There is also a section at the end about the original equipment that we used. This was home made mainly because there is nowhere in the world that sold the item we wanted. There was also the additional advantage of price.
Every member of the expedition had plastic mountaineering boots. These were used as the sole boot during the adventure phase. They performed excellently for this job. As long as the boot was kept dry, feet were generally not too cold, or even warm. Plastic boots were also used by some during the science phase, where snow patches, and scree were more common. This type of terrain wears plastic boots down very quickly. Several people also took old pairs of leather boots. The plastic boots were in the main not durable. The cheaper Koflach boots had had too many corners cut to keep the cost down, and as a consequence wore out quickly. The more expensive Koflach models (Air Comprex Vario, and Ultra S) were better made, and lasted well. One person had Asolo 101's, and they fell apart in every way possible.
The norm was to have alpine gaiters. These were adequate, although they did suffer problems. There are a huge number of these gaiters on the market, none were perfect for the job! It is important to always have a strap under the boot, otherwise the gaiter rides up in snow, exposing the non waterproof parts of the plastic boot. String is not good enough - it wears out. Webbing just lasted, but the best has to be wire, as in the Mountain Range Professional Alpine gaiter. A totally Goretex gaiter is pointless, as the plastic boot can't breathe. However, a Goretex upper is essential; no other material allows enough sweat out. The Mountain Range Standard Professional Alpine Gaiter, made from Cordura and Goretex was the best material combination. Beware about the size of gaiters. Plastic boots are large, but so are 'large' gaiters. Even a size 10 Koflach could be completely covered by such a 'large' gaiter! One person had a pair of Wild Country Yeti Gaiters. If you can afford them, they are the best, but they will need gluing on. The Wild Country gaiter rands out-lasted the gaiter material (and the material is tough)!
The clothing described here is what was typically worn on the coldest days in the adventure phase. It is important to remember that different people need different amounts of insulation (see Sleeping Bags).
Two people wore nothing more than Ronhill Tracksters, although at times they were a little cold, but not cold enough to put anything else on. The rest had either two pairs of trousers (thermals and track suit), or fleece/pile. Several makes of sallopettes, and fabrics were used. They included polartec and pile. The best system remains Helly Hansen pile sallopettes. Both users had modified their pairs, and this is advised for convenience. Recommended additions can be seen towards the end of this chapter. Most people also had insulated waterproof trousers, which performed excellently, especially when climbing, when they kept one warm and dry even if sitting around in the snow for a while.
On the upper body the standard system was a thermal shirt, and then a fleece. Four people also added a third mid-layer, being a wool shirt, or specialist mid-layer garment. A Goretex wind and waterproof could then be added on top, and for low energy work we all had excellent down duvet jackets.
Everyone should have had at least two pairs. One inner pair (either fingerless woollen, or thermal), and one outer pair which were waterproof. It is also advisable to have pile liners (or similar) in the outer glove. This provides instant warmth when needed, and also stops hands getting too cold when working with snow (building igloos).
A head band is highly recommended. A system of headware that covers the ears is essential, be it a special hat, headover, or balaclava. We found that balaclavas were not used much, and a hat and hood was more convenient if it really got cold.
BOND DUVET EQUIPMENT
Every member of the expedition was donated a duvet jacket, and insulated salopettes from Bond Manufacturing (Hong Kong). The jacket had an Entrant shell, so were waterproof, while the filling was down. The garment was designed for the temperature range +5 to -10oC. The trousers also had an Entrant shell, but were Thinsulate insulated. These were ideal for climbing in, where short bursts of energy had to keep you warm during the long periods of waiting around at belays.
They performed excellently. We do not think this because we have to. The equipment was genuinely superb. At times they were used in torrential rain, and dried out with no loss of insulation. No one was ever cold in their jackets. Duvet equipment is recommended.
Everyone had a different type of rucksack. Some performed markedly better then others. One problem with certain manufactures, is that they do not measure the capacity of their rucksacks. The specifications they give are guesses. So beware, a recommended expedition sack called a '65' might only be 50 litres! Smaller manufacturers tend to measure their products. The ideal rucksack in our opinion is yet to be made, although there are some designs that get close. Size is very important. The bigger the better, and it is important to be able to overload a sack without it impeding neck movement. This means that a telescopic lid is far better than a conventional one. Side pockets are useless if skis are being used. This also means that side compression straps are important. Ski pockets are very useful, and not just small ones. In my biased opinion, the Pod Explorer, is the best designed sack presently available. I think that others would grudgingly agree. However, possibly the most important thing about a rucksack is the back system, and here, you cannot beat the simplicity, and comfort of the Berghaus Alps. Lowe, and Pod both have a much larger hip belt, and shoulder straps that come from a single point on the back, which is regrettably not as comfortable. Karrimor back systems are OK, but Karrimor sacs in general have a durability problem went they are used with realistic expedition weights (80lbs+).
There was a considerable range of bags used. Everyone used a cotton sleeping bag liner for some of the expedition, in an attempt to keep the bags from smelling too much after 9 weeks use. This did work partially. The warmest bags were Rab 1000's. These were possibly overkill for the temperatures we had - indeed during July, they were more often used as duvets. There was one notable exception, who always slept with her Rab 1000 done up completely, and never overheated! Two people had 3/4 season Mountain Equipment down bags. These were ideal for the temperatures they experienced. The other bags were all synthetic, and varied in age and fill. The consensus was that a reasonably new 3/4 season synthetic bag was needed.
When not sleeping on snow or ice, all the mats were adequate - that is 4 season or warmer. The problem comes when sleeping on snow. Considerable condensation formed on all conventional foam sleeping mats, even the 'Extreme's'. This moisture was more than uncomfortable - it made sleeping bags wet. There were three answers. The most immediate cure was to put clothes, ropes etc. on top of the mat. This provided more insulation, and prevented condensation. Another way to overcome the problem was to sleep in a Goretex bivibag. Condensation still formed, but on the outside of the bivibag. The best answer, is not to buy a foam mat, but save up for a Thermorest. These were the only mats warm enough to prevent condensation.
The expedition had a total of 7 tents. Two were Vango Force 10 flysheets, used for storage at Alandsvatnet. There was one home-made mess tent (see later), which was used for cooking, and eating. There were four sleeping tents. One modified Vango Hurricane Alpha (see later); one home-made Geodesic tent (which looked remarkably like a Mountain Super Nova); a Wild Country Super Nova; and one Quasar that had had snow flaps added. On the adventure phase we took the three geodesic tents (three people in each), and the mess tent. We experienced little in the way of extreme winds, but a very strong tent is still essential due to the remoteness. One very useful feature is the ability for a tent to stand up without pegs (or similar). Dry glacier is not the best place to camp, but sometimes it is unavoidable, and 'pegs'/snow valances melt out on dry glacier.
The length of an axe is very much a personal thing. We went in for relatively short axes (average length 65cm). Technical picks did hold much better, but that was not always an advantage (i.e. ice axe arresting). A cheap walking axe was perfectly adequate.
With plastic boots, step-in crampons were very convenient. They were not without flaws. Step-in crampons do not stay on the boot as well as expected when load carrying on flat (but not smooth) ice. Grivel 2F's were problematic until the straps were done up tightly. The problems were worst on old boots that had worn down. Strap-on crampons were better in this respect, and apart from the hassle of doing the straps up they were without flaws. It is also well worth inspecting crampons regularly for fatigue cracks. One pair became 8-points (losing the front four points of both crampons). This experience must be an unfortunate duff pair, so no names will be mentioned. Grivel 2F's hinge around a rivet that wears down. After two expeditions, there is only half the rivet left.
Hammer-in-screw-out ice screws were the best value for money. Screw-in-screw-out ice screws are lovely pieces of equipment, but they are expensive in this country. Cheap screw-in-screw-out ice screws (such as those made by Camp for £9.00), are poor. Spitsbergen ice normally requires at least 20cm of ice screw for security.
We had three MSR Whisperlite Internationales. They performed well on balance. We were using paraffin with them. They needed fairly regular cleaning, always at the most inconvenient times. After 8 weeks, they all stopped working! They only came back to life after the fuel pipes were cleaned for hours. The manufactures recommend that fuel pipes be cleaned by soaking them in paint stripper, to prevent carbon build-ups. We had over-looked this. Coca Cola is alleged to be a reasonable substitute for paint stripper, but we didn't have this either!
Every member of the expedition had a mountaineering helmet. They were essential. A group would be very foolhardy to climb mountains in Svalbard without proper helmets.
SKIS, WAXES, & SKINS
Everyone used Asnes Sondre Telemark Nordic skis. The skis were unfaultable. We all had smooth waxing bases, as these are said to glide better. We obtained wax from the Royal Marines. They use a simple wet snow/dry snow two wax system. This was far better for our rough and ready need than the complex commercially available wax systems. We also had skins that were brilliant. I would never go anywhere again without them.
River crossing is inevitable for any group walking in Svalbard. At the easiest level, they can be jumped. If slightly too wide, plastic boots and gaiters are ideal. A quick series of steps up to calf deep can be made without getting wet. After that, you will get wet! Waders are popular amongst certain groups. These are often home made from wellies, and nylon. We found the best river crossing wear to be a pair of small deck shoes or trainers. Failing this, plastic boot outers with a pair of thick socks. This option is not so good. The boots rattle around on the end of your foot, and create extra drag. Socks are highly recommended, to protect the numb foot from the harsh plastic. Bare feet crossings were used, but it isn't recommended. You have to go slowly, because of the painful river bed. You get very cold feet, and rocks will get rolled onto your feet, possibly without you noticing due to numbness.
This took two forms. In the science phase we had a radio cassette player. We could not tune it accurately enough to pick up world service, but the cassette player was very nice. Pop classics are not recommended listening, as they soon become tiresome, and even worse, they wedge in your mind for days on end. I never want to hear REM "Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" again! Taped John Peel Shows were by far the most popular. Books were the other entertainment. Recommended are The Classics. It was also interesting to read Jurassic Park, while missing all the hype. Cheap Sci-fi novels, containing lots of unpronounceable names don't even burn well.
This was a large light-weight tent, that we could all get in and cook. It was made from 150gm per square metre PU nylon. The poles were ski poles. They were arranged as six 'A's in the six corners. There was then a central pole also made from two ski poles. A web of guy ropes meant that this tent was able to stand up in surprisingly strong winds. The tent was invaluable, and we would not go anywhere again without one. The tent was made by Steve Fisher, and he is willing to make others for anyone interested!
We wanted to use plastic mountaineering boots on Nordic skis. We found that no one made a suitable binding so we had no option but to make our own. The basic principle was a hinged toe slot into which the boot was strapped. The binding was made of stainless steel. They performed very well for what they were designed for - going in a straight line. Unfortunately people fall over, and they also try and get up without taking off the skis. This put enormous torques on the bindings, and as a consequence they fatigued due to stress concentration, and broke. In the end four pairs broke. A repair was possible using a pilchard tin and string - however the result was a lot less satisfactory compared to the original. A future modification will be to weld two reinforcing bars onto the binding.
Instead of paying £120.00 each for fibreglass five foot pulks, we bought plastic kiddie sledges from a toy shop for £5.85 each. These were simple, and made of thick plastic. They had two long towing strings attached. Each string was fitted with a cheap marine clip. Karabinas could be used, but they always end up somewhere else. The sledge contents were held in with two fastex quick-release buckles on straps. We only used two straps, but a third would have been a good idea. What made the sledges work were oversized nylon bags. Everything could be packed into these, they were then folded over, and strapped in. This meant that when (not if) the sledges rolled, sank, or fell in a crevasse the contents were not lost. The cheap cost of this system was of more than financial benefit. We treated the sledges very roughly. They were pulled over very rough dry glacier. If we had had expensive fibreglass sleds, we would not have been able to do things like that.
POLAR BEAR SCARER
Our system really didn't work too well, and we do not recommend it to others. A far better system could be made from thick fishing line, and a car or rape alarm.
HELLY HANSEN SALOPETTES
The basic salopette provides all the required insulation. It is however a primitive garment, and modifications improve it no end. Reinforcements with a breathable and waterproof fabric on the bottom and knees are a good idea. The benefits are three fold. They stop the garments picking up moss and ground litter, when kneeling and sitting; they mean one can sit on wet ropes, or damp ground without getting wet; and they make the salopettes look less like a romper suit. Pockets sewn either at chest level, or at waist level are useful. Remember that you need to have access to them even if you have a hip belt on. A bum flap zip is very convenient, and means that the wearer does not have to get undressed every time they need to get a load off their mind.
VANGO HURRICANE ALPHA
The standard Vango Hurricane Alpha had a snow/rock valance sewn all the way around it. Also four extra guy points were added between the existing guys and the ground. These greatly increased stability. Two further guy points held the back of the tent up (using ski poles or ice axes to provide the upward pull). The sleeves to the poles all had six inch nails "Araldited" into them. These modifications made this a full four season tent.