Alcan to Ocean Icecap Expedition: For better or for worse

This week marks one year since the start of the icecap expedition that took two friends and me on a journey across the biggest non-polar ice cap in the world. And it’s been too many months since my last installment of the story. Now, as I start a new motorcycle journey from Australia to Southeast Asia, I’m disappointed I didn’t finish it sooner. But a part of me was scared to, scared to hurt someone I’d once considered a good friend, and nervous to rehash some of those feelings, despite this journey having been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. But I’ve spent the last five weeks trekking around New Zealand’s South Island, marveling at the views that so often reminded me of those first few days making our way to the toe of the glacier, snow-capped mountains looming in the distance and icefalls peeking out, and I realized this was a story I had to complete before the emotions and memories were changed with the passing of time.

For better or for worse 

The sounds of nearby avalanches rolled through the icefield well into the evening. Alone on the Kaskawulsh glacier, the tent felt palatial, the solitude divine. I’d bird bathed the sweat away, standing on my mat in the snow, the sun’s hot rays beating down on my naked skin- the first time I’d had any privacy in a week- as I used handfuls of snow to scrub my body clean.

I was surprised glaciers were so hot, but even in the late afternoon, the tent was warm as I crawled in and lay on my sleeping bag, soaking in the empty, quiet space. Jon and Jim had skied off just an hour before, in search of Lynne, who was to join us for the next eight days. The bushpilot had dropped her off somewhere out of sight, presumably in an area less pocked with crevasses, which he could see more easily from his plane than we from the ground. But still, from our vantage point it seemed he’d left her quite some distance away, and we were all a little anxious.

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The bush pilot flying overhead, without Lynne.

As the sun’s last rays played on the walls of my orange palace, I lay awake, remembering Jim’s near accident the day before. An unroped fall into a crevasse would have spelled disaster, and he’d been a fool since we’d set off a week before. It wasn’t just that he hadn’t probed the icefield as he traveled that day, the hot sun melting the snow. He’d been uncharacteristically spiteful and mean since we’d arrived in the Yukon, and things hadn’t improved. Was spiteful too harsh of a word? Perhaps, but there was no doubt of his rudeness, his utter impatience and annoyance. He’d leave Jon and me in the snow-particle dust to ‘scout’ routes through the undulating white expanse, though much of the time we weren’t able to follow his tracks through the myriad of glacial pools anyway. He’d abscond for hours with our team rope and trauma kit, two items that should never have been far from any single member. He’d ignore my hails when we’d finally spot each other at the tops of two opposing hills, a football field or more apart, and too far to hear our shouts. I’d raise my arms and wave in threes, trying to get him to come back, wait for us, or at least return the rope and first aid kit before he bumbled through the hazards.

He had little experience on glaciers, and his extensive knowledge of snow conditions in the backcountry mountains where he frequently skied were almost irrelevant out here, in a place where another sort of danger lurked with every step, massive holes ready to swallow up an unaware traveler. He wasn’t stupid- on the contrary, he had a sharp mind, an engineer’s mind, and a MacGyver way of thinking about the world that had always impressed me, and even led me to invite him to join us on the expedition. I thought he’d make a good part of the team, and would enjoy the challenge. But he hadn’t even done the bare minimum to prepare for the hazards of this expedition (a crevasse course, practice with teammates on setting up rescue systems, which he’d done in his livingroom, alone). He knew he was smart, he’d felt the soft crunch of snow below his skis since he was a child. But in this new environment, with new perils, it gave him a false sense of security that put us all at risk.

After the first few days, Jon, our leader and the mastermind of this journey, was fuming. In the years I’d known him, I’d never seen him remotely angry, but he’d become enraged with Jim’s total negligence for his role as teammate, something Jon took with absolute seriousness. He knew the terrain, the consequences out there, and that Jim was severely pushing the limits. “This is the major league!” he’d shouted. “He either tries to be a good teammate, or we ask him to leave.” We’d have a team meeting at our rendezvous point with Lynne (a highly competent mountaineer, and someone I’d trust with my life), and discuss whether or not Jim should continue with us. We’d tell him point-blank he needed to step up, or go home. Lynne’s sweet nature would soften it, and neither of us thought Jim would act out in front of Lynne the way he had with us. We didn’t want to have this conversation with him, but knew we must. We couldn’t go on like this, not when our lives were at stake. Jim didn’t realize the magnitude of our situation, perhaps, or at least not in those first few days. Not until he nearly fell into a narrow crevasse. Had it been any larger, he could have plummeted to his death.

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I was angry- not at his negligence per se, but at the attitude he’d had since before we set off. I also felt guilt. Was there something I’d done? Had I not shown enough kindness in those first few days? I’d run out of it somewhere along the way. Earlier, he’d offered to help set up my tent and dislodge a stuck probe from the ice. He’d offered water when I needed it. He’d been kinder than he had been in a long time, his olive branch held out, and I hadn’t accept it. I couldn’t, at the time, not after the way he’d treated us- Jon, especially. The unkind and unjustified yelling and shouting that had taken place the day before we left civilization still rang in my ears. Jim had been furious at Jon’s delays, of which there were so many, and I couldn’t blame him for his impatience and irritation at times. But I could blame him for the way it manifested itself. His behavior was unwarranted, unhelpful, destructive and mean. Where I tried to help get things ready to go so we could make good time, Jim would sit in a huff, staring off into the ethers, finally barking “I’m cold!”, and setting off into the distance alone without a thought of making himself useful. Jon, on the other hand, showed infinite patience.

That day, I’d lost any kindness. I’d shut his offer down with a curt coldness I’m not proud of. I don’t believe kindness should be reserved for those who are themselves kind. It should be shared freely, openly, and especially with those who might benefit most from it. And I’d wondered about Jim’s change in personality; was he on some medication we weren’t aware of, that was affecting his faculties, or had he had some unspoken trauma or trouble? But these were all just speculations. If I regretted anything from the journey, it was that I hadn’t asked him what was wrong, what was truly wrong, when I’d had the chance. But I also knew him, and knew he wasn’t the kind of man to share his feelings or emotions, and hadn’t done so in the six years I’d known him. And more than that, he’d shut me down harshly when I’d voiced my own concerns and reservations about the expedition, refusing to talk about it.

These thoughts swirled around my mind as sleep took over. As the sun sank behind the mountains, the avalanches from the nearest mountain subsided, and I drifted off into a long, much needed rest, not waking until past 10am the next morning.

It felt good to lounge around camp, enjoying coffee and the start of the cascading avalanches again, my own private showing of mother nature in action. As noon rolled around, I wasn’t too worried that my teammates weren’t back to collect me. I knew Jon was tardy by nature, and there was no hurry. I’d learned to relax about it, though it had bothered me back in civilization, like it still bothered Jim, who’d shouted angrily at Jon that “if this was the corporate world, you’d be fired!” Jon and I would laugh uproariously at that comment for the rest of the journey, thankful we weren’t in the corporate world, and amused by the fact that Jim had equated this experience with corporate life to begin with, and especially amused that he himself had been a month late on a corporate project with no repercussions.

No, Jon and I understood things: This was a journey amongst friends, and delays were inevitable. We were here to enjoy a part of the world that few would ever have the possibility to experience, and we knew the secret was to help make the other happy and comfortable along the way, and practice patience when needed. I was patient with his slow morning starts, and he was patient with my lack of experience and skill, teaching me as we went, and always in tune to my lower back pain or blistered feet. And we tried to help take care of Jim, too, by sharing food and asking how he was. But I came to suspect that for all of Jim’s experience as a backcountry skier, he wasn’t accustomed to the hardships of days on end in the wild, stuck with the same people hour after hour, crammed in a tent without the respite of going home for the night or enjoying a cozy hut in the wilderness. He’d never experienced that much time in the backcountry, and the accumulation of events was taking its toll and fraying him at the edges, or so it seemed.

By 1pm, my eyes were constantly drifting back to the horizon, the sun shining off the diamond-like surface. I ate and rehydrated as much as I could, feeling tired but happy from the long haul the day before. By 2pm, I napped so as to take my mind off the worry, sure I’d be woken by their voices and the soft scuffle of skis. By 3pm, I was fearing the worst. They had gone off into a crevasse field at the hottest time of day after all, and knowing Jim, I feared he’d trudged too far ahead and fallen in. But his near incident with the crevasse had changed him, I’d suspected. The day after, he’d let Jon lead the entire day, never leaving the group. He’d stayed behind, a new sense of caution written on his face, and exhaustion etched in his expression. No, he’d learned his lesson. There had to have been another sort of delay.

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Under the glacier’s sun

By 4pm, I messaged the Kluane bush pilot for an update. He’d already flown over twice, dropping glaciologists to a glacier camp 3,000 feet higher up, where they’d conduct research for several days. I paced camp, waiting for a reply and knowing there was nothing I could do but wait. I couldn’t risk leaving camp to follow in their tracks, and time ticked by agonizingly. By 5pm, a text came in from Tom, the pilot: “I saw two people at camp- all seemed fine”. Two people? I thought. Where’s the third? I hadn’t been able to take my eyes off the horizon, and minutes later, two small figured emerged from the crest of the hill. I watched for the third, until it became obvious they were alone. Lynne’s figure emerged, her bright blue clothing a beacon against the white backdrop as my eyes teared up from looking into the glistening snow.

“I’ve been so worried about you guys!” I said, hugging Lynne and delighted she’d finally joined our party. “But where’s Jim?”

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8 thoughts on “Alcan to Ocean Icecap Expedition: For better or for worse”

  1. I’ve never been in that glacier, or in the Yukon, or for that matter, in any place at those latitudes…but a few days ago, coming from China, (between Beijing and Seattle, the plane’s route is an arch) I think I saw that glacier (or something similar?) from 30,000 feet of altitude. And I shivered, just with the though of my daughter trekking on that immensity of white, desolated, cold, remote…and beautiful part of the Earth.

    1. That’s right, the flight trajectory would have taken you very near, if not right over! You may not have seen the Kaskawulsh glacier, but would have seen the whole icecap and Wrangell-St. Elias range we were trying to cross.

  2. There’s bound to be tension in a group – even with good friends in these insane and harsh conditions. It puts a crazy amount of stress on your body and mind, then people don’t realises how bad they are behaving or why they are doing it. You had a crazy adventure and I can not wait for the next instalment!

    1. That’s really true. I’d done a pretty intense journey with this friend before, motorcycling for one week in pretty awful conditions, but the stress of that just didn’t compare to the icefield and all that went into making it happen, the close quarters, the delays, the fatigue.

  3. Wow!! I followed you guys the whole way with your spot tracker and your story adds a lot to the way I imagined you were doing it. I can’t wait for the next part of your story. When is the Movie coming out???

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