Notify Technology | Apr 25, 2023 | Blog

Ensuring safe polar exploration: expedition in the extremes

Tent in polar climate

Notify is proud to have sponsored local polar explorer Matt Bell as he explored The Northern Pole of Inaccessibility and the #LastPole campaign.

In January 2023, the team and I once more set off to Svalbard, Longyearbyen, one of the last bastions of human civilisation within the high Arctic 78 degrees north and our starting point for the 8-day mini-expedition. The aim, put everything the team and I had learned since polar and advanced polar training in May 2022 into action. This was easier said than done. The relatively more forgiving Arctic day first experienced in May seemed a distant world compared to the harsh, cold, darkening reality of polar night. However, since you are reading this, it must mean I have come out the other side in one piece, and all my training and lifesaving equipment, some of which was funded by Notify, got me through the long night. More importantly, I have now been deemed a ‘competent’ polar explorer, i.e. I know how to survive and thrive in cold extremes while conducting science.

Day zero

Upon my arrival to Svalbard, Longyearbyen, we began preparations for the expedition, buying the remaining supplies needed, packing our pulks and meeting the rest of the team. Oh, and not to forget the interview with the team to BBC London at 6 pm (UK time).

  • Figure 2. My pulk as of day zero.

Day one

Pulks packed final checks done, we started our assent downtown along the frozen river past the university and then over one of the main roads leading to the mine. We were heading along Aventdarlen and into the snowy dark wilderness from this point. The route took us to the other side of the valley, then up. After four to five hours, both teams sustained injuries, with one from each team being taken back to the town. The rest continued. I can report that everyone is safe and well. The loss of a team member dampened the team’s mood slightly. Tonight’s culinary delights were rehydrated macaroni cheese and a dessert of rehydrated chocolate chip biscuits. This was the first of many re-hydrated foods to follow.

  • Figure 4. Photo taken by Jo Witt, a fellow explorer. The view before leaving town.

Day two

We pressed on towards Sassendarlen. During the day, our instructors would test us physically and mentally with scenarios such as hypothermia, injuries, ice braking, etc. This scenario-based testing would continue through the trip as each of us was being assessed individually and as a team.

Day three

Settling into the routine of exploration life and testing scenarios. It was beginning to get colder as the expedition went on. This is good, as we want the colder condition to train in so we can get a better representation of what it will be like when conducting ourselves within the -50°C range.

Day four

Skill fade from not being in this environment for the past eight months was beginning to dissipate as we pressed on. As we ascended over the mountain range into Sassendarlen, I knew the route down with an unruly pulk behind was going to be a challenge. As we got to the steepest part of the descent, we were enveloped in a whiteout. The team ahead pressed on while we waited at the top for a clear descent. Unfortunately, one of the other team members sustained an injury, a cracked molar and a concussion when they fell, and the pulk hit them in the side of the face. Some antibiotics and a painkiller will have to do till we get back to town. I managed to fall twice on the descent. Thankfully, no injuries were sustained, and much laughter was had about my comical fall by the team and me. That night we were treated to the northern lights (aurora borealis).

  • Figure 6. Northern lights (aurora borealis) while on the move, a rear site to see during the day.

Day five and six

Despite the trials and tribulations, the Arctic and the scenarios the instructors created, both teams persevered, taking any triumph that came our way. We were particularly excited when one of the other team members managed to fix their ski, which resulted in no more foot holes needing to be dodged. Both days were tough, with the coldest temperatures we had faced yet (-24°C) not accounting for wind chill and up to 70 mph gusts of wind. While on Polar bear duty, I could feel the cold freezing the hairs in my nostrils each time I breathed in. To keep warm, I did star jumps every so often.

Day seven

The day ran like any other; the last person on bear watch woke everyone up, the stovey (the cook) would begin making hot drinks and breakfast, then filling everyone’s thermos flasks. Everyone else busied themselves packing and conducting personal hygiene. On our way to our final stop, we could say hello to the huskies as we passed by one of their many pens. The last night we were sleeping on sea ice over the Arctic Ocean. The final night was one of mellow emotions as we conducted our usual night-time rituals (who was on polar bear duty at what time, who was doing breakfast, who was to wake whom up, washing ourselves [five to six baby wipes used and if you were up for it a snow wash] and packing away any rubbish) and then said goodnight to one another for the last time as our own little microcosm.

Day eight

We soon discovered breakfast and drinks would be a rather briny one. Not to dehydrate ourselves further, alongside the pungent taste, we decided to skip our morning drinks and breakfast to begin the trip back along the familiar training ground and town to Gjestehuset 102. Thankfully this was the last day as starting with no breakfast, and a drink is not advisable.

Water, food, warmth, light, the ability to have a much-needed shower and a bed were within sight! Waking up, everyone had a mission and a clear idea of what we as humans truly need to survive and have fun. We have spent the past seven days living out of our pulks. When you think about it, we do not need much. As we ended this short expedition in the extremes, I leave with a newfound appreciation for life’s necessities. Running water that you can get from a tap and not have to wait 15 minutes to boil is something I will always remember and make me think. What other things do we take for granted without truly appreciating? The safety of each other is another one. Being in the Arctic brings its own unique risks, but what about the everyday? From commuting to the workplace to having fun, I have always had a healthy respect for mother nature and safety. Making sure the people you are around and knowing what to do in a situation every day are equally important. Notify understand this aspect, and as they kept me safe in the Arctic, they keep their customers safe within the workplace.

I would like to thank Notify for financially supporting me through my training process to become a safe and competent polar explorer with the Ice Warrior project and its involvement with the #LastPole project.

Further reading