Snow Camping

Camping? …On the snow? …In Greenland? …For a month? …With no toilet? …Are you serious?

A true survival test, yes, but it wasn’t actually as bad as you may think… We were fully prepared for the cold and ensured we looked after ourselves – staying warm(ish), dry, fed and hydrated.

Our snow covered camp, there's 3 tents in there somewhere.
Our snow covered camp, there’s 3 tents in there somewhere.

So how did we cope with the freezing temperatures, deep snow, threat of polar bears, remoteness, lack of facilities…etc. Here’s how and also some top tips we picked up along the way:

Our first night at Constable Point was the first big test of our gear and systems before we headed out to the Stauning Alps. Lessons learnt after the first night included:

1.       Inflatable pillows go really brittle in the cold and explode in quite a fashion when you put your head on them! I went without a pillow for the whole month.
2.       Tent Poles lose their elasticity in the cold – repeated stretching sorts this out.
3.       Digging a hole in the porch of the tent makes getting in and out and taking ski boots on and off so much easier!
4.       As you breathe, condensation forms on the inside of the tent, be ready for it to ‘snow’ on you in the morning. The quantity surprised us!

Sleeping bags defrosting on top of the tent.
Sleeping bags defrosting on top of the tent.

It was a good job everything worked OK and we had no serious issues as it was too late to change anything anyway.

Site Selection
Our camp locations were usually chosen based on our tiredness. When we were too knackered to carry on we would stop at the closest looking flat spot. For the majority of the expedition this was in the middle of a glacier, with the most amazing views! We would check on the GPS and our maps to ensure we weren’t in a potential avalanche run-out zone, then begin to dig out and stomp with skis on, to make some flat platforms for the tents. We’d dig through the soft snow layer to a more solid base – to try and get a level night’s sleep.

Our ice cove camp site, everything echoed!
Our ice cove camp site, everything echoed!

Tents
We took 3 tents with us, 2x 4-season geodesic tents for sleeping and 1x tunnel tent for cooking and socialising. This set-up worked really well and we would definitely recommend a separate mess tent! To have a place where we could all shelter from the wind and warm up, sit together, eat together and have karaoke sessions together(!) was great. It also meant we didn’t have to worry about the additional condensation created while cooking and it acted as a potential sacrificial lamb if the open flames did meet with the billowing tunnel tent! The sleeping tents were just that, for sleeping. We had large snow pegs to fix the tents down, which worked really well. A little kick in the morning and they’d pull straight out. We used our skis if additional guy lines were needed during windier periods.

Enjoying life in our mess tent!
Enjoying life in our mess tent!

Snow Construction
One of the advantages of camping on snow is that you can design your camp how you like, there’s plenty of building material available. Packing the bottom of the tents out with snow, prevented any spin-drift from getting between the inner and outer tent layers. A dug out porch (as mentioned above) meant you could sit in the door of the tent and take your ski boots off easily. We built walls out of snow a few feet away from the tents for shelter when required. The inside of our mess tent was a thing of beauty – 2 bench seats, a cooking platform, and storage shelves! Our toilets which got nicknamed ‘poo palaces’ got progressively grander throughout the trip.

Our carefully carved cooking area.
Our carefully carved cooking area.

Ground insulation
It is hugely important to insulate yourself from the snow. We had 3 layers of 3mm underlay which covered the entire base of the inner tent, a foam roll mat each and also an inflatable mat each. This layering system worked well, we didn’t feel the cold from beneath. Interestingly, and something you’d probably never think of – when you blow air into your inflatable sleeping mat, the moisture in your breathe condenses over night and when you come to roll the mat up in the morning, it has small bits of ice inside! This didn’t seem to cause any problems but maybe worth considering taking a small pump.

Wrapped up warm. Jen being woken by snow falling on her face!
Wrapped up warm. Jen being woken by snow falling on her face!

Keeping Warm
We had a mix of synthetic and down sleeping bags within the group and both did the job well. One thing you need to consider, your 4-season sleeping bag will make you quite a lot taller than you would otherwise be. If you have a choice of tents make sure it’s long enough so that your head and feet don’t touch the ends! This wasn’t a problem for us shorties but Jesse’s feet touched the end of the tent, iced up, the down froze and this would have been a problem if he hadn’t had down booties to wear inside his sleeping bag.

Each of us had a 1 litre nalgene bottle which we filled with boiling water each evening, this acted as a hot water bottle and helped to keep the dehydration at bay. What would we do without these! They warmed our bags up and our feet throughout the night. In fact, I think the only time my feet were warm was in the mornings when I woke up!

Down booties, down trousers and hot water bottles went inside the sleeping bags. Toasty!
Down booties, down trousers and hot water bottles went inside the sleeping bags. Toasty!

On the extremely cold nights, we had our sleeping bags done up tight around our faces, so that only our noses were exposed. Your nose would still freeze, so we used either a balaclava or a buff to fully cover up. Not for those that suffer from claustrophobia!

People say to wear you next day clothes in bed so they are warm in the morning, this wasn’t really an issue for us. We only had 2 sets of pants and base layers each and changed once mid-trip! Sounds disgusting..it was pretty minging, but you got used to the smell. And it isn’t as bad as you are probably imagining. We had plenty of warm layers to keep the smell in too. One big down jacket and several other insulated jackets shielded our noses and kept us cosy, the majority of the time.

Trying to keep warm behind a snow wall.
Trying to keep warm behind a snow wall.

It was also important to keep all manner of things warm, during the day they were kept in our jacket pockets and at night in our sleeping bags. How many items can you fit in you jacket was a common game! These items included: skins for your skis, batteries, GPS, camera, primula cheese, inners from ski boots, gloves, socks, water bottles and suncream!

We’d all decided that having an alternative set of footwear for in and around camp would be essential to give our feet a break from ski boots. We had a mixture of down/synthetic booties and hot socks. It seemed the most extensive products performed the worst – the down booties came with a detachable sandal that was supposed to allow you to walk around in them. The material became brittle and split on day 3, leading to snow filled booties and cold feet. A better solution seemed to be the hot socks in ski boot outers. However, it was really hard to keep feet warm, if not near impossible. Having been back in the UK for 2 weeks our toes are still a little numb! I would recommend taking a proper waterproof snow boot (welly-esk) into which your insulated booties will fit.

Room with a view!
Room with a view!

Cooking
Everything was frozen and no water was available, so all cooking began by melting snow. We kept a bag of snow in the tent ready for melting and when this ran out, there was plenty more. All our main meals were dehydrated and this was a huge time, weight and effort saver. Just add boiling water, wait 8 minutes and no washing up! All the meals were very tasty. We made neoprene pouches especially for the dehydrated meal packets, these were excellent. The pouches provided insulation, without them the food would have been cold by the time it was ready to eat. We each had a thermos flask which stayed filled with hot water.

A bag of snow for melting...
A bag of snow for melting…

We took 2 primus omni fuel stoves and used white gas. In the extremely low temperatures, they were really hard to get going, a lot of pumping was required! Make sure you take all the tools for maintaining and cleaning your stove, you will need them! We’d made wooden stove boards for the stoves to sit on, this was mainly for stability and to avoid melting the snow beneath. They also captured any little fuel spills.

Yummy!!!
Yummy!!!

Going to the toilet
Why does it never happen at home, but always in a tent…needing a wee during the night! Going to the loo in a blizzard with temperatures down around -25°C was not my idea of fun. I am now a total convert to the ‘Pee bottle’! I couldn’t pee in a bottle in my sleeping bag like the guys could, but I became very efficient at kneeling under my sleeping bag and doing the business. In the morning we’d have pee slush puppies, as it never quite froze. Another go would melt it and then it could be poured away ready for the following night. Definitely take at least a 1 litre bottle!

Don't get your bottles mixed up.
Don’t get your bottles mixed up.

During the day, it was just a matter of announcing to the group, so they’d turn their backs – there was nowhere to hide and no one else was around. Number 2s were more traumatic for certain members of the group, a certain squataphobe. We all got into a morning routine and had a designated ‘palace’ to visit. A big deep hole was dug at every camp, so we could be a little more discreet and get out of the wind!

Other Tips
Take a brush for brushing snow off yourself before getting in the tent, or for brushing off the snow on the inner tent and sweeping under the underlay. Also good for brushing snow off skins and skis at the end of every day.

Develop a system within the team for efficiency and speed. Know where everything is (pack efficiently), who’s doing what, each have a job etc. We got pretty good at getting the tents up and getting a brew on!

Our camp before the first col.
Our camp before the first col.

Keep a shovel close to hand and in the porch of your tent, you may need to dig yourself out.

Be prepared for poles to snap and outers to rip. We had at least 4 snapping incidents and 2 rips. Take an extensive repairs kit to cover most eventualities.

Things to consider for next time would include possibly a bivvy bag to protect your sleeping bag from the cumulative effects of condensation.

The supposedly indestructible SpaceStation (not ours), destroyed in a storm at Constable Point while we were out in the Stauning Alps.
The supposedly indestructible SpaceStation (not ours), destroyed in a storm at Constable Point while we were out in the Stauning Alps.

Collecting Awards #Pioneers with purpose

Not a week went by following our return from Greenland, before leaving home again…for more excitement – The Scientific Exploration Society (SES) Awards ceremony hosted by the Royal College of Surgeons in London. What an evening it was – so many exploring legends!

What a huge privilege to meet Sir Charles Blois. Photo by Mark Nox.

The SES Charles Blois Explorer Award was created to support a ‘Pioneer with Purpose’ undertaking an adventurous expedition with strong physical requirements in a challenging environment which aims to produce new science (physical or anthropological) – somebody who endeavours to go ‘one step further’ on their exploration of scientific research, remoteness or innovative recreation of a past journey or discovery.

It was a huge honour to win this award and to meet Sir Charles in person. We can’t thank him enough, without his generous support, expeditions like ours just couldn’t happen! A big thank you from the whole team!

Nervously presenting to a full auditorium! Photo by Mark Nox

Meeting the other award winners and hearing all about their up and coming adventures was fantastic- I wish them all the best and will follow their progress with great interest.

Leatherman generously gave all us award winners a new ‘Sidekick’ multi tool with the following message: Since pretty much day one Leatherman has been supporting explorers by providing kit to the likes of Sir David Hempleman-Adams, Ben Saunders and Leo Houlding to name a few. Leathermans are tools for real life and we hope that the gift we’ve given, assists you on your adventures in the years to come. We’d also like to congratulate you on the bravery and commitment you have all shown to receive these awards, and wish you luck on your upcoming trips.

A big thanks to Leatherman – hopefully I won’t need it for any frost bitten amputations!

My new Leatherman 'Sidekick' - thanks!
My new Leatherman ‘Sidekick’ – thanks!

I was asked a few times where I was planning to go next and what was my next adventure going to be…I need to let my toes finish defrosting and for my brain to get back into gear before thinking about that! No doubt there’ll be many more adventures!

In the coming months we’ll be going through our thousands of photographs and video footage and putting an extensive expedition report together. More busy months ahead…

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We’re home…Numb toed and rosy cheeked (un)fresh from the field!

This time last week, we were still in Greenland, I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet what we’ve achieved! Just surviving in that environment  was hard. This was our first expedition – so we didn’t really know what to expect. Had we got enough food, enough warm clothes, was our route even possible?! Could we pull pulks nearly double our weight uphill, could we drill 6m down into the glacier with a hand drill?! It was all a bit unknown.

But we successfully accomplished all our goals – a series of stakes drilled in the ice, measurements taken and new peaks climbed. It’s an incredible feeling to explore places where no one has ever been! The scenery was absolutely stunning and the weather was kind to us. We sat out an Arctic storm for a few days but had a lot of sunshine!

All very glad to be back in the warm, with a shower, a real bed and real food! All we need now is for the feeling in our toes to come back…

We have thousands of photos and some video footage to work our way through and share in the coming months, but here’s a taster of what it was like…

The science - digging big snow pits and taken measurements
The science – digging big snow pits and taken measurements
The drilling technique with a sharp drill bit
The drilling technique with a sharp drill bit
The drilling technique with a blunted drill bit!
The drilling technique with a blunted drill bit!
Dragging our very heavy pulks uphill was hard work!
Dragging our very heavy pulks uphill was hard work!
Some amazing camping spots with our new peak in the background!
Some amazing camping spots with our first new peak in the background!
Celebrations after our second new peak!
Celebrations after our second new peak!
Our epic 11 hour day - it was a long way up!
Our epic 11 hour day – it was a long way up!
Stunning landscapes
Stunning landscapes
Feeling on top of the world
Feeling on top of the world
Our ice cove camp site, everything echoed!
Our ice cove camp site, everything echoed!
The point of no return!
The point of no return!

 

 

Bits and Bobs..and getting excited!

Over a years worth of planning and preparation and now with only 3 weeks to go, we’re getting the last few bits and pieces sorted.

It was recommended to us by an experienced expeditionist to get some neoprene food pouches for our meal packs, to keep the heat in longer and making them nicer to hold. So Molly has been busy cutting up her old wetsuit and putting her sewing skills to the test…

Molly on the sewing machine...not a common sight!
Molly on the sewing machine…not a common sight!

We have 2 leg pouches, a crotch pouch and 2 waist pouches, who will draw the short straw!

Homemade neoprene pouches
Homemade neoprene pouches

Jesse has been to get some final modifications to his ski boots, they need to be as comfortable as possible to make living in them for a month more bearable. Our trip to Norway was hugely beneficial to iron out all the little niggles with equipment.

Nice comfy foot beds being made
Nice comfy foot beds being made

Jen has been getting out and putting some long days in in Scotland, getting super fit! Ollie has also been getting out in the snow in Scotland walking, skiing, climbing etc.

Ollie out touring in Scotland
Ollie out touring in Scotland

And Alistair has been busy with maps! In the final few weeks we’ll be putting together a more detailed day to day plan with routes, distances, timings etc. Below is an example of a few layers we’ll have on our GPSs..

Starting to pull together our maps
Starting to pull together our maps

Check in for our outbound flights is now open, which means we can start to getting stupidly excited!!! Our park permit, radio permit and firearms permit are all in place..we’re all set….

Our training trip to Norway

We’ve just got back from our training trip in Norway… a great time was had by all! We flew into Tromso and headed out to the Dividalen region for 4/5 days of remote ski touring. Pulks were kindly lent to us from some of Alistairs colleagues at the Norwegian Polar Institute – which was fantastic for us to get a feel for what it’s like to pull heavy loads! Thanks guys!

The stunning Norwegian Landscape
The stunning Norwegian Landscape

We hoped this trip would give us a feel for what we may expect – being only a few degrees latitude south with similar temperatures…and we definitely got a lot out of this trip.

Dealing with the freezing temperatures
Dealing with the freezing temperatures

We familiarised ourselves with our kit and put it to the test over the 4 days which proved to be extremely valuable. A few minor adjustments need to be made prior to Greenland and a few additions to the kit list. Mainly clothing layers, socks, a stiff brush and a jug for avoiding spillages when filling thermos’s.

Sorting gear on the frozen lake
Sorting gear on the frozen lake

We melted snow throughout our trip for drinking water and cooking, a very time consuming process, but great to get a feel for timings etc. The need for allocating roles became apparent and we became much more efficient at getting out in the morning! Our pace also increased over the time we were out there and we managed to cover just over 60km..

Teamwork
Teamwork

The weather and conditions were on our side and the location was absolutely stunning! Bring on Greenland…just a month to go now…!!!

Jen soaking up the rays..
Jen soaking up the rays..

 

Mapping and High Resolution Imagery

We’ve been awarded a grant for high-res imagery from @DigitalGlobeFDN! We’ll use it to plan a safe route avoiding crevasses & other hazards.

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The imagery is really important to our expedition. We will use summer imagery to identify areas of crevasses, deep surface stream channels and other hazards which may be covered by snow and less visible from on the ground. This will help us move safely across the glacier and identify the best locations for installing ablation stakes and measuring the snow properties on the glacier. The high resolution of the imagery should also make it easier to identify potential routes and access to some of the peaks we intend to climb.

There’s a mixture of summer and winter images and they’re 0.5m resolution, so we should be able to use them to pick out comfy looking rocks to sit and have lunch on!

We’ve also teamed up with Satmap, they have kindly offered to loan us some of their GPS units loaded with all this information!downloadTogether with Satmap Systems Ltd and Digital Globe FDN we’ll be extremely well prepared.

A massive thanks to @DigitalGlobeFDN and Satmap!

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Our Gear has Set Off!

All our food and most of our equipment is now on its way to Greenland – the journey has begun!

Packing all our stuff up in boxes
Packing all our stuff up in boxes

We’ve packed our stuff into a combination of plastic and cardboard boxes which are taped up extremely well to withstand the long journey!

Molly delivers the goods
Molly delivers the goods

We delivered it all to Immingham on the east coast and waved it on its way this afternoon…

Eimskip
Eimskip

Where will it go…?

  • Sea Freight: Immingham, UK – Reykjavik cargo warehouse, Iceland
  • Haulage: Reykjavik cargo warehouse, Iceland – Akureyri airport, Iceland
  • Air Freight: Akureyri airport, Iceland – Constable Point, Greenland
A map of where our stuff is going...
A map of where our stuff is going…

Hopefully it will all run like clockwork and we’ll be reunited with it when we step off the plane at Constable Point on the 6th April.

Twin Otter

The remaining kit – mainly our clothes, skies and electronics will be coming with us on the plane in April. We’ve organised a training camp in Tromso, Norway towards the end of Feb to test run our gear, refresh our skills and to further develop our teamwork etc.

Our 60W solar panels work well in the January sun in the UK, but a better test will be in the northern Norwegian sun in Feb!

Solar panels charging 2 radios and 2 camera batteries..
Solar panels charging 2 radios and 2 camera batteries..

Less than 2 months to go…

Our Scientific Research

Recent news showing that the extent of the total sea ice is at its’ lowest level since satellite records began in 1978, really highlights the need for humanity to do what we can to slow this ever increasing trend.

sea ice

Our plan to carry out self-supported scientific research in the Stauning Alps region of Greenland is our way of getting involved and helping to inform the world about one of the biggest issues facing us today.

We will collect valuable scientific data and instigate a new monitoring program, using data collected during the 1970s as a baseline for investigating changes in the region over the past 40 years and into the future. This monitoring program will utilise measurements and techniques which can be repeated by future expeditions to set up a vital, long term record of changes in the area.

So what exactly will we be doing…

We will install a similar network of ablation stakes to that measured and maintained in the 1970s. During these campaigns, a network of 26 stakes was installed in three lines; two cross-glacier lines on Roslin Glacier, and one on Dalmore Glacier, a tributary to Roslin Glacier, as shown below:

Location of the stakes installed during the 1970s.

One of the primary aims of this stake network was to measure the cross-glacier variation in ice flow speed. This required a high number of stakes in the across-glacier direction to get a reasonable resolution of the cross-glacier variation in flow speed. As surface flow speeds can now be derived from satellite imagery and constrained by a small number of ground-based point measurements, our primary interest will be in ablation measurements. Therefore, we will distribute our stakes across a wider elevation range than in 1970 and reduce the number of stakes to 10. This also means that we can realistically transport the necessary tools and stakes on the pulks which we will be towing.

Stakes will be installed using a hand drill; although more labour intensive, this will significantly reduce the weight we most carry, by omitting the power drill and power generation equipment. It’ll also keep us warm!

Drilling into the ice…

As we are installing the stakes in the early spring, it will also be necessary to remove the surface snow before drilling. This will allow an opportunity to collect density and temperature profiles of the snow on the surface of the glacier, providing insights in the accumulation rates in the upper part of the glacier as well as valuable data to validate snow and precipitation models of the area. The stakes will be drilled to a depth of up to 4 metres. This depth will allow the stakes to remain in place for a number of years without being replaced.

Stake sketch
High-tech engineering drawings of stake lengths and attachments

We will set up a base camp and stay for several days at this location on the Roslin Glacier to enable us to complete all this work. We believe that reviving the relationship between science and mountaineering could allow the collection of measurements like these which play a vital role in creating a long term record in remote areas. Measurements and records of this nature, while simple, are invaluable to scientists, particularly in determining the mass balance of the glacier and for validating modelled or remote sensing observations. We hope that this may eventually evolve into a form of ‘citizen science’ for mountaineering expeditions.

Our colour coded stakes ready for shipping to Greenland.
Our colour coded stakes ready for shipping to Greenland.

The scientific data we collect will be published and presented at scientific conferences, and used to demonstrate the potential of this untapped method of data collection.

Please do get in touch if you want to find out more and get involved in future expeditions.

1972 pic
Collating results during the expedition in August 1972.

Expedition Food

Food, food, glorious food…

All our food needs to be shipped out 2 months before we arrive in Greenland – coming up with a menu has not been an easy task. Our requirements include:

  • Best before date beyond the 4th May
  • High calorie, low weight
  • ~4500kcal/day/person
  • Edible when frozen
  • Suitably packaged
  • Requiring only the addition of hot water

A freezer test was conducted to ensure all the food we’d selected would be ok when frozen! Mars bars were struck off the list!

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The freezer test

After much discussion we finalised our menu a couple of weeks ago. We decided on having dehydrated packs for evening meals and our own menu for breakfasts, snacks and lunches as a compromise between ease of cooking and cost.

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Our extensive menu, day by day

We have gone for three varieties of breakfast on a rotation, based on porridge, granola and cereal bars. Snacks consist of chocolate bars, nuts, cheese biscuits, pork scratchings, peperami, pretzels, snack bars and sweets. Lunches will mainly be oat cakes, primula cheese, jerky and cuppa soups.

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5 people, 31 days

Shopping for all these items has been more fun than we’d imagined. 5 different supermarkets and 9 shopping visits later, we have purchased all our food. Trolley loads of unhealthy food raised several eye brows especially in January (the detox month!).

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Banana chips and peanuts individually packed

To save us having to divvy the food up each day in the freezing cold in Greenland, we thought we’d make up ration packs at home.  Hopefully all our preparation upfront will prove beneficial! Weighing out individual portions of porridge, snacks etc. is quite time consuming but will be worth it. We now have 3 different ration packs A, B and C to provide variety, which will be handed out each morning…simples!

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Ration packs

Our dehydrated packs have arrived in the post, so we’re all set to go! It’s becoming more real day by day.. Exciting times!

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Dehydrated food packs

I think we’ll be craving fresh fruit and veg when we get back…

Finalising our Gear for shipping

Time off over the festive period has been put to good use with finalising our equipment & food lists and redistributing kit from all over the country to our temporary gear store in Loughborough.

Santa must have been tipped off about our up and coming trip to the Arctic and as we’ve all been good boys and girls he was very kind this year! The general theme was insulation – thick socks, thermos flasks, mitts, sleeping mats etc. Our shipping deadline is fast approaching and kit is starting to get packed up which is making it all feel more real now!

Jen has been busy contacting many gear manufactures and organising our equipment and we’re now in possession of a huge box of down goodies! She is also our chief medical officer and has put a comprehensive list of first aid and medical supplies together to ensure we’re covered for most eventualities..

Safety first..
Safety first..

Ollie has been negotiating with several dehydrated food suppliers to get us the highest calorie to weight ratio packs for the best price. The food packs have now been ordered and we have a surprising 9(!) different evening meals. He is also our spares and repairs handyman and has put together an ingenious list of tools and materials to fix any gear that may break!

Thanks to Be-Well for all their help!

Alistair has been getting our science kit together and putting his painting skills to the test! We now have colour coded poles with holes pre-drilled to use as our stakes. He is also sorting out a training camp in Tromso for late Feb…to test out some of our gear and polish up our skills etc.

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Science can be colourful!

Jesse has been doing some sums and working out our sea freight logistics. 300kg of stuff needs to leave the UK on 7th Feb (2 months before we arrive in Greenland). What gear can be shipped early? Locating cardboard boxes and crates. Labelling and packing…

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Jesse testing out his down sleeping bag and new eye mask!

 Molly has been trawling the supermarkets finding the most calorie dense food and building a menu around our dehy meals. Nuts, oat cakes, chocolate and dried fruit feature in quite high quantities. Between the 5 of us it looks like we’ll be taking a total of about 165kg of food, which equates to circa. 4,500kcal per day!

Powdered tea has been tested (tastes like wet cardboard), it will not be coming with us..!

 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!