Ex Nordic Eagle 2011
To the unwitting, NORDIC EAGLE represents the chance to travel to a foreign land and ski across beautiful snow-scapes, sampling a little of the local beer here and there.
body-weight uphill against an abrasive ice-blast in constantly wet clothing, eating boil-in-the-bag rations, and building their own shelter each evening, including outside loo. Enticed?
To me it offered a number of challenges: The puzzle of condensing a room-full of kit into half the volume of a shopping trolley; the opportunity to quickly bond with a small group working together to journey safely and unsupported for six days across the bewildering mountains of central Sweden in winter; a journey to test one’s nerve, patience and reserves when things aren’t going as well as expected; but most of all, to discover just how comfortably one can take refuge in a home made entirely out of stuff that falls from the sky.
So! What were the experiences worthy of note? At the assembly point, meeting the other volunteers meant a number of 1st impressions to take in and give out. Soon after; we were rapidly assimilating knowledge on weather, snow conditions and avalanche hazards in a series of briefings. Next, forming groups of 6 we were each paired-off with one of our group. With whom would I be sharing the 6-day trek, sleeping an inch from, cooking with, organising all of our kit and admin together and generally looking out one another for when the proverbial hit the fan? My name-sake as it turned out, another Russ.
Kitting-out was a trip down memory lane, reminding me of the stores hangar in the first days of recruitment. Issued with armfuls of unfamiliar equipment and clothing to be rapidly checked, sized, bartered and stowed under the cover of the seemingly tiny plastic sledges (paulk) handed out to each pair. There was little time for any
re-think or re-pack, and think-on; we had to man-handle all that we packed no less than 4 times each way through every change of transport in and out of country, besides hauling it through the snow. Between each pair we hauled 4 hold-alls, 2 pairs of skis, and some 40Kg of loaded paulk. Check-in and baggage
collection were a matter of patience and reserve…. and much amusement for inquisitive on-lookers.
Our first night in Sweden was by a beautifully crafted outdoor activity centre miles from anywhere. I re-iterate “by”. My expectations of this exercise were that luxury would come as a well-earned bonus rather than the norm. I wasn’t to be disappointed. Our shelter was pointed out from the car-park to be a hut full of bunks some 500metres distance through deep snow. Cosy!
With adequate training completed the next day, the following morning we set off in our groups. Had we packed so much that we would struggle to haul it? Had we discarded one too many items that would make our situation so much harder to endure? This was certainly a dilemma for me over the past 24 hours and as I discovered, that of everyone else’s.
It seems that the trick is to take only items that you can envisage will serve to perform at least two functions in terms of comfort or safety. I subsequently found many more uses for some items than I ever considered. The most amusing (or horrifying whichever way you take it) was using an empty fuel bottle as both a convenient latrine and hot “water” bottle. It offered precious recovery for my snow soaked mitten liners as well as something to cuddle-up to in my bivvy sac. It also saved me from two changes of outer clothing and the ensuing faff in a confined space in order to walk through an ice-blizzard to visit our dug-out loo. Bonus! I’m thankful that my bivvy partner wasn’t sensitive to this and that he trusted me to make a good seal around the bottle-neck!
In order to protect our tents, we were instructed to dig out and flatten an area just big enough for 4 tent footprints. The spoil of snow-blocks were used to build a u-shaded metre high wall around the windward side of our camp. Ten metres further windward, a second wall would encourage spindrift to tumble and build-up between the walls rather than on the tents. Great if the wind doesn’t change significantly overnight! On our second night under canvas we awoke often just for a few minutes and would bash off any spindrift from inside. By 3am though, the tent had become solid walled but didn’t seem to be under threat of collapse. We slept on, to discover that by day break we were still in near darkness and carefully dug our way to the surface. All but the top few centimetres of the tents were entombed. Quite a sight to witness!
Hauling our packed paulks uphill proved an excellent work-out, especially facing the oncoming elements. Often we would double-up on steeper terrain, trying not to interfere with each other’s cadence whilst side-by-side. Steeper descents were amusing if not intimidating; so much so that the whole group would stop briefly to witness an individual or a pair wrestling with a run-away load the equivalent weight of a man! The ensuing laughter quickly dissolved earlier feelings of exhaustion.
Navigating in this area was made relatively easy by way markers, although at times the conditions were such that the next marker, just 25 paces away on average, was often out of sight from the last. In less windy yet near white-out conditions we took the opportunity to deviate from the markers to experience just how awkward it is to navigate by dead reckoning alone. In practice, doing this accurately requires a slick routine with excellent voice commands and a great deal of faith from the group in their navigator. Otherwise, speed would drop to a snail’s pace.
In sunnier conditions, occasionally we would hear the spooky “whuuumph” sound as the snow-pack collapsed somewhere around us. Our training: Movement Across Hazardous Terrain, Terrain Assessment and Avalanche Recovery combined with our transponders gave us the skills and awareness to make our way without incident.
On our last evening under the stars we planned to reach an area prone to drifting snow and build a snow-cave for our respite. Having previously built half a dozen emergency shelters and caves only to spend but-a-few minutes admiring them before moving on, I was adamant that I would fight for the chance to finally sleep in this one. The group dug furiously for a few hours crafting a home on the fly, architects and labourers rolled into one. By dusk and by now hot, tired and hungry, it was clear that we were short of space for 6 people. To my relief two of the group quickly volunteered to erect a tent, saving me the worry of being evicted Big Brother style. Our home was not only beautiful in candle-light, it was functional with plenty of headroom for a change and surprisingly, 3 degrees above zero, quite comfortable relatively speaking. In the night my thermometer recorded a drop to 0C, quickly rising within 10 minutes of getting up to 3C again.
So, for the sceptics and the unwitting what were my high points of the journey? Well, visually, it would be the enchanting sight of a massive ring of mountains hugging a cobalt blue glacier on the sunny morning of day 4. Second the inviting warmth of the hut that we reached on the night before and the chance to dry out our sodden kit. Such a shame that we didn’t have enough time to deviate and climb into the glacier. Another year maybe?
This article was never going to be about the itinerary, as often they are. What this article hopes to convey is that the experiences one can gain on this kind of exercise develops the mind and body to cope with hardship and austerity; to be an effective part of, or leader of a team and achieve goals that at first glance may seem impossible. These are qualities that you can gain through experiences like Nordic Eagle. They translate directly to the way one conducts oneself in everyday life, at work or with family and friends. Imagine after a long hard day at work, your manager asks your team to stay-on and complete a task that will eat into your own time. You have probably noted the ones who mutter and complain. You will definitely note those who rise to the challenge and often emerge still high spirited – exactly the qualities that the Armed Forces and leaders of industry foster and prosper from. Those who consistently achieve are rewarded, not only by recognition, but by the self confidence they are empowered with.
Chief Technician Russ