It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light - Aristotle Onassis.

Ice Cold With Alex

This is the text of an article written for The Review, the St Dunstan's monthly magazine. I hope you enjoy it.

No, this is not a misprint and nor is it the script for the famous 1958 film with John Mills, Anthony Quayle and co. This is a brief account of the 2010 North Pole Marathon which took place on the Arctic ice on Wednesday 7 April 2010. The logic in the title should become clear as you read on.

On the morning of Friday 2 April I was beginning to stress out a little as, despite having had months to prepare, I still hadn't purchased some of the smaller items of equipment needed for my impending trip to the North Pole. No great shakes normally but I was leaving that afternoon! My stress levels were beginning to rise, my newly cultivated beard was itching and Cloud 9 was looking a possibility. Fortunately, as is often the case, along came my gorgeous wife Shauna to take control. Some might think this was an act of kindness but I know that she just wanted to pack me off so she could go to Barcelona with the rest of the mob without any delays! Only joking honest.

We packed the car and headed to a nearby outdoor shop to gather the last few items, then on to my mother's to collect some silk glove liners, socks and balaclava that she had ordered by mail order but which had only arrived that morning despite the usual promises of next day delivery - ha, ha!

I should point out that the weather at this point was actually sunny and quite warm - a rare occurrence north of the border!

You can probably tell already that I was well organised, thoroughly prepared and fully in control (NOT)! After collecting my silks, things then did begin to take a more leisurely pace and we made it to Edinburgh airport without further incident. Before flying out to Oslo, I was meeting Alex Pavanello who had flown up from London and who works for St Dunstan's in Headquarters. Alex had kindly agreed to be my guide for the trip, despite only having met me briefly once before.

You'll be glad to know that I don't intend to bore the pants off you, from this point on, by listing every detail of the trip. Suffice it to say that, because of flight times and other factors, we had a pretty comfortable journey from Edinburgh, via Oslo for 2 nights, to Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, a large island somewhere off the north of Norway and sitting inside the ?Artic Circle at 78 Degrees North. Even at this point the relative comfort continued with 2 nights in the Blue Polar Hotel rubbing shoulders with a variety of people either on crazy polar treks or simply holidaying with their families. One of the family groups was that of Zinedine Zidane, the French footballer which somewhat took us by surprise! Unfortunately we chickened out of taking the chance to ask for his signature but at least it meant I didn't have to decide which of my sons would have been given it on my return.

The scenery had turned somewhat wintry by this stage with large snow-capped mountains close by and frozen sea inlets still in the grips of the winter chill. Local transport in the form of skidoos and sledges pulled by huskies were commonplace. Even some of the signage on buildings was quite clearly different from what you might expect in UK. For example, outside the Post Office was a sign telling you that pistols and rifles were banned inside - lucky we were not law abiding robbers or we would have had to leave our shotguns outside while we robbed this branch!! On the food side, Alex was particularly impressed by the quality and quantity of the buffet offered in the evening. Local delicacies such as whale beef, seal, reindeer, crab and other food was in plentiful supply.

On the evening of Monday 5 April we started to focus more on the real reason for being there - the North Pole Marathon. Other competitors had arrived during the day and a group briefing was held, firstly at the airport by the Russians who are in charge of the camp on the ice, and then back at the hotel by the race organiser Richard Donovan from Ireland. Due to the uncertain weather conditions, it was not clear at this stage if we would be flying to the ice in the morning or not. The plan rapidly became 'Wait and see' or 'Hurry up and wait' as many of those of us who have been in the services will relate to!

As it happens, the flight did go ahead and several hours later we touched down on the ice at Camp Barneo - the plane was an Antanov 74 for those of you who are interested in these things. A much colder and driving wind met us as we got off the plane and made our way to the main messing tent for a further briefing from our Russian hosts. The introduction was given by Victor Boyarski who had, in 1989/90, been the Russian member of an international team which trekked across Antarctica, by the longest possible route, with dog teams and eventually covering a distance of 6000 miles in 7 months! Victor later gave us a very interesting presentation on this trip which was absolutely fascinating.

Camp Barneo was, despite being on the polar ice, actually really comfortable - one main messing tent, 4 accommodation tents with 10 beds in each and the whole lot being extremely well insulated. All the tents were linked with a central heating system - honest this is not a wind up!! In addition to this, the camp staff had their own areas for work and accommodation.

Whilst the majority of the competitors spent that day checking kit and relaxing, Richard took the opportunity to survey the surrounding area and to set out the likely course that would be used in the marathon on the following day, assuming that the weather was OK. I spent some time interviewing some of the other competitors and recording some unexpected events for my audio diary. For example, I had not considered the possibility of recording a man playing drums at the North Pole or capturing the sound of a game of football between the Russian hosts and an international select team - both of these happened!

Equally, I had never imagined that I would be sitting at the North Pole camp interviewing Sir David Attenborough but this is exactly what happened later that afternoon. A second plane had landed several hours after ours and brought with it members of a BBC film crew, including Sir David, who were in the area to film sequences for the next series "The Frozen Planet" which is due to be out in October 2011. It was a real privilege to have been given this opportunity and, during our conversation, Sir David highlighted a personal connection with St Dunstan's. His father-in-law was John Oriel, who had been blinded by gas during the First World War and who had, despite being blind, had worked as Chief Chemist at Shell and had been involved with the design of the PLUTO (Pipeline Laid Under the Ocean) system which was used to re-supply the Allied troops after the invasion of France.

Another bizarre coincidence was that we met up with Mike Scholes, another St Dunstaner who was hoping to set off on a trek to the geographic North Pole in the following days. All the way to the ice cap to meet fellow St Dunstaners - the world's gone mad!

All through the first day, the winds were blowing very hard and a lot of snow was drifting throughout the camp and surrounding area making visibility pretty poor. This continued through the morning of the planned race day, causing the start to be delayed and leading to more cups of tea, more sitting around and shooting the breeze with other competitors. It was a really international mix of 25 individuals from UK, Ireland, Holland, Canada, the US, Rumania, Spain, the Czech Republic, Poland and Taiwan.

As the day progressed, it appeared that the winds had lightened slightly and visibility had improved well enough to make a start at around 4 pm. The course was to be 11 laps of a course which used the 1500 metres of the runway, going down wind, followed by the remainder of the circuit being back into the wind and on the more challenging terrain to the side of the runway. If I'm being honest, I found the race to be pure purgatory and probably only enjoyed the first lap and the last 200 metres. The rest of the time it was a real slog. I was extremely lucky to have had Alex as my guide as he appeared to have endless amounts of energy and enthusiasm to keep moving me on to the next lap. We did make a number of stops to adjust clothing or to top up our sugar levels but the bottom line was that we had to grind out the distance. With 200 metres to go we hoisted our national flags and the St Dunstan's flag to complete the course in a time of 7 hours 37 minutes. Not exactly a world record time but we did make 13th place out of 25 entrants.

It's amazing how quickly spirits top themselves up again after this kind of event. A cup of tea was quickly followed by some food and then a few glasses of what we'll just call 'moral fibre' for the purposes of this article. Half an hour later and the world was a wonderful place again!

The following day was mainly spent relaxing in the messing tent and repacking kit in the hope that we might be able to fly to the geographic pole and then back to the mainland. In the end, it was decided that the visibility wasn't good enough to make this possible. The upside was that there was more time available to chat to the other competitors and exchange tales about the race.

At 7 am the next morning, we all had a rather unexpected and abrupt awakening by one of the Russians. We were told that we only had 40 minutes to get up, packed and be ready to fly to the pole. Amazingly we all made it in time though several individuals were slightly suffering from an over-indulgence the previous evening! The Russian safety briefing for the helicopter was somewhat amusing:

"Get out the door and turn right so the pilot can see you and you can see him. If you turn left you're dead!!"

A flight of around 30 minutes took us to the exact geographic pole. Before landing the Russians showed us the technique for testing the strength of the ice - first throw out a heavy tyre and, if the ice holds firm, then throw out a man with a long spike who then proceeds to prod the ice around the planned landing area. Assuming that this goes OK, you land carefully. When the engines were cut and we walked the few yards to the correct spot on the ice, the wilderness and remoteness was quite palpable. One of the other competitors described the scenery as being like a flat area around the size of a football pitch surrounded by pressure ridge after pressure ridge in all directions - quite spectacular. We only had a short time at the pole and really just enough time to get photos and to drink a quick celebratory cup of mulled wine but it was like nectar. The helicopter then flew us back to Camp Barneo from where we immediately caught a flight back to Spitsbergen.

Despite having missed our booked flights because of the delay caused by the weather, by 10 pm that evening we had managed to catch flights all the way back to London! To have stood at the North Pole in the morning and to be sleeping in a cheap hotel in Heathrow in the evening felt quite bizarre - almost a feeling of not being sure that it had happened at all. Alex even got home earlier than originally planned.

It was a fantastic trip and one which I will remember for the rest of my days - and most certainly an experience that was ice cold with Alex.

Jamie Cuthbertson 16 April 2010