Energy

energy1Energy.

Without it, there is nothing. With it, anything is possible.

When Elaine and I got back from the land of ice and snow – ironically named Greenland – our energy fuel tank was empty. Two years of living in motion, a never-stopping pace, covering more than 5,000 human powered miles, left us drained and done when the rescue helicopter touched down on a small dirt patch in Tasiilaq, Greenland.

Finding the motivation to do anything since then has been challenging. On our days off from work, we’ve holed up in the cabin, done the necessary workouts to stay in shape, eaten a lot of fruits and vegetables and made the most concerted effort in the 8 years of our marriage to take the foot off the gas.

Like a well that is drained, but then not used for awhile, the energy is filling back up. It was a slow return at first, frustratingly slow, because while patience is a virtue it’s not one of our strengths. And waiting for life to happen isn’t something that comes naturally to us. We don’t really believe in dumb luck and fate, as we have found hard work and vision tends to create better results. Waiting is tough.

The motivation to train and play hard in the mountains is returning, but more importantly, the spark that creates new ideas and dreams has come back. At this point in my life, fitness is a fairly simple, predictable game. Work hard and rest enough to get the desired results. But the dreams and ideas of ways to make a better living, feel fulfilled and adventure further and deeper, those are something new, or at least a continuation of what was born and planned on the trail and across the snow.

There is a realization that what was good enough for us before is not good enough for us now. Quite honestly, we’re worth more than that. There is something about walking 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada that makes you realize anything is possible, that there is a better world out there and that going back to that “other” world isn’t enough. It’s not living up to potential.

This is all very vague talk – the kind that scares mothers unnecessarily – but it’s intentionally so. With the return of energy comes the return of ideas, and now, with the new realization that anything is possible, the determination to put it into action. But the ideas need more flushing, and then – action.

There was a lot of energy in the mountains today. We decided to go back to a familiar haunt, the trail to the Continental Divide, a geographical vortex of energy. We live close to it, but today we needed to go right to the source. We decided to take the late shift, the sunset view. The early bird gets the worm, but around here everybody is the early bird. At some point, early bird turns into night hawk, and on Colorado trails, things are trending rapidly to the latter. So we decided to gamble and head up as everybody else was heading down. It worked out well.

energy2From the get-go, I could tell today was different from the past two months, or even last week. When we moved in the mountains last week, Elaine did great, but I could tell there was some hesitation in her step. Not today. There was pep, lightness and strength to her movement, ever up rocks and roots into thinner and thinner air. Elaine was born and raised in these mountains, and like the prodigal son in “Legends of the Fall,” she didn’t leave, but instead explored them even deeper. She gets stronger every year, but more than that, watching her I get the sense that she is becoming one with these mountains. She always had a comfort in the mountains, but after the past few years, something is different. She has become a part of the spirit of the wilderness.

We rose rapidly through the pine forest, hopping across rocks to cross streams, gliding up switchbacks, the heart and legs working hard but comfortably. They know the routine by now, and smile when they get to be part of it.

We rose up a steep bench, the mountains exploding ahead. The setting sun lit our faces, providing warmth and more energy. We crossed onto Alta Flats. Alta means higher, and it’s also Elaine’s middle name. In the darkest time of her life, when she spent all her time inside, fighting the demons, we think her spirit decided to occupy this higher spot surrounded by granite, snow-capped mountains, waiting for her to return. And when her physical self did, that spirit sang.

energy4The few hikers we saw on the lower trail were wrapping up the day. We were alone, exactly how we like it, two hearts in a big, wild place. Past Alta Flats, the trail rises again, the krummolz shrinks and we are at that magical place: timberline.

A friend of mine once told me, “there are no bad days above timberline”. To me, there is no place on earth with more energy and beauty than the land above the forest. The thin air, the angular light, the crisp breeze and the emergence of near vertical mountains around and above brings me more happiness than almost anything.  And when things are impossibly complex, the alpine brings some sense of simplicity and peace.

With that joy created by landscape, we climbed up. The steady rhythm is fueled by that happy energy, like moving from 85 octane gas to 93. Just a little bit better. We conversed with marmots and watched elk gallop in the valley below as a cool wind graced our bodies. And then, with a final few steps, we reached the summit, the Continental Divide. We checked our watches. While we weren’t trying to hit a certain time, there is a satisfaction reading the numbers. Pretty good, and there is a lot of room for improvement. The energy is returning.

energy5Ahead of us, the Pacific. Behind the Atlantic. All around, 12,000 and 13,000 foot peaks rise in every direction. The wind attacks from the north, the direction of legends, and we feel something different. This is no gentle summer wind. It has a slight bite. I have not felt that bite since spring. It is a bite of coming change.

We continue up, to a lake that sits impossibly at the very top of the Divide. We settle next to that lake, looking at remnants of the last ice age, sometimes talking, sometimes quiet, remembering the past, dreaming of the future. Stella used to love this spot, and it brings back memories. But then I remember that she is playing in the high mountains with the spirits of all our loved ones who have gone before. In time, we will join them. But not just yet.

energy3The evening is growing late. On the down, we will be more cautious, as Elaine is still healing from her broken foot. Better to get down five minutes slower intact than aggravate things. The wind picks up even more, and as Elaine walks out onto her cliff and looks over her domain and home of the past 28 years since her birth, the cold wind blasts into us, energizing the land and making us smile. No doubt about it – it is a wind of change, of a returning autumn.

There is nowhere to go but down. On the descent we can’t stop talking about ideas and dreams. We don’t talk much on the uphill – that’s the business end of things. But on the way down – that’s the time to dream. The shadows grow long, evening colder, the sun drops under the western mountain range. We glide through the woods effortlessly and happily, not stopping till we return to our two-decade old pick-up truck just as the first stars shimmer in the Rocky Mountain night sky above.

energy6Finally, energy – the ingredient that fuels anything great – has returned.

Dealing with Disappointment

tracks

Random fox tracks day four on the ice sheet. Made us wonder where the little guy was going.

They say you learn more from misadventures than from the ones that are smooth sailing the whole way. And you know, they’re probably right.

But that doesn’t make it easy. Not by a long shot.

plume

Safe inside the Red House as a piteraq rages off the ice sheet.

It’s actually taken me until just yesterday to realize that both Dan and myself are grieving. At first, it sounded ridiculous, but as I thought about it, I realized that it actually makes a lot of sense. We put everything we had this past winter into this trip. Between working several jobs spanning 60-70 hours a week, living as cheaply as possible, training every second we got, and spending all the other free seconds we could scrape together planning and preparing for this trip, we really had invested everything we had into skiing across Greenland.

ontocap

Roped glacier travel on skis with a 175lb pulk…

If you’re going to do it, you have to, I suppose. It’s a serious undertaking, one that can’t be done lightly, and we needed to do everything we did. We’d planned longer trips before, but nothing quite like this one, and the amount of dedication needed to get everything done on time before we left was huge.

And when you put that much into getting something done, you really, really hope that you do get it done, in fact, you can hardly allow yourself to entertain the idea that you might not. I’m not really sure when the idea first entered my head that this was a doomed expedition.

crossingice

Three km of skiing across frozen bay ice was enough to send my heart thumping

As we ran into insane baggage fees again and again, it certainly did not occur to me then, I just handed over the credit card (rather reluctantly, I suppose, but really, what was I supposed to do?) to pay the fees.

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Camped outside the Kulusuk airport, watching the dog teams take people and gear into town.

As we met more and more incredulous people over our lack of a shot gun, culminating in our taking the quickest ever lesson from a native on how to shoot an ancient shot gun and our camping the first night along the sea ice with another expedition of two, it certainly didn’t occur to me.

gun

Standing polar bear watch that first night.

As we heaved our outrageously heavy pulks up, up, ever up, sometimes having to remove our skis and wallow in the snow when the going was too steep to get good traction with our thin skins, it did not occur to me.

bergs

Sometimes, it was so steep and the pulks so heavy that we had to take off our skis and boot up.

Even when night-time temperatures plummeted to -60ºC, wind ripping across the frozen wasteland that so resembled what I can only imagine the moon looks like, and my body quite clearly and in no uncertain terms knew that this was weather in which my fragile little body could easily die, it did not occur to me.

stark

It’s a crazy frozen wasteland out there.

When Dan began exhibiting signs of frostbite on his fingers and toes, it was a concern, for sure, but he showed that he was dealing well with it, and being extremely mindful of his slightly damaged appendages.

Perhaps, it filtered into my thoughts on that first day that we could not move, the wind buffeting the tent so hard that a tiny tear started in one of the strongest tents on the market, while Dan and I took shifts heading out into the gale to dig out the snow that was continuously piling up between our tent and our snow wall, threatening to cover our tent completely.

nothing

I tell people there was nothing out there. I’m not lying!

But as the day got worse, and that tiny tear turned into something not so tiny and more along the lines of gigantic (and proved to me that super glue does indeed not set when it’s friggin’-cold-degrees out and also that my skill set with a needle and dental floss leaves much to be desired), and the forecast for the next few days was updated to 130mph winds and heavy snow (a particularly unpleasant combination, to be sure), I had a taste of death. It wasn’t quite there, it wasn’t knocking right on my door. But death was sniffing around; it had picked up our scent and was following hot on our trail.

pullit

One of the times we could actually see the horizon!

There was a point in my life when I would have welcomed death, when I would have flung my arms open and brought it to me. There was a time when I even sought it. So perhaps, my biggest realization when I felt death drawing near us, was that I did NOT want to greet death. I wasn’t ready, no way, no how – and certainly dying with Dan, frozen to death on that great lonely ice sheet was not something I wanted. I could clearly see what would happen: the tent would fail, inevitably. Any sort of snow shelter stood a high chance of being destroyed as well. And then – the cold, cold process of the body slowing down, freezing, freezing, until we were nothing but two frozen bodies. Some (Romeo and Juliet come to mind) might find the thought of perishing in a frozen wasteland romantic, but the thought of watching Dan freeze before me – I definitely have better circulation – was horrifying. I didn’t want to die, and I certainly didn’t want to watch my partner die. My own hot, blood-pumping body recoiled dramatically at this vision, as a viscously strong realization slammed into me: I wanted to live.

evportrait

You’re walking a line out there – you create your own bubble of an environment that the human body can survive in; all while surrounded by an environment that could easily kill the human body.

There followed an extremely circuitous communication slog, in which we called via satellite phone Arctic Command in Nuuk, Greenland, our insurance company, and Fran.

Rasmus, with Arctic Command, got back to us with a weather forecast for our location very similar to what we had received, but with slightly stronger winds, and said “I’d like to see you guys get out of there. You do have two choices though: you could dig down, it’s the only way you have a possibility of surviving, but the Greenlandic snowpack is difficult to manage, and there’s a very high chance that it will collapse and you will still die. Or you get out of there.”

A few hours later, we were greeted by a helicopter pilot as he landed next to our destroyed tent by the words, “It’s nice to pick up actual humans and not bodies!”

That cemented in my mind that it was the right decision. It didn’t make it any easier though. As we rose up in the air, I watched our tent get smaller and smaller below us, feeling a hurricane of emotion threatening to implode me from within. Hot tears coursed down my cheeks, burning on my wind- and sun-burned cheeks.

gorgeous

Watching the ice flow below

ocean

Dangerous and deadly, yet captivating and breathtaking

Now, Dan and I have been home for a little over a month. I’m still working on processing this whole trip, the decision, the failure. It doesn’t help that I finally went to the doctor a few days after getting back to have my foot checked out. Several months ago, I had had a crash while skiing that had left me unable to bear weight for a few days, and that seconds after it happened, I told Dan that I had broken my foot. A minute later I said it wasn’t and walked out. When, three months later, I finally went in, it was to discover that I had fractured my calcaneus. I was ordered into a boot and on crutches for a month, which left me with very few coping mechanisms. My typical form of self medication is to beat the crap out of my inner demons until they’re so tired they no longer rear their ugly heads – that and a gigantic helping of good old fashioned sunshine to top it off.

wind

Two full pulks, one winding pulk trail.

For a month, while I reeled in turmoil  from our Greenland trip, I couldn’t even deal with the craziness in my head. I was reduced to sitting on our porch, which I will grant is actually quite nice, but did very little to help me heal. I don’t think I even realized I needed to heal.

Iwhite

Every second is filled to bursting out there.

But now, as we’re settling back into being home, as the massive fight or flight response is finally winding down and my body’s chemistry goes back to normal, my X-Rays are coming back normal, and I’m allowed to walk without crutches, I’m realizing that it’s ok. We are grieving. It was a rather traumatic experience. We went through a lot in the space of a very small time frame.

But most importantly, I’m realizing that it’s ok.

moreshadows

The crazy thing is…we’re planning on going back