this crossing presented a personal challenge.

At one point 3 people were over the other side, I was stuck on the 5th of 9 rocks and 3 people were queuing up behind me feeling like impatient buses waiting to pull out of a junction. Again Douglas helped, this time by passing me one of his walking poles to use as a balancing aide to stick into the river bed. What a frickin' wuss !!! The rest of the guys then followed me, just striding effortlessly from rock to rock.

On the return to the Farm we met Ann Daniels, a female legend of polar expeditions, who gave us an insight into the very modest Geoff Somers. Having checked his profile today (website link below) it soon became clear that mild-mannered Mr Somers was in fact an outstanding living polar legend and I had to smile to myself and momentarily thought "Sir Ranulph who??" (no offence Sir Ranulph).

That evening we had dinner back at the hotel, Geoff showed us some of the gear being custom-made for us in Russia and we all then headed to bed to rest after a heck of a day.

The next day we had a presentation from Geoff on polar expedition history and heard about his (literally) face to face experience with a polar bear, then finally learned about and tried putting up and taking down the 2-person tents we'd be using which can be put up in just a few minutes.

After a hearty lunch this bunch of would-be polar explorers all headed in our different directions and the next time the motley crew get together will either be in Norway in March 2012 for some training and trying our kit, or at Heathrow Airport on 3rd April 2012 as we head to Longyearbarn via Oslo, to prepare for our trek to the North Pole. It seems to get more real every time I say it. 

And perhaps David will have learned how to avoid Tavistock by then.

Good night.

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