Alcan to Ocean Icecap Expedition: A teammate lost, a teammate gained

I’d spent the night alone on the Kaskawulsh glacier with a torrent of avalanches on the nearest mountain for company, thousands of pounds of ice crashing down its flank, not daring to venture beyond my safe zone- the circle around camp I’d probed for crevasses. “Bad news”, Jon called, he and Lynne emerging from the white wilderness. I gave Lynne a big hug between mouthfuls of pasta, a bowl in one hand, the tight pang in my chest dissipating. I’d spent hours pacing the soft snow, waiting for Jon and Jim to come back with Lynne, who’d been dropped off further up the glacier in a safer landing zone, free from the massive crevasses that pocked the area.

“Jim started throwing up last night, and we couldn’t leave him this morning until we were sure he was okay.” I let out a sigh of relief, having considered the worst during my wait.

We packed camp and started the slow shuffle towards Lynne’s camp, saddled with the things Jim and Jon had left with me the night before, along with my own gear. We each took a bag, cramming feet into boots. I was finally beginning to feel comfortable in my skis, and was thrilled Lynne had finally joined us. There had been a great deal of back and forth about whether she’d begin with us on the Slims River trail leading to the terminus of the Kaskawulsh glacier, or if she’d meet us higher up for just the ski portion of the expedition, requiring her to bring in less gear. I’d wanted her to begin with us from the start of the Slims River at Kluane Lake, figuring there would be too many delays and fearing she’d have to wait around at the airstrip. I was also nervous about getting onto the unstable toe of the glacier, and wanted Lynne’s expertise and years of experience to help guide the way. She’d been my climbing partner several years before, and I trusted her extensive knowledge and her quiet competence fully. She’d assured me of Jon’s skill, and I didn’t doubt her judgment. But now, with both of them present, I felt relief. Lynne, with her sweet countenance, good nature, and expert skill, might just be the balm to the tension we’d faced.

By the time she arrived on the glacier, her two weeks of leave had dwindled down to just over a week, as we’d been delayed getting onto the glacier. And conditions had changed, forcing us to travel further up the Kaskawulsh than originally anticipated, eating into her time even further. Snow conditions had been too dangerous further down- as we knew from Jim’s experience punching one leg into a crevasse- and the pilot wouldn’t be able to land until we traveled higher up. She was happy to be there, but understandably frustrated she now had so little time remaining.

We traveled up and down the rolling glacial hills until we could finally see Lynne’s camp in the distance, a smattering of color, our bright gear a stark contrast to the white surrounds. Ultimately, her own camp was only a few miles from where I’d slept, feeling so isolated, but we’d had no way of knowing that the evening before. In hindsight, the pilot should have texted us her coordinates when he returned to the airstrip, or at least given us a rough idea of how far she really was from us. But we also knew he was a competent and experienced pilot, and suspected he wouldn’t leave her stranded too far from us.

Upon our arrival, Jim announced his intention to go home, “now”. He’d thrown up twice the night before, but not since. He had no fever and no diarrhea, but was clearly exhausted. Was it simple fatigue from the week in the wilderness, or dehydration from only drinking two liters a day? Or was it something worse, some bacteria or bug picked up from the Slims River, many days before? He’d inexplicably refused to boil the water for the full three minutes advised, even after I’d asked him to for my sake, knowing my propensity for stomach trouble. But he was stubborn, and always thought he knew best. “Bringing it to a simmer’s good enough.” After the fact, he’d admitted to not boiling it properly when it was his turn to prepare water one evening, which troubled me greatly. Jon and I tried to put our minds somewhat at ease, since he and I still felt strong. But a move like that, from slow moving and murky water, could have destroyed everything. But it was too late to do anything about it now.

Jim’s desire to leave brought on a mix of relief and anxiety. Without him, it would likely be much smoother sailing as a group. Though Jon and I hadn’t been close friends before the expedition took place, we’d been a strong team since our first steps onto the Slims River trail, teetering through the woods under our enormous loads. And I’d been friends with Lynne for years, and knew the fun we’d have. Their good natures would be the antidote to any emotional turbulence we were bound to experience in such harsh conditions.

But with Jim leaving, there was no way Jon and I could finish the expedition. The plan had been for Jim to travel with us for a month, to the end of the Bagley Icefield, where he’d be picked up by an Alaskan bush pilot. We’d fly out any gear Jon and I wouldn’t need to finish the expedition, and make our way across the mountains to the ocean. We’d leave as we began, 80-90lb packs strapped to our small frames, with enough food and fuel to make our way to the Alaskan beach and thus completing a 230 mile ski-traverse of the biggest non-polar ice cap in the world. Would we be amongst the first? We weren’t sure, but suspected a group in the early 1900’s had done it, and perhaps others we hadn’t found in our research.

In one respect, we were both eager for him to leave. On the other hand, it was a bittersweet change to the plan. Without Jim, we’d have to be flown out of the upper Bering glacier, kissing our goal of reaching the ocean goodbye. It would be too expensive to have the pilot come pick up our gear on the glacier, and return for us two weeks later, adding a potential $2,000. And we also felt sorry for Jim, despite how miserable his bad attitude had made things. We were still a team, and knew it was too bad he wouldn’t be able to see more.

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It was late evening by the time we’d arrived back at camp, and Jim was adamant the bush pilot come and pick him up as soon as possible, wanting to leave that very night. It was asking a great deal, to land after dark on a glacier. Had it been an emergency the pilot would have risked it, but Jim’s symptoms were nowhere near dangerous. Jon had watched him all day, had checked on him constantly the night before, making sure he didn’t worsen.

“If he needs to be taken to hospital, I’ll come and get him tonight. Otherwise, it needs to wait until morning”, he’d told us over the sat phone. We relayed the message to Jim, who was unhappy, but symptom free save for painful stomach cramps. No fever, no throwing up, regular heart rate and bowl movements. “I want to leave tonight”, he insisted. “If you need to get to the hospital, they’ll come get you. Otherwise you have to wait until morning. Is it so bad that you need to see a doctor now?” Jon had asked in sympathetic tones. A pause. “I’ll wait”, Jim replied.

From my tent, I heard Jon get up every hour to check on Jim, making sure he was staying hydrated, had no fever, and continued to have regular breathing. He’d crouch outside his tent half a dozen times in the freezing air, a diligent doctor seeing to his patience, listening to the rhythm of his breathe, and only disrupting him occasionally to check his pulse and ask him to take a few sips of water. I heard his kind words, marveling at how he could sound so sincere and tender after Jim had treated him so terribly for over a week.

The next morning, Jim was up early, without a single word of thanks to Jon. He looked better, and we asked him to consider staying, assuring him we’d rest another night or two and give him time to recuperate; there was no hurry after all. We were sure he’d feel better within a day or two, and if he didn’t, he could leave then. But he’d had enough of glacier life. We all know how miserable it feels to be sick, away from home, and worse when you’re in company you’d rather not be with.

Waiting for the pilot’s arrival, he dug himself a snow-couch to lounge on while we rushed to pack his gear for him, Lynne giving him a sidelong glance. We had limited time; the pilot would be there any minute, and we didn’t have a second to spare as we sorted equipment, discussing what needed to remain with the group and what needed to go out with him. Months of gear and food preparation had to be stripped down and resorted in an hour.

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Snow whipped around our colorful camp as Jim left the icefield on the wings of the cramped three-seater prop plane. Thousands of dollars of food and equipment lay strewn in the wake of his sudden departure.

And then quickly, all was quiet again.

A teammate lost, a teammate gained.

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