irst Time Polar Explorer

In 2011, Jay Neale, Andy Bruce, and Oliver Sinclair, took part in the Polar Challenge, a 400 mile race to the Magnetic North Pole in Northern Canada, and boasted as one of toughest and most dangerous on the planet.

Jay tells us about the race:

Back in 2009, two of my good friends took part in the Indian Ocean Rowing Race, a mammoth row of over 3000 nautical miles from Western Australia to Mauritius, setting 5 world records in the process.  Inspired by these two ordinary guys achieving something incredible, I sought an adventure of my own – I said to myself “If they can row an ocean, then I can definitely do something similar”.  Coincidentally at the time, James Cracknell and Ben Fogle were looking for a third team member for their South Pole race. Unfortunately I would have needed previous polar experience to get on that race, but I saw the organisers ran a North Pole race – no polar experience required!

I needed to be in a team of three to enter the race and almost immediately thought of Andy, a keen triathlete and Ironman. I phoned him up and he said “Stupid question. Of course I’ll do it!”.  Days later, we had Oli on board from Andy’s triathlon club and our team was complete. The only difficulty now was to try and raise £70k to get us in the race...something that would take us nearly 18 months and a lot of hard work to do.

We trained incredibly hard for 18 months or so, myself completing a number of cross-country marathons and ultramarathons, something which I never thought I’d ever achieve, let alone in such a short time frame.  Our training took us to the deepest darkest parts of Wales, Switzerland and finally Norway, where we met our competitors and had a taste of the Arctic cold.

When the beginning of April 2011 finally came around and we were to depart for Canada to start the race, we knew we had done everything we could to give us the best chance of winning the race. We were as mentally and physically prepared for the race as we could be.

After a long journey, stopping off in Edmonton and Yellowknife (home of the ice road truckers), we arrived in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, the most northerly settlement on Earth, home to about 200 people, living in a small cluster of buildings surrounded by the whiteness of the Arctic. Getting off the plane at -40*C was a massive shock to the system – we had arrived! We were all full of nervous excitement.

We spent a few days acclimatising ourselves to the cold by going on mini hikes and trips around the local area, coming back to our hotel for lectures, to prepare our kit and food for the long journey ahead. The cold was like nothing I had ever experienced before, and unless you’ve been in -40 and below, I can’t really describe how it feels. Having exposed skin is a bit like standing too close to a fire – it burns very quickly. In these few days before the start of the race, I think I went through nearly every emotion possible, but finally I was feeling ready and eager to go.

However, the race start was a 5 day trek north from the hotel. This was an added security to make sure we were all ready for being let off on our own and to ensure we could survive in such a hostile environment.

A 5 day trek from Resolute Bay is the starting line for the Polar Challenge

We started the race in glorious sunshine, probably in a balmy -25*C with no wind. Perfect conditions. We set the lead straight away, keeping a steady pace, but not travelling too fast that we would over heat and start sweating. Moisture in this environment freezes instantly and sweating can cause severe problems if not dealt with effectively. After a few hours in, we caught sight of a Polar Bear on the horizon, less than a mile from us and in the direction we were heading. We stopped, it stood up on its hind legs and sniffed the air – it had spotted us. Fortunately it rolled around in the snow and headed off in the other direction, away from us!

On the first day, we travelled for over 17 hours, a tough start to the race.  Towards the end of this day, I was getting very tired and I was proud to have my two friends with me to spur me on further.  At one point, I thought Oli was prodding me in the back, pushing me on. This was starting to annoy me, so I turned to the side to tell Oli to stop, only to find that he and Andy were just ahead of me. It was at this point that I felt that I had all my friends and family behind me, pushing me on. I remember feeling quite spiritual at that moment, with the sun shining down on me. A seldom occurrence for me.

We slept well the first ‘night’ (almost 24 hr sunlight means it’s nearly always daytime, if for a brief moment of twilight), resting up before a mammoth 25 hours push the next day, which took us over Bathurst Island, through Polar Bear pass, a migratory route for the bears, and on to the sea ice once again, about 150 miles north of Resolute.  That evening, we knew that we were only 50 miles or so from a checkpoint, where we would have 12 hours enforced free rest, so we planned another long ‘day’.

Following what was good weather for the beginning of the race, we woke up the next morning to a haze covering the sky, with the wind starting to pick up.  We ventured out across the ice and quickly realised that the temperature was dropping and that a weather front was coming in.  We put on some extra layers and ventured out across the sea ice on what was to be the last day of our race...

Andy picks up the story from here:

The usual increase in temperature that came with sunrise was well and truly hidden by the biting cold of the wind.  It had been gusting 20-30mph for the last 15 hours and there were still 8 nautical miles to checkpoint one.  Based on our current speed, it would still be more than 4 hours until we arrived. The remaining water in our thermos flasks, which we had boiled up the morning before was long since frozen and all that was left of the double portion of day rations we had taken with us, were crumbs.  With wind-chill, temperatures were touching minus sixty.  This was our ‘make or break’ move for both the race and record.

We had begun the march at about 9am the previous morning, just as the weather had started to turn.  After a good rest, our planned stint was to take us from the edge of Bathurst Island, down onto Dundee Bight and 55 nm across the frozen Arctic Ocean to Checkpoint One for our first mandatory 12 hour stop.  We had been slightly delayed by repairs we had needed to make to the outer shell of the tent, but we were certainly relieved to be back onto the (relatively) flat sea ice.

After approximately 10 hours walking, we stopped to make our daily scheduled call to provide the race organisers with our position.   The weather had begun to significantly deteriorate forcing us into our temporary/emergency shelter to do so.  I reluctantly took off my gloves to dial the satellite phone, and set about calling in our current and predicted location for the same time tomorrow.   Within seconds, the blood had drained away from my fingers as the intense cold set alight my hands with pain from the inside out.  I whipped my gloves back on and as soon as the call was done, we clambered out of the shelter to get going and get warm as quickly as possible.  

Once back on the move I then began my routine of violently swinging both my arms back and forward either side of my knees to try and force the blood back to my hands.  Despite looking like a educationally sub-normal cross-country skier in fast forward, I would soon know if the manoeuvre had been effective as it was shortly accompanied by yet further and almost unmanageable pain caused by the ‘hot-aches’.

As the sun made its brief journey down below the horizon, the snow around us began to dull, tingeing the usually resplendent white snow with a disheartening greyness.    Time slowly trickled away, every step sapping our mental and physical reserves.   Almost unreal, I can only really liken those hours of marching to that of a fever.  I felt truly trapped and disorientated in an endless landscape.  The wind, pushing me forward like an invisible enforcer made patterns in the snow beneath my feet and triggered vivid hallucinations.   Often I had to check the most simple of things with my teammates to keep my bearings on reality.

Jay : I recall Andy being incredibly low at this point and asking me “How far until the checkpoint?”, I cheerily replied “Only 10 miles!”, to which he came back with quite seriously, “Scott (Robert Falcon Scott) died 11 miles from his depot”. In my tiredness, I just found this quite funny!

Having marched for approximately 30 hours we were now within 2 miles of the checkpoint.   Being my turn to navigate once again, I led us on our final bearing of the stint.  I would walk forwards, only 50 – 100 yards to the furthest visible marking in the snow on the course of the bearing, stop, take another, and repeat.  Having gone through perhaps the most mentally testing episode of my racing career earlier in the night and come out the other side I was now feeling much better.  Both Jay and Oli however, were starting to move slower and seemed to be going through similar bad patches.   I did my best to encourage them, and tried to keep them moving.  I would walk ahead to my next bearing and sit on my pulk to rest for perhaps 30-60 seconds whilst they shuffled over.    On a number of occasions, by the time Jay and Oli had caught up with me, I would be almost asleep – it was definitely time to stop.

Eventually we arrived at the coordinates for the first checkpoint, yet frighteningly, there appeared to be no checkpoint tent in sight.  We pulled up the emergency shelter once again and dialled the contact numbers we had been given.  The pain in my hands this time was irrelevant, we would soon be in our tent, I no longer had the strength to swing my arms to warm them anyway.

We managed to get in touch with the race organisers to find that in the conditions, they had gone back to provide medical assistance for a member of the expedition. On their way back out to us, one of their skidoos had broken down, and delayed them further.  It would be at least 3 hours before they reached us.

In the inhospitable conditions we then set about putting up our tent.   With the high winds it took an exhausting hour and a quarter to dig out enough snow from a nearby hummock to provide adequate shelter.   Such was the catalogue of events that led to our situation, by the time we entered our tent, all three of us had begun to develop the early stages of frostbite.  Oli, the worst of us, was showing more developed signs of first degree frostbite.

Although relatively minor and entirely reversible, the only way to guarantee recovery from the onset of frostbite is to entirely remove oneself from a cold environment. Having agreed as a team that no race was worth losing our fingers (or worse), we reluctantly withdrew from the race, having travelled further and faster in one stint than any team in the history of the race, reaching the first checkpoint nearly 12 hours ahead of the second team.

Although our experiences in the Arctic may not have turned out as we had expected, on reflection they were certainly no less valuable than if we had won the race and set a new record.   We tested our limits of physical endurance and explored deeper within ourselves than we had ever thought possible.  We will look back at even the most difficult of times with fond memories, knowing how lucky we were to even stand on the start line.


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