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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.