THE LONG WAY HOME

After the battle down Hell Pass we were spent, the days on days skirting the very limits of human endurance in polar climates, coupled with man hauling 90 kg sleds down a frozen gully for 12 hours had finished us.

Our Inuit hunters assigned to pick us up had no way of knowing that the valley we had used to get to sea level had put us 8 km away from where they patiently waited. Our options were limited; Qanaaq the most northern human habitation on planet earth was only 30 km away to the west. With not a whisper of wind and a lack of knowledge regarding the safety of the sea ice this late in the season; we were stuck, camped on a triangle of frozen ground between the river and the hard frozen artic ocean.

The footprints of elk, wolf and bear in the snow and the odd bird drifting lazily by overhead at least made us feel a little closer to life than the absolute white lifeless sterility of the plateau 6000 feet above our heads. Beyond that though the isolation and absolute silence of the frozen shore walled by giant granite cliffs to our backs, completed the intense loneliness of this place. On absolutely spent legs we debated the merits of skiing the 8 km towards where we assumed the Inuit and dogs where searching for us. Our bodies had made the decision clear, with no physical reserve left but food and fuel for 6 more days, we resigned ourselves to wait until the Inuit found us.

To increase our chances of being found I fired off a parachute flare whilst Simon shot the booming 30.06 skyward. The gun's incredible roar reverberating off the dark cliffs behind us like a giant's anvil striking the very core of our earth. With still no sign of our rescuers the next day (day 20) in desperation I resolved to create a black smoke signal fire. With deep apologies to the purity of Greenland I built a fire with some of our rubbish we had carried faithfully across the ice world above. The guttery black smoke drifted sleepily skyward, so alien to this environment I was sure it would be seen. Two hours later, the fire was all but out, our tent smelt like Indonesia but still no sign of rescue.

We slept, ate, fussed with broken equipment, tossed, turned and tried to not focus on home. At just after 3pm, the sun was just getting low enough for the Greenlandic chill to begin to drill into feet, hands and face warning of another cold tent night ahead. I went outside the tent, loaded the bear killer and fired a shot skyward. Nothing. A second shot and before the echo had died I saw movement to the north. My brain questioned what my eyes had seen, cautious, but then a yelp and I confirmed I saw dogs. "Dogs! Simon we have dogs!!!! They've done it, they've bloody found us!" Barrelling out of the tent Simon joined me as we danced on the snow together celebrating the sheer ingenuity of these Inuit. No satphone, no gps, yet in this vast wilderness they had searched for two days and located the mad, cold Aussies deep within their realm.
We met, and hugged with genuine relief and affection Paulos with his team of 12 Inuit Huskies and his son Michael with 8 larger stronger male huskies. The sledges have not changed in hundreds of years, and with deep respect we loaded our Kevlar and carbon fibre gear onto the pulks. The old schooling the new and with a yell, we were off, dogs keen for home. For four hours we passed across the sea ice, the dog team leaping opening leads in the ice as the coming melt broke the thick pack into floes. The giant black, crumbling walls now on our right hand side blocked the sun and temperatures dipped well below -20c as we slowly grew closer to Qanaaq. The excited yelps of our transporters reminding us of how privileged we were to be re-entering orbit in such an ancient and gentle manner. Every hour we rested the dogs for 15 minutes. Amazed I watched as they slowed their breathing and in many cases actually laid down for a proper nap in the snow. Close to Qanaaq now, we saw men in rough tents ice fishing for Halibut which the dogs veered towards several times, picking up fish guts and scraps off the ice without breaking stride.

The coloured huts of Qanaaq came into view and the now familiar chorus of husky teams tethered on the ice announced our arrival with deafening song. Paulos and Michael organised their dogs and then helped us drag our heavy pulks to the edge of town. Whilst arranging a bed for the night, our brains tried to stay afloat as the noise, smells and activity of humanity confirmed we had re-entered orbit once more.

Boots on mud for the first time, I met two Inuit boys fascinated with our outlandish gear, sleds, boots and skis. They quietly played in the mud alongside as we awaited our transport. As we turned to go, I said goodbye to my little companions, one boy tugged on my sleeve and put some coins into my palm. Visibly moved by his gesture, I motioned that I could not take his money. The look of hurt on his little face quickly convinced me to take his gift. I smiled with tears in my eyes, absolutely broken by this little man, living a tough life in the world's most northern town, his generous gift like a million dollars to me. He took me right back to a journey a decade ago, sailing with our young kids into remotest Papua. Sarah and I walked through the poorest village, deep within a mangrove swamp. A sweltering, damp, tough way of life but the polar opposite of Qanaaq. As we left the village, I felt a tug on my arm and looked down at the grimy but smiling face of a little boy. He gave me a beautiful yellow grapefruit, the rich citrus smell filling the gap between us as I struggled to grasp his generosity. We had so much and yet this boy's offering touched me more than any other gift I have ever received. Out of his absolute lack, he gave - unencumbered by wants like we have. He shared. That pure spirit, that innocence and generosity I had not felt since, until standing in the fishy mud of Qanaaq yesterday. All of Greenland's intense cold, wild storms, vast Polar plains and rugged mountains had not broken me, yet this little Inuit boy had. A lesson in life etched into my soul by an Inuit boy, I'll carry the memory of him to my grave.

POSTNOTE - we arrived in Qanaaq at 9 pm and all lodgings were full. Air BnB hasn't reached Qanaaq but eventually a family took us in for the night. The next day we found out we had slept under the roof of polar royalty. Our host was none other than the grandson of Mathew A Henson one of my polar heroes. The first coloured explorer, Henson is still acclaimed as the finest "dead reckoner" in history. That uncanny ability to walk 20 miles over broken ice and know without sextant or gps, within mere metres the exact distance covered. This made him an asset to any expedition in the artic regions. I was awestruck to meet his descendant, what an amazing tale this journey has been.

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