For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with cold, ice and snow and all the shapes and varieties that exist on our planet. That passion has taken me, quite literally, to the ends of the Earth. In 2010, I completed a world record expedition to the South Pole, North Pole and top of Mt. Everest within a 365-day period. During that year, I spent nearly six months in a tent in some of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet. In 2014, I completed what may realistically be the last ever unsupported North Pole expedition in history, traveling from Cape Discovery on northern Ellesmere Island to the geographic North Pole, a journey that spanned 53 days and nearly 500 miles.
In the Arctic, we are pulling everything that we need to live and survive along with us in lightweight kevlar sleds. At the beginning of our journey, each sled weighs 150 kilograms. Pulling them across the shifting pack ice by ski or snowshoe is back breaking and spirit draining. Maintaining our energy in such brutal conditions day after day the direct result of a variety of factors which include our equipment, diet, prior training, travel strategies, team work, and somewhat surprisingly, sleep.
I call this type of expedition travel death by 1,000 cuts. Each day we are loosing a little bit of energy that will never be replaced. Therefore, being efficient with everything we do will save us time and resources (both physical and mental) and increase our potential for success. In getting a goodnight sleep each night, we are stacking the odds in our favor.
However, being well rested on the Arctic Ocean is not easy. Temperatures are routinely 30, 40 and even 50 degrees below zero and we are also constantly in danger of the ice cracking underneath our tent and falling into an the ocean. There have been several occasions when I’ve woken in the middle of the night to the sound of ice creaking and groaning near by as huge ice sheets collide and crack due to winds and ocean currents. Worse, one morning we woke to find that the ice had cracked just two meters from our tent. Inside sleeping soundly, the crack occurred with no warning. Had it happened beneath us, we would have most likely died, plunging into the icy black ocean.
Don’t forget the polar bears, either. They roam the sea ice looking for seals… or polar explorers to eat. I’ve had several close encounters with polar bears over the years. One even jumped on our tent while we were sleeping in it! It can be hard to balance thoughts of becoming a polar bear’s dinner with the need for sleep – especially when just the tent flapping in the wind can sound like foot steps outside. We constantly balance fear and exhaustion with our physical needs.
Needless to say, sleeping on a polar expedition isn’t easy. However, by following a few simple strategies (and understanding a little bit of physics), I manage to stay warm and well rested. My first priority is to simply insulate our bodies from the ground and cold air. My team mates and I sleep on two layers of closed cell foam pads to reduce the amount of conductive heat loss through the ground (well ice and snow actually). To endure the extreme sub zero temperatures, I use a three layer sleeping bag system. I start with a vapor barrier to reduce the moisture and frost build up in the outer bags. Next, comes a -30 degree down mummy bag, and on top of that, I layer a zero degree synthetic bag. Equally important is your mother’s old adage: wear your hat. We wear a hat and several other layers for additional insulation. And then there is my ace in the hole. I fill a water bottle with hot water and place it by my feet. The additional warmth is long lasting. By using this approach, I am able to keep warm, comfortable and well rested.
On an expedition, we call it ‘happy time’ and it is the best moment of our day… When we’re done eating, melting snow, repairing gear or discussing logistics and we pull out our three-layer sleeping bag system, crawl in, snug it tight around our faces. For eight glorious hours, there are no pressure ridges, cracks and heavy sleds to pull. We rest and recharge our weary bodies so that we can do it all over again the next day.
Would you sleep in the Arctic? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.