Trips like these always start off innocuously enough. A simple email promising unmatched adventure. The itinerary includes lots of blended malt scotch, imbibed on the same Norwegian glacier where Irvin Kershner filmed the opening of The Empire Strikes Back. There’s also a chance to hang with legendary explorers and environmentalists Tim Jarvis and Baz Gray. The duo will even be teaching you how to survive in the Arctic. The whole thing seems to have been perfectly tailored to fit your tastes in travel.
You write back in all caps: OH, HELLS YES. Then you start to get pumped.
See, I consider myself a bit of an adventurer. In my early 20s, there wasn’t a trip that I wouldn’t take. Cross Afghanistan during wartime? Duh. Climb a mountain to a coltan mine in Eastern Congo? Sign me up. Sail across an ocean in a 54-foot sloop? Naturally. So when Shackleton Whisky came calling with the chance to learn arctic exploration skills in the spot where some of the greatest explorers cut their teeth — Finse, Norway — I was hyped. I was ready. I was, as I told my editor, “the perfect person for this trip.”
In retrospect maybe I should have thought about it a bit more.
The trip started with a mellow day spent exploring Oslo, Norway. I love beer and food, so I used my time to dig into the local scene. My take is that Oslo is an odd duck of a European city. It’s fairly compact and walkable. There’s WiFi literally everywhere. You can pay with credit cards for everything — even public toilets. There’s a surprising amount of antique guitar stores, which was a lovely surprise. It’s safe, clean, and convenient.
It’s also crazy expensive. Not a place to run your finger down the menu and say, “I’ll have one of everything.” Still, I was in town and owed it to the Uproxx team to go bar hopping for “research.” Not surprisingly, there are some great bars in Oslo with high-quality local suds on tap. The cellar at Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri was probably my favorite spot. But it’s so expensive — $12 for a basic, local lager is steep by any metric; $20 for a more upmarket beer — that you’re left cringing with every order. Even a nice batch of reindeer jerky couldn’t numb the sting of spending nearly $100 on about six “research” beers.
The good news is that when things are so insanely expensive, there’s little chance of drinking enough to get hung over. The next morning, I shrugged off my beer crawl and went to the train station to take the four-hour journey up to Finse. As per usual, I got in a good nap. When I woke, the train was darting through what my old man’s generation called “God’s Country.” It was some Polar Express-type stuff — we wound along an icy river as huge white-capped mountains rose from either side. Cabins dotted the walls of rock and trees. I even saw a moose lapping up some water from a river.
I met with my fellow journalists and a handful of social media influencers in the dining car where our host was happily plying us with $10 cans of “cheap” Norwegian macro lagers. Outside our dining car, the world started to change. The vast, thick forests gave way to scrub brush and even vast-er whiteness. Then the trees were gone altogether and we were hemmed in by pure white glaciers and drastic peaks. The air was thinner. The energy was quiet. We’d officially arrived at Hoth.
Waiting for us on the platform were Tim Jarvis and Baz Gray. These men are legit legends of the adventurer world, famous for recreating the incredible Antarctic missions of Ernest Shackelton and Douglas Mawson in period-appropriate gear. Jarvis has crossed Australian deserts, set records to the South Pole, and basically given us all a reason to believe in the indomitable human spirit. Gray spent his years in the British Armed Forces training elite soldiers in Arctic survival (and general badassery) and, later, partnered with Jarvis on his more insane expeditions.
And here they were, on the train platform ready to put us through some hardcore training.
We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. Jarvis is very tall — taller than me and I’m 6’4″ — and lanky, with the reserved demeanor of a man who’s seen past every horizon. Gray, on the other hand, is always ready to crack wise and then pull you back to earth with a harrowing anecdote. He has the intensity of a life-long, very elite soldier for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. It’s the perfect yin-and-yang; ripe for a buddy comedy about exploration.
Before the adventure began, we checked in at Finse 1222. It’s a classic end-of-the-earth lodge. The main building sits on a frozen-over lake with mountains to the west and a massive glacier to the south. When you see the view from the lobby you instantly feel like the AT-ATs are going to come over the horizon at any moment. (It also might have been the fact that the whisky was already flowing and a group of late-20s and 30-year-olds — who grew up with Star Wars — were getting tipsy in a hurry).
That night we all dined together, shared stories, and drank Shackelton whisky next to a fire — which is the perfect place to drink the ashy, old-school tasting scotch. We tried to “go easy” on the good stuff because we had our first training session with Baz the next morning. But when you get a bunch of confident, eager, rowdy adventure-types together it’s tough to set the dials to “medium.”
So, um… yeah, we all got shitfaced.
The next morning, Baz met our little band of hungover travelers on the lodge’s balcony. While we sucked down water, he gave a quick lecture on the nuances and dangers of being on a glacier for long periods. Sun cream, layers of merino wool and down, patience, camaraderie, and grit were all highlighted. Excited, we went out into the cold and learned how to snowshoe and cross-country ski.
This is where the rubber started to hit the road for me. I’m no longer the svelte 20-something I was when I was sailing oceans or climbing Himalayan peaks. I’m now a fat food and travel writer. Doing even the most basic runs throughs were a pain in my ass. Being under layer after layer of wool, snow pants, jackets, gloves, and so forth made my mobility even more laborious and my breath even more fleeting.
Baz and Tim, to their credit, were awesome and helpful. But it was obvious my fat ass wasn’t ready for this. And that’s sort of the thing with adventure — you need to be battle ready if you want to play the game out there in the wilds. Turns out being a writer who eats, drinks, and then decamps all day in front of a computer for work is not a good path to being “battle ready.”
After I sweated through my merino wool shirt and thermal underwear, we all got on the train again and headed back below the treeline. Shackleton had set up a bucket list afternoon of eating hot dogs, drinking whisky by a campfire, and driving dog sleds.
I breathed a sigh of relief. This, I could handle (whether the dogs could handle me was yet to be seen). I was five minutes in before I announced that “Driving a dog sled is my new favorite pastime!” The dogs are awesome, the ride is smooth, and you start to feel like maybe, just maybe, you too can explore the great white vastness of the poles. My energy was restored. Plus I got to pet some really good puppies.
If the dogs struggled under my weight, they certainly didn’t let on. I even felt good enough to reward myself by getting tipsy before getting back on the train to Finse.
The next event was very much in my current lane: Shackleton threw a cocktail party for us. The company had brought up two bartenders (their brand ambassadors) to mix up delicious whiskey cocktails. Tim and Baz regaled the crowd with amazing stories of trekking across Antartica, sailing the southern seas, and climbing over insane mountains. These are trips where the traveling was so intense that a Discovery Channel TV crew gave up halfway through and had to be choppered out because they couldn’t take the brutality of all anymore.
We all listened, enthralled as cocktail after cocktail got placed in our hands. Eventually, the cases of beers came out of the snow, the DJ (iPhone) kicked in and a party broke out. At some point the off-duty staff of the lodge showed up. And, in the chaos and fun of it all, I forgot one vital piece of information: There was another day of adventure planned. Another day in thermals, pushing my body to the limit.
Here again, I wish I’d taken a pause to think things through. But those whiskey cocktails were soooo good.
* * *
The next morning was rough. We were set to go cross-country skiing. Over a mountain. I realized quickly, while nursing my headache, that I wasn’t up for the task. I begged out. Baz and Tim agreed and understood — after all there were no tauntauns out there to save me if I collapsed. Instead, I sat in the lobby of the lodge and looked out into the white abyss that I was too fat to take on. I set my mind to the fact that I need to get back into shape because sitting back at the lodge wasn’t me. Yet, there I was.
There were more dinners, more cocktails, more whisky over the next 24 hours before we all headed back to Oslo and eventually home. I talked more with Baz about getting back into shape and meeting up again in the future to do some trekking with him. And, honestly, he’s a great no-nonsense motivator. The chats gave me a clear goal towards getting my body back to a place where I could be that adventurer I used to be.
By the time I got home to Berlin, I looked at myself and the chances I’d missed out on — I could have climbed a glacier with the legendary Baz Grey, instead, I was stuck in the lodge feeling sorry for myself — and decided that I was never going to feel like that again.
And, that right there, is why I love travel and adventure. You get a chance see yourself as you are. You meet people who can help you discover what you may have lost or have yet to find. In Norway, I felt firsthand how far away I’d gone from where I want to be. I went for a legendary adventure and a lot of great scotch and was only able to truly savor the latter.
Now, I’m resolute to be my best physical self again. It’ll take work (I may need to treat all beer like it costs Oslo prices) but the desire is there. Because the next time I get that “adventure of a lifetime” email, I’ll definitely slow down enough to evaluate whether I can handle it… but I also plan to still answer “OH HELLS YES.”