There and Back Again.
The day wore on and on, the snow blasting face and hands mercilessly. The wind seemed to grow in intensity as we slowly climbed back towards the pass separating the plateau east to west. Like a thousand wildcats screaming in our ears the wind ensured we simply could not communicate other than by hand signals. Each in our own white hell, we simply pressed on hoping the storm would break before we did. Eight hours exposed to 30 to 35 knots to the face, with a wind chill close to 25 C below will break most people, but Kitale (at just 22 years of age) and I just pressed on. I could see he was hurting all day, but watched as he plumbed his very own depths to find the will and strength to go on.
I have lived a blessed life, I freely admit that, so many great moments, but watching my son press through what would have stopped many a strong willed human, with good humour and grand attitude was another memory I will treasure to my grave. It is hard to describe the discomfort of screaming Polar wind upon body and soul, add to it hauling a sled up a glacial pass and you have created a resilience test beyond few others (childbirth excepted !). My joy at his ability to push through warmed me and buoyed me up, I pressed on with a smile on my weather beaten face.
By late in the day we had strayed slightly off our gps track and into crevassed ice. A few scary snow bridges later and we were back at camp 5 happy to see the disturbance in the snow that showed we had been there previously. A hot meal in the tent and soon our spirits soared, realising it was all downhill from this point back to The Nanook. The moment passed swiftly as we also realised that we had just one meal left and fuel for a single day, we had to find the cache to safely traverse out and back to Fjord below. Compounding these slim margins, it became apparent we had not escaped the day of hauling unscathed. Kit had frost damage to his lips and nose, while my left eye had somehow been exposed resulting in snow blindness. Both of these ailments needed to be managed and were a reminder just how fine the line is out here.
The following day was a repeat of day 7 but without the blizzard. We awoke to a complete whiteout and discussed staying put, but trusting the gps track out we opted to keep moving. Following our footsteps to the very inch to avoid stepping into an abyss. Broken and cracked ice surrounded us and huge voids would loom out of the whiteness on occasion just to remind us who was the boss here. Veering off course would be disastrous, so in complete whiteout we descended the glacier roped together moving with caution. Once we lost altitude and crossed the last snow bridge onto healthy ice we tried to get kites in the air. The wind was in the right direction, strong enough to pull a man home, but not with the sled. We struggled for an hour then gave up, and committed to more man-hauling.
Late in the day we came to the final steep ridge above camp 4 (our food cache) and I desperately hoped that the storm had not destroyed our depot. Summiting the last ridge above camp 4, I spied a tiny black dot in the distance and understood immediately it was our cache. A wave of relief washed over us both and we skied madly down the slope at mach speed to regain our urgently needed supplies.
With a big push Kit and I believed we could retrace day 4 and 3 in one hit, skipping camp 3 and making for camp 2 on the edge of the snow line in a single day. We messaged Jordy and he agreed to climb to the edge of the snowline with cameraman Dom the following day to help us get our gear off the range. We began manhauling early in the day. Wishing for wind I kept trying to get a kite in the sky, whilst Kit trudged onwards. I would fall behind, launch a kite, use every trick I have learnt in over 10,000 kilometres of ice travel to keep that rag in the air and inch forwards. I would pass Kit who had his head down, ear pods in progressing steadily. The wind would die and the dance would start all over again, Kit slowly passing me by as I wrestled with mother natures free lift to no avail.
The game of tortoise and hare continued for some time but In the end, even the zephyrs of wind I was using disappeared and I rejoined Kit hauling.
Kit and I hauled 16 kilometres to the edge of the crevasse field at the edge of the icecap. The day had been warm, and as the sun beat down on us I was consumed with concerns over crossing the crevasses on snow that had seen the heat of the sun all day. Prepared to stop for the night to allow the cool night air to harden the snow bridges, we gingerly entered the crevasse zone.
Testing the first bridge Kit smiled back at me explaining he felt it would hold. With a heavy swallow I followed him through the crevasse field and time and time again we reassessed our decision making, trying to ensure we didn’t cross ice that would slip or give way. Two hours later we regained safe ice and with huge relief hauled to camp 2, on a rocky outcrop at the edge of the snow line.
With no sign of our support crew we lugged all our gear up onto the high ledge to ensure we were safe from the avalanches audible in the surrounding valleys as the spring snow gave way with an alarming roar. We set tent and collapsed just in time to hear a “coooeee” from the valley below. Clambering out onto our rocky Verandah we guided Jordy and Dom up to our humble camp.
Amongst other treats Jordy had lovingly nursed 4 beers up slope from The Nanook to our position. When he pulled them out of his pack, I nearly kissed him and we very soon enjoyed one of the finest beers I can ever remember, perched on a rock overlooking Exmouth Fjord far below. All four of us just beginning to understand the enormity of what Kitale and I had just accomplished with the help, of our amazing support crew on The Nanook and at home.
Post note : Day 10 was brutal. Jordy and Dom were so overloaded with camping and camera gear for their climb up that they could only take 5 kilograms off our load down through the ridges and forest. Nine hours of heartbreaking dragging of sleds through peat bogs, tough ridge lines, over stumps, under fallen trees followed. Close to the end of the day we broke through finally, on to the beach to find Al aka ‘Crusty‘ waiting patiently with the zodiac ready to take us back to The Nanook.
As we got alongside the aged vessel, I climbed aboard and felt a thrum as my hand touched her solid hull. I muttered under my breath…
“thank you old girl…”