Preparation and training began for the Willis Resilience Expedition on the Langjokull Glacier, the second largest icecap in Iceland. Led by experienced mountaineering experts and Antarctic logistic specialists Arctic Trucks, Paddy Scott (Willis’s expedition cameraman) and I spent three nights camped on the glacier – testing kit, running through camp routines and building camaraderie for the seven-week expedition to Antarctica.
Our first night was spent on top of the icecap in white-out conditions, which provided an excellent opportunity to test our proficiency at erecting a tent in high winds with minimal visibility. Melting snow to produce drinking water will be a daily routine and an essential skill for Antarctic survival. We will have to master lighting and maintaining a steady blue flame on our expedition stoves at temperatures below -30 degrees Celsius. To add to the challenge at these extreme cold temperatures the metal stove will become toxic to touch with bare skin.
Despite the wind and snow we slept comfortably through our first night on the glacier and on the morning of the second day – nourished by a breakfast of porridge and raisins – we left camp and descended the glacier in search of a crevasse field.
Crevasses will be one of our biggest concerns during our journey across Antarctica, particularly as we climb the Leveret Glacier near the Ross Ice Shelf. A crevasse forms on a glacier when it becomes stressed, such as when it descends a steep mountain. In Antarctica they can be as deep as 45 meters, as wide as 20 meters, and can be up to several hundred meters long. In deep snow crevasses are usually covered by a snow bridge, which makes spotting them very hard. And if a snow bridge breaks crevasses can easily swallow a person (or even a truck). Becoming skilled in crevasse rescue is therefore essential for anyone to travel safely in glaciated terrain.
Thankfully our Icelandic guide, Stefan, a phenomenally well experienced mountain rescuer, showed us techniques that allowed a single person with little in the way of mountaineering equipment (just a length of rope, a pulley and a prusik knot) to haul a friend from the pit of a steep sided crevasse. First off, Stefan showed Paddy how to single-handedly haul me out of a crevasse then I repeated the exercise with Paddy at the bottom of the rope. We also had a chance to try out ice-climbing techniques using ice-axes and crampons and Stefan taught us how to create a 'bomb-proof' anchor using just a shovel buried in deep snow.
On the third day of our mini-expedition we skied across the glacier, navigating our way to a campsite and then camping overnight just the two of us. At 953 square kilometers the Langjokull Glacier is an almost featureless icy desert – making it the perfect place to practice navigating without any landmarks to provide bearings. It’s also one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and we had the pleasure of skiing, in piercingly bright sunlight, 15 kilometres across its surface (half of what Parker will have to do each day for 22 days in order to break the world record). That night – chilled to the bone – we dug our tent into the snow (for better protection) and made camp beneath a starry sky with the Northern Lights visible overhead.
One of the most enduring lessons I learnt over the course of our Icelandic training mission is that in the extreme cold things just stop working. Zippers on tents, for example, won’t close properly and get jammed very easily. Lighters don’t work. At the same time, being dexterous with your fingers is difficult while you’re wearing insulated gloves – but exposing your bare skin for just a few seconds can be disastrous. A simple mistake – like a broken zipper on a tent – can spell catastrophe in the wild where spare parts are in short supply. Faced with all these issues, problem solving and dealing with stress are essential to help get you through. Characteristics, I’m sure, that will become hallmarks of our Antarctic expedition.