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IGO You Go

Sunday, May 21, 2017

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It was probably fitting that this quote was inscribed on the menu of my Norwegian Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale to Oslo, as I was about to spend seven days with complete strangers in an environment that not only challenged us mentally but physically. What better way to get to know people than by meeting them under circumstances that test them to their very limits? And so began my N60 adventure.This wasn't my first turn on the dance floor with Norway. Many moons ago, my father was the Honorary Consul for Norway in Guyana. My curiosity in those days was as avid as it is now, and I took it upon myself one summer to venture to this land of the Northern Lights and Midnight Sun. This time around would be a completely different kettle of fish, however, as it was winter, cold hard arctic winter. For the last 18 years, my life has been a part of the itinerant polo caravan that traverses the globe, spending its winters chasing the sun, i e a life of perpetual summer. Therefore my body, least of all my mind were not exactly prepared for these extremes of temperature. I was reminded of this on our approach to Oslo, as we flew over heavily blanketed snow-covered peaks. The pilot informed us, “There is snow on the runway and the outside temperature is -5 degrees Celsius!” Welcome to Norway!

What kind of craziness would convince a person like me who these days is not partial to the cold to travel to one of the coldest places on earth at this time of year? As most people know, I don't need much persuasion to embark on an adventure! I seem to find my own personal Narnia within the pain that comes from pushing my body way outside of its comfort zone. The trips 21,000 feet up Mount Everest and to the summit of Kilimanjaro, to name a few of my escapades, are a testament to this. So, when my good friend polo player Bobby Melville launched IGO and their first event, N60 — the Arctic Challenge, I couldn't resist the urge to pack my bags and journey North to join this expedition.

So, what is IGO and what sets it apart from its competitors? There are any number of adventure companies on the market these days offering any number of death-defying experiences from summitting Everest, if you could afford the $50k+ fee, to running the 26 rapids of the Zambezi, things that most consider foolhardy, but others a bucket list essential. For me IGO is next-generation adventure travel, conceptualised and run by real adventurers; those who have tasted the sweet ecstasy of real achievement doing things that to some might seem improbable, and to others downright unlikely, things that 90% of the population would only dare dream of or marvel at from the comfort of their armchairs.

IGO was born as an idea when Viscount Melville (Bobby to his friends) along with three other polo players completed the Talisker Whisky Challenge in 2014; a life-changing 48 days at sea crossing the mighty and unforgiving Atlantic Ocean in what some might say was merely a bath tub: a 21ft row boat. He may be titled, but he is certainly not entitled, so he wasn't about to just rest on his noble laurels after his Talisker achievements. According to Bobby, “I wanted to bottle the adrenaline and emotions I felt upon seeing Antigua after two months of rowing. I wanted to give that adventure euphoria to people who only have a week to spare”. Therein was the birth of IGO; its DNA is all about challenge, wilderness and camaraderie. The challenges usually consist of a series of multi-discipline activities suitable to the terrain of each adventure. The participants cover the spectrum from the absolute novice, to people like me with some adventure experience, to accomplished athletes — be they marathon runners, cyclists, triathletes, climbers et al — looking for a demanding training weekend in an 'exotic' location; IGO has something for everyone. This inaugural event was a four-day expedition covering Norway's infamous Hardangervidda Plateau. The route followed mountain passes, crossed frozen lakes, and travelled through the undulating hills of this spectacular region. Nights were equally as adventurous spent under canvas in Norwegian Lavvu tents.

Better known as a Quadrathlon, for N60 the challenges, run on consecutive days, were ski touring (Day 1), fat-biking (Day 2), cross-country skiing (Day 3), and just for good measure a full 26-mile marathon (Day 4). If that wasn't enough, on Day 2 in the afternoon there was also the optional dog sledding. As this was a last-minute decision on my part and with limited or no experience, least of all training in the other disciplines, I opted to participate in the marathon, as at the time I was already in training for the London Triathlon in August that year. Having always been fascinated by the Iditarod, an annual professional dog-sledding race that takes you 1,850km from Settler's Bay to Nome in Alaska's wilderness, the dog sledding (though only about 150km), as well, was a must, and as it turns out it appeared as though I was an absolute natural at it.

By the time I arrived, three days late due to some last-minute commitments, the rest of the participants had already had some days to acclimatise to the weather and the tasks ahead. The comforts of the five-star Skarsnuten Hotel in Helmsedal, “where good food and drink is an important part of the experience”, were most certainly welcomed prior to the race start . Once the event got underway, creature comforts would be off-limits for the next four days; the only luxuries would be the attentions of the physio/massage therapist and expedition medics who spent each night providing relief for injuries sustained that day and preparing contestants for the next day's challenge. If you came here expecting gourmet food and 600-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, you were certainly in the wrong place. Our food was freeze-dried, with everyone allocated their rations at the start of the race along with a peculiar-looking eating utensil called a “spork”, a combination of a spoon and a fork, which we were warned not to lose as they were limited in number. Needless to say, I lost mine on Day 1!

Showers consisted of a daily wet-wipe or two and nights would be spent sleeping in traditional Lavuu tents on cots covered with reindeer skins, along with the -30 degree rated sleeping bag which we had been advised to bring as part of our kit. The roaring wood-burning fire in the centre of the Lavuu which usually was too hot when you first got into bed, was typically stone-cold by 2:00 am, as no-one managed to be awake in the middle of the night to stoke its embers.

Even though I was only participating in the marathon which was on the last day, I travelled the route with the other participants, along with the support crew helping to move the camp every day. I was impressed with the fortitude of the participants; whether they came in first or last, for most people this was their own private race. Many sustained minor injuries and kept going; some, like the ski-adventure writer Abi Butcher had a torn hip flexor by Day 3 and still participated in the marathon on the final day with a decent time. The camaraderie was evident as competitors put aside aspirations of personal bests and supported each other along the way, as aching bodies, and at times lagging spirits, slowed the pace. Together they focused on ensuring that each other made it across the finish line. The IGO spirit was alive and well; by marathon day, people who had started out the week as strangers were now almost like family.

And so race day dawned, bitterly cold like all the other days. This was the fourth and final day of the IGO Adventures N60 Challenge. At 5:00 am when we reluctantly rose to begin our race preps, the sun seemed as indisposed to make an appearance as I was to come out of the relative warmth of my Lavuu tent. I knew the day would be long, but had no idea how long it would eventually end up being! The 26-mile race from Helmsedal to Geilo would take us across remote snow-covered plateaus often used by the military to train special forces. At least 10 miles would also take us through the very remote Hallingskarvet National Park, within which no motorised vehicles are allowed, so to effect any such rescue government permission would have to be sought.

The start to my day was not exactly auspicious. As I wandered into the communal tent for breakfast that morning, I discovered that the boots that had seen me up Everest, that I had foolishly left by the fire to dry out from the day before, had started to melt. Would they even make the full marathon distance? Luckily, one of my tent mates, Nicky Bannister, wore the same size shoes as me and she lent me a spare pair of runners just in case they didn't. Somewhat sleep-deprived and, as usual, cold, I ambled around camp in a daze, putting water into my freeze-dried porridge, preparing my day pack and psyching myself up for the challenge ahead.

And so, two hours later, with much fanfare, and a little sadness that the adventure was almost over, the race began. As the other contestants powered ahead, I set my own pace. For me this was a race of the mind over the body, and I was determined in this duel that the mind would win. The harsh reality of what I was doing smacked me hard in the face less than five miles into this race, and I realised I would have to dig deep to make the distance. Bobby Melville's business partner in IGO, George Bullard, a modern-day Edmund Hillary with the charm and suave of Clarke Gable and some serious adventure credentials already under his belt, became my motivator and knight in shining armour. He relieved me of my backpack and told me to focus on just moving forward. As I had never completed an “ice marathon” before, the object for me here was just to finish, and for the next nine hours Bullard coaxed and cajoled me to keep me going. Pre-race, N60 route planner Rune Abrahamsen had described the terrain as “undulating”, to me it just seemed never-ending, “a vast swathe of white wilderness punctuated by peaks to climb.”

Luckily spring had decided to make a premature appearance that day. The sun, by now high in the sky, warmed the air though it was also fast melting the ice causing it to give way perilously and in places made it treacherously slippery. By now, running was out of the question; we were walking. We even did a pit stop once we got out of the National Park to have lunch. I imagine this was like no other adventure that George Bullard had ever undertaken.

Fuelled up, the last 5K with the end in sight, I even picked up some pace and started running again. The thought of a comfortable bed, hot shower and the proper non-freeze-dried meal that awaited me at the Vestlia spurred me on. Not to mention George Bullard's constant “We are almost there, KK.”

By the time we reached Geilo, the other participants bar one who had to be removed from the course due to serious injury had all made it back to the warmth of the hotel. Such is the spirit and camaraderie of IGO though, the other surviving participants who had battled four days of challenges on their body and probably the only thing they wanted to do was to curl up in a warm bed, turned out to welcome Bullard and me over the finish line with much ado.

It certainly wasn't my best ever marathon time, but for me this was about enduring and completing this challenge. I was euphoric when we eventually crossed the finish line 26 miles later. Feet aching, body cold, hungry, tired but very happy... IGO had achieved its objective... that is the sweet taste of success that only comes with achievement, and the only way to experience that is if You Go...

Karen Kranenburg, Photography IGO Adventures and Karen Kranenburg

Karen Kranenburg travelled to Norway on Norwegian Airlines as a guest of the Skarsnuten and Vestlia Hotel

For more information on IGO adventures go to www.igoadventures.com

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