13/04/2023Follow LiveChallenge BlogSponsor
In April 2023, three young men with life changing spinal cord injuries will attempt to cross Vatnajokull, the largest ice cap in Western Europe. They will be linked together by a single rope, and without any support or guidance will make the journey as a united team. One was an adventurer, one a professional rugby player, and one a soldier and a mountaineer. Each of these men have had everything that gave them purpose and meaning stripped away from them. Each of them faced the possibility that everything they'd ever dreamt of having was going to be gone forever. But, in their own unique way, each of them recovered.
Ed, Niall and Darren have set out to raise vital funds for the Millimetres 2 Mountains Foundation to help more people aid their recovery from trauma by using the great outdoors. Not only that, they want to use this expedition to show that sometimes a terrible diagnosis is not necessarily a terrible prognosis. You can still go on to achieve amazing things with your life within the realms of a body that isn't quite as able as it was before. Be that someone like Niall McCann who is incomplete paraplegic, or Ed Jackson who is incomplete quadriplegic or Darren Edwards who is complete paraplegic. The biggest barrier is often inside people's heads, and we want to remove that barrier.
The team are setting out to make an unsupported 138km traverse of Iceland’s Vatnajokull Glacier. They will spend two weeks on the ice hauling all of their own gear and no able bodied person there to assist them. Darren will be travelling in a sit ski (propelling himself along using poles), Ed and Niall have walking difficulties and sensation loss in their lower limbs and will be on cross country skis. Storms, crevasses, temperatures down to -20 and limited visibility - these are just what the ice cap will throw at them. Add in the challenges of operating in this environment when you have little or no sensation below the waist and all have to fit in one tent and it becomes a massive challenge.
Their aim is to raise £155,000, £1,000 for every kilometre that they traverse over the icecap. As well as financial support for Millimetres 2 Mountains they would also like to increase public awareness of the mental health challenges of people who have had life changing injuries and how these can be overcome to redefine each individual. If this is achieved they will end up supporting 24 beneficiaries through a year of M2M activities, and fund two new “Vatnajokull beneficiaries” through the full 3 year M2M programme.
To find out more about how you can support Ed, Niall & Darren please head over to their Just Giving Link - https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/back2back.
And it begins! After two years of preparation and discussion, months of training and weeks of gathering and packing equipment the team flew to Iceland on Tuesday 11th April. British Airways kindly pulled out all the stops and flew them and all their kit (hundreds of kilos!) to Iceland, with a special transport box for Darren’s McLaren sit-ski to make sure it got there undamaged. After so long of planning, it’s always a joyous moment when these things come together and things begin.
The team moved into an apartment in Reykjavik to check the weather, confirm their Arctic Trucks drop-off logistics and get all the kit out ready to check, double check and pack everything.
“There’s no second chances here if we forget something we have to do without”.
The team are travelling on skis (Niall and Ed on foot, Darren in his sit-ski) and pulling pulks (plastic sledges) with all their supplies for the 18-day expedition.
“As we got everything together we realised they were going to be REALLY heavy, and had to make some serious decisions about certain things to try and keep the weight down. Food and fuel weigh well over 100kg on their own, then there’s all the camping and cooking equipment, clothing, expedition equipment and ski stuff. The food and fuel will reduce each day, it’s just a shame that the first few days of the trip are up a steep hill onto the ice cap when they’re at their heaviest!“
A full day of packing, sorting, last-minute shopping and running through their camping, skiing, sledge and crevasse rescue systems.
“We had the pleasure of having a meeting with the Icelandic Search and Rescue team which was amazing - talking through our plans and seeing their side of things was really useful. Then, some last-minute shopping, triple-checking everything and a last supper in town ready for a very early start.”
Now it’s down to the weather gods!
04:00 - The team travelled in specially adapted Arctic Trucks (massive wheels and tyres on 4 x 4 vehicles) and started the long journey to the edge of the ice cap. Starting off on tarmac, moving onto gravel tracks and then across the volcanic wasteland that leads up to Vatnajokull where there are no tracks at all - just rock, moss, rivers and snow. All in all, it took 9 hours to get them to the edge of the icecap, all under glorious blue skies. They spent an hour getting everything together and then waved goodbye to the trucks as they drove back out. This was the big realisation point.
“When the sound of the truck disappeared, we realised that we’re in the middle of nowhere and won’t see anyone else until we get to the other side of the ice cap. It was an emotional moment for us all.”
With no time to ponder, they packed up and set off uphill - the steepest part of the expedition.
Pulling sledges on skis is a little like pulling a big man in a bath along a beach. It’s backbreaking work (no pun intended…) and progress is super slow at the start but as expected. Once they get into it and move up onto less steep slopes things should get easier. After a few hours, they stop and set up camp for the first time on the ice.
“The weather was gorgeous and it was good to get our systems dialled. We got the tent up and Darren goes into the tent where he sets things up and makes dinner - all while we get the camp set for the night. We need to build a snow wall to protect the tent from stormy winds, gather snow for melting for cooking and make everything secure for the night before getting into the tent for dinner. Toilet wise - we’ll write about that later! A really long and eye-opening first day so it’s food, drink, catheters double checked and then straight to bed to see who snores the most…”
It was Darren...
“All in all, we had a good night's sleep, no catheter accidents (phew) and took a little over 3 hours to eat, sort, pack down and get moving this morning. Something that will improve with time.”
Morning coffee (courtesy of Round Hill Roastery) and it’s time to pack up and go. The weather today is a little more variable, with some clouds passing by and winds picking up a little. Occasionally it becomes whiteout.
“Whiteout skiing is like trying to navigate inside a ping pong ball - it’s white all around and really easy to get disorientated. So grateful for compass and GPS!”
Routine-wise, they ski for about an hour, stop for a drink and some food, then ski for an hour - and repeat.
“We realised early on today that Niall, pulling two pulks and also assisting Darren who’s pushing with his arms on his sit ski, was not the best combination so we swapped things around.”
Now Ed’s pulling two pulks and Niall is helping Darren and pulling one pulk and things are balancing out a little more. For Ed, skiing is actually a lot easier than walking as you don’t have to lift your leg, you just slide it forward. It’s still very hard work, and the smartwatch estimates that he’s burned 7000 calories by the end of the full day.
“We made our 10km target today which is brilliant but was exhausting and a big realisation of what’s to come!”
As they set up camp, the weather starts to deteriorate and they hear through their InReach sat device that there’s a storm on the way so they make sure that camp is stormproof before heading to bed.
And the storm hits!
“We woke up in the early hours of the morning to the tent shaking pretty hard. Niall stuck the wind gauge out of the door and the reading came back at 70kmh which was above our threshold to move. We waited out the morning, eating porridge and drinking coffee hoping the wind might die down so we could get a few hours in before the storm that was due this evening hit. Unfortunately, that moment never came so we made the call at midday to batten down the hatches & ride it out.””
“Niall and I headed out to build a bigger snow wall whilst Darren stayed in and took care of his bowels, these processes took a couple of hours and a lot of effort. Sawing blocks of snow out of the ground in 70kmh winds was exciting and the result wasn’t exactly something the Inuit would be proud of but hopefully, it will do the job… time will tell! 🤞””
“Considering we haven’t moved it’s not been the easiest day…Darren has struggled with being stuck inside and we’ve all had various toilet complications. Niall’s snow toilet collapsed on him and my convene broke which resulted in me crashing at full speed out of the back of the tent so as to not make a mess, which Niall said reminded him of getting charged by a baby elephant.””
“The little things that should be easy are infinitely more time-consuming and often take at least two, sometimes all three of us, but in the end, it’s all possible so far. We’re certainly learning a lot as we go and because of our various individual limitations we’re having to work together to get things done.”
“The weather tomorrow is looking rough again so it looks like another tent day which puts us way behind schedule but all things considered spirits are still high. We can’t do anything about the weather so there’s no point getting annoyed by it, we’re just going to have to really go for it when we get the chance.”
Day 3 continued
Just as I finished writing my daily update last night and settled into my sleeping bag the tent start to shake violently. The wind had picked up but the sudden change suggested something had happened to our wind defences so Nile headed out to take a look and patch up any damage. He left saying he wouldn’t be long so 20 minutes later when he hadn’t returned I forced my head out of the tent to see what was going on. It was carnage out there. Nile was clinging to a tent pole that had come loose, the canvas thrashing in front of him. He was yards away and shouting at me but could hardly hear him above the wind. I looked to my left and realised the pole was also loose on my side. I grabbed it and forced it back into place then ducked back into the tent to put my boots on so I could get out and help properly. I jammed my feet in and went to tighten the straps but realised that my bare hands were now frozen into fists. I quickly swung my legs around to Darren who did them up for me then grabbed my gloves and tried to force my hands into them but quickly realised it was pointless. The tent was caving badly now so I ditched the gloves and scrambled back out. I grabbed a shovel and started to make my way around to the other side of the tent to help Niall. It was only a few steps before a gust took me clean off my feet and I had to crawl the rest of the way. Adrenaline was pumping when I got to Niall who was shovelling furiously. I got to my feet and joined in piling snow against the tent to weigh it down. 15 minutes later we both fell back into the tent, soaking wet and cold but with the tent secure for now.
It wasn’t until I sat down and the adrenaline died down that I felt my hands start to burn. Darren had put the jet boil on and passed me a bottle full of boiling water to help heat them up. We all looked at each other with a an expression of relief, disbelief and exhilaration. If one of those loose tent poles had ripped the tent we would have been stuffed but thanks to some quick thinking from Niall, Darren’s hands replacing mine and a grizzly bit of effort we were safe, for now.
As expected we woke up to wind and rain this morning but at least we didn’t blow away in the night. The forecast was clearly correct though so we have been in the tent for another day. We’re only 12kms in to a 138km journey so naturally it’s frustrating but there’s nothing we can do apart from fuel up, relax and have a laugh.
Those laughs today came in the form of designing Darren a toilet in the vestibule of the tent and a running commentary of his progress from the other side of the canvass. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what the situation is there’s something about poo that will always be funny, or maybe we’re just all already going mad...
Tomorrow it looks like the weather will have eased enough to go for it and now we’re two days behind we’re going to have to really go for it! Alarms set for 5am and fingers crossed we won’t wake up to another storm.
This is quickly becoming a monster of a challenge.
The alarm went off at 5am and things outside the tent sounded pretty good. There was no precipitation hitting the canvas and minimal shaking from the wind, finally we were able to get moving.
The forecast was actually quite warm (0-1c) but we knew there was rain/sleet coming so layered up with as much gortex as possible. We set off and were moving at a decent pace which was a good sign as we have a lot of catching up to do after 2 days in the tent. After about an hour however the weather closed in and we soon found ourselves in a white out which made it very difficult to navigate.
Skiing in a straight line is surprisingly hard with no reference points, it’s like being inside a ping pong ball, you can’t tell where the ground finishes and the sky starts. Darren was manning the GPS, giving instructions to Niall but it wasn’t long before we realised we were snaking all over the place. Turns out the GPS had a delay and Niall was attached to Darren so was too close to for him to be able to tell if he started deviating. We decided that I would move to the front so there was more space between us and any snaking would be picked up quicker.
After 9 hours the weather had set in, so exhausted we stopped to set up camp. As we did the wind and the rain seemed to want to make it as difficult as possible. We smashed the tent up and got Darren in the shelter. By the time Niall and I piled in we were all soaking, as was all of our kit, so it was an evening of consolidation and trying to dry things. The problem is that in these temperatures and with these Atlantic weather systems nothing will dry naturally so you have to rely on hot water in bottles and body heat. Climbing in to your sleeping in all of your wet clothes is not pleasant, but it’s the only way.
Fortunately, thanks to the amount of energy exerted during the day it wasn’t hard to fall asleep. The main thing playing on my mind now though is eating enough food. I hit 10,000kcal yesterday which means I’m in a huge deficit so eating as much as possible is a priority - if only there was a Maccy Ds on the ice.
On the bright side we hit our 15km target, which was an ambitious one, and we only have about another 15km before we’re done with the uphill sections.
126km to go
The war of attrition continues.
After taking a view on the weather and considering it looked like we’d tried to dry all of our kit in a rainforest, we decided to leave a bit later this morning.
We’re being followed by a team from coldhouse who are filming the expedition and their guide Dan. At least two of them have literally decades of experience on ice caps so it’s quite funny that they just have to do what we do, no helping, advice or guidance, just filming. That means they have to get up when we get up, stop when we stop, and if we decide to go out in a storm so do they.
I know they've found it quite uncomfortable watching us struggle at times and not being able to help and I definitely know they were frustrated that we carried on into the rain yesterday because they also had to bed down in wet kit, so the 11am start was welcomed by all. It also enabled us to miss the wind in the morning.
It's taking us 2.5-3 hours between waking up and leaving, I would like to say that's just how long it takes but there's a lot of faffing going on…mainly by me. I swear the biggest part of this challenge is three blokes with SCIs trying to manage tent admin.
Today was just about getting out and getting moving after a savage day yesterday and we managed to do that, in fact we covered 9km in the end which we’re happy with. There was more white outs but mixed with patches of sunshine and very little rain so spirits are high this evening. We’ve also just received the weather for the next few days and it’s looking good, cold but good.
Blisters are now wounds but I think I can manage them, Niall’s med bag is certainly coming in handy!
Alarm set for 5am and hoping for 15km, a big day tomorrow and we’ll be nearly back on track….🤞
The alarm went off at 5am again and we woke up to ice on the inside of the tent. Luckily we had slept with everything important in our sleeping bags because pretty much everything else was frozen solid. It’s always difficult vacating the warmth of your sleeping bag in temperatures like that but we knew we had to get a big day in. After porridge, coffee and some high level faffing we emerged from the tent into a wall of light.
Clear blue skies meant the sun was pouring onto the ice and blasting in every direction, we all donned our POC glasses and lathered the suncream on before setting off.
Despite the sun it was the coldest morning we’ve had for some time which meant the snow was perfect for our last day of ascent. As soon as we set off we could feel how much faster we were going to be, Niall and Darren in particular just took off together.
We have been hauling for an hour then having ten minutes off, today our split times were by far the fastest they’ve been so far. Granted our pulks are now lighter as we've eaten a weeks worth of food and we've undoubtably got fitter but for the first time we were really looking like we could get back on track. Although we’re about a third of the way distance wise this seemed like half way.
We were all in a great place apart from the fact that we had to ski straight passed the hut situated on the volcano which has a geothermal heated sauna. Given the state we're all in after a week of pretty much the same clothes that would have been very welcome.
Just the other side of the hut was a sharp bit of descent into an area marked as red on the map meaning 'high crevasse risk'. Darren had been battling uphill for the last week in his sit ski attached to the back of Niall so got a bit excited with his first taste of freedom and disappeared off down the slope in a true 'Fentooon!' moment. Luckily after a couple of hundred metres he remembered where he was and slammed on the brakes. It was a heart in the mouth moment as well as being pretty funny.
15 more kilometres covered, 90 to go.
Wow it was cold last night. The wind has shifted to the North so we woke up to -10 this morning and ice on our sleeping bags, no complaints though because it was another clear day - cold, but clear. We are finally up on the plateau in the middle of the ice cap and the conditions are perfect for skiing so we know we’ve got to take advantage and really go for it before another weather system sets in.
It was a beautiful start, the only thing we really had to worry about was sunburn. We’re all already looking like pandas but you have to be so careful with clear weather on the ice as everything is magnified. Those worries quickly dissipated as the clouds set in and we found ourselves slogging it through another white out.
It was a big day, 21km covered in all and we’re all feeling it this evening…
I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying sharing this epic challenge with these two guys. Every day we learn something new about ourselves and each other and together we’re just getting stronger in the craziest of circumstances.
61km to go!
It was -17°C inside our tent this morning which meant everything that wasn’t inside our sleeping bags with us was frozen solid. As you can imagine, everything took a lot longer to get going, especially as my hands were refusing to work. Thankfully Darren was on hand to help me get my boots on.
Systems and processes are so important in these conditions and after a week we’ve worked out who does what when setting up and packing up camp. To be fair most of the jobs pick themselves based on our capabilities and limitations but we’ve pretty much halved the time it takes to get ready compared to day 1.
The conditions looked great but when we got going it became apparent that the sleds were dragging pretty heavily. It was so cold that the ice was acting almost like velcro so it was a tough start. After a couple of hours we were moving nicely but then Niall realised that his catheter wasn’t draining. He tried flooding it by drinking lots of water but two hours later still nothing and it was starting to get uncomfortable. If he went into retention it could end up causing kidney damage and potentially even worse so we popped up an emergency shelter and he went through the arduous task of taking the catheter out and putting a new one in. If it didn’t work it would have been an emergency evacuation and expedition over but thankfully he emerged from the shelter looking very relieved.
A quick scare but we cracked on into a magical afternoon. It’s so cold that the floor looked like it was covered in diamonds and the water vapour in the air was freezing into crystals, it was truly other worldly.
110 km done
45 to go!
In other news Darren hasn’t pooed in 8 days. I’ve even built two toilets for him out of snow, ice and Thermarests with no luck. Hopefully tomorrow is the day Iceland feels some more seismic activity.
It was panic inducingly cold this morning. -27°C is enough to rattle anyone’s bones and again I had to battle with clenched fists for hands whilst trying to manage my morning routine.
We’ve been getting up at 5am and trying to be away within 3 hours. That may seem like a long time but there’s a lot we have do and it takes a lot of collaboration to get over the line.
We ended up getting away by 8:30am and it was another crystal clear day. We headed into the vast expanse of whiteness ahead of us aiming for a distant volcano on the horizon which was almost where we will be ending the trip. The air temp was cold but there was no wind so it wasn’t long before we were stripping layers.
What on paper looked like a straight forward day in good conditions ended up being much tougher than expected. Every hour looked the same as the last and it didn’t look like we were getting any closer to the volcano. The surface was also tough with frozen moguls making pulk dragging very awkward, the two I have attached to me were effectively giving me the Heimlich maneuver all day. After 8.5 tough hours we hit 20km and set up camp exhausted.
This evening we’ve had the pleasure of accompanying Darren in the tent for moral support during his bowel evacuation…8 days of back up but finally success! As much as we love Darren, we’re not weirdos - it was -15 outside and it took 2 hours so all of us in the tent together it was. Team bonding at its finest!
We’ve just had a weather update and there are 50km winds due to hit in 24 hours. Combined with an ambient -20c that could be dangerous. With 27km to go to the finish and safety of the hut we’ve decided to go for it tomorrow. It will be by far our biggest day if we make it but it will also mean safety and mission accomplished!
One last push!
There was a sense of urgency this morning because we knew it was a race against the clock to reach the finish line before the weather came in. If we didn’t make the distance today we could be stuck in the tent again for who knows how long.
There was more of a breeze this morning but the weather was still clear for the first shift, the surface however was making it tough work. The moguls were back, icey lumps interspersed with deep powder made progress intensely draining. If we were going to make the finish line by sundown it was going to have to be a monumental effort, but the storm was coming and we had no choice.
11.5 hours later in -10c, sideways snow and a white out we took our final steps to the last GPS point on the map. An outpouring of emotion ensued as we realised what we’d just achieved. 11 days to travel across the largest ice cap in western Europe and the first all disabled team to complete any challenge of this sort unsupported.
The celebrations didn’t last long as exhaustion and hypothermia loomed. We got the tent up as quickly as possible to get Darren in who was heading downhill fast and becoming delirious, all of a sudden we had a serious situation on our hands.
Fortunately after a lot of down clothes, sleeping bags, warm drinks and food we managed to bring him back around to some sort of sense before he passed out asleep. Relieved Niall and I had a swig of celebratory whiskey before getting into our sleeping bags exhausted.
Vatnajokull has been beautiful and savage in equal measure, a true test of teamwork, resilience and will power with good humour being the glue that held it all together.
Tomorrow the trucks would come, and tonight we’d all be dreaming of cooked food, a shower and a bed.