Cold Feet (Baffin Island, 2008)
In 2008, after a year of planning, Antony and I left for our first autonomous arctic winter expedition. We left to cross the Penny Ice Cap on Canada’s Baffin Island, a journey that would see us travelling over 300km in temperatures down to -60C. The expedition was due to take a month. On day 5 on the ice we turned around and retreated. We retreated because of me.
It took a further eight hours bouncing around the back of the snowmobile that culminated four days of travel to a small Inuit community on Baffin Island before we reached the terminal face of the Okoa Bay glacier, which was to be our access point onto the Penny Ice Cap. Eight hours of wriggling toes and fingers in order to keep the blood circulating, eight hours of meditation to escape the elements. It was unbelievably cold, -30 to -40C in the still but coupled with the wind chill of speeding snow mobiles the cold was phenomenal. It was already late afternoon when we arrived and Billie, our Inuit outfitter, quickly unloaded us and our kit before speeding away back to their community. All of a sudden, once the whine of the snowmobiles engines had grown silent in the distance we were alone in the still and silent wonderland.
Fighting against the stiffness that had penetrated our bones from the cold journey we set up camp for the first time on the ice. In the late winter night falls at around 1730 and by the time we had set up camp it was dark. We had a quick dinner under the light of our headlamps and settled down once again in our sleeping bags. After the long day of travel we were exhausted but having spent eight hours huddled down in the sledge, sleep didn’t come easy.
As we slept, the moisture in our breath coated the inside of the tent and perfect ice crystals grew. By the morning these ice crystals coated the entire roof of the tent. As a result the morning routine is long and it begins with a dustpan and brush to ensure none of these snow crystals that have grown on the tent get’s into our sleeping bag or clothes. Very carefully and with just one hand emerging from the small face hole in my sleeping bag I would begin sweeping the roof of the tent letting the dislodged crystals fall into the dustpan. Any sudden movement would make it snow in the tent and so this operation had to be done with great care. Ice crystals also coat the outside of the sleeping bag and that too has to be carefully swept away. As the ice is brushed off I emerge slowly from my cocoon until I am completely out. Outside of my sleeping bag my temperature drops rapidly and I rapidly put on my insulating layers that are stashed securely away in my dry bag. The sleeping bag is then carefully put into it’s own large dry bag and now it is Antony’s turn to repeat the process for himself.
Whilst this whole process is repeated for Antony, I leave the tent to give him space and also to make use of the time for I cannot do anything until he has packed away his sleeping bag. The mornings are cold and even the slightest breeze becomes a rude awakening from the night of slumber. The valley floor is an undulating carpet of snow. The tips of the largest rocks and boulders show their naked faces and edges, interspersing the white blanket with polka dots. The valley sides rise up to sharp mountains with shear faces on which the snow only intermittently sticks onto, speckling the browns and oranges with white. The tops of the western mountains glowed in the morning sun. The sharp shadows of the eastern mountains cut a distinct line across the mountain faces and it would be a couple of hours at least before the sun reaches the valley floor, onto us. Behind me and the direction that we would be travelling is the looming terminal face of the Okoa Bay Glacier. It is a sight to behold: Giant seracs, metres high, balanced precariously over the frozen bay, ready to crash down under the slightest of melting. They stand there, in a line on the glacier face, like an army poised for battle, decked out in blues and whites and the greys and blacks of rocks and gravel. The frozen bay below looks like small waves have been frozen in their tracks. Fantastic patterns and ice sculptures littered across the ground like an artist’s rubbish tip. But the most striking thing about this environment is that there is not a sound to be heard. The ears struggle against this and welcome the slight but, in this environment, deafening roar of snow being squashed underfoot.
Our first task of the expedition is to get up on top of that imposing glacier that towers metres above us. Some glaciers feature nice easy slopes that lets you step onto them and just walk up onto them, this one did not. We skied to underneath the glacier and scouted out the western edge. The glacier terminated on the increasingly steep slopes of the valley edge which climbed at increasingly sharp angles to the western mountains. It took us over an hour to ski to the other side of the valley to try and find an easier way onto to the glacier but this side was steeper than the other. We relented and backtracked to the western edge, it being our best bet to get onto the glacier. The terrain was steep, far too steep to pull the pulks or ski up. Kicking steps into the snow whilst leaving all our gear at the bottom we fought our way up the valley edge. As we climbed more of the glacier was apparent and the first hundred metres of which was a broken mess of ice. Huge cracks loomed over its surface descending into a black nothingness. Our climb onto the glacier would have to bypass all of this section and we would have to stay on the mountain edge until we pass this section. Our path zigzagged up the snow covered hill and traversed along the mountain edge for a couple of hundred metres until we saw a safe spot to descend onto the glacier. Having found a reasonable path onto the glacier we went back to bring our equipment. The terrain was steep, rough and the traverse along the length of the glacier was riddled with danger, a slip on this section would lead directly into the mess or broken seracs and the dark depths of the cracks underneath.
We took our time, carefully transferring our gear in manageable loads, in our rucksacks. The pulks and skis came last and were strapped to our backs like a big turtle shell. Just transferring the gear halfway across this traverse took the rest of the day and when the sun disappeared behind the western mountains we found a small ledge where we would camp for the night, on the mountain face overlooking the terminal face of the glacier. BANG! The first serac crashing down on the glacier below startled us made a tremendous noise that punctuated the silence we were accustomed to. A huge cloud of ice shards rose up in the air where the thousands of ice had fallen. Throughout that evening we would bear witness to a number of these shows of power from nature.
The following day we descended onto the glacier on its smooth inclining surface, sufficiently far away from the broken edge. We strapped on our pulks and skis and started to pull, finally making progress. The next two days we found our rhythm ascending the shallow incline up the wide glacier. Emerging at the top on day four, a junction of multiple glaciers there was a slight dogleg, according to the map, to join up to the next glacier and one that would lead us onto the ice cap. We made camp that evening at the top just before the dog leg. “Let’s ski around the corner and see this glacier.” Antony proposed, excitedly. I responded less enthusiastically, I had been quiet all day and I had a dilemma that was tearing me apart. “Come on.” He continued. “ I reckon we can see the ice cap from around the corner. It won’t be dark for at least an hour we have time.” I relented and we skied the short distance to see peer around the mountain that we had camped beside. We emerged out of the shadow of the mountain to see a short, steep but manageable glacier ending in the unmistakable form of the ice cap. “Great! We can probably make it to do the top in a couple of days. Onto the Penny Ice Cap!” Antony exclaimed, enthused and energetic. I mumbled a response, the shadow of the previous day enveloping me in its darkness. “We’d better get back.” Antony said not noticing my mood. The flat light of an overcast sky started to fade as we backtracked towards our tent, the darkening sky merging with the darkness that was hanging over me.
Under the lamps of our head torches we ate our 1500 Calorie dinner. The warmth and nourishment gave me courage to broach the subject that was consuming me. It could not wait any longer. “Antony, I’m worried about my toes. I haven’t felt them all today.”
During the preceding days and under the extreme temperatures we had been living under, down to -35C excluding the wind chill, my toes had not been happy. They were cold and I had to constantly keep them moving to keep feeling in them. It was disconcerting and I had kept a close eye on them, but each evening the feeling and throbbing warmth would come back in a shock of pain and they kept warm during the night. This morning however I was aware they were colder than normal and the very tip felt numb. A cloud started to grow over me and proceeded to gather over me as the day wore on. No matter how much I wriggled my toes or energetically I skied my toes were getting colder. By that evening I could not feel most of my toes and the deterioration in the condition was not promising.
I peeled off the booties and two layers of socks from my feet. The tips of my toes had a bluish tint and so did the skin under my nails. I concentrated on my feet, not wanting to look at Antony’s face. Testing out the sensitivity of my feet, I could barely feel his nails digging into my toes. Neither did any colour come back in the toes after being pinched and poked. They had to be warmed up, I placed them in his armpits which he closed shut with his arms. We sat like that for almost half an hour, two men in the middle of the Arctic, hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest community or even person. Both of us silent, contemplating the implications of this. I thought about how it might look like above, a couple of headlamps moving around in a small red tent in this immense and desolate polar landscape.
After half an hour we disentangled ourselves, my back now becoming uncomfortable. I inspected my feet , without much hope, there was no difference in them at all. “Right, let’s have a sauna.” decided Antony. Our fuel ration per day was quite tight but we did have some extra fuel for emergencies. This was one of them. The ‘sauna’ we were about to create was to use our cooking stove as a heater right in the middle of the tent and with the flames burning at their strongest it can heat up the tent very nicely. Having an open flame in a tent is extremely dangerous as the material is extremely flammable. As such as soon as the stove is switched on in the middle of the tent neither Antony or I will move. The cold night air heated up from -35C to above +20C in a short space of time under the intense heat offered by the stove. The roof of the tent sweated with melting snow and ice that had accumulated on either side during the preceding days before drying out as the water evaporated. Layer by layer we stripped down to just our thermal underwear as the stove heated us. A shiver of warmth ran through my body and I felt, for the first time, completely comfortable. The condition of my toes, however, did not change and stubbornly stayed silent and numb ignoring the heat.
The decision in both of our minds had been made but was as yet unexpressed. As the heat, thawed our moods the elephant in the tent was discussed.
“We have to go back.” I said.
“I know.” Replied Antony.
Despite this huge disappointment Antony did not show it. It was a disappointment for both of us and he could see I already felt bad enough as it was. But with this decision being made, however disappointing, the cloud lifted over me and with the heat of the stove we talked and laughed freely for the first time on the expedition. One last ditch attempt was discussed. We heated up some water and sealed it in a watertight container. That would be my hot water bottle for my feet for the night. A final, final decision would be made in the morning.
We could not keep the stove burning for an extended period of time and so before long it had to be switched off. It is incredible how quickly the temperature dropped as the Arctic, kept at bay by the stove, came back with force and wrapped her long, icy fingers once more around our little tent. We rushed to put our dry and ice free clothing back on insulating ourselves from the night.
I slept well despite the anticipation of the condition of my feet in the morning. The personal heater that the hot water bottle offered made a pleasant change but no difference. We woke up with the alarm at the normal time, just before dawn. “How’s your feet?” Antony asked. I reached down, knocking the tepid water bottle aside and dug my nails into the flesh of my toes. Nothing. “Nothing.” I responded dismayed but expectantly. “We go back then.” Antony said. “Let’s sleep.” With that he rolled over to sleep some more. There was no rush now to move. “I lay there, feeling miserable, but also relieved. I liked my toes and wanted to keep them.
We made the phone call that morning to a surprised Billy on our satellite phone, asking for a pick up in a couple of days time from where he dropped us off, cementing the decision, the point of no retreat of the retreat. It was an emotional morning, exclamations about how well we had found a route onto the ice cap with it just looming, just a few kilometres away from us. We turned our pulks around and headed back, downhill, retracing all the hard work we had done to reach this point, each step downhill an insult to the hard fought upward climb that hard started a year ago and ended just a few hours ago.
The pulks slid effortlessly downhill. We skied side by side, discussing what possibly could’ve gone wrong. We were clueless, we had pretty much exactly the same equipment. It wasn’t until three years later on our second attempt to cross the Penny Ice Cap that I became fairly certain as to the cause of my frozen feet. We made our last camp on the Okoa Bay glacier that evening and the day after descended once again the terminal face by way of the mountain. Traversing over the icy mess of the face of the glacier was no less nerve racking as on the way up. Six days after we had been dropped off at the very point at the end of the Okoa Bay glacier we were making camp once again. The expedition was over.
There was no lasting damage to my feet. After visiting the hospital in Iqaluit on the way back the doctor examining my feet mentioned “that they are pre-frostbite but any further exposure to the cold would have resulted in frostbite and that it was good that we got out when we did. I should make a full recovery but no further exposure is recommended.” He was right, after six months I got full feeling back in my poor toes.