My favourite expedition of last year was in Greenland. We were preparing for the South Pole journey which was due to take place last October. I didn’t write a blog post about the experience. So here are a few thoughts and pictures from the trip. It makes me sad to read as we never made it to Antarctica. But it was a heck of a trip in its own right.
As I lie on my side in the tent trying to decide what to write about, I catch sight of my reflection in the small, handheld gadget I’m typing this on.
I look old.
My woolly hat is low over my brow. My eyes look tired and drawn. Wrinkle lines radiate from the corners. And we have only been out on the ice for a few days. What, I keep asking myself, will I be like after 110 days and 1800 miles of Antarctica have finished with me?
All three of us are in a strange position: we have each done enough to not need to prove anything to other people or to ourselves. This can make the cold, plodding, difficult grind of an expedition feel somewhat daft. As we took off our skis and unclipped our harnesses after one hard day’s hauling, we each confessed that, independently, each one of us had been mulling over other less painful options for life (wedding photographer; writer; teacher).
We all laughed at that, relieved perhaps to discover we were not alone. But also because we each know we would actually find it very hard to leave all this behind. Greenland is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been – the mountains, the vastness, the solitude – and it’s a privilege to have it as my office. And I am realising out here that the three of us are in a very exciting position. Although we have all done interesting things, we are now in a position to begin something really difficult and significant in our lives.
We do not know if we will succeed in Antarctica this year (it would be pointless if it was guaranteed). But we are discovering out here in Greenland that we have one of the key ingredients for a successful expedition.
It’s the single best way of diffusing tensions, making light of misery and keeping things fun and positive.
So far we are all getting on very well. Ben and Martin talk about North Pole trips, Martin and I discuss photography, and we all chat together about what Antarctica will be like and how we can boost our chances of success down there.
So long as the tent remains full of laughter and good-natured mickey-taking then I believe our prospects are very good indeed.
The prospects, however, for my wrinkle-free, youthful good looks seem rather less positive.
Outside the tent, another whiteout. Another long day looms. Slow hours hauling through soft snow with zero visibility, looking forward only to the time when we can stop, and set up the tent in a spot identical to our previous camp.
Inside the tent, another world. Messages from home.
Short skirts and summer weddings.
Ben phones Expedition HQ (Andy, in his shorts, drinking tea and watching the cricket) daily to give our coordinates. In return we hear of a heatwave in England, and that the West Indies are 147 for 6 in the cricket.
We are entering that strange transition phase that comes near the end of an expedition. Close enough for the countdown to cold beers and warm beds to have begun. But still far enough from the end for it to be unhelpful and unwise to spend all day looking forward only to going home.
It is a wonderful world out here, even as I contemplate our third day of whiteout. I am going to savour and enjoy these final days in this colossal wilderness. And after that I am going to savour and enjoy a very big steak.
The wind changed direction in the night and in the morning the sky was clear. We walked all day towards mountains that seemed more impressive and beautiful than when we passed them on our outward leg.
This bodes well for our polar journey. I had feared that the return journey from the Pole was going to just be an arduous, extra hungry replica of the outward leg. But everything yesterday looked different.
The light helped: the low, lambent Arctic sun that set below the mountains only for a few minutes before rising once again. The backlit spindrift helped too. And so did knowing that we only have a few days remaining before we have to leave this special place.
So, even though yesterday’s miles were hard – uphill and through soft snow – I really enjoyed the day.
In fact, being out somewhere as remote as this, armed with a nice camera, is about my idea of an ideal day out.
We are in the tent now. Ben is eating biltong and sewing a torn mitt with dental floss. Martin is filling thermos flasks with hot water for the day ahead. And I have built a soft nest from two sleeping bags. I am so comfortable typing this that I want to just keep on writing so that I don’t have to move!
My legs and lower back are stiff. My shoulders and elbows hurt from the ski poles. My beard itches, my hair looks like a scarecrow’s. Ben has hair – the first time I have seen him with any. And Martin has toothache, as well as a rib-busting cough.
But it’s a cosy place, our tent. It is a gale-proof red dome from Hilleberg, and it is a delight to climb into each evening. We have a hot drink straight away to warm up. And then we “cook” the best expedition food (Fuizion Foods) I have ever had. It only entails adding boiling water to a bag of freeze-dried food and then impatiently waiting ten minutes for it to rehydrate. But the end result is delicious. We have enjoyed Kung Po Chicken, Chilli con Carne and Bouef Bourgignon. It is bizarre to be out on an Arctic ice cap eating proper food. One night Martin, whose accent is more Rochdale than Roquefort, held a morsel aloft and declared with delighted astonishment,
“Bloody Hell! It’s a Shit Ache mushroom!”
It seems a pity but I don’t think I can write any more. It is time to climb out of my sleeping bag cocoon, upload this to the website and pack up for another day on the ice.