‘The long haul is done. I am very proud of us both. We have pushed so hard to make it here, but if we want to climb one of these mountains, we now need to rest. So tired.’
So begins my first journal entry in the Stauning Alps. Team Moskus had arrived at long last, but the journey to get there had taken its toll, and we would need to recuperate before attempting a first ascent. The weather over the previous weeks had been immacculate, and we anticipated many opportunities to bag a peak or two. We’d have time.
Basecamp at the foot of the Stauning Alps
As we neared the mountains, one particular peak had drawn the eye: a beautiful, nameless, unclimbed summit which we flippantly referred to as Mount Doom – the culmination of our long quest. Without ever really verbalising it, we both knew that was the point we were aiming for. In the quiet hours in my sleeping bag (kept awake by the chillblains burning my hands, and the small Arctic noises which had become so unbearable) I would fixate on this peak, and picture our route to the top. That is, whenever I could stop my thoughts drifting.
‘I have a fantasy in my head which I can’t quite banish. I see myself in the garden [at my parents’ house], on grass, with the willow tree rustling in the breeze. With me are Mufasa, the family, and a cold drink. How impossibly verdant England seems now. The few species living here are either trying to kill us, or scupper the expedition.‘
Mount Doom from the plateau above our basecamp
The mountains surrounding our valley
But just as our recovery day had come to an end and we were ready to make an attempt, the weather broke. After days of impeccible sunshine to reach this valley – time during which we would have given any number of chocolate bars for a little cloud-cover to prevent us turning into crackling – a blizzard set in. Tons of snow blustered over our campsite, our tent was buffeted from all directions, and Matt and I were sealed inside.
In truth, the storm was not unwelcome. We were far from recovered from our journey, and another rest day seemed fortuitous. We battened down the hatches, Matt producing some whiskey and teaching me how to play spit. Between this, drinking gallons of excellent coffee (our greatest treat on expedition), listening to Sherlock Holmes, and reciting Disney musical numbers on a continuous loop, we passed the time. Every so often, one of us would peer outside for some sign of the wind and snow relenting. It did not oblige, so we returned comfortably to coffee and cards, the snow scratching at the canvas.
The slow rise of the snow (Photograph Matthew Hay)
Glen Lyon Coffee – our most consistent expedition treat
But when we awoke on the second day, the storm was still raging. By this time, life in a tiny canvas dome had somewhat lost its sheen. The tent rattled and shook, providing a background of constant white noise. Icy condensation had started to build on the walls, which resulted in a cold dousing every time we brushed against it. Our entertainment was exhausted, our narrow quarters seemed to be shrinking, and even pissing in a bottle had ceased to be a novelty. In a constant buffetting white-out, our only external measure of time was a ptarmigan who reliably visited camp at midday and belched at us.
My neglected ice-axe, awaiting its chance
The idea of undergoing so much discomfort to summit an unclimbed mountain may not appeal to you (which would be more than reasonable – it is by no means for everyone). But people who don’t enjoy such things sometimes make the mistake of assuming they understand the motivations of those who do. I often encounter speculation (which has become ‘fact’ in the retelling) that it is to do with ‘dominating the landscape’, ‘imperialism’, ‘leaving your mark’, or ‘adrenaline’. I cannot speak for everyone, but I have never encountered anything resembling these attitudes in any explorer or mountaineer that I have spoken to. Adrenaline is too short-term to describe the appeal of expeditioning, and the others are the fishiest of cod-psychology.
It is about the challenge, and about feeling humbled by an awe-inspiring landscape. It is about feeling as though your actions are significant, because if you misjudge them, or neglect something in this place without safety nets, it could very well kill you. It is about stretching yourself, about building confidence by finding yourself up to the task, and about the bond with your teammate as you find you can rely on them even in the most testing environments. It is about pushing yourself as hard as you can, for days or weeks at a stretch, and having all that effort and self-doubt pay off in one transcendent moment when you reach a summit and the white, sprawling wilderness of Greenland unfolds beneath you. It is the best feeling that I know, and I could not wait to begin.
But wait we did, for days. It seemed astonishingly bad luck that the perfect weather which had been so ever-present when it was not required, had deserted us so completely now that it was.
When clouds and wind finally abated, it was a slightly stir-crazy pair who stumbled out of the tent to stretch their legs and have a look over the approach to Mount Doom. We had so far been prevented from exploring our surroundings, and ventured into the most staggering world: a ringing, glittering, jagged landscape of pure contrast. Rivers of ice; marshy snow; hard mountains; sweet, fragile snow-buntings, and roaring avalanches.
Inspecting our potential route up Mount Doom, out of shot on the right
Matt recharging with a Jimini’s protein bar – a surprisingly delicious snack made from cricket flour
The Staunings banished even my English garden fantasy, and we both became thoroughly over-excited at the prospect of climbing one of these diamond mountains. But even as we returned to the tent for a few hours rest in preparation for a night-time departure, clouds had begun to pile threateningly on the horizon. By the time we awoke at midnight with the intention of departing, the blizzard had resumed.
We gritted our teeth, and retired to our cramped sleeping-bags. Thoroughly bored of Sherlock Holmes, I turned to a book recommended by my mother some months before: With the End in Mind. Written by a palliative care consultant, this is an excellent account of what happens at the end of life, and contemplation of death. Superb though it was, I don’t think these were the circumstances my mum had imagined me reading it. Even if we activated our hugely expensive Search and Rescue policy, we were a minimum of 3 days from rescue. Should the weather clear, we would immediately attempt an unnamed, unclimbed, unmapped mountain which had been loaded with snow by the blizzards of the past few days, making avalanches much more likely, and climbing much harder. As we had found out the previous day, the maps we were using weren’t just vague, but often totally inaccurate. My own death was not a topic to be lingering on, but I preferred it to boredom.
As I read on, the canvas of our tent fell still. Scarcely daring to believe it, we looked outside. It was the evening of the 2nd of May, and the clouds were lifting at last. After days spent locked in the tent, we had our weather-window. We packed our bags and prepared to depart on the firm night-time snow.
The clouds begin to fragment…
And the mountains await
I’m not sure how Matt was feeling. Though I was excited to move at last, I’d had a lot of time to think over the past few days about what we were about to attempt, and whether my skills were up to the challenge. Before departing, I left my journal on my sleeping roll, one final entry written within:
‘Just in case –
My love to everyone back home. I know the risks I am taking now, and have no doubts as to their worth, and no regrets over how I have lived my life. Reading that book today, I found myself near tears with gratitude that it has happened at all. I am so thankful for the part of my family and friends in the absurdly wonderful time that I’ve been allowed so far. God help me with the challenges ahead.’
There was a strange feeling that night. It was the first time we had left our tent far behind and struck out alone, many miles from shelter. With your pulk in tow, you feel you could set up a robust shelter in just a few minutes, fit for all but the very worst of Arctic tempests. But traversing an immense ridge, carrying only a backpack of mountaineering gear, I experienced a sense of fragility, exposure, and insignificance beyond anything I’ve ever known. Matt could feel it too, and described the landscape as ‘indifferent to life.’ That seemed to encapsulate it. Other than us, there was nothing living at all. There were no plants growing on the exposed rock. There were no prints in the snow, or birds calling overhead. It was like climbing on the moon: an experience so chastening that even writing about it more than a year later, I do not believe I have felt the same since.
The snow was deep and regularly issued profound huffs: a sign that the avalanche risk was high. As we ventured out of our sheltered valley and onto the plateau, the wind began to moan. It grew fiercer, and I found myself assessing each bank for its ability to support a snow-cave, and each rocky promentory for its utility as an emergency refuge.
‘We are a long way from help. Our maps are useless; the forecast bears no resemblance to the weather we actually encounter and we are living on our wits.‘
Matt picking his way along the plateau, Mount Doom visible behind
Our route felt something like walking the eerie corridors of an empty school, or a giant cathedral, long after everyone has departed. We encountered a deep, unmapped valley cutting across our path, which we had to skirt around. Reaching its edge, we discovered we could go no further. A steep slope reared above us, loaded with snow, the avalanche risk much too great to climb. The wind was howling now, the temperatures freezing, and we were forced back, humbled and awed by this place. We had been out for many hours, and made it barely half way to the ridge of Mount Doom.
Whilst out in that cold moonscape, it had passed midnight and I turned 27. It is not a birthday I’m likely to forget. When we arrived back to the tent, Matt presented me with a little bottle of whiskey and a selection of messages from friends and family back home; extraordinary treats under such circimstances, most gratefully received. To celebrate, we finished the last of the Tokay.
Me and my humble birthday cake after our failed mountain attempt. ‘Our tent feels like a true home now. Knowing the inhospitable world which exists around it, I cannot describe what a haven it felt to return to.‘
No sooner had we arrived back, than the first snowflakes began to fall. Very soon, we were storm-bound once more. We slept. We fidgeted. We drank coffee, emerged from the tent to shovel away the snow which was buckling the walls, and talked companionably, though with varying levels of success:
‘Bereft of individual variables, Matt and I have started saying exactly the same thing at the same time.’
The tent was made more stifling by the sense of diminishing time. We had built quite a few contingency days into our schedule in case of bad weather, but those were long exhausted. With the extended delays, our supplies of food and fuel were running low. We would soon need to replenish them at the depot laid on our way to the mountains, and move on to the second stage of our expedition; the climate change research. We sat in that tent, fidgeting away our precious hours. If we did get a window to make another attempt at Mount Doom, it would now be our last.
Matt, hand scalded by a jet of boiling water
One day, we sallied into the storm to undertake some science research on a nearby glacier. It was slow, cold and frustrating, but we had to do something. As we skied back to camp in the evening, the clouds overhead seemed to be splitting. Fumbling for the sat-phone, we consulted with our team back home. Sure enough, the forecast indicated a weather-window on the way. We would get our final assault on Mt. Doom. There was time, but we must not fail.
The weather clears once more (Photograph Matthew Hay)
Photograph Matthew Hay
Our final shot began at 0130 that night, in a bruised Arctic twilight. The thermometer read -19’C and a withering katabatic blew against us, making windchill about -30’C. My skis were making the contented sigh they only produce in optimal snow; the avalanche threat was nonexistent, and we had learned from our last attempt, soaring up a near-perfect route.
The Arctic twilight
Matt’s breath freezing on the approach
Nearing Mount Doom as the sun rises
We made it onto the plateau, skirting to the foot of Mount Doom until we were looking up at a 600m ridge: the final obstacle between us and an unclimbed summit. We abandoned our beautiful skis and switched to the butcher’s tools of crampons and ice-axe. The sun was rising, conditions starting to deteriorate, and we swarmed onto that glare-blasted ridge to find the snow completely rotten. Each step gave way beneath us, so that we would plunge up to our thighs in sticky resistance. The temperature rose, and conditions grew worse.
‘The snow was apalling. At times I was literally writhing – not on hands and knees but belly and chest – to make any progress at all. If I tried to walk, I would sink up to my navel and have to spend minutes wriggling my way free. Every meter was hard-won.’
In addition, the ridge was badly exposed, with a near-verticle drop of some hundreds of metres just inches to our right. We stuck close to it though: there was ample evidence of huge avalanches on our left, and we climbed on the knife-edge between the two.
Matt on the ridge
The author nearing a false-summit (Photograph Matthew Hay)
Knowing that this was our final chance, I threw everything at the ridge. If we were to succeed, it had to be now. I went a little ahead of Matt in an effort to break a trail, and ease the pressure on his injured feet. But there was also a growing sense that we were taking too long. The snow was getting worse, the drop to our right now up to 800m and rising. As false-summit after false-summit dawned and passed, and I pressed unwisely through one high-risk obstacle, and then another, climbing down was becoming an increasingly dangerous proposition.
Our final obstacle, the summit visible above
Just 30m from the summit, I was confronted by a final obstacle. A steep, snow-loaded wall: exposed to an abominable drop, and littered with evidence that the snow was ready to slide off at the slightest invitation. If we tried to climb, the odds were high – very much too high – that the wall would collapse and send us 800m down, into that gulf on our right. Either that, or go left, and bury us at the base of Mount Doom. Without well-anchored rocks or firm snow, building an anchor strong enough to resist such a fall was impossible. Going on would have been suicide.
But even so. I could see the summit, just above. This was the endeavour on which we had invested months of planning and weeks of sweat, and there was just one obstacle left. I got as far as placing my ice-axe in the wall, and then stopped. The axe had been a present from my brother, many Christmases ago. My socks were from one sister, my glacier specs from another, my salopettes from a wonderful friend, my summit-pack from my parents, my camera from my grandma. I thought of all those people back home, to whom I had promised I would make the right decisions, and turn back when the moment came. This was that moment.
‘In my heart of hearts, I knew there was no safe way past. In the end, it was the thought of everyone at home which turned me back. I was thinking of them all when, heart-broken, very nearly in tears, I turned around.‘
I waited for Matt so we could take the decision together. I was hoping he’d point out something I’d missed, but he just agreed it was hopeless. We tapped ice-axes to mark the effort. Then, utterly shattered; broken both physically and emotionally, we began to climb down.
‘We gave it absolutely everything, but Mt. Doom remains unclimbed.’
A certain bloody-mindedness survived that ridge, and on the march back to the tent, despite our exhaustion, we diverted over a huge mound on the plateau. It was the largest for miles, and we called it ‘Sugar-Heap’. Though you could ski to the top – a mere 1167m high – it was an unclimbed peak. Determined not to leave empty-handed after our endeavours, we posed at the top with flag and cigars, giving the moment due solemnity.
A photo inspired by the late Henry Worsley, taken atop Sugar-Heap
We staggered back into our camp exactly 12hrs after we left, having skied 30km and made 2000m of abominable ascent.
Before this expedition, I would never have envisaged myself so nearly succumbing to summit-fever. Looking back, it would seem like insanity, if I didn’t still feel the violent disappointment of being denied so close to our goal. All I can say to help you understand, is that to achieve anything meaningful in an environment like this, you must be whole-hearted in your endeavours. You never feel comfortable, or safe. When the moment finally comes to turn around, it can be very hard to distinguish from the protestations of your comfort-zone, left behind long ago.
Our time in the mountains was spent: we needed more food from our waiting depot so we could continue with the expedition. Perhaps you were expecting this post to end in a triumphant sumitting of Mount Doom. That’s how the film of this expedition would have gone: us overcoming adversity and achieving everything we had set out to do. But in real life, and particularly mountaineering, sometimes you just have to survive to tell the tale. And that, I am proud to say, is what we did.
‘Matt described today as the hardest thing he’s ever done. Certainly, turning back is the hardest thing I have ever done. I will remember that moment forever. Matt has been great.
Thank you for writing this and for deciding to live to tell the tale!
Both were very much my pleasure! Thank you for reading.
Argh! So hard to turn back with the goal just 30m off. But wise in the extreme. Call me selfish but I would really like to read the next book of Under the Northern Sky. Just finished The Spider and love where the story is going and what you’re doing with the characters.
Yes I’m feeling quite good about turning back now, I must say. So glad you’re enjoying Michael – provides great motivation for writing of Book 3, currently underway!