Climbing the highest mountain in the Arctic - Part 2

The reality of being on expedition was starting to hit home. If we wanted to drink, it was down to us to melt snow. Likewise at dinner time we lived in our tent whilst Simon, our Guide, lived in his. It was very much an independent trip and by no means beginner friendly. It was a semi polar environment and I’d say it was akin to climbing Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, starting at around 14,000ft in terms of temperature and conditions. 

We set off from our high camp at around 10am for the summit. The beauty of Arctic summers is that there’s never a time pressure as it never gets dark, so it always felt like a leisurely start compared to climbs in the European Alps and other ranges. We walked in to a bitter head wind, and instead of warming up as we exerted ourselves, we were grasping for all of our extra layers until we had nothing more to put on. We decided to retreat to the tent, and that continuing would have been the frostbite express. We spent the rest of the day in the tent listening to the wind picking up, but I was secretly glad of the rest. It didn’t get any better the next day though, or even the day after. We’d eaten all of our main meals, and on that fourth morning we knew it was makeor break. We’d either have another go at the top, or have no choice but to retreat all the way to Base Camp for food and supplies. Thankfully, the weather gods smiled and we could head up. 

We skinned for around two hours on easy angled glacier, dodging a few crevasses. Then we hit a ridge where we stashed skis, fitted crampons and walked to the base of the beautiful summit pyramid. The vista was amazing, like nothing else on earth apart from Antarctica. Unclimbed peaks as far as the eye could see, and not another living soul within 200 miles. The crest of the lower ridge felt quite alpine but wasn’t particularly exposed, so very enjoyable to actually walk along. After the first couple of hundred metres of the summit pyramid, the slope steepened considerably to around 65 degrees. The snow conditions were pretty variable too, sometimes breaking through crust and sinking to the knee, other times on hard nevé. One of the crux sections traversed about 20 metres of brittle ice which had been scoured by the wind. I watched Laura thrash across it, clearly at the limit of what she’d done on snow and ice before. The ice shattered like dinner plates as she swung her ice axe in to it. It rejected the pick many times, sending it bouncing back out of the ice like a spring before finally finding purchase and sinking the front few teeth in. It was much steeper than I’d expected, and led to a spectacular section of narrow steep ridge which dropped away in every direction. It was like walking along a pyramid, which was just wide enough for a pair of boots, and a terrifying drop in every direction. At that moment, a simple slip would likely have killed all three of us. With no medical help for hundreds of miles, it made the whole climb feel more intense. There was no back up or Plan B. We had to keep calm and keep climbing. Shortly afterwards, we took the final steps across the plateau on to the summit, where we tried to comprehend the incredible bird’s eye view which lay beneath us. It was still painfully cold so after a short break and celebration, it was already time to descend again. The cruelest part of mountaineering is surely to spend so much trying to reach a summit, and having so little time to spend there and enjoy it.

The descent was tough, and the exposure felt very real once we were facing out from the slope. Going back down the steepest section of the ridge, out of the corner of my eye I saw Laura slip. My heart stopped momentarily as I waited to see if she would start to slide. Thoughts raced through my mind of the best side of the ridge to jump off to counter-balance the fall. The ropes came tight, I looked behind me, and she was stationary. Despite being very shaken, she quickly got back on to her feet and turned in to the ice to climb down step by step. It took almost as long to get down as it did to get to the top. A mixture of fatigue and knowing that we couldn’t make any mistakes. We rolled in to camp late in the afternoon elated and with jelly legs, so decided to spend the night there. Skiing down with the pulks the next day was almost as challenging as the way up, and definitely more frustrating. They constantly push from behind, making it almost impossible to control speed or direction. It was like skiing down a blue run, over a mixture of powder, ice and crust, with heels unclipped and 30kg pushing you down the hill. Being lousy skiers as we are, there was a lot of falls, and even more swearing. As we skied over the final 6 or 7 kilometres back to Base Camp, the sky turned an ominous grey and the light was completely flat. It looked like weather was on the way, and we were to be proved 100% correct on that observation. 

We spent the next five consecutive days stormbound in our tents as the wind and snow took turns hammering us with tedious regularity. At its worst, we were taking turns to dig out the tents every three hours, day and night, to stop them from collapsing. Sitting in the comfort of everyday life, it's hard to comprehend how long five days can feel. Days turned to nights as the spindrift swirled around our tents, banking on the leeward side before shifting to bury us from a different angle. The routine of melting snow, drinking tea and eating cake, great as it sounds, got really boring. We'd gone from the extreme of sled hauling and a significant climb, to vegetating in our sleeping bags for almost a week. 

On the sixth day of the storm, the plane was due to collect us, but couldn’t because the weather was so bad. This almost destroyed our morale, as we were psychologically ready to leave the glacier after a long five days cooped up. Another three days passed until it cleared enough for the plane to come, and we’d been buried up to the very top of our tents. First we heard the hum of the Twin Otter, then we picked out it's red fuselage and a wave of emotions washed over us when we saw it touch down. It made 4 journeys up and down the runway before coming to a complete stop, and when we slumped in to the basic bench seat it was a wonderful feeling. A hot shower and a warm bed were beckoning.

Some would say that those 8 days must have been the ultimate test for our relationship, but we came through it with our marriage and sense of humour in tact. Laura proved that she’s tougher than she looks (and tougher than she thought), and despite not getting as much done as we’d hoped, we came home feeling very satisfied with having climbed the highest mountain in the Arctic, also known as the Eighth Summit, and living through an 8 day Arctic storm along the way. Of a planned 14 day trip, we had 16 days in Greenland, 11 of which were bad weather. Hopefully next time we’re on expedition together (and there’ll be a next time), we’ll have better weather...