"It was a chance to see what I was made of..."
A taste of the Siberian Winter. The wind has been howling at you for 18 hours, the view hasn't changed, your destination doesn't seem to be getting any closer and the rhythmic sound of spikes scraping across questionably thick ice starts to grind on you.
When I signed on to the inaugural 'Siberian Black Ice Race' I imagined the romantic ideal of polar exploration and travel in a beautiful wilderness - I couldn't have been further from the truth. My first port of call was the airport where I met most of the other competitors and once everyone arrived we embarked on a miniature adventure trying to safely get ourselves, our bags and pulk's to Siberia. Everyone was on full alert trying their best to avoid the inevitable overweight baggage charges that airlines use to keep themselves in business.
It was a tense wait at the other end pondering over what might have happened to your bag in transit and whether it would ever come through on the conveyor belt. Luckily for everyone the bags arrived safe and sound. It was Friday afternoon in Irkutsk, Siberia, we had one night in a hotel and then we would be thrust upon the frozen ice of Lake Baikal. The race was in two categories; the sprint (155miles) and the marathon (379miles) - I naively chose the Marathon. A night and a morning of packing pulk's, kit inspections, briefings and general worry had passed and we were sat cosy and warm having a very civilised lunch at a wonderful hotel right by the Lake. Preparations were made, pulk's were packed and any concern or doubt had to be tucked neatly away in our bags as it was time to start the race. For my first race it was a bit of a baptism of fire. I was faced with an extremely strong head wind and temperatures I have never experienced before.
As a solo competitor I couldn't take sanctuary in someone else's confidence nor could I rely on help when needed I was alone and any problems had to be thought through and dealt with by me. We all set off from the start line, marching blindly into miles and miles of frozen lake, strong winds and freezing temperatures. The 1st day was difficult to say the least. Every part of my skin was covered as I battled against an increasingly powerful wind with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company. The going was tough and time dragged, eventually light started to vanish as night crept in, I tried to pitch my tent while there was still a bit of light but unfortunately I underestimated the time it took, and an hour and a half later I crawled, exhausted, into my tent.
The first night I didn't get any sleep, instead I lay in my sleeping bag, shivering, worried, watching my tent shake in the wind and listening to the ice creak and crack beneath me. Frustrated with my restlessness I decided to get an early start and packed my stuff, pulled my tent down and started walking at 3am. The wind had died down and I walked into darkness until the sun came up. A stupid mistake saw me put my right leg through a weak layer of ice and I had an uncomfortable day with a wet, cold boot. A previous Achilles tendon problem had also started giving me grief and began to worsen. Two days passed, I hadn't seen anyone and I had started to get used to the environment. I embraced the creaking ice and started to make some progress during the day.
All the while my Achilles had worsened, my knee would not allow me to bend my right leg and my feet were starting to become an issue. The days were boring, I tried to entertain my self with songs, ideas, stories but nothing seemed to take my mind off the vastness of the lake. I would find a reference point ahead of me and would aim myself in that direction I found my self walking towards the same reference point for two days with no sign of it getting closer. There was no wildlife, no birds whistling, bee's humming or cows mooing. My soundtrack was a symphony of the wind howling and the ice grinding and shifting beneath my feet. I had covered a great variation of terrain; parts that looked like jelly fish had been frozen in time which gave a bubbly, wave like texture, ice that had been wind beaten and looked and felt like a maze of broken glass, but the most common were huge expanses of the most perfectly smooth ice so smooth it made walking difficult.
The end of the third day proved to be the most challenging part of the race. After 14 hours of walking, my mind had wondered off and left me to my own devices. I arrived at a pressure ridge (where two sections of ice collide and force broken ice upward making a small ice wall, often a danger zone as weak ice can surround the wall) and without thinking I charged over the ridge and plunged straight through other side. My breath was taken away and I very quickly realised where I was, what had happened and the severity of the situation. Dragging my self out of the water my clothes, now soaking, quickly turned stiff as a board and the cold was settling in. I opened my pulk and began frantically erecting my tent. My hands were getting colder by the second and I was loosing dexterity.
I managed to get the tent up and found the satellite phone. My hands may as well have been two planks of wood, dialling a number was difficult and lighting my stove proved to be a great challenge. I sat in my tent, clothes off, stove on and found my backup set of dry clothes. I slowly warmed and waited patiently for the support team who were 90minutes away. In the mad rush of wanting to get warm I put up my tent next to where I fell in. I was in my tent, between two pressure ridges, on a very questionable layer of ice. Half an hour had past since I got in the tent, the creaking had got louder and more frequent, before I knew it there was an incredibly loud cracking sound followed by, what felt like, an earthquake and a substantial fracture line appeared outside my tent.
The ice I was on was now completely compromised and I almost went in with my tent. Tired, cold and pissed-off I managed to get out of my tent and drag it a few metres to another questionable layer of ice. I waited for the support team who soon arrived. They had an interesting time trying to get across the pressure ridge and the open lead of water with their snow mobiles but luckily no one else went in and they helped me find a route over the other pressure ridge to safe ground. That night was spent desperately trying to dry my clothes out by burning fuel like it was going out of fashion. The following morning was a fresh start. I gave my self a stern talking to, packed up camp and marched into the dark with a smile on my face. The smile proved to be temporary and pain soon made it disappear.
Despite my feet, Achilles and knee I was making good ground, and then sunrise came and with it I began to throw up and did so for the next 8 hours. I couldn't hold down food or water and if anyone had seen me walking they would have thought I'd been drinking for days. In between the periodical vomiting I swayed and staggered my way across the ice for 30 miles and then called it a day. I was weak and my body craved food and water. My tent was pitched and I was sitting inside it feeling sorry for my self and contemplating trying to eat some freeze-dried food. By some miracle I managed to hold down two packs of food that evening and drank as much water as I could handle.
The GPS showed that I was 42 miles away from the end of the sprint race however the distance was as the crow flies and it was going to be more like 50-60 miles. I was feeling encouraged with how I had managed to hold down food so I decided to make my best attempt at covering the distance the following day. I started at 2am, packed up camp and walked with an enthusiastic pace and complete disregard to navigation. Once the first shades of light started to appear with the sunrise I quickly realised I had been walking 90 degrees in the wrong direction for the last 5 hours. This was quite frankly a low point in my life and a few select swear words were hurled at my surroundings.
After a moments contemplation and a few more swear words I took a deep breath, repositioned my self in the right direction and continued in a slightly less enthusiastic manner. After a mentally draining day I arrived at the sprint finish in less than great shape. I was thirsty, tired and giddy at the sight of people. The plan was to spend the night at the checkpoint and continue north the following morning toward marathon finish. After a mandatory check over by the doctor, she advised me not to continue with the race due to the condition of my feet and Achilles. The long and short of the story was that I wouldn't not recover in time for work if I was to continue with the race and even stopping at that point was going to be hit and miss for a complete recovery within a month. My job involves taking walkers out into the mountains in the Picos de Europa, Spain for the doctor to tell me I wouldn't be able to do the job if I continued was a worry to say the least.
There comes a point when you have to make a decision that goes against what you want to do. In this instance it was the right decision to make however I had a few miserable days contemplating what might have been. Having made that decision I sit happily knowing that I am off to spend the summer in the mountains. I imagined the romantic ideal of polar exploration and travel in a beautiful wilderness. Like many of these situations, I think that after it is over your mind blocks out all of the crap and suffering you went through and gives you a misguided view of what actually happened. You begin to think that it was a wonderful experience, a time when you could reflect on life, be at one with nature and come out of it with a new lease of life.
For me it was none of that, it was a chance to see what I was made of, how far I could push it, where my mind took me during isolation and fatigue and what affect the cold had on me. There was no romance anywhere to be seen, and for the most part I had snot frozen to my face, sick on my clothes, mangled fit, an inflamed tendon, a zombie-like limp, thirteen blisters, sleep deprivation, a bad diet and urine that glowed in the dark. This is endurance racing, there is no glamour just pain and gritted teeth but I like it and I'm not quite sure why.