test of endurance at the arctic
Last Updated : GMT 09:07:40
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Last Updated : GMT 09:07:40
Egypt Today, egypt today

Test of endurance at the Arctic

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Egypt Today, egypt today Test of endurance at the Arctic


It's an idea so simple, so beautiful, that you can't believe it was not thought of before. Sail a ship into the Arctic as the winter freeze grips, let it get trapped in ice, then run visitors out there by dog sled or skidoo. And if that vessel is special — like a two-masted tall ship — all the better: The trip becomes something imbued with adventure, redolent with the traditions of Shackleton and Nansen, something to conjure up faded sepia images of the Fram and the Endurance, of explorers with icy beards and heroism on the limits of human endurance. This is what Basecamp Explorer has done. Flying in to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard from Tromsø in northern Norway, I am gripped myself, with the sheer excitement of it all. Behind me a group of men with fur-lined hoods are trading extreme travel anecdotes. But for me there are no such stories. I'm a hot country person — always have been. This is a first taste of the Arctic and, before I even contemplate anything as extreme as narwhal-besieged ice floes, I want to know if I could handle the conditions. I have — I have to admit — two very large doubts, both of them size nine and already encased in three pairs of socks. The first surprise is how light it is at midnight in late March. The Arctic changes from total darkness to total light within two months, a difference of about half an hour a day from mid February. The second surprise is the cold. Longyearbyen, the capital city, population about 2,000, stands on one of the fjords of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the archipelago. Around the buildings, which are mostly grey, the ground is white. The surrounding mountains are white, too; the fjord is frozen white and nothing at all is green. I get out of the car and stand in the street, looking down towards the fjord and the mountains beyond. "We'll get you equipped properly tomorrow," Solfrid Hkenstad, base manager, tells me. She looks around, as if searching for a few landmarks to interest me, but like everyone in Longyearbyen, she is drawn back to the only feature that counts: the huge dark power plant. Within the hour I am in love with that power station. I adore its 24-hour lights and plume of smoke. I love the steady grumble as it devours fossil fuels to keep me warm. The Basecamp hotel is a charming pastiche of a pioneer's log cabin, with a good connection to the power plant. Inside no-one wears boots and it is deliciously cosy. I could have stayed there for my entire trip, enjoying that warmth and reading Arctic exploration stories. I love those stories when I'm in a warm bed. However, in the morning they force me outside and down to the clothing depot. Martin Machiedo is my guide, a huge man who looks like a Viking marauder, but is actually an affable Croatian. I am decked out in one-piece padded snowsuit, balaclava, crash helmet, fur-lined gauntlets and huge boots. I am already wearing every single sock I have brought with me but my toes are cold. Machiedo hands me hot pads, which I shove down my boots. It takes an hour to get dressed, then we head over to the skidoo park and have a ten-minute driving lesson. We slide out of the parking area and hit the frozen surface of the fjord. We speed northeast, stopping occasionally to view a lone reindeer. Spitsbergen has three species of resident land animal: a dwarf variety of reindeer, the Arctic fox and the polar bear. After an hour, we leave the valley and begin to climb towards a pass where we take advantage of a small hill to have a picnic. Outdoor lunches in minus 20C are different from your average picnic. Under way once more, I am wishing that the cumbersome helmet and clothing, necessary to travel at speeds of 80km/h, did not interfere so much with viewing the stark beauty around us. But at these latitudes, cold is always the dominant factor. "This winter was quite mild," Machiedo said. "It even rained once." I nod understandingly, desperately inserting more hot pads into my gloves. We are at minus 40C and every photograph tempts frostbite. The cold has become my only thought, my obsession. We come to a small group of huts by the frozen reaches of Templefjord. "This is where the hero of Svalbard, Hilmar Nois, lived," Machiedo said. "He spent a record 37 winter seasons here, hunting foxes and bears." Far away across the fjord we can see our destination, the ship, but first we pass a glacier, getting off the skidoo to admire the blue ice and spot some large footprints. "Polar bear," Machiedo said. Sadly the animal does not reappear and we skidoo the last mile to the ship. The light has faded to a pearly blue and the huskies who sleep around the ship are being fed. Without losing a second, we park and clump up the gangplank to the antechamber for partial undressing. Then finally we're inside that boat. Instantly we are transported to a world of warmth, steaming mugs, tots of refreshments, mahogany and brass, the smells of cooking, books, charts and smiles. Ted van Broeckhuysen is the captain of our immovable ship, the Noorderlicht, and he tells me how it can take a month of delicate manoeuvres before they finally get properly stuck. The ship was built in 1910 and has been through numerous incarnations: a lightship, a hostel for construction workers, a clubhouse and an empty hulk until Van Broeckhuysen and colleagues fully restored it. We eat a convivial dinner. People settle down afterwards with a book or a map. I examine the charts, spotting remote trapper huts and an abandoned Russian fishing station, tiny human traces in a world of rock and ice. The cold, once fought off, becomes a distant memory and leaves only a languor behind. I wonder if that's how it goes when you are dying out there on the ice: the pain melting into that deliciously irresistible sleepiness. Through the portholes the light has faded to a smooth pinkish glow and the huskies are sleeping. Maybe this Arctic explorer business isn't so bad. Maybe I could get to like it. Eventually, I head to my cabin and sleep like a baby. Next day Machiedo has us up early. We've a long way to go. Our mission is to see a colony of nesting northern fulmars. A little miracle of nature really — that birds could hatch eggs and rear chicks in these conditions. After a long drive into the mountains we find the birds in a deep sheltered canyon, miraculously raising their young. The peculiar thing is that this is a very common creature and lives off Britain's coast, too. By evening we are back in Longyearbyen again — back to my favourite power plant. But next morning I'm out once more, ready to try the dog sled. In the Arctic, huskies are kept on the edges of human settlements in compounds of high wire fences. Marthe Srli, the dog team leader, gives us our instructions. Six dogs in a team. Fetch one at a time. Keep the snow anchors embedded. Dog names are shouted out and I identify my first: a greyish mutt with one blue eye that burns with malice and a green one that is pure venom. I try to estimate the length of chains on the dogs I have to get past. One stands on his kennel and yowls. Others do wild dervish dances. Some, the most scary ones, lie still and watchful. These are Alaskan huskies, smaller than their Greenlandish cousins but a bit quicker and — Srli tells us — less ferocious. As I grab my dog's chain, trying to communicate a confidence I don't feel, I realise he is only excited. They just want to come. They all want to come. He drags me to the sled. I clip him on and go back for another. Soon we are ready. The dogs are wild with excitement and making a noise greater than any skidoo engine. Then Srli yanks up the anchors and, instantly, we are jerked forward into — silence. The dogs all stop barking and run. All we hear is the swish of the sled. We race out of the compound, down the slope and on to the valley bottom. I'm sitting in the sled but when Srli finally manages to halt the enthusiastic hounds, we swap over. Once again the mad cacophony is instantly cut off as we spring forward. I've learnt the two commands: "Ji!" means right and "Ha!" is left. The dogs do not require a go signal. Within minutes I am hooked. I love the peace and tranquility. I love the way you can leap off and run alongside to keep warm. Most of all, I love the dogs — mad snow rolls, fights, total and complete enthusiasm. The day passes far too quickly and I'm left with only one regret — that I didn't do the entire trip by sled. Back in Longyearbyen, over a reindeer steak in the Huset restaurant, Machiedo tells me about a friend of his. "He's taken his dogs and gone off to the North Pole — again. He loves it." The memory of the cold is already fading. That delicious sleepy languor is creeping over me, assisted by the Huset's astonishingly well-stocked refreshments, and I find myself musing on future possibilities. Of course, that is when the Arctic is at its most dangerous — when you're warm.


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