Confusion consumed my mind, and I couldn’t shake off the feeling of dis-ease as we sat on our sleds on the icefield. We’d been trudging through the snow for 27 days, making our slow progress across North America’s biggest glaciers—and the biggest non-polar ice cap in the world. What had begun as a harrowing ascent up razor-sharp ice-fins 130 miles before on the Kaskawulsh glacier, had become my weird, beautiful and surreal home in the Yukon for the last month. Life on the icefield had been nothing short of spectacular. Though exhausting and hard, it was a world that fueled body and soul. Was I really ready to leave? I knew Jon wasn’t.
We weighed our options: We could leave now on this side of the Canadian-Alaskan border and split the cost of a $900CAD flight out and hitchhike to Haines. Or, we could travel across the border and another 80 miles to the upper Bering glacier, risking a flight with a pilot that could charge anything between $1,600 to $2,500USD, depending on how long it took him to get to us. Due to Jim’s early departure weeks before, we knew our original goal of reaching the ocean wouldn’t be possible. Neither of us were in a position to spend the additional $2,000 for the pilot out of Haines to come collect our extra gear, liberating us for the hard bushwhack to the coast. And as soon as we crossed into Alaska, Tom, our Yukon pilot and an easier and cheaper flight path from us, wouldn’t be able to come get us due to the international border. It seemed a shame not to cross the border, after all the work I’d put into getting the U.S. border patrol to allow us to legally cross and officially transit later, once back in Haines where they’d meet us at the airstrip (an option we were sure wouldn’t be possible in the post-911 world we now lived in).
But more than that, I hated the thought of giving up earlier than anticipated. Yet a big part of me felt ready to say goodbye. In my mind, we were going too slowly with too much food—we’d argued gently over how much food was really necessary. Though we split all gear and communal food 50/50, Jon carried an additional 40 lb. in snacks alone, weight I thought was too much of a burden on him physically (though he argued it was well worth it, and good for him psychologically!). Ultimately, the stress of watching him slowly deteriorate in health began to weigh too heavily. Though there’s no doubt Jon would have lounged in his tent for days, weeks maybe, in perfect harmony, I couldn’t sit around. “I just need a week of rest”, he said as we sat considering our options. “Jon, I can’t sit in my tent here for an entire week. I’d sooner fly back to Kluane and then fly back in when you’re feeling better!”
Months before, he’d warned me: “What a lot of people don’t get is how hard it is to just sit in your tent and do nothing during a storm”, he’d said, a smile pulling at the left side of his mouth. “I won’t have a problem with that. I can sleep and read all day long!” I’d responded with cheer, adding, “The hardest part for me will probably be not having my own space—alone time.” We’d discussed it at length, and decided we’d take turns sleeping in the tent and the Mega-Mid, our lightweight floorless day shelter, during days of good weather. This was the one big requirement I had of the expedition—at least a few nights a week alone, even if it meant I carry an extra tent, which Jon thought far too impractical (I was supposed to be the only girl of a three person team, before Jim bailed, which was an unusual dynamic).
But once we were under way and Jim left, we spent most nights crammed in Jon’s tent, head to toe, due to wind, or feeling too tired to set up the Mega-Mid, or because Jon just didn’t really want to sleep anywhere but his tent. And I felt bad asking him too—he liked his tent, and he hadn’t been feeling well. And perhaps I should have been more insistent we stick to the plan of trading each night, knowing it would be to my mental detriment if we didn’t. But the giardia meds hadn’t helped him, and while I felt stronger and better, he looked like an emaciated Siberian prisoner of war struggling to pull his massive load, despite eating 6,000 calories a day. I couldn’t ask him to sleep in the snow in the Mega-Mid, which hadn’t been very comfortable for me, either.
We trudged on another mile, the sun beating down on our overworked bodies before taking another break. Jon sat on his sled, head hanging low. Dried sweat stains washed over his blue shirt like tie-dye, his month-old scruff coated with a month’s worth of flaking sunscreen. The bones of his shoulders and elbows jutted out from below his thin merino top like a fledgling’s wings. It was hard to reconcile this image with the man who’d bounded effortlessly up the mountains 3 weeks earlier in anticipation of seeing his fiancé, Lynne, who’d accompanied us for over a week. Now, he gasped for air like a man taking his last, ragged breath. Whatever was wrong was taking a wicked toll. And while Jon brushed it off with just needing a little more rest, worry had my heart gripped in a vice.
Moments turned to minutes as the frightful wheezing continued. “Let’s camp here for the night”, I said, though we’d only done 4 miles. “Sounds good. Just give me a few more minutes and I’ll help set up camp”, Jon said in a rasp. “No, you just rest. I can set up camp tonight”.
We’d had a routine down; Jon would set up camp, meticulous with the placement of each snow stake while I’d prepare dinner and melt the 10 liters of water we’d need for the next day. But this day, Jon sat and gasped as I milled around as quickly as I could, wondering how to break the news…
We ate our favorite meal that evening— cuban style rice and beans with dehydrated bananas. Jon ate his usual 6,000 calories that day and still felt famished. I was happy with a third or half that amount, feeling the muscles in my legs becoming lean and strong under my ski pants.
Mt Logan squat in front of us, Canada’s highest peak at nearly 20,000 feet. Its flanks jut out in a massive expanse to right and left. The windswept Seward Glacier extended nearly 20 miles to the east, and another 15 or 20 miles to the Alaskan border to the west. On the far side of the icefield, a row of white mountains hemmed us in. Jon’s bright yellow tent and our Mega Mid shelter sat in the midst, a beacon of color in an otherwise white and blue world.
The time had come. “Jon, you look terrible, and this doesn’t feel safe anymore”, I finally blurted out. I took a deep breath while he composted his thoughts. “We need to leave.”
“No, come on! I just need a rest and then I’ll be good!” he started. It was so hard contradicting his positive outlook, but I’d thought of almost nothing else for days.
It was a tough conversation. We’d worked so hard, for so many months, and Jon would have happily gasped and wheezed his way across that cold expanse (and probably would have made it, too!). And while I didn’t want to give up, I also knew I had to do what I felt was right. And leaving felt right, despite how hard it was.
“I need to do what I think is right, Jon. I’m leaving, and I really think you should come with me.”
The disappointment etched in his face was painful to see and after a long talk, we decided we’d call the pilot the next day, hoping for a clear weather window before a five day storm blew in.
We woke up the next morning and called our pilot to come pick us up if possible, and weather permitting. We packed our last camp, and hauled our sleds one last time to find a safe landing spot a couple more miles up the glacier towards Alaska, and away from the big cracks in the ice that encircled us.
Once he accepted the news, Jon felt happy to be heading home. He had a wedding to plan, after all, and the sooner he was home the sooner he and Lynne could be married, beginning a new chapter in their lives.
By afternoon, the dense maritime layer that had socked us in for hours finally began to dissipate, and the mountains came out to bid us farewell. As I soaked in a few rays of sun in a sports bra and scarf-skirt, I said goodbye, knowing there was a good chance I’d see these same mountains again another time.
The soft hum of Tom’s three-seater yellow plane broke the silence, and he soon landed a few hundred feet away as we pulled our sleds in a mad-dash. “Come on, come on!” Tom shouted, waving us on. “We can’t wait around or the skis will freeze into the snow!” Tom shouted over the noise of the plane, which was left running. We stripped our sleds of gear and tossed everything in haphazardly and as quickly as we could, jumping in ourselves.
The flight path took us back over our own tracks as we marveled at the distance we’d crossed. “Congratulations, guys!” Tom called through the plane’s headset. “I don’t usually have to fly this kind of distance! I can’t believe you guys made it so far!”, his voice crackled in the static.
And while it wasn’t as far as we’d intended, we’d crossed the entire Kluane National Park east to west over an enormous distance poked with hazards. I felt overwhelmed, strong and happy, and wondered if this would be one of life’s greatest memories.
Over the next couple of days, Jon and I would hitchhike the 200 miles to Haines, where his truck waited. We’d load-up on veggie burgers and milkshakes (which I still remember as one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten), and rest at his friends’ farm in Haines awaiting my flight home.
Readjusting to hard surfaces was much harder than anticipated, and for a month I suffered shin-splints and hip pain as my gait normalized to city conditions. I’d miss life on the glacier, but was also left with a sense of peace and calm every time I remembered those precious moments, and so grateful to have been able to experience them.
*Thank you, Jon, for being such a wonderful and supportive friend, teacher and mountain companion. I’m sorry I made you leave early, and hope we can plan for a Stage II with Lynne to finish the journey!