Martin Thomas is a retired vascular and thyroid surgeon (mainly at St Peter’s Hospital, Chertsey but also at the Royal County Hospital, Guildford). His private practice was at the Runnymede Hospital, Chertsey and the Nuffield Hospital, Woking.
I have always enjoyed high latitude adventure having sailed in Antarctica and crossed South Georgia in the footsteps of Shackleton. My first effort at dog-sledding was with a group to raise money for the Countryside Alliance. For the second week-long trip I went with medical friends: an anaesthetist, a neurosurgeon, a GP and an intensive care nurse. The trip was led by Per-Thore, a Norwegian who owned and trained the dogs.
We each had our own sledge carrying food, dog food, tent, shovel, sleeping bag and cooking utensils. The three men had six dogs each and the lighter women five dogs. The dogs were Alaskan huskies. They were lovely to humans and craved attention but were not always very nice to each other and fights could break out.
We camped at night on the snow and ice when the temperature could drop to minus 20 degrees. The dogs slept in the open, curling up into a ball and by morning were often covered in spindrift.
I was amazed at the distances the dogs could travel. On the penultimate day we covered 75 kilometres with the dogs averaging 10kph including occasional stops. We were grateful for Per-Thore’s arctic experience when a snow storm blew in for most of one day reducing visibility to a few metres. It would be so easy to get lost and once lost out there, one might not survive.
It was essential to keep hold of the sledge especially if you fell or it crashed on to its side. The dogs would keep pulling and drag you along in the snow but you had to hang on. If you let go they would sprint away to Per-Thore at the front. The whole column would have to stop while you did the walk of shame back to your team. The dogs were wily and if they perceived you were not working for them, they had ways of trying to lose you, like taking you by surprise and starting off early, pulling at an angle or trying to scrape you off on a tree.
They were fantastic, so eager to work. They had bottomless energy and just ran all day. I believe the fastest animal over ten miles is a husky dog team, faster than a horse, man or any other animal. They worshipped their leader Per-Thore who was the lead dog. If they misbehaved he would kneel down, say something threatening in Norwegian, and then bite them on the ear.
I enjoyed it tremendously and will certainly consider going again. It is so invigorating to do something so different and challenging; something so separated from every day experience. To be at one with the wilderness and with nature is so exhilarating. When in such a remote place, it gives one a chance to reflect on one’s life and future direction. I came back a better person thanks to those dogs.