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When our BBC team landed we were greeted with reports of an unusual ‘cold snap’ heading our way.... more like an Arctic blast, which affected all of Europe. Instead of a relatively manageable minus 20-25, actual temperatures were predicted to get down to minus 40. It was at this point I wished I had purchased better boots.

When we arrived at the rented house, the overland team which included Sir Ran and Steve Holland (leader of Equipment Development) were now joined by Dr Mike Stroud (Ran’s expedition partner for over 30 years), Anton Bowring (transport/ shipping organizer and again long time expedition partner of Ran), Geoff Long (University of Portsmouth’s Department of Sport and Exercise Science)  and Russell ‘Tomo’ Thompson (Outdoor Training Instructor), all experts in their own fields of expedition training and organization. The BBC team was granted the honor of the relatively private upstairs room of the house, which resembled a cold version of ‘Little House on the Prairie’. We piled in with our mountainous bags and flopped onto three single beds. Matthew instructed us what to do if he started snoring. “Just yell turn over Matthew like my wife does” he said. 

'The Coldest Journey' - Filming in the Freezer

In November 2011 BBC Foreign News producer Mark Georgiou was looking for an experienced camera crew to work on a special project with him.  ‘Ranulph Fiennes’ and ‘Antarctica’ were the three words that leapt out of his email and basically I was the first to answer his call out. I’d been based in Moscow for three years so knew about filming in below zero temperatures, plus I had worked with Sir Ran before when he did his ‘7x7x7’ challenge back in 2003 - running 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days. I would have gotten to Antarctica then if our plane hadn’t developed engine problems.... but that’s a whole other story!

 

I first met some of the team when Mark and I held a camera and editing training course at Pinewood Studios. This is where one of the expedition sponsors Panasonic, have their office, and they would be providing broadcast quality equipment for the trip. This was also where I first heard in more detail what they were planning to do. The aim was to traverse the Antarctic via the South Pole during the winter months when temperatures can go as low as minus 80.  Blimey! that had never been done before and I could understand why. The BBC were going to get exclusive first rights to the footage that hopefully the team would be providing themselves, that’s were Mark and I came in. It was our job to teach them. So in a room opposite the ‘007’ sound stage we set to work. 

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The next step was to select the actual team members and test the equipment. This had to be done somewhere very cold and so in February 2012 Mark, myself and Europe correspondent Matthew Price were on a plane heading for North Sweden. ‘The Coldest Journey’ team, to give its official title, were taking a much slower overland (and water). This was necessary given the amount of equipment they had to bring and allowed for the team selection process to begin. 

Over the next few days the six candidates would be given all sorts of physical and mental tasks which would result in just two of them being chosen. 


 



Me with Sir Ranulph Fiennes & Dr Mike Stroud

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The venue was Colmis Vehicle Test Facility on the outskirts of Arjeplog, which was sometimes used by BBC Top Gear. We later learnt that Jeremy Clarkson et al were in fact filming on that very same week; they had been just over the ridge from us. Our part of the site was in a mini test track in a gully, which the rays from the low northern sun barely glimpsed during the day making the temperatures drop even further.  With my five layers of clothing and thermal jacket on my camera, filming was hard work. All that padding meant the camera would not sit naturally in its normal shoulder position so I  really had to use my arm muscles to keep it there. There was too much happening to shoot constantly on the tripod and putting the camera on the freezing ground was no good either.  Just accessing my Sony PMW 500 camera and operating it under the jacket was extremely fiddly. I learnt to use the assignable buttons on the side to give me more ‘Record’ options. 

Over the next four days we filmed during all the daylight hours, and some nighttime as well. I watched in horror as the mega ton sled being towed by a D6N Caterpillar smashed down onto my GoPro camera as it filmed a low shot. It survived in a cushion of snow and to our amusement had kept filming (see clip above).  We then watched as the D6N took a short cut across deep virgin snow and ended up half submerged in a frozen pond. The next hours were spent trying to pull it out. Several attempts failed when the thick three inch cable attached to the other ‘Cat’ snapped and whipped out across an area we had been standing just minutes earlier. So glad everyone had his or her health and safety hats on that day. 


But the biggest fright was when Sir Ran and Dr Mike brought Anton Bowring towards us. Anton had been taking photographs for all the sponsors, of which there were many. In return each company could name check Sir Ranulph Fiennes and ‘The Coldest Journey’ expedition but a photo of Sir Ran with their particular piece of equipment or clothing was even better. 

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Anton had been hard at it all day and apparently had been taking his gloves on and off to operate his stills camera. He was now holding his stiff hands out in front of him and when Dr Mike slipped his gloves off we saw why.  The flesh was chalky white and when he knocked his fingers together it sounded like two china teacups chinking. I nearly screamed it was so shocking. Anton was taken back to the house for treatment and later we would see for ourselves what 2nd stage frostbite really looked like.

 


By evening the pink colouring had returned to his hands, he had soaked them in a bowl of warmish water but large blisters had now formed below the nails. By the following day the fingertips had turned black and he was sent off for proper medical treatment. Luckily he recovered without losing his fingers however he is left with severe nerve damage and numbness.... poor Anton.

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Luckily team BBC had no medical emergencies. Producer Mark had provided a car and the engine was left ticking over for most of the day. This meant we could take the edge off our frozen extremities. My toes were really suffering which was not surprising given my boots were only rated to minus 25. Mark and Matthew had got boots rated to minus 40 from BBC stores but turns out they only had two pairs in stock!  The view of me with my toes stuck up against the dashboard heaters must have been quite a sight, but it worked and kept me going through out the long days and nights. And it turned out to be a sensible move when our car was one of the only vehicles that could drive away at the end filming. 

On the final day, just when we thought this trip couldn’t get any more eventful, we drove out of town and headed for the airport. Suddenly a reindeer came galloping towards us in the middle of the road. It was icy so luckily we were moving quite slowly which gave the reindeer just enough time to swerve to the side and past us. What it was running after or away from we will never know.... but I bet Jeremy Clarkson had something to do with it!

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Ten minutes after lights out Mark and I simultaneously yelled, “Turn over Matthew” then burst out laughing. Ah, the joys of sharing a bedroom with your co-workers!

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