Continued from Part 1: DeparturesThe Storm
Our first night was spent below the toe of Fyles glacier where water pools out of Ape Lake. Skiing to our camp spot had meant descending through sparse trees and gullies, we were falling left and right in the sticky afternoon slush. I had been quite happy to put down the heavy pack and go for an evening ski with the group. With the sun falling in the sky, the colours changed beautifully and we skied some great corn on our way down. None of us realized we wouldn't see another sunset like this for a while.
In the morning we packed our bags and rigged our sleds. Made out of rivetted crazy carpets and string, our sleds would relieve weight from our packs and follow us along like pets on a leash. Despite the fact that all of them came from the same Baldwin design, every one of our sleds had its own look and character. In time some of us would change the design over 20 times and all of us would develop a love-hate relationship for our little sleds.
We moved up the Fyles glacier with high overcast. The glacier felt big and long at the time but it was only a toe of the giants to come. Weather was coming in but forecasts showed nothing serious. Knowing this we opted to cover distance that day. We connected onto the Jacobsen Glacier enjoying the views of icefalls and the prominent surrounding peaks. The Jacobsen-Mongol col approached slowly but soon we were descending, learning what it meant to ski with sleds.
Artem had the gun-ho philosophy of just going straight and gunning it with the sled trailing behind, tumbling and sliding along. I battled with the sled trying to find a happy medium between speed and control. The latter proved hard to achieve. As I sped along I would watch the sled appear next to me, slowly surpassing me. Then suddenly it would hit a bump and start tomahawking. Like a parachute opening up the sled jerked me back as it clawed at the snow upside down. It was all I could do to stay on my feet and stop. The sled had other plans. As it rolled and slid past me with speed, the image of Wile E. Coyote popped up in my head, wide eyed with his little sign. "Uh oh." And in a flash the sled swung around me, the tether tightened, and I was eating snow.
We set up camp in an ideal bascamp spot below Mount Satan's north face. It's north glacier hanging above looked like a demonic upper jaw with blue teeth glinting. We built our snow-wall strong, over 5ft high, in anticipation of the oncoming weather. As we went to bed clouds obscured the dominant Mount Jacobsen and Mount Mongol behind us. When we woke wind, snow and thick cloud enveloped us.
For 5 days we were tentbound. For 5 days we slowly lost our minds in boredom, frustration and very little elbow room. We slept in 2 three person tents. Michal, Tim and Florian in one, Artem, Nick and I in the other. Restlessness grew in all of us but especially in Artem, who was itching to move and apply his technical gear to Mount Monarch at the other end of the icefield.
We wicked away at time in our tent with reading, sleeping, a miniature scrabble game, cards, and foam chess. People have asked me why I would bring a book like Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer into the mountains. Why read about mountains when in mountains? But as you feel frustration boiling and patience dwindling, you find comfort in reading about people dying in the "death zone" of Mount Everest. "This isn't so bad after all."
Leaving the comfort of the tent became associated not with a day of glorious ski touring, but with the displeasure of cooking or shitting in buffeting wind and blowing snow. Neither was easy, toilet paper just blew away out of your hand and blowing snow would fill the crack and crust the balls as you squat. Cooking meant standing in the shelter of a pit behind the wall fiddling with cold hands as snow drifted heavily onto you. Occasionally the clouds parted giving us hope only to close up and extinguish it the way it extinguished the sun's rays. Radiation midday was strong. Snow melted on the old tent's walls, dripping on us through the leaks in the fly. Mostly we were good humored and laughing with our games but tensions grew nonetheless. Patience was a candle coming closer to the end of it's wick with each passing day.
Night three in the storm and I wake to the cold. It's 1 in the morning and my leaking thermarest was letting the chill pass. This confirmed it; 4 1/2 hours was how long I had before it was emptied of air. As I came to my senses I realized I was pressed against Artem in the middle. Although it wouldn't be completely unrealistic to think we were growing Brokeback Mountain in these conditions, the real reason was a hard, cold bulge pressing against my back where the flapping tent wall should of been. As I turned I realized we were buried and snow pressed the tent walls in, forcing me to the center. It was eerily quiet and calm inside. After trying in vain to push the snow off I got dressed with some swearing. Nick who was now sleeping in a pool of water which had filled the depression under his shoulder woke and thanked me. When I stepped out I immediately reached back in for my goggles, the storm was roaring outside. So much snow had fallen throughout the past days that our snow wall came flush with the glacier's surface. I began shovelling, observing as the wind gathered more fresh snow from the glacier and dumped it into the pit we called home. Somewhere in the darkness Mount Satan smiled a blue, toothy smile.
With snow 5 feet deep between the tent and the wall it took four hours to shovel out the buried tents and every time I turned around I had to re -shovel a fresh foot of snow. I swore a lot and muttered "Good enough...", before crawling back into bed. We continued living this way for another two days, always shovelling, each taking turns with the graveyard shift. By day 5, the only thing that kept us all from cracking was Gregg's forecast. Gregg, a meteorologist friend of Tim's, was like our Micheal Angelo. He gave us a forecast of the weather every 3 days or so and in that environment, weather is God. The forecast was for sun and sure enough at 2am the next morning, Artem woke Nick and I up. He and Florian were outside the tent.
"Guys, I see stars. Want to climb Satan?"
In -17 degrees Celsius we crawled out of the tent. Cold breath, lit up by the headlamps, streamed from our lips. We stamped our feet, clapped and swung our hands for circulation, donned our harnesses, clipped into our skis and finally, roped up.
"It's cold" someone commented. Another replied.