In April of 2014, I undertook a 12 day Arctic expedition with Joe Henderson and his team of 22 Alaskan Malamutes, crossing 120 miles on the north side of the Brooks Range Mountains in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I did this as an extreme challenge to raise awareness of just what an amazing breed the Alaskan Malamute is, and to raise publicity and funds for charity. But it was not just the expedition itself which was an extreme challenge; so was the training I put myself through to prepare for it.
I received the news that I had secured a position on the expedition at the very end of November 2013. This was just three weeks before I was due to get married. With the wedding fast approaching, I was already under immense pressure and knew I could not start thinking about preparing for my Arctic challenge until the New Year.
On 18 December 2013 I married the love of my life, surrounded by all of our immediate family, who had all travelled a long way to be with us on our special day, as we exchanged our vows in a chapel made of snow, deep inside the Arctic circle in Lapland. I felt like the luckiest girl alive! It was -23C on our wedding day, and as we celebrated our long awaited marriage, we joked about how the sub zero temperatures were good practice for the conditions I would encounter on my Arctic expedition.
Once we returned home from Lapland, and the festive period was at an end, it was time to start focusing all of my attention on preparing for the expedition.
I knew I had to get into shape and I knew I had to concentrate on building up my strength and endurance. The expedition was going to be physically demanding, cross country skiing for up to 6 hours each day. There was also the need to strengthen my core muscles as well as my back and arms to cope with shovelling large amounts of snow each day to set up our heated tents which required deep sinkholes.
I had never before been cross country skiing. Living on the east coast of Scotland, we rarely see snow, and when it does fall, it almost never settles. So I was feeling nervous and unsure of how to prepare, and go about getting myself fit enough to succeed in my Arctic challenge.
But then I had an idea.
I have two amazing dogs, Lila and Rumo. They are purebred Alaskan Malamutes. Back in October 2013, I had started putting them through the AMWA (Alaskan Malamute Working Association) Working Pack Dog Scheme. This scheme is a series of graded working challenges, which teaches you and your dogs to work together as a team, backpacking through the countryside. The scheme begins with a gentle introductory level and progresses onto harder and harder challenges right up to expedition level. Achievement of each level is recognized by awarding working titles to your dogs. I decided to follow the structure of this scheme to prepare myself for the Arctic expedition.
But there was a snag. As the New Year dawned, I was still extremely unwell with a very severe cold infection (from which I did not fully recover until the end of January). Despite this, I was committed to begin training with my dogs. I knew that the key to success in backpacking with your dogs is to make sure they are enjoying what they are doing, and to build up the distances they can cover, and the weight they can carry gradually.
Each day I took my dogs out for a walk of between 3 – 5 miles, which was our usual exercise routine. We began to trek along sandy beaches more and more because walking on sand was as close to walking on snow as I could manage in my home environment.
But what I also started doing was running and jogging with my dogs, and also adding weighted backpacks to our walks about three times a week. Mostly, we backpacked along the Fife Coastal Path which boasts stunning views across the Firth of Forth. Sadly for us, due to the time of year, a lot of our training was done in the dark with only a single head torch to provide us with any light.
The AMWA Copper Title is the introductory level to the Working Pack Dog Scheme, and the Copper title is awarded to dogs who have completed 40 miles, as 8 walks of 5 miles each, carrying 10% of their body weight. We completed the final required leg of this level at the end of January, in the environs of Loch Morlich during the Aviemore Sled Dog Rally, the largest annual sled dog rally event held in the UK.
Next, we moved onto Bronze, 40 miles, which we completed as 4 legs of 10 miles each with Lila and Rumo carrying 20% of their body weight. As my dogs became stronger and were able to carry more and more weights on their backs, so did I.
After that we completed Silver, 60 miles, doing it as 3 legs of 20 miles each with the dogs carrying 20% of their body weight. This level was extremely difficult and by this point every step was agonising; my feet were a mess, covered in blisters on top of blisters, but we were training so intensively that we completed this level in the space of just one week. Lila and Rumo were the 8th and 9th Malamutes respectively to ever achieve the Silver Award in the UK.
As we accomplished each milestone, my confidence grew. And finally, with three weeks to go before I was due to set off for Alaska, we began working towards Gold. This level was different from the preceding ones as it had to be completed in wilderness terrain, away from established tracks, and required compulsory overnight camping. I was desperate to achieve the Gold level before my expedition, but as things worked out, this did not happen.
Despite completing the first leg of 30 miles over a weekend of camping in the Trossachs National Park, and carrying the required 30%, the AMWA decided to disqualilfy our attempt due to a technicality. We had carefully weighed out the contents of the dogs’ backpacks, acquired the required certification from our vets, and sent in the photographic and GPS evidence of our routes; but even though we had carried the correct weights, because the weights we carried did not include our camping equipment, we were informed that this attempt did not meet the award requirements. The rules stated that we had to carry “provisions” for our trip and we had interpreted this to mean our food and water rations, first aid kits etc. Unfortunately for us, it turned out that “provisions” referred to our tents and camping equipment. The ambiguous wording of the rules was changed the next day. And I was left disappointed and deflated.
Had we gone on to complete the Gold Award, Lila and Rumo would have been the first ever Malamutes in the UK to achieve this level. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.
With no time to waste on what was a bitter disappointment, I chose to look at it as a lesson learned. And after all, we were following the AMWA Working Pack Dog Scheme to build up my strength and endurance to prepare for the expedition, and it was working! I was now able to carry heavy loads on my back for up to 20 miles a day over periods of 7.5 hours at a time with only very short breaks. Plus, my dogs now had three Working Titles each and more letters after their names than I did!
Having pulled a few muscles from overtraining, and having finally realised how dangerously exhausted I was becoming, I decided to take it a bit easier for the fortnight before I left for the Arctic. I continued to take my dogs out backpacking but we mostly just went out for 5 miles a day at this point.
Lila and Rumo were my constant and unflagging training companions for all these months, always moving forward with big happy smiles, and their tails held high. Sometimes others would join us but most of the time it was just me and my dogs, working together as a closely bonded team. I could never have done it without them to keep me going.
Throughout this entire time I was working two jobs, often for more than 12 hours a day, sometimes without a day off for weeks at a time, training hard daily, securing corporate sponsor deals, fundraising, and was only sleeping for 3 – 5 hours a night. But I never took a day off and I never gave up, no matter how sore or how tired I was.
I was no longer afraid of facing the Arctic. How much harder could it be than what I was putting myself through now?