IT’S NOT QUITE OVERDay 19
Extraction from hell.
Position: 77°35'20"N, 68°23'16"W
The next major obstacle for us was getting to our extraction point. The locals had arranged for us to be collected via dog sled teams with some Inuit Hunters. The challenge, without any topographic maps was that we didn't have any clear route to the Fjord, only a tip of "due west" from our current position. Further still, the hunters don't seem to have any reasonable communication (ie. satellite phone, GPS) so we were relying on them "bumping" into us. Sure, this idea had a certain old-worldly charm but in practicality, not a great extraction plan if you ask me. Nevertheless, we had to first get ourselves into a position on the Fjord that would lend itself to a pickup. We dead-reckoned it would take about 2-3 hours to haul our heavy sleds down to sea level, still weighing roughly 90km each. Boy were we wrong.
Geoff and I climbed a tall ridge in an attempt to scout out the best approach. Towing the sleds felt like concrete blocks, bringing back haunting memories of our training back at home (hauling heavy tyres up our enormous driveway.) The most reasonable conclusion we could conjure up, was to follow a gully bed down to where it would join the Fjord. We started off making slow, sensible progress, winding down the snow-dusted bed of rock. We thought this would take a little while, but we'll get there.
A few hours on and our situation began to deteriorate. The rock bed we were heaving our sleds down began to open out as we descended in altitude. At first thought, great - however, we noticed that the walls either side of us were growing taller and we began to hear the familiar trickle of water as the glacial melt ran its course to the Fjord. Our course became more difficult, now having to negotiate either side of thin streams, running under the ice underfoot.
Hours went by and time was no longer on our side. There was no option to adjust our course at this point - trapped in by colossal walls of crumbly granite rock and mud. Besides, surely it would improve as we got closer to the bottom. With each twist and turn of the gully, our situation became more dire and progress slowed, further still. The streams of water widened and transformed from a trickling sound into rushing.
Geoff and I were now having to help each other with each sled as the terrain became too precarious to manage them individually. Geoff was probing a section of ice to see whether we could bridge the sled across when suddenly, the ice under his feet gave way and he plunged through to chest deep, frigid, icy water - he was now soaked through. After realising how serious our situation had become - we were both struck with adrenalin, trying to clearly think our way toward the best solution.
Knowing we still had a long way to go, we concluded that the best way to prevent Geoff from becoming hypothermic was to keep moving. I felt sick, my brain was turning overtime, trying to think of all the options to safely get us the hell out of there, so we could put up a tent and dry off.
Unfortunately our situation wasn't going to improve. As we continued inching our way, heaving and cursing the sleds as we dragged them through icy slush and over rocks we came to another serious road-block. There was a 30ft waterfall that was half frozen, directly in our path. Slipping down this would surely break your leg, or worse. By now it was 8pm and Geoff had a media interview scheduled via satellite phone to recap on the journey to date. Seeing as we had to keep Geoff moving in his sodden state - he decided to scale in of the steep walls of the ravine in order to get satellite signal. Sounds like an odd thing to do, given the circumstances - however, knowing what we do about perspective, this chance rock scaling culminated in becoming the catalyst to our arduous, yet possible escape plan.
We concluded that we had past the point of no return, we needed the sleds, full of survival content and we had to make it to the Fjord, in one piece. I climbed high over the ridge to get a better vantage point and Geoff went the lower route, managing to climb below the waterfall, as well as avoiding the perilous drop off. From the top I could see the end of our watery course, though not all of the obstacles between us and the end. It was enough to provide hope in a dire circumstance, knowing there was an end to our suffering (eventually.)
Mustering all of the nouse and testicular fortitude we could, we climbed back down to the sleds and withdrew our 50m climbing rope (2 x 25m lengths.) We then proceeded to use me as an anchor and belay our sleds. One rope at the front of the sled, to guide its course and me on the other end, gingerly feeding the rope through frozen fingers and wet, tattered gloves. After this, both Geoff and I would scale the rock and go around the ice-fall, before climbing underneath again. After this first major nuisance was solved, we discovered a repeatable methodology as we continued meandering our way downstream. As it turns out, ice-falls became common place and we had to employ our belt acquired technique another 18 times.
With aching bones we mustered just enough strength, and no more, to take each obstacle out of our path. As we got lower in the valley, we began noticing a highway of animal tracks ranging from bears and wolves, to caribou and small foxes. We could practically taste the end of our toil after 12 hours, covering only 6km as the crow flys. Finally, at 2am, we were greeted by the vast frozen expanse of the Fjord. Refuge at last. We hurried to set up a tent and spent almost an entire bottle of fuel in an attempt to dry ourselves and our clothes.
In the moment, we willed the relentless afflictions to end, however, in hindsight and sitting by the fire - we took great pride in another expedition success, against all odds. A testiment to the incredible teamwork and trust we shared to succeed again. We'll file this little story under "Character Building."