Brass Monkeys



The boiler broke down last weekend, and I remained wrapped in layers to type. I detest the damp and cold – not ideal for someone born in the Northern hemisphere.

So for my trip tomorrow I think I must have gone mad. How did I ever get talked into this? My ideal holiday is a desert trek to the equator. In London spring arrived last week, the cherry blossom came out and short sleeves were back for 48 hours. Now it’s miserable again – so why am I going as close as I can get to the bloody North Pole?

Partly because I wanted a break after ‘Bryant & May: Wild Chamber’ comes out, partly because I was talked into it by mad friends, partly because this could well be the last year of summer ice before large parts of the Arctic Circle merely become a great bare sea. I also blame the TV series ‘Fortitude’, which was shot in Iceland but is obviously set in Svalbard, a community of some 2,000 souls on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Phillip Pullman set part of his Northern Lights trilogy there. How far North is it? A clue; Google Maps doesn’t go any higher. We’re at the top of the page.

I’m attracted to stories in extreme places, from ‘Kolymsky Heights’ by Lionel Davidson to ‘Brazilian Adventure’ by Peter Fleming. The idea that humans can be psychologically tested by environment is an intriguing one (although I did stumble over Adam Roberts’ philosophical arctic-set ‘The Thing Itself’).

I’ll be flying to Oslo then heading North to Longyearben to stay on the edge of the sea before setting off on snowmobile and dog sled trips to the furthest points. The area was once used as a whaling base, and has abandoned coal mining towns. There are no roads, but it had better have broadband. My idea of roughing it is a hotel with a limited cable selection.

To prepare for this I had to visit a shop called Black’s, not previously on my radar. I walked in and thought I can’t wear anything from here, it’s all so drab!  It turns out that Black’s, which sells the sort of bottles survivalists filter their own pee through, are all over the place, but have remained as invisible to me over the years as ‘Top Gear’ and football.

I have an extravagant history of accidents in far-off locations (there was that falling-down-a-glacier incident in Iceland, for example, and the flooding drama in Sri Lanka) so expect reports of disastrous situations starting from March 25th onwards.

After I’ll be heading to Barcelona to start writing again, and getting a warm-up. BTW, if anyone has tips for Svalbard, let me know!

15 comments on “Brass Monkeys”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    loved ‘Fortitude’. Good luck up there, sir.

  2. Vivienne says:

    Sounds fantastic, and clearly going to be once in a lifetime.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    Have a great time-though rather you then me!

  4. Stephen Groves says:

    Hi Chris,
    Your mad, you will get eaten by a Yeti.
    all best

  5. Agatha Hamilton says:

    Watch out for polar bears. You wouldn’t want to die in a Black’s serviceable anorak.

  6. David says:

    Kolymsky Heights was a great read, unputdownable once you got into it, but it made want to pull the duvet up higher rather than rush off to the frozen north.

    One tip I got from a former colleague who went on a trip to a construction site inside the arctic circle, dont sit at the front of the dog sled, those huskies are on a high protein diet and fart continuously.

  7. Jan says:

    And here’s me having doubts,about the,weather in Cumbria going to walk a section of Hadrians,Wall next week!!

  8. Chris Webb says:

    Hope you don’t encounter any French psychopaths . . .

    I too hate the cold. We evolved in equatorial Africa so why our ancestors got to Northern Europe and then thought “Yeah, it’s nice here, we’ll stay” is a mystery to me.

    I went through a hiking phase years ago but back then the kit was anything but drab. The YHA shop in Covent Garden was full of primary coloured waterproofs, and various other items of clothing and accessories that looked as if they had been designed by Jackson Pollock on acid.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Jan – spare a thought for me during your hike. In the 60s I got a book called A Walk Along the Wall and have wanted to do at least part of it ever since. That was to be part of our next trip. Have a great time!

  10. Jo W says:

    Oh,wrap up Chris and keep warm. 😉 Have a great time!

  11. admin says:

    Cabbie: So, going anywhere nice?
    Me: No.

  12. John Howard says:

    It may be extremely cold but, what is the maxim, “it’s a dry cold so that’s not so bad”. Or is that such a load of old b…cks?
    I do remember Blacks from the 70’s and i encountered them in Glasgow. I’m sure they were originally a Scottish company. As per usual when they weren’t part of a large chain the equipment was the best. That was why people went there. Now the accountants are trying to match the wonderful world of Millets.

  13. David says:

    They were known as Blacks of Gourock, the serious camper/hiker/climber outlet, unlike Millets which was working clothes for manual workers. But now there is Snow & Rock, a haven of merino wool base layers.

    Is there an Ice Hotel in Norway – that would be worth trying, sleeping under bearskins and drinking vodka at room temperature.

  14. Chris Webb says:

    “it’s a dry cold so that’s not so bad”

    You can still end up with Ranulph Fiennes Syndrome, ie. less than the standard issue of fingers and toes.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Make sure your fingers are covered – mittens are better than gloves – and keep your toes moving. If you can’t sense your toes then get somewhere where you can warm them – slowly – so as not to lose any. Keep your head covered, particularly your ears.
    Dry cold is definitely something to watch when you’re accustomed to damp climates. Watch the breathing because the cold air can chill you from the inside out. The dryness just means that the cold doesn’t feel as cold as it is.
    Enjoy the trip – it’ll be one to remember for ever. Hope there are aurora, although probably not dramatic since we’re moving into spring .

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