I initially discovered my love for all things cold and mountainous through the British Royal Marine Commandos. The Royal Marines are the UK armed forces specialists in the extreme cold environment, and all marines must undertake a tough three-week novice survival course in Norway as part of their training.
I did my Novice course in '93 as a young marine, where I was introduced to an organisation within the marines called the Mountain Leader Branch. These guys were tough and had been through one of the toughest military courses on the planet — the eight month Mountain Leaders course. I had nothing but admiration for these men, and was adamant that one day I would join them. And so I did.
Since becoming a Mountain Leader I have worked and taught Extreme Cold Survival all over the globe, including one year in Antarctica looking after the ship’s company of the Royal Navy ship HMS Endurance. In 2007 I was honoured to be given the very prestigious position of the Chief Instructor and became responsible for the training of all other Mountain Leaders.
Preparation is everything. My advice is always tell someone where you are going, what your plans are and how long you intend to be gone. Make sure you do a thorough weather forecast study and understand exactly what you are walking into. In mountainous areas the weather does its own thing, more often than not, and you can get caught out very quickly. Without the correct clothing and equipment it can be just minutes before the body will start to feel the effects of hypothermia, and only a few minutes more before you can no longer help yourself or others. The correct clothing and equipment will make sure this never happens to you.
Teams are of great value in the cold, and safety in numbers is always a good thing. If a group member was to be injured, it is much easier to be carried to safety or to send for help. As a group, it is also extremely important to understand each other’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses and set the pace accordingly. If you know that someone in the group is not really up for the challenge, and you set a course beyond their ability, it will end in disaster. Being mindful of this will help avoid unnecessary arguments, or panic setting in, should any sticky situations arise.
When you are completely exhausted, it’s incredibly difficult to motivate yourself to go on. But the body and mind when used together are incredible tools — as well as your team’s collective knowledge. When I first had that feeling of ‘that’s enough, no more’, I was miles away from any help and on a very small island called South Georgia, just North of the Antarctic Circle with my good friend Tim Jarvis. We were near the end of the Shackleton Epic – a re-enactment of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 800 nautical mile journey in a Spartan lifeboat. We had to adapt just as Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men did and we had to survive.
I had to think quickly, draw on my experience and sort my head out – this involved putting on all of the warm gear I had and making some hot food on the cooker. Once I was fed, watered and warm I was in a much better position to take stock of the situation, and break down the rest of the journey into small chunks — one step at a time. It was bloody tough, but it is amazing how far you can push yourself if you really have to. Being in these kinds of situations is like solving a great big puzzle — there is always an answer, it’s just never easy to find it.
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