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Arctic Adventure Article

 by James Ashton - Daily Mail

In an ocean of bright white, I can't see anything other than the vague outline of a blue windproof suit in front of me. The breath on my sunglasses has frozen thick, despite frequent rubbing. My goggles are in my pocket, similarly useless. If trekking across the Arctic is the vision thing, then I am struggling.

But my own shortsightedness has not stopped this from being an incredible, eye-opening experience. How do you prepare for eight days trekking through a glacial valley in the heart of the Canadian Arctic with temperatures on a good day of -15C? Simply put, you don't.

Extra miles on the treadmill and dozens of groin lunges ensure you are of reasonably sound body when you finally land in Qikiqtarjuaq, an outpost at the northern end of the Akshayuk Pass in the untouched Auyuittuq National Park. But the real challenge - when the windchill plunges to -60C and the snow is whooshing towards you like steam off a witch's cauldron - is are you up to it mentally? Stranded in a blizzard-battered Iqaluit hotel fighting for the remote control with Andy, it was hard to tell. There were so many unknown quantities, such as the 11 others I had bonded with so far only in the name of fundraising.

Fast forward to day three in our tent, and I am holding the toilet bottle steady for Lydia and shoving ginger biscuits into Nick's greedy mouth - although not at the same time, of course. And when my feet stiffen up in the early evening, either will warm them on their bare stomach without a second thought. Getting to grips with the elements did not happen overnight. I had expected a feeling of fear when the skidoos that dragged us into the park turned round again for home. Instead, we were too busy putting a tent up - badly. It was only the next morning, when I woke to a ceiling frosted like a wedding cake, that the challenge became clear. As the flakes drifted down from the roof onto my sleeping bag, I knew what it was like to live in an ornamental paperweight. But make no mistake, however pretty the cobalt blue ice and noon-day sun was, the elements had distinct advantages over us. They didn't have to constantly wriggle fingers and toes to keep the blood flowing. They didn't wonder whether their next step would find solid ground or plunge six inches through crusty snow, aggravating sore knees. And they weren't dragging a pulk (sledge) loaded up with enough dried fruit and nuts to turn a family of squirrels bulimic.

That said, striding out through the pass in bright sunshine when the wind was low was an exhilarating high. So little friction made the pulk feel weightless at times. Sledging down a hill or gliding across a giant ice pavement was other-worldly. But these times were few and far between.

Timing was everything when the weather turned. Common sense was frazzled as my brain struggled to defrost. At its harshest, you had roughly 20 seconds to take your hand out of a glove, locate a zip, open a pocket, take a bite of rock-solid flapjack, return it and put the glove back on. Failure to do so would leave your fingers with the stinging burn of cold. Nevertheless, we had to gorge on liquorice, pork scratchings and hot water at every opportunity - whether we felt hungry or not - to keep up energy and hydration levels.

Much of the trip was counter-intuitive. In the sub-zero nights, spend as little time as possible in your sleeping bag, grizzled experts Mark and Martin said. As the wind whips around your tent, keep the flaps open. And when trudging over the icy tundra, stick your down jacket in your pulk and remember to unzip your wind suit. It is all about the delicate balance of being warm but not wet. Just like sand on a beach holiday, the snow got everywhere. But instead of itching like crazy, it melted into clothes and sleeping bags, guaranteeing our loads became heavier and less comfortable. Water vapour settled in the tent unless the door was open during cooking. Getting a sweat on during the day was easy unless you kept air moving through your clothes.

Thursday afternoon was tough. After a day's walking, what a difference when the sun dipped behind a mountain and we hit a hill. Hands struggled to function beneath oversized child's mittens. My face was raw behind a ski baffle rigid with frozen breath. With shouts of 'Come on!' through gritted teeth, it was only then I realised how much sheer effort goes into keeping warm. Shouting, swinging your arms like a bad fast bowler and skipping on the spot was a drag when spirits were down. Then, the little things mattered. Sharing food or water or being urged on by someone else made the difference. Knowing where your food or fork was tucked away saved vital energy at mealtimes. And Paul's dried cranberries and tomatoes made even a vegetarian tikka - the booby prize rations - tasty. Shorn of mobile phones, Blackberries and iPods (most of us), there were only cameras left to fiddle with. That meant plenty of time for fooling around with food, snow holes, frisbees and the like - or just rolling in the snow if you were Jason and Mark. Nick and I spent a very pleasant evening unwrapping fudge, only to find it went soggy in the food bag the next day. Lydia took great delight in reading out dirty stories to pass the time. It was hilarious to hear the synchronised snoring from Mark and Jamie's tent and see a stern Ben punish Jason for enjoying his pork scratchings a little too much. For someone so comfortable with the environment, it was entertaining when a little camping stove defeated intrepid Everest mountaineer Paul. And it was a crying shame that Lydia's new sleeping bag, borrowed from Martin, turned out to be wetter than a weekend in Oldham.

In the end, the harsh conditions meant we didn't make it through the pass. Our 'summit' was a giant boulder which we took shelter behind during a particularly bad day, trying to escape the wind and singing American Pie. Of course, the chorus includes the line: 'This'll be the day that I die', but that thought never really entered our thinking. Travelling so far, on foot and in our heads, made us appreciate the little things on our return - such as walls, fresh eggs, showers, warm clothes - at least for a little while.

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