7 tips that could save your life in the Arctic
© Bengt Rotmo
Polar bears? Frostbite? We asked explorers who've visited the iciest ends of the earth to give us a few cunning pointers for staying in one piece.
It takes guts and wit in equal measure to conquer the coldest places on earth. One miscalculation or misstep and it might be your last.
So then, to get a better understanding of what it's like to tackle such climates, we spoke to seven adventurers who've had expeditions everywhere from the North to the South pole, the Arctic Ocean to vast glaciers, undertaking huge physical feats while enduring brain freezing temperatures of -40 degrees and worse.
Here are their key tips...
1. Make yourself loud if a polar bear approaches
Sarah McNair-Landry is the youngest woman to ski to both the North and South Pole, and has kite skied across the Northwest Passage, dog sled 120-days around Baffin Island, Canada and crossed Greenland five times. As a result, she's also encountered polar bears, one of the few creatures that will hunt humans for food. However, as McNair-Landry reveals, there are some very effective deterrents:
"What to do if you find yourself face to face with a polar bear? Never shoot a bear unless it's absolutely necessary. Remember — you are in their home. Re-group everyone and if possible try to move away. Attempt to scare the bear away with flares, bear bangers or shoot your gun into the air. My number one technique is to simply to shout at the bear. Seriously - tough talk that bear; shout, swear, tell him if he doesn't move away you are going to...well, I'll let you fill in the blank."
2. Make yourself a hot water bottle
In 2012, Felicity Aston became the first women to ski alone across Antarctica - a 1744km journey that took her 59 days. She has been awarded the Polar Medal and an MBE for services to polar exploration. So when she offers a tip on how to keeps cosy amid teeth-chattering temperatures, you take note:
"I recommend using a drinking bottle as a hot water bottle by boiling enough snow to fill a 1L Nalgene bottle before you go to bed and placing it in your sleeping bag to keep your toes toasty during the night. In the morning the water is still warm and can be placed inside your boots to warm them up before you put them on.
3. Wear silk to thwart ‘polar thigh'
Sophie Montagne was part of the British Army and first all-female team ‘Ice Maidens’ to ski 1,704km across the Antarctic continent, coast-to-coast and using muscle power alone, a record breaking journey which took 61 days. It wasn't just team work that got them through, but also paying attention to the small details, including 'polar thigh', as Montagne reveals:
“Polar thigh is basically chilblains on your thighs caused by severe cold and friction which can swiftly become blisters and then large open wounds if left untreated. Prevent them by having a silk layer beneath wool base layers, and wearing a down skirt over your ski trousers. Treat the itchy red lesions with steroid cream."
4. Tape over your goggles to overcome snow blindness
Vincent Colliard is a French professional polar explorer and expedition guide who co-founded the Ice legacy project to cross the 20 largest ice caps on the planet. He's a real-life superhero all right, and occasionally, when the environment turns sour, he takes to dressing like one too...
“When in ultra bright snowy environments you must protect your eyes to prevent snow blindness. Snow blindness usually only lasts a few days but can cause permanent damage and is extremely painful. If snow blindness occurs tape your googles/sunglasses and leave a thin strip free of tape for your vision to rest your eyes. You look like Dark Vador. But that’s OK."
5. Build a snow wall to protect your tent from storms
Bengt Rotmo is an IPGA Master Polar guide who had been guiding in the polar regions for over 20 years and has reached both poles. No stranger to howling snowstorms with deadly 80mph winds, he instructs his groups to build snow walls near the tents when the elements are looking unsteady:
"If a storm is coming, dig down into the snow to create a platform that lowers the height of the tent, then build a 50cm snow wall towards the wind about 8m away from the tent to protect it from being blow away or buried."
6. Keep your mittens on a string
Chris Imray is a vascular, renal transplant and trauma academic surgeon with over 150 scientific papers published. Although when it comes to getting his own heart racing, he's a seasoned climber who has completed the 7 Summit Challenge and has a handy tip for anyone looking to survive in the extreme cold.
"Heavy duty mittens are essential for keeping your hands warm and preventing frost bite which could lead to the amputation of your fingers. To make sure the worst doesn't happen, attach your mitts to some string attached to your body as a cheap and simple way of ensuring that you don't lose your mittens or your fingers."
7. When nature calls, don't go far
Leo Houlding is a world renowned climber who has pioneered first ascents and groundbreaking expeditions around the world, including in the Arctic and Antarctic — where you're unlikely to find him leaving the tent when nature calls.
"When you're near the South Pole, it's -37 ̊C with 50mph wind giving windchill, real feel temperature of -73 ̊C; DO NOT under any circumstances go outside to relieve yourself. I’ve made this mistake and very nearly ended the trip on the first day with a frost-bitten bottom! In those conditions dig a deep hole in the tent porch and bingo, you have a bathroom."