Face to face with the realization that we aren’t in a very good situation I start laughing. I’m not the only one laughing. We’re all smiling, joking, chuckling, snickering, hysteric…
Damn. we’ve all lost it...
A few hours ago I was following Lena and, based on my view, if it wasn’t for her presence ahead I wouldn’t be confident whether my next step meant solid ground or a plummeting fall to my end. I'm being dramatic but not untruthful. We’re on the Manatee Glacier, nearly 3 weeks into our traverse. We’re in a whiteout and frankly, it’s pretty white out.
To bring you dear readers up to speed, a whiteout is an abysmal thing. It’s caused when a landscape of snow meets clouds. Some people refer it to being inside a ping pong ball, while some feel inside a full milk jug is more appropriate. Regardless, the feeling it presents is what makes it so uncomfortable; it’s like being blind with both eyes open.
This one is pretty good. We’re fully in the cloud and have been for at least a few hours. I had my own turn in front and Lena volunteered to dizzy herself next for the rest of us. While I now just follow her and her tracks, I can sympathize with the mental game she plays. Though her odds of finding solid ground are good, her eyes are likely straining to make out any detail. The mind tends to create features and shadows that don’t exist and you second-guess yourself frequently. Lena’s not new to the party though, she knows to feel the snow beneath her skis, she’s memorized the map. She’s also mentally taken note of the angle of the glacier, its curvature, the pattern, and matched this information to find confidence that a cliff, cornice or crevasse doesn’t lurk beyond the next step. It’s not quite a gamble, however it is a risk but a calculated one. To the average person, mountain travel is inadvertently gambling with your life but with experience and skill, the risk can be minimized and managed. If you can personify mountain experience in a female, you would have Lena Rowatt. I trust her ahead and so do Nick and Laura behind me. That kind of experience is what keeps you alive. Just like how the experience and skill of a driver could be the difference between a multi-casualty pile-up of rocketing aluminum and steel or an ordinary highway cruise.
So why are we moving in such desperate conditions? Good question. Often such weather would turn others home or keep them in their tents. We’re moving out of necessity. We've also been plagued with so many whiteouts over the past weeks that it's gotten to be kind of normal. Over the crest in the next valley is our next supply of food. 10 days lying in wait in the snow. Flying in by helicopter I placed the food caches in advance, burying them in key points along our route. Being that this is the last of our caches I put all of my best treats in it for the final days of our month long expedition. I’m pretty excited for those goodies and we’re all nearly out of food.
As the wind picks up we can tuck our chins in our jackets and lose sight of all but Lena’s track. With hood bowed I brace the blizzard and continue our climb. In the cocoon of gore-tex I hear only the reverberation of the wind and chaffing of the fabric against my ears. Our packs are heavy but much lighter than they have at times been. I would estimate I’m lugging 20kg of gear on my back but it’s the cold in my fingertips that I notice more-so. My strategy is usually to put my ski poles under my armpits and keep my hands low below my heart to…. Rock! I see the col. Lena’s disappeared but she must be right over the edge looking for our entrance over the high ridgeline into the next valley.
High in the clouds I reach the stony summit of our climb and spot Lena’s green jacket as she strips the skins from her skis. The wind is roaring, so trying to fold climbing skins nicely is futile. With cold fingers I fumble with the buckles and smile at Lena. I learnt some time ago from a girl named Natalie that in the mountains when times are hard smiling is a solid coping method. I also learnt from her that packing an apple a day is well worth it on trips less than 5 days but that’s less relevant. Smiling has been proven to stimulate your brain into releasing chemicals, which do in fact make you happier. It is also infectious and not a bad thing when your teammates might be equally suffering or s&%^#@%g themselves in fear. Natalie's smile was always very infectious and in crappy situations every endorphin helps . Folding skins can easily get frustrating in winds that blow snow sideways and mute speech. I just stuff them in my pack with rigid gloves.
The descent is never fun when it comes to whiteouts. The map indicated that the descent is un-glaciated which at first I thought to be an advantage. The Coast Mountains however don’t let up. The high alpine terrain turned out to be highly unpredictable with always a question of “What’s below if I fall?” Being confident on skis I took the lead. I first chose to descend on the steep icy surface by slide slipping but eventually trying a turn. Bad idea. Being unable to judge the surface of the snow or the world around me I completely lost my balance. Recovering with a heavy pack swinging your torso around is an awkward art that no matter how much practice I have, gets my heart pumping fast. What is below afterall? The map shows steep. Could be cliffs, rocks, or a smooth descent. I doubt it’s a smooth descent. Rocks that weren’t apparent from above become visible as I slide past. They give me a glimpse of reference in the world and I’m surprised to see that I’m sliding quite fast. I turn my edges into the snow and slow my speed. I honestly can’t tell if I’m moving now. Am I sliding backwards? Forwards? Down as I mean to? I look up and see that the others are moving and realize I’m standing still. The vertigo of the moment causes me to lose balance again and fall into the uphill snow. For the readers at home who are still unsure of what a whiteout consists; a whiteout is a mind-#!@%.
The large rock outcrops I pass by worry me. They are invisible from above due to their snowy tops but large enough to create wind scoops around the sides or cause injury should I slide over their edge. I’m anxious to reach the elevation where I can begin to traverse across the slopes so I check my altimeter frequently. With some more slow nervous sliding I reach my mark and work out left across the slopes. It’s spring and today at this hour I don’t expect wet avalanches with so little sun and the cold. These trips would be another story in the short days of winter where avalanches are a more prominent concern. These are not dinky slopes I slide my pink flesh across. Above are snow-slopes that in height exceed some of the largest ski centers in eastern Canada. The said, I can’t see a bloody thing above or below me, which is both worrying and comforting. To this day I still don’t know what was below, I didn't care to hang around and find out, the skis moved me away quickly.
It’s not long before the angle of the slope eases and contouring brings us close to the center of the valley. Here the visibility has improved and Nick comes to the front holding his GPS. He’s already tracked onto some satellites and indicates that our food cache is close now. We follow him 100 meters and I’m still trying to unwind from the stressfully blind and dizzying descent when he slows and says that we’re Really close. I had staked our food cache with two 9 foot tall bamboo poles and expected it to be fairly easy to see at this point but as I scanned the white surface nothing was apparent. Finally I see a red object on the surface looking very much out of place as Nick approaches.
Nick picks up the empty one gallon white gas fuel canister lying on the surface of the snow. This canister should be under a box of food buried half a meter or more under the surface marked by two large bamboo wands. Uh Oh…
It’s obvious to all of us. Something bad has happened to all our food thanks to a ravaging animal. No fuel, no water. No food, well.. no food. What would happen if you told Santa his bag of presents had been burnt? I’m not entirely sure but this gave me a pretty good idea. With shovels we began to dig where we saw some wind brushed crumbs of food colouring the snow next to the fuel canister and lo and behold under ten centimeters of snow are scattered shards of our food. Everything is utterly devastated.
I would argue that the Coast Mountains are one of the most remote and challenging mountain ranges in the world to access. It’s hard to explain how small and alone being deep in this world makes you feel. It’s a beautiful feeling once you get past the fear. As hard as it is to get into the Coast Mountain Range, it is equally hard to get out. Like oil oozing out of the tanker in English bay, I could feel fear ooze out of it’s container into the now choppy waters of my consciousness. This feeling was going to take more than a smile to contain. With shovels sifting scattered remains of our food cache we laugh and smile at the ridiculousness of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Hysterics is a good way of coping when in this world you feel small, alone and very far from home.
For the moment it may seem like we’ve lost it but we’ll get out of this somehow. Lunch today will be the odd snowclad almond and soggy pasta noodle. Later today there is nothing to do but sleep and though tomorrow might be a nightmare, at least our backpacks will feel lighter.