Extreme polar vortex events known as sudden stratospheric warmings can influence surface winter weather conditions, but their timing is difficult to predict. Here, we examine factors that influence their occurrence, with a focus on their timing and vertical extent. We consider the roles of the troposphere and equatorial stratosphere separately, using a split vortex event in January 2009 as the primary case study. This event cannot be reproduced by constraining wind and temperatures in the troposphere alone, even when the equatorial lower stratosphere is in the correct phase of the quasi biennial oscillation. When the flow in the equatorial upper stratosphere is also constrained, the timing and spatial evolution of the vortex event is captured remarkably well. This highlights an influence from this region previously unrecognised by the seasonal forecast community. We suggest that better representation of the flow in this region is likely to improve predictability of extreme polar vortex events and hence their associated impacts at the surface.