My cold war in the Arctic

Using survival skills newly acquired in the Arctic, Christian Fletcher is keen to demonstrate one of the most important: how to make fire.

Frostbite is unlikely to overtake him because the task is done on the kitchen table in his centrally-heated home in Penistone, South Yorkshire.

He retrieves a piece of moss collected from a tree in Lapland, holds a short firestick close by and rubs the flint with a knife. The tinder, known as old man’s beard, crackles obligingly into flame.

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The pyrotechnics are repeated with a piece of birch bark, a handy fuel that exudes oil. When matches are useless, the lighter is empty and the thermometer is cruising to minus 50, it’s a technique worth knowing.

Tonight Christian, the technical director of a Sheffield electronics engineering firm, will sleep in his own bed rather than a shelter or “quinzhee” painstakingly hewn from snow.

A week ago, he was in the Taiga Forest in northern Sweden with 15 others learning Arctic bushcraft from survival expert Ray Mears and Lars Falt, a world authority.

The forest covers much of Sweden, Finland, inland Norway, northern Kazakhstan and Russia. Punctuated by pine and spruce and home to wolf, bear, wolverine and reindeer, it is an awe-inspiring wilderness.

Falt, who was responsible for Swedish military survival training for four decades, says that even 40 years ago the general belief in Sweden was that no-one could survive a night outside in the Arctic.

As it’s a British hobby to grumble at the cold, it is fair to wonder why anyone would shell out £3,000 to live outdoors 100 miles from the north pole in an environment where a slip could cost a life.

Why go?

Christian, a Huddersfield University graduate, was 40 last year and explains it as “a typical mid-life crisis”. He had also long harboured an ambition to see nature’s most spectacular aerial show, the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

But wrapped up in all this lay another motivation. The adventure was to be an accommodation with loss: there was, in the most humane sense, a ghost to exorcise.

Christian was winter walking in Scotland 12 years ago when his best friend, Dave Bray, fell 2,000 feet from a ridge to his death. He was 29.

“After that, I wrapped myself in cotton wool. It was not that I was afraid of dying, it was seeing the devastating effect it had on his family. So serious climbing and outdoor work went on hold,” he says.

“From being young, Dave and I had spent every weekend camping or climbing. We were never at home, we were inseparable.

“Then my 40th birthday hit last year and I realised life was going on around me so I thought I’d better get on with it. My wife Joanne had read about a week-long survival course in the Arctic and she encouraged me to go.

“I’m a Scout at heart and the idea of learning from Ray Mears appealed. So I went from being an office slob to climbing five times a week, running three times a week and mountain biking when I could.”

His weight dropped from 12 stones to 10-and-a-half and his waist from 34 inches to 30. Training was done on the indoor wall at the Foundry in Sheffield and with the Castle Mountaineering Club, “a brilliant set of people.”.

Any walker hardy enough to brave the Pennines above Holmfirth early last month might have questioned the sanity of the tall, lean man lying contentedly in a freshly dug hole in the snow.

And then the flight to Kiruna Airport, the most northerly in Sweden, and the transfer to the log cabins of base camp where the first and last nights were spent.

And instantly the cold. It’s a dry cold that rips moisture from the lungs, that turns canvas into the texture of perspex and robs a bare hand of dexterity in less than a minute.

“In England it’s a different sense of cold. It’s that horrible dampness that chills the bones. In the Arctic, the air is dry and the snow is the consistency of salt. On the day we arrived it was minus 20 but one night the temperature dropped to minus 37. Mears said we were lucky. It can drop to minus 40 or 50.”

In consequence, says Christian, the basics of survival are quickly drilled, such as the importance of layering clothes. “You are told that if you sweat you die. Clothes become a third as effective if wet. So you learn to put stuff on – and, if you are working, to know when take it off. When we were hard at work digging the first snow shelter, we stripped off outer layers even though we were in temperatures of minus 20. In one training exercise, Lars asks you to run about outside for a few minutes in your bare feet. It’s then the duty of your partner to rewarm you. That means putting putting your frozen feet under his – or her – armpits, the warmest part of the body.

“Then your partner goes out in the snow and returns the favour. We were also taught to watch out for white spots on the face that can be a warning sign of a cold injury. The human body likes its temperature to be 37 degrees. If your core drops by three degrees, it starts to shut down and the first thing affected in the brain.

The worst moment?

“The morning after the first night we slept out. I awoke so cold that to do anything was an effort. It seemed easier to do nothing. It was quite frightening and claustrophobic and my clothes were encrusted with ice.

“But the training kicked in. I reached for the flask for a warm drink then had a Mars bar and once the blood was going, I was okay..”

While nature conspired against comfort, it was generous in one particular.

“I was sitting on top of a snow shelter on night listening to Dark Side of the Moon on my iPod and watching the aurora. It was there for an hour, painting the whole sky from turquoise to blue to green, one colour fading into another.”

The chromatic spectacle also helped to explain the shattered look on the faces of some Japanese visitors encountered at Kiruna Airport on the journey home.

While the native population of northern Sweden, the Sami, believe that the aurora can be unlucky for children, the Japanese hold the contrary view.

They believe that a child conceived during one will be wealthy and wise. Hotels oblige by fitting skylights so that an opportunity won’t be missed.

“We were told that one hotel rings bells in the bedrooms when the aurora is visible so that the visitors can get cracking at the appropriate moment.”

Inspired by the experience, the landscape, the training and the people, Christian wants to do more.

“I don’t feel like an Arctic explorer but I’ve now got the experience to know I can survive. So I’m looking at doing a course in Oslo. It’s basically about Arctic medicine, with more information on surviving conditions that come with snow. It also involves rescue techniques, so at one point you jump into freezing water.”

Also on the horizon is a course on foraging for wild food, run in this country by Mears. Christian Fletcher, the man who wrapped himself in cotton wool after the death of his friend Dave seems to have emerged from the shadow of that tragedy.

“One night I was in the snow and I thought about him. It was a bit of a salute, I suppose. I probably hadn’t put his ghost to rest but I felt a link with him.

“It takes a long time to realise you are infinitely mortal and that perhaps the best thing to do is to pack your time with all the things you can.”

Ray Mears Bushcraft courses: