As I summit the hillock by our campsite, hauling my feet through knee-deep snow, I bend over and let out a choked sob. What had been a hint of a glorious sunset down by the tents revealed itself before me; the final moments of the fiery sun beaming through a gap in the mountains, the niveous blank canvas of the landscape below dappled in a watercolour of pinks and oranges. The intense beauty of it all, compounded with the sheer scale of what we had achieved that day, overwhelmed me with the power of what it means to be alive. By the time my companions made it up the hill after me just a short minute later, the sun had disappeared behind the hill and I had dried my eyes. But it was this enduring feeling of wonder at the pure spectacle of this frozen world that stuck with me in the days and weeks after I’d returned to my everyday life.
This small mound is part-way up a much larger beast; the Hardanger Glacier, a summit that stretches out from the shores of Finsevatnet, in an area of Norway that remains iced over for much of the year. I’m here to take part in a level-one Shackleton Challenge, a series of incredible experiences put on by the Shackleton apparel brand and inspired by its namesake Ernest Shackleton – who led multiple groundbreaking expeditions to Antarctica around the turn of the 19th century – that take everyday people like me to some of the most awe-inspiring corners of the world and push their limits, both mental and physical, in the process.
Our journey had begun in Oslo, when we hopped aboard the train to Bergen, widely described as one of the most scenic train rides in the world. Four hours and multiple miles of frosty scenery later we alighted at our base camp for the challenge in Finse, a small settlement across the water from the glacier comprising a hotel, a train station and a series of huts, both private and public, that are an intrinsic part of Norwegian outdoor life. The plan for a level-one journey is simple: spend a few days becoming acquainted with the ins and outs of Nordic skiing, get to grips with the safety procedures and details of being in a polar environment and learn how to pull a pulk. Once you’re all set, you get out into the wilderness for an overnight expedition, setting up camp in the snow and sleeping in sub-zero temperatures – in our case, out to the foot of the glacier. The Shackleton Challenges vary in experience level and intensity; from this introductory course to the level-three expedition – which involves being out in the snow and camping for five days – and the big mama level five, a multi-day trek to the South Pole.
After a thorough briefing from our guides – Louis Rudd, five-time South Pole-reaching adventurer; Wendy Searle, one of just seven women to ski solo to the South Pole; Jacob Myers, a 25-year-old explorer currently aiming to be the youngest person to ski solo and unassisted to the South Pole; and Ian Holdcroft, the man behind the Shackleton brand (and a successful Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge finisher) – we bedecked ourselves in our cold-weather gear, packed our pulks (a sled used for transporting provisions which you attach to yourself with a harness and drag behind you) and ventured out from Finse into the endless white.
I was a complete pavement girl. How was I going to survive 24 trying hours in the frigid wilderness?
Except, not quite, because unlike the previous week, we were blessed with almost unfathomably beautiful conditions; balmy (for this corner of the Earth) temperatures, bluebird skies and a fresh layer of snow from the preceding days. As we made our way across the lake, getting used to the unique sensation of trekking in cross-country skis (transfer your weight to one foot, while you glide the other with a pushing motion from your toes, using your poles as both guidance and support), the glorious landscape seemed to unfold in a multitude of different ways, changing and revealing even more of its immense beauty as we made our way further from civilisation. Once the initial Bambi-on-ice sensations had subsided, the process of sliding our way across the snow seemed almost meditative.
I had signed up for this trip for a number of reasons; a thirst for adventure, a vaguely toxic desire to say yes to things that scare me; and, predominantly, to push myself wholly outside of my comfort zone. Despite all that, and my bravado in advance of hopping on the flight to Oslo, I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to get through it. A particularly hard few years emotionally had left me uncertain about my ability to face difficult things; I doubted whether I was fit enough to complete such an arduous journey, nor did I believe that my mind was necessarily strong enough to take on what was sure to be – the clue is in the name – a challenge. I am, to borrow the words of Joanna Stainton, wife of the late polar explorer Henry Worsley, in a New Yorker interview, “a complete pavement girl.” How was I going to survive 24 trying hours in the frigid wilderness?
When discussing the benefits of outdoor adventures earlier in the day, Myers rhapsodised about the “character-defining experience of being in nature.” His words popped back into my head as we reached the crest of our first uphill stretch, my chest swelling with pride as I took a quick stock take of my being and realised that I’d found the incline surprisingly easy. As we continued, slowly ascending in the direction of the glacier’s peak, this feeling crystallised, spurring on a deep joy and, peeking through all that, a powerful appreciation for the simple sensation of existing.
My feelings of achievement seem almost comical in the context of the company I’m in. Between them, our guides have six trips to the South Pole, innumerable miles of Norwegian Arctic terrain traversed and one row across the Atlantic Ocean, and here I was congratulating myself on one small hill. Later that evening, after we’d finished building our homes for the night – putting up the tents, digging the ‘pit of despair’ (a metre-deep pit in the entryway of the tent for cooking, sitting, discarding biodegradable waste, etc.) and rolling out our weapons-grade sleeping bags – we all piled into one tent for what the Shackleton team refer to as “drinks at The Ritz”. Sipping slowly from flasks of whisky and bottles of Aquavit, huddling together for warmth as the temperatures quickly plummeted to a cool -15°C, we shared stories of our lives and adventures over the years. Conversation inevitably turned to the almost superhuman feats of our esteemed leader, Louis Rudd.
Starting his career in the Royal Marines at the age of 16, Rudd quickly scaled the ranks in the army, taking part in intense Arctic warfare training in the far North of Norway, and eventually joining the SAS. It’s a career path that taught him resilience, survival techniques and, in the case of Rudd in particular, a unique ability to battle the relentless aggression of remote, icy environments. In short, he was the perfect candidate to complete a historic trip across the continent of Antarctica, something he completed in 2018 in honour of his friend and fellow explorer, the aforementioned Henry Worsley.
For a person with such a storied life, Rudd is the opposite of what you might expect; softly spoken, unflappable and lacking in anything even close to cocky machismo. He’s exactly the kind of person you’d want on your team in any risky situation, particularly in polar environments. Take, for example, an expedition he was leading in Greenland. As the liquor slowly warmed our insides and took the edge off the quickly cooling mountain air, he told us about the severe piteraq (a windstorm unique to Greenland, the name for which directly translates to “that which attacks you”) that hit while they were crossing the country. As they bunkered down to ride it out, two members of the group set their tent up the wrong way round (with the door facing into the wind) and failed to heed Rudd’s instructions to quickly right it before the worst of the storm hit. At some point in the middle of the night, the piteraq ripped through the tent and completely collapsed it. Long story short, one of the men ran out into the snow, almost getting severe hypothermia in the process, while his partner remained in the tent, quickly being buried under dumping snow that was compressing and becoming as hard as concrete.
This part of Norway is far milder and more forgiving than the barren expanse of Antarctica, but for someone with limited experience in these environments it may as well be the Ross Glacier
It took almost an hour for Rudd to be alerted to what had happened, by which point he was nearly certain the man left behind would be dead. Risking his own life, he set out into 150mph winds to attempt a rescue. Stumbling upon a small piece of red material – what he thought was a ripped piece of the tent – he began pulling and realised it was the entire structure itself, buried under more than six feet of snow. He began digging and, eventually, made it through to his team member, a man who was so sure of his own impending death that he’d begun recording his final message to his family on his phone. If Rudd had been even 15 minutes later it’s likely that prophecy may have been fulfilled.
The story took on a little more significance when told in the exact conditions under which something like that could occur. The wind was quickly picking up as we huddled in our suddenly very flimsy-feeling accommodation, and the whipping of the fabric drove home just how vulnerable we really were, despite the perceived safety of a temporary roof over our heads and the multiple layers of professional gear we were bedecked in. In a 1956 talk to the British Science Association, esteemed geologist and Antarctic explorer Sir Raymond Priestley famously piggybacked on a line from celebrated Antarctic memoir The Worst Journey in the World, saying of the three preeminent polar explorers: “[Robert] Scott for scientific method, [Roald] Amundsen for speed and efficiency, but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” After just 24 hours in Rudd’s company, I’d say he’d easily fall into the latter camp.
This part of Norway is, of course, far milder and more forgiving than the barren expanse of Antarctica, where you’re unlikely to encounter any signs of life; not even so much as a bird (although Rudd maintains he did encounter one on his journeys, he tells us many people believed he was hallucinating). But for someone with limited experience in these environments – namely, me – it may as well be the Ross Glacier. When discussing the experience that lay ahead for us on our trip, Searle was bracing in her candour. “Of trekking through Antarctica, Cherry-Garrard wrote it was ‘the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time,’” she explained to us. “In some ways he’s right of all polar environments. You face cold, deprivation and isolation. But with cold comes pristine beauty. With deprivation comes simplicity; everything you need to survive is in the pulk and you follow the meditative process of walking, setting up camp, eating, sleeping and waking up, and then doing it all over again. With isolation comes solitude. You learn to make decisions for yourself.”
As I stepped out of the safety of our tent in the middle of the night to go for a wee (yes, it does involve squatting on the snow, unless you can figure out the mechanisms of a she-wee), shivering even in my dense, borrowed down jacket that took Rudd to the South Pole, I considered her words. With everyone else on the team softly snoring in the tents behind me, it was the first time on the journey I felt completely alone. The stars spread out above me in high definition, and the landscape beyond was still dusky with the fading light – a hint of the almost endless days to come in this region when summer arrives. Being isolated in the wilderness is one of my biggest fears. Something about the possibility of being almost wholly unguarded, with nothing or no one to protect me from whatever might come my way, has always frightened me to an indescribable degree. And yet, completely alone out in that bracing air, surrounded by nothing but snow and boulders that were easy to misinterpret as hiding threats (I momentarily considered one to be a bear waiting to pounce, despite the fact that none live in the region), I understood the significance of Searle’s words. There was something calming about knowing that it was just me and the endless nothing.
The aim of Shackleton Challenges is “to inspire, prepare and equip people to face life, be it a polar experience or everyday challenge,” Holdcroft explained to us at our briefing that first day. The cynic inside me questioned whether that was possible. How transformative could a few days in the snow really be? As we took our skis off for the last time after 30 hours away from civilisation, I realised how wrong I was.
It wasn’t all highs, of course; descending was particularly difficult in that it required you to ignore most of the lessons you learn for basic downhill skiing, and there were more than a few falls triggered by either an incorrect placement of my centre of gravity, or my pulk getting a little too keen and running into me, but the feeling that overtook me when I caught the sunset atop that hill seemed indicative of the challenge itself. The things we learn about ourselves when we are forced to rely on simply our bodies and our minds to keep moving forward and survive in the most desolate of environments are unmatched. It’s those lessons I’ll take with me back into everyday life, but also the inarguable proof that my physical and mental strength is far more than I ever gave myself credit for.
Ernest Shackleton’s family motto, a phrase that has become synonymous with the man himself, was fortitudine vincimus, or “by endurance we conquer”. It seems particularly fitting that at the end of this experience I truly felt as if I had conquered a side of myself that didn’t believe intense physical challenges were something for me. It turns out that the parameters we set for ourselves don’t always have to be binding. I joined the challenge with itchy feet for an adventure, and returned home determined to find it some way or another. I might not be trekking alone to the South Pole, but I’ve set myself an initial goal of being able to run a half marathon by the end of the year. Holdcroft told me that it was Shackleton’s intention to “offer someone a life-changing experience,” and I’d say this pavement girl is living, breathing evidence of that.