"We should avoid this area!"
By Eric Philips
How could this have happened? How could my mind have obliterated a short but deliberate string of words, uttered less than two months earlier? "We should avoid this area!". A simple suggestion that now reverberated inside what felt like a very empty skull. Perhaps the sound of the Cessna absorbed the words before reaching my companions, before reaching my very own ears. Even my diary contained words of advice penned after our reconnaissance flight.
...the western side of the icecap looks horrendous. Melt pools and rivers extend for about fifty kilometres on the western flank before turning into a sea of crevasses. It always looks worse from above, but worrying all the same.
But here we were, on the western fringe of Greenland's icecap, twenty-four days into our kite-assisted ski traverse. My kayak-cum-sled, upside-down again, was wedged in an icy crevasse whose rotten walls were gnarled and pocked like scoria by the Greenland sun. Ben Galbraith was unhitched from his sled, straddling the hungry slot and prying the kayak from its icy grip.
"One, two, three, puuuulllll", he grunted as I heaved my shoulders into the harness. The tooth-grinding sound of plastic scraping across sharp ice, like fingernails on a blackboard, tore at my ears. As it came free Ben rolled the kayak upright and I ran up the steep bank of the ice gully. I kept running, crampon points crunching to the beat of clacking ski poles, until I reached a flat ridge upon which I could drag my 60kg load.
The icescape beyond the ridge tore a beat from my bouncing pulse. My elevated view, as if I were back in that Cessna with Ben and Wade, unfolded a snarled maze of gullies and ridges that swept downward in great chaotic arcs towards Greenland's coastal mountains twenty kilometres distant. Here and there small islands of rock - nunataks - protruded from the ice, like knots in a plank of wood around which the grain compressed and rejoined. We hadn't seen the Arctic sun for three days and a flat and shadowless light, filtered through a brooding, autumnal sky that dangled lifeless above us, fixed the scene into a Frank Hurley plate. Within the giant waves, the disordered rubble stumbled, swerved and fell as gravity pulled the icecap towards the coast. Hundreds of ice walls the size of two-storey houses were stacked like dominos, awaiting a giant hand that would send them toppling like a deck of cards. We had to travel through it, all of it.
I looked back to see Ben charging up the gully, yellow kayak in tow, his small but powerful body almost parallel with the surface as his hands groped the ice for a grip that would never hold. Pulling up beside me, a bead of sweat ran down his cheek and soaked into his collar. Summer was long gone but our hard-working bodies raged like infernos across the ice. Wade was close behind, the bow of his small sled shattered into a patchwork of fragments held together by fibrous strands of Kevlar. The end was near for a sled that had seen service across Canada's largest icecap and now, August 1995, the inland ice of the world's largest island.
"Shit", remarked Wade.
"Wow", offered Ben.
Both comments held within them a double entendre that echoed my sentiments exactly. We stood daunted by the prospect of what lay hidden within our sweeping vista, but staggered by the sheer beauty of a landscape that was both subtle and powerful. I felt close to my companions with whom I'd shared a unique experience.
Wade broke the silence. "Didn't you say we should avoid this area". Damn, I thought he hadn't heard me.
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