Written by Charlie
One aspect of team expeditions all too easily glossed over is the necessity to function as a unit, not as individuals; to share absolutely everything. Beyond clothing, there is little space for personal belongings when kit must be bodily dragged on sleds weighed down by up to a month’s supply of food. And herein is the first thing that must be shared: the food and equipment we haul. Callie’s duffel bag being slightly smaller than mine, and better able to fit in the tent porch, she carries the stove, stove repair kit, first aid kit, and food bags that are used everyday. My (larger) duffel stays outside at night, prevents the sleds blowing away, and contains spare kit, maps not yet in use, electronics, and food not immediately required.
The tent is the most important thing we share. It’s our home and our sanctuary. Without it we would have succumbed to the elements long ago. When visibility plummets on treacherous slopes, or cruel winds lick across the mountainscape, knocking us over, we know that once we’ve muddled the tent up and tethered it firmly to ski poles and fuel bottles buried in the snow, we will be safe.
We’ve developed a slick routine at pitching the tent and set about it each evening, quickly and without speaking. It is the last task before we can sit/lie down after as much as twelve hours on our feet. If there is no reliable snow crust, we fetch shovels from our backpacks and dig until we find firmer snow pack. Shovelling out a foot or two of crumbly snow from an area equal to the tent’s footprint creates great mounds of snow and, from a few yards away, the tent appears all but buried.
We share cooking, alternately taking an evening and the following morning’s duties. This means that, once inside the tent, the cook must fire the stove and melt snow into water for drinking the following day as well as cooking with that evening. (Meals rotate between the following: tuna, macaroni and cheese sauce; instant noodles and hotdogs; instant mashed potato and hotdogs; tinned plov; couscous and baked beans.) The other team member enjoys their evening off cooking duties by reading, inspecting and attending to their feet, or simply lying back and luxuriating in the novelty of doing nothing while nursing a cup of hot chocolate - the first thing the cook prepares.
We seldom talk while dinner is prepared. Sitting up, side by side in our sleeping bags, we eat from a single cooking pot, taking it in turns to scoop a teaspoonful. So hungry have we been throughout the day, and so pre-occupied are we with the food before us, that we usually speak little while eating. The finger-cleaned pot is put back in the porch, ready for breakfast. We then lie back in a tent made poky by voluminous winter sleeping bags, and made ripe by weeks-unwashed clothes and feet.
We have gone up to a month without meeting another person and in the tent we spend 12-16 hours a day in the closest possible proximity. Constant exhaustion is another thing we share. Arguments are inevitable and, with hindsight, usually absurd; merely an outlet for fatigue or frazzled nerves after a precarious day’s journey. Space in the tent has occasionally been a bone of contention. Callie prefers to huddle for warmth, wormlike in our respective sleeping bags, and I prefer not to so we don’t wake each other when rolling over. However, space is tight and there is little choice in the matter. As Spring approaches and the temperatures creep up towards freezing, spending the night with a sleeping bag touching the tent wall means waking with it wet and therefore less warm the following night.
Back to the evening routine: while supplies last, we enjoy a cube or two of chocolate after dinner and this is the time we speak most. Daytime conversation consists mostly of practical, navigational matters and (increasingly often as weight is lost and hunger grows) food fantasies. After dinner we are more likely to talk of what lies ahead, of life, of home, of family or of friends. It is easier to be reflective, measured and abstractly-thoughtful with a hot meal in one’s belly. After almost three months solely in one another’s company, silences are not uncomfortable. We are happy to be talkative at times, and peacefully pensive at times. If we have the energy after dinner, we might read aloud to each other for a while.
Before sleeping there is one last chore. We sit up and brush teeth. Callie opens the door to the porch and spits onto the snow. I simply swallow the toothpaste froth. We both suck our toothbrushes clean and place them (and the shared tube of toothpaste) back in the shared washbag that has been dubbed “Seaweed”.
Going to the loo before sleeping is done inside to save making the journey out and dragging snow inside. Naturally we both want to use the shared ‘pee bottle’ first but there’s no argument over it. I can simply unzip my sleeping bag half way and roll onto my side so as to face away from Callie. Things are less easy for Callie. I remain rolled away while she employs a funnel and performs an awkward balancing act. The bottled is emptied into a hole in the snow and then placed by our heads incase of need in the night. After head torches are switched off, sleep comes quickly.
The first alarm sounds at 5am from the wristwatch inside Callie’s hat. The word “alarm” is grumbled and, at some point between then and the the second alarm seven minutes later, the cook sits up to prepare coffee and porridge with powdered milk. After breakfast, the tent comes down with the same slick cooperation that put it up.
We have slightly differing approaches to navigation and pathfinding. Callie wisely prefers, when possible, to angle around slopes, avoiding unnecessary climbing. I bullishly prefer the straightest possible line, travelling up and over rather than around. We take two hour turns to lead and ‘break trail’ through the virgin snow, one hour if the going is particularly tough. After any consultation, the leader has final say on route. We both have occasional rough days where we feel particularly tired or feet/shoulder/hip pains flare up. On these days, the other usually recognises the struggle in their teammate and picks up the slack, taking longer stints at the front or trying to boost morale. Seeing the temporary weakness in another tends to instill a temporary strength in oneself. Thankfully we rarely have days when we both feel unusually stretched.
When we reach civilisation, the sharing doesn’t stop there. We share a wallet (in reality, a ziplock bag) and its contents, we share hotel rooms, we share laundry loads, and we continue to share meals.
All this sharing and time spent in each other’s pockets has proceeded relatively smoothly. It may not sound so incredibly challenging for two friends setting off on an expedition together. However, this seems a good time to relate just how little Callie and I actually knew each other before embarking on this journey. We met in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, in late 2012 while each on bicycle journeys across Asia. Callie and her travelling partner Richard had just come from Afghanistan and I was shortly to go there. We both camped under a fecund walnut tree in the courtyard of a hostel for a few nights. Being another Brit, with a similar sense of humour, I spent more time talking to Richard than Callie but the stories of her various exploits in Antarctica and South America stuck with me.
Over the next few years there was the odd facebook message and a one day catch up in London. It must have seemed quite out of the blue, one year ago, when I asked Callie if she wanted to undertake this challenge with me. We spoke on Skype, mostly logistics, every three or four weeks while planning Following The Line. She arrived in London two weeks before departure. It is only since then that we have truly become acquainted in person rather than as correspondents. We haven’t killed each other yet. Watch this space…