Team Moskus had failed on Mt. Doom.
We traipsed into basecamp beneath the midday sun, exhausted and bitterly disappointed. We’d climbed through the night and half the day, and crawled into our bags in the hope of awaking with clear heads, and deciding what to do with the rest of our expedition. The decision would need to be a quick one – we had just twenty four hours of food remaining.
The original plan had been to leave this valley, resupply at our food depot, and ski north to the vast Roslin Glacier, where we would undertake our main climate-change research project. A year previously, a British team had drilled some ablation stakes into the surface of the Roslin to measure how fast it was melting. However, a combination of the unusual snowfall that year (which would make the stakes exceptionally difficult to locate) and intelligence from our logistics provider which suggested they might have melted out already, meant we had slim chance of success. The four-day return journey to reach it would likely have all the utility of a set of glass tent-poles.
The alternative was to stay in our valley, and try once more to summit an unclimbed peak – one less token than Sugar-Heap. Only terrible misfortune with the weather had prevented us so far, and the choice was clear.
Onwards. We would ski back to our food depot, resupply, and try again. Moving at night to take advantage of the colder temperatures and firmer snow, we pushed on.
Going to retrieve our supplies
Where before we had burnt and sweated under the midday radiation, the crystal twilight brought a more typically Arctic set of challenges. Your fingers are nearly always cold (a good feeling, as it means they haven’t frozen), you are constantly on the verge of shivering (also good, as it means you aren’t sweating) and the air sears any exposed skin.
This is the only sustainable way to operate in such cold, and perhaps better than anything else, encapuslates life at the Cold Edge. These are also some of the moments I treasure most, looking back. The mindfulness of every tiny decision. The extreme contrast and addictive pleasure of a flapjack when you’re starving; a down jacket when you’re freezing; a sleeping mat and a comfortable patch of snow when you’re weary and footsore. Paradise to me is not hot, but cold.
A refuel break (Photograph Matthew Hay)
After an hour’s manhauling through pale shadows, we would stop to dive into down jackets, and spend a few concentrated minutes refuelling. I spent the whole hour looking forward to these little breaks, but was tempted to abandon them altogether to avoid the dreadful moment when time was up, I had to strip parka and jacket, and spend twenty cold minutes working myself back up to temperature. Setting off again is a bit like working yourself up to go for a New Year’s day swim in the sea – except you’re already freezing, and have done it five times already that day.
A weary Matt crosses the sun
It took two GPS-guided nights to reach the site of our depot. During the journey, I had grown increasingly concerned that Arctic foxes would have discovered our cache, and had convinced myself all we would find was a pile of shredded supplies, surrounded by an incriminating constellation of paw prints. But when we arrived, the snow told a different story. On the surface was clear sign of an Arctic fox digging. It had burrowed a few inches down, encountered the layer of pepper-spray we had deposited, and reeled away in horror. My journal records the relief:
‘What a victory!‘
And what a nose. The fox had scented our frozen, dehydrated rations under two metres of snow, through air-tight drybags. A worthy adversary indeed: the true master of this land, who we had duelled and matched, for now.
Moving on, pulk replenished (Photograph Matthew Hay)
We dug out our supplies, and turned our pulks back to the mountains. En route, and for the first time on this expedition, we caught sight of an Arctic fox. We stopped and regarded one another. That it was prepared to show itself now seemed a salute from the master of this environment. Well played, lads. Till next time. We saluted back.
The return journey was not a pleasant one for me. I was extremely thin after the long weeks in the harness, and felt starving hungry from the outset. As we kept hauling, my hunger progressed to weakness, then to light-headedness, and finally to a powerful sense of dissociation, as if I was observing myself, rather than in my own body. I kept looking at my watch, expecting thirty minutes of hard skiing to have passed and discovering it had been just two. Physically, I found that night harder than our monstrous attempt on Mt. Doom. It was harder than a fifty-mile ultra-marathon I’d done during a storm a few years before. I ate everything I had, brewed some exceptionally strong coffee, turned on my running playlist, and spat vile swear-words with each heave.
Desperately trying to recover from my calorie deficit (Photograph Matthew Hay)
When we finally stopped, Matt sympathetically produced the last of the treat foods, and I dived into a pot of peanut butter, from which it took me some time to emerge.
There was little time to recover, however. A sat-call to the team back home revealed an incoming weather window. We had learned how precious these were, and retired to our tent to rest, and once more summon the motivation for a summit attempt at 2100 that evening. Not Mount Doom this time, though. Not wishing to place all our eggs in one basket, we had switched to a bigger peak on the other side of the valley which we were calling MGS (an acronym I would rather not decode).
That evening, as predicted, we emerged from our tent to find the skies clear, and the air still. Out of dogged habit rather than enthusiasm, we rang to confirm the forecast. ‘It’s good for now,’ came the reply. ‘But the mother of all storms is inbound, and it’s going to hit in the next twelve hours.’
Matt and I looked at each other. After the luck we’d had, who knew if we’d get another shot?
Onwards. There wasn’t a moment to lose.
Visible on the ascent – distant icebergs in the ‘prisoned seas, wind-lashed and winter-locked.’
Stupefied during a water-break
Setting out, it seemed to me our chances of success were slim. MGS was set well back in a large massif, and consequently we had never actually seen the summit, nor a clear route up. We had done our best to plot one, but I had long since ceased to trust our maps, which had pitifully low resolution, and often bore little resemblance to local terrain. And rolling inexorably toward us, due to hit within twelve hours, was a bitch of a weather-front. Our previous (unsuccessful) mountain attempts had all taken longer than the time we had, and at all costs, we had to avoid being trapped in uncharted terrain during a blizzard. Everything now depended on speed.
The first few hundred metres climbing were easy enough. Soon however, we hit another steep ridge, clogged with rotten snow. With so much ground to cover before the storm hit, there was no time for the added protection of ropes and anchors. Strapping our skis to our packs, we ran.
So began one of my clearest – and fondest – memories from the expedition. I started dreadfully aware of my precarious hold on the mountain, and the huge drop beneath. Within five minutes, that fear was lost in extreme focus; hands, feet and ice-axe working rhythmically to the muttered refrain of: ‘Go, go, go.‘ Like all effort, the start was hard, the rest beautiful.
Beginning the ridge, Matt visible among the rocks below
The risk is all part of it. Without it, MGS would’ve felt no more memorable than a pleasant stroll. If a climber dies, there is often a chorus of indignation that they have been selfish, as their loved ones will live on and suffer the consequences of their death. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of truth in this.
However, it seems to me that it is also only half the story. I live more in one month on expedition, than a year at home. If expeditioning or mountains aren’t for you, then you probably cannot relate to this. People tried for a long time to explain to me what anxiety felt like, and I couldn’t remotely comprehend until I felt for the first time that encroaching tide of dread. Empathy is impossible without an appropriate frame of reference, and too often if people cannot relate to how something feels, they dismiss the feeling being described. By and large, those at home do not understand what they are asking for if they insist a climber stops climbing.
If they did, I suspect it would be another one of those risks that we accept are worth it: like travelling, or driving. Or drinking. Or eating oysters (wait – perhaps not that last one). You would probably cut out all those things if you truly wished to maximise your lifespan. Nevertheless, if someone tried to take them away from you because they said such behaviour was selfish, you might feel pretty resentful.
From another perspective, it would surely horrify you to think someone close to you was avoiding all danger, and living a curtailed half-life so that you could spend the maximum time possible with their empty shell rattling around. I would far rather my loved ones did what made them feel alive, than felt incarcerated by their bonds to me.
Throwing your life away is definitely still foolish. Evidently too, the balance alters if children or dependents are added to this equation, and will likely alter further as I grow older. But I have never read anything more than a half-hearted defence of the dangers involved in mountaineering, and I think they are worth defending.
Matt nears the top, and the ridge begins to level
Speaking of danger, we found plenty when we arrived at the top of the ridge. Waiting for us was an avalanche disaster-zone: a steep, snow-loaded gully, with a wall above. If the wall collapsed, we would roar into that gully, along with several tons of snow, and it would be game over. The circumstances were painfully similar to those which had defeated us on Mt. Doom, only this time, we had the tools to prevail. Half-way across the gully was a spectacularly convenient rock seat – buried just beneath the snow, and so perfectly shaped to accommodate a climber and their backpack that it might’ve been chiselled for the purpose. We turned this into a bombproof belay – a point where I could feed out a rope attached to Matt, so that I could catch him if the wall proved treacherous. In the ringing silence before the storm, he stole across the gully and up the wall. It held, and at the top he returned the favour, creating a stomper belay to reel me in.
The ridge was behind us, and we shook hands, both believing the hardest part of the climb to be over. Ominous clouds were gathering at our backs. We roped together in case of crevasses, donned skis, and went on.
Crossing the gully above the ridge
The skis, it turned out, were a mistake. The ground was still too steep, and painfully aware of the clock, I did not say that I needed to stop and go back to my crampons.
I slipped. I remember Matt’s face so clearly, looking down at me as I began to gather momentum on the icy slope, with just moments before the rope between us snapped taught and jerked him off his feet. I frantically tried to arrest my own momentum, and in the end a combination of ski poles, fingertips, and knees dug into the snow slowed me enough that Matt was able to take the fall. Being still has never felt so precious. That near-miss has stuck with me as the start of a potentially very different tale.
Matt skiing onto the plateau, just as the sun breaks over the Staunings
Fortunately, the incline began to level out, and we continued over an ice-cap like the back of a giant beluga. The summit was visible at last, but the ski to reach it felt long indeed as the edge of the promised storm arrived: the distant clouds rolling and rumbling, and the wind starting to gust.
The summit stood at 1620m, and we arrived with the sun at 0415.
Matt stands on the summit of MGS, more properly now called Bjornskulderfjellet
Time felt very short indeed, and we did not stay to savour the achievement. There were a few photos. We marked the summit on GPS. And then we fled.
Matt and I on the summit
On skis, we near flew down a route we had spotted on our way up. It looked longer, but also much less exposed should the storm hit on our return. We made it back to the tent just as the first flakes of snow began to come down, and the wind started to rise.
Sitting in our sleeping bags, comfortable and secure as the valley outside was blasted to pieces, the moment was hard to absorb.
‘I can’t believe it came off. That was a true smash and grab effort. A nails climb, and a powerful array of winter skills required. We will always be the first people to set foot on that little fragment of this planet. We did it.
The tone of the expedition was changed completely. The previous evening it had been rewarding, but gritty and dreadfully hard work. Suddenly it was sublime: all our previous sweat, failures and bad luck having led to that moment. Matt conjured a celebratory whiskey, and we toasted our endeavours. I cracked open a freezing bottle of coke which I had dragged all the way from Constable Point, and with which I enjoyed a semi-religious experience. The wind and snow rose outside, and we lay in the tent, laughing giddily.
Our half-buried camp
We were tentbound in a storm yet again, but that seemed not to matter now. We began to dream. If the weather cleared in time, we might have a window to attempt another ridge up Mt. Doom. These pleasant thoughts were crushed by a phonecall from our logistics operator. Yet more bad weather was inbound, and they needed us out before the season ended, and any chance of snow-mobile pickup had evaporated. Abruptly, the fun was at an end.
Bivvying without a tent on our return
We skied back to within range of the snow-mobiles, which carried us across the sunlit snow, back to where it had all begun at Constable Point. There we were treated to barbequed musk-ox, slightly charred. It’s not far off lamb, and was one of the best things I have ever tasted. I could have gone on eating for hours and only stopped out of politeness. And afterwards, having a calorie excess for the first time in weeks, Matt and I went completely mad, vibrating around the station and speaking almost entirely in the language of references and impressions developed over the course of the expedition. The staff at Constable Point seemed to think we’d gone insane.
Matt vents some rage on the tent
And then calms down with some seriously good Aberfeldy Oatmeal
That would seem the natural place bring this tale to an end. Our narrative arc had encompassed toil, peril, failure, and ended, finally, with reward. However, much like the final instalment of Lord of the Rings, I’m afraid this story rather trails off in a string of micro-endings. There were a few more adventures after our narrative climax, which are worth recording. And besides, we are yet to cover the most important part of an expedition: the coming home.
Out last precious days in paradise
Matt and I had promised ourselves a holiday at the end of our labours, in which we would have time to appreciate this special edge of the world. So it was that after our evacuation, we skiied back out of Constable Point, and some considerable way up a glacier. There, we combined some recuperation with an attempt to supplement our sorry science work. We were interrupted by a piece of misfortune which might’ve been dramatically worse.
The tiny speck of our glacier camp, dwarfed by Greenland
Tired out by all your frantic scientific research?
Delicious and nutritious Nairn’s Astrobites will see you right
Taking a day-trip, we skiied some thirty-five kilometres down to the coast, where we did some agreeable sightseeing: taking pictures and inspecting the fjords. Gliding without pulks in tow was utterly glorious, and I was very much enjoying feeling strong and fast on the return leg. Until there came an unexpected crunch. There was suddenly a new give beneath my right foot, and looking down, I saw that one of my poor skis had at last surrendered. Just two days before we were due to fly home, and they could retire to a prominent position on my wall, one of them was near split in half.
Into the misty mountains (Photograph Matthew Hay)
Me and my shattered ski
This would make catching our flight rather difficult. There were forty kilometres of soft snow and a steep glacier to navigate between us and Constable Point, which would have been a breeze with two skis, but would prove quite a challenge with one.
Still, it could’ve been much worse. By unbelievable good fortune, the break had come at very the end of an extremely long day, when I was nearly back at camp. It still took me almost twenty minutes to limp the two-hundred yards to our tent, time during which I imagined how this expedition might have unfolded if this piece of misfortune had occurred near the start. We’d probably never even have made the Staunings. Even just a few hours before, when I was down at the fjord, it might’ve taken me days to cover the eighteen kilometres of rotten ground between me, and our tent and supplies.
It is exceedingly lucky that it didn’t, due in part to the second adventure which befell us. The next day, I stayed at camp to attempt a ski-patch that might carry me home, while Matt went off to tour a nearby peak. ‘Don’t you want to take a rifle?’ I enquired as he headed out.
‘Not to worry, pal,’ came the reply. ‘If there’s a bear, I’ll go toe-to-toe with my ski poles.’ He skiied into the distance, leaving me to busy myself with a shortbread tin, a couple of tent pegs, and a mountain of Gorilla Tape. I had not long finished my lumpen repair when Matt returned, very much ahead of schedule and looking rather startled. ‘So there’s an actual bear.’
Two tent pegs, some cut up sleeping mat, a shortbread tin and a huge amount of Gorilla Tape later
Fresh bear prints (Photograph Matthew Hay)
Giving my splinted ski a trial, we went to investigate. The bear had come up from the fjord that morning, while Matt and I had been playing Edwardian explorers, and enjoying coffee and cigars in the sunshine. Had we cared to look across the glacier, we’d undoubtedly have been able to see this last piece of megafauna shambling by. As it was, the prints were two hundred yards from our tent, and pointed us in the bear’s direction. It was just possible to make out the beast itself: a cream speck against the blank mountains. Keen not to stress my fragile ski, I returned to camp while Matt crept a little closer with his telephoto lens. He returned victorious.
Our retreating visitor (Photograph Matthew Hay)
The bear engages in a spot of mountaineering (Photograph Matthew Hay)
This encounter was the proverbial icing on the cake, but there was still the serious business of descending six-hundred metres down the glacier, and getting back to Constable Point with a broken ski. Thinking how nice it would be if my pulk carried me for a change, I concluded the only solution was to ride it down to sea-level like a toboggan. This method proved exceedingly swift and very good fun. It even went quite smoothly, until I tried to steer away from a rapidly approaching rock, and found myself hurled violently into the snow. Looking up, I saw my pulk continue obstinately toward the rock, and come off much the worse.
We limped on, making it to Constable Point just in time to pack up, take a shower (utterly inadequate to reform two such dishevelled vagabonds) and catch our Twin-Otter back to Iceland. We touched down in an unbelievably verdant country. After the wind-scoured Labrynth and the Staunings – a mountain-range so empty it has the whiff of a plundered ancient temple – even sub-Arctic Iceland seemed impossibly warm and full of life.
Largely brown, but still irresistable to our green-starved eyes
It was like suddenly finding ourselves in Eden. The wind still blustered, but it was not the ‘lazy wind’ of Greenland, which cannot be bothered to go around you, merely penetrating straight through your flesh. Bizarrely, there was liquid water: rivers of it. Everything smelt lush and warm, and the birds were singing gloriously – the sweetest sound after so long in a desert. Hundreds wheeled around our campsite, volleys of gannets plunging into the sea, and eider ducks calling prudishly (a noise which sounds like a vicar receiving some particularly scandalous gossip).
Bearded, burnt and back
England, a country which (as Bill Bryson has noted) looks as though it’s sole purpose is to produce chlorophyll, was more bountiful by an order of magnitude. I got to live out that dream which I had treasured for all those weeks in our tent: sitting in the garden at my parents house with a cold drink, my family and my dog. That familiar joy, revisited with fresh eyes, was an experience every bit as intense and satisfying as the alien pleasure of the Staunings.
I’ve been going through my journal while writing this. The pages veer between suppressed despair and total euphoria. If I kept one in London, each entry would begin (and most likely end) with the words: ‘Today was fine’. It is the breadth of experience which makes exploration so tantalising: which makes that feel like the real world, and this the imitation.
Flicking through those pages, I found a surprising thing. It is not the memory of our success on MGS that I treasure most. It is turning back, defeated, on the shoulders of Mount Doom. Effort can be the only marker by which you judge yourself. Anything else – including whether or not you succeed – is out of your control. We put in the effort that day. We turned back at the right moment. And we lived to tell the tale. It was, in short, a perfect mountain day. Failing to reach the top was neither here nor there.
So that at last, was the story of GRNLND 2018. Matt’s own (much more timely) trilogy on the topic can be found here, here and here. The last word goes to him. Thank you, brother, for your company and exertions on the expedition. It was an honour.
Till next time, my beloved North.