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Trying to feel composed as I fell into the frozen lake

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: January 31, 2013

  • HIGHLIGHT: Reporter Philippa Jenkins tries cross country skiing.

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LAUNCHING myself into freezing water, sleeping on snow and attempting to kill a chicken within the space of five days could only really mean one thing.

Yes, that's right, I took the plunge (quite literally) and joined troops from RMB Chivenor during their winter deployment to Norway for Arctic training.

Before leaving I didn't really know what to expect – and little did I know how much was in store.

Lieutenant Al Martin, the education officer at RMB Chivenor, and I set off on our adventure at 4am, fighting through the UK snow to Heathrow to catch the two flights it takes to reach the Arctic Circle.

More than 12 hours later we made it to Evenes airport and travelled another 30 minutes to reach Harstad, a town 200km inside the Arctic Circle.

Having arrived at the Norweigian military base just outside the town, the first thing I was unprepared for was that it was raining, not something I thought would happen in the Arctic.

But we were reassured the rain was scheduled to turn to snow.

That evening we were issued with the kit needed for the next three days.

This was no mean task; the kit comprised of more than 30 items, as well as cross country skis, poles and snow shoes.

However I was soon to discover how necessary this would all become.

The following morning a series of safety lectures were given to us by Captain Ian McGill, who is a marine mountain leader based at RMB Chivenor and is more commonly known as Gilly.

Gilly had been tasked with looking after us for the next three days.

Surprisingly, some of the most gruesome aspects of the whole trip came from the lectures.

Several images of frostbite in people's hands, feet and noses were shown and certainly brought home the dangers of the Arctic.

On the first day we teamed up with 15 marines and soldiers who were about to start their cold weather survival course.

All troops deployed to Norway have to undergo the four day course before they are allowed off the base.

In the early afternoon we set off in the off-road vehicles known as "BVs" to one of the marines' training areas.

Once there the ten-man tents, which we were all to sleep in that night, were put up and I quickly realised there was no lining on the floor – just the snow for comfort.

Gilly said one of the extra precautions needed when erecting a tent in the Arctic is to clear the snow from around the base of the tent and then place twigs and branches around it instead to ensure the tent does not get frozen to the ground.

We then set off on a patrol which gave me an opportunity to try out the cross country skis.

Having only skied downhill before they took a bit of getting used to, and Gilly was able to enjoy seeing me landing head first in the snow a couple of times.

(Despite this the skiing was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.)

Getting back to the tent highlighted the camaraderie which the large tents encourage – there was plenty of banter about even the tiniest of things which caused me to cry with laughter more than once.

Al, being a naval officer, was the brunt of a few jokes for his bad tent admin, which saw him engulf Gilly as he unpacked his bergen – the backpack used to carry all the gear.

Later on, we set off on a night patrol, which was definitely a challenge.

For the troops it was a good opportunity to experience what they would have to be doing overnight if they were in a tactical position.

The darkness, and not knowing what was underneath my skis, led to me falling over numerous times – having to be caught by the troops as, more and more, I started to resemble a snowy Bambi.

When we got back, the much needed ration packs were cracked open and I enjoyed a freeze dried chicken korma curry followed by rice pudding, which I was definitely impressed by.

One of the surprising things was how warm the tent was, but nevertheless, as we all started to think about getting some sleep, I put as many layers on as possible (a total of five) and tried to smooth out the lumps in the snow under my roll mat and sleeping bag.

Soon after, the guys on watch came to tell me the Northern Lights were in full swing.

I leapt up and tried to get my boots on as quickly as possible but, even then, I still missed the Lights as the clouds had covered them up.

After waiting for nearly half an hour, I reluctantly decided to give up and head back to my sleeping bag. The Lights are one thing that will have to wait for another time.

The next day started at 6am and despite camping in the Arctic I definitely felt as though I had got some sleep.

After having breakfast from our ration packs and filling up our flasks we then all packed up to be ready for "pull pole" at 8am.

(Pulling pole literally means taking the tent's central pole down.)

With the camp packed up our next task was the formidable ice break.

An exercise which replicates the scenario of falling through ice while skiing.

It involves falling into water only 1C or 2C with a heavy bergen on your back. Once in, you then have to pull yourself out of the water.

As soon as we reached the frozen lake, where the exercise was due to take place, the reality of what was about to happen started to sink in.

However, the amount of organisation that had gone into it meant it was difficult to feel too scared.

An "ice bar" had been set up, tents to change in with gas heaters were ready at the edge of the lake and someone was on hand to help each person get back into their dry clothes having done the exercise.

Once I had donned my thermals and camouflage suit, I was then at the edge of the hole I was about to fall into.

I stepped on to the skis and edged myself forward.

The plunge happened.

Nothing could have prepared me for what it feels like to fall into a lake in the Arctic – any breath was completely knocked out of me.

I could hear shouts of "compose yourself" from the mountain leaders.

Despite this I still struggled to get the bergen out of the water, having been told before that the temperature can disorientate you, I very quickly knew exactly what that meant.

As I then started to climb onto the edge, mountain leader Captain Richie Mackie was reminding me to use the ski poles I was holding to haul myself out, rather than just keep them in my hand.

Like all the others doing it, I then had to say my name and ask permission to leave the ice.

When I had finally clambered out I then ran to the ice bar had a shot of rum and was taken back to the tent to change.

I have never wanted to get changed so quickly in my life.

Once I had my dry clothes on, I then went back to one of the vehicles to warm up.

We were then all taken back to the base to have much needed hot showers and lunch.

After lunch, I was taken out on a BV for a tour of the area where the vehicle training takes place.

Sergeant Joe Maybury, who has been instructing for a few years, drove the vehicle and proved what extreme terrain the BVs can navigate – at some points we were at 90 degree angles going downhill.

The following day was the last full day of the course.

On the agenda was survival shelters.

The troops were tasked with building themselves a shelter in a wood near to the base, setting up a fire and then cooking the food they had been provided with.

After a few demonstrations the shelter building began and each group's creation varied in size. Some had been more creative with the materials they had chosen to use, such as cutting up their survival bags to use them for insulation.

The food given to the troops included reindeer, salmon and vegetables, as well as a chicken which they had to kill themselves using a technique which only lasts a second.

Despite attempting to carry out the technique myself, I failed, but fortunately mountain leader Corporal Rudi Taylor stepped in to prevent my attempt going wrong any further.

It was then time to head back to the base to pack in order to catch the flight home first thing the next morning.

Having spent three whole days immersed in the life of the troops in Norway it was very easy to see, not only why so many of them enjoy being deployed to the Arctic, but also why marines and commando trained troops are known for their fearless and hardy attitude.

When heading back to the UK I could still hear the words "compose yourself" resounding in my mind and I knew my few days in Norway had given me an experience which I will never forget.

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