Well, what a few days.
As the dust has settled on our decision to shelve Dark Ice, we have had time to reflect, recharge and focus. As we set out on our test day last Sunday, everything seemed in place. All of our gear, from three complex shipments, was here, the weather was typical 'Thule winter' - cold, calm and clear, and the team had a quiet confidence about them.
The dawning realisation was that the ice trends over the previous days meant that, whilst one snapshot gave away little, the ice was breaking up and shifting, not building. Infrared images have shown massive fractures north of the strait, a giant lead (water) across the Kane Basin and a buoy is moving south through the straits at 4kph. To reiterate, we did not expect fast (fixed) ice in December but the factors add up to suggest unusually unnavigable surfaces.
There have been some of the predictable and anonymous wise-after-the-event snipes made on blogs and 'news' sites but this is a blight all expeditions have to deal with these days. As a final statement on this:
- A 'fast' Nares Strait was not expected in Dec.
- We had to make a judgement based on what is likely to develop 30-40 days in the future. This is not easy. We can be proved wrong.
- Extensive research showed that a route was feasible up the strait in average or good years.
- There has been no nay-saying from the Greenlanders. They have been supportive and proportionate.
- It is indeed normal that there is movement in the line direct from Lincoln Sea to Smith Sound during Dec and Jan. We agree with the CIS, Jerry Kobalenko and others on this.
- It is NOT normal to have a major reversal of the freeze up in the Kane Basin (plus further north) and a concurrent storm in the Lincoln Sea causing breakup and two mile-wide leads offshore and entering the Robeson Channel.
- Arches are unlikely to form this early south or north of the strait but there is not even one in its infancy yet and daily IR charts show a move away from instead of towards these.
Anyhow, less of that. My policy is one of transparency and will always be so. We don't engage with anonymous trolls.
A forty-eight hour period ensued where we consulted every source possible and outlined a dozen ways to try and find a way to make the journey viable. All gave us hope, but none were convincing when viewed in the cold, hard reality of our polar winter. Ultimately, I asked the team individually if they felt that there was a way through with a real chance of success. The answer was a pained 'no'. As a group a line had to be drawn and our energies made useful elsewhere.
When facing crushing disappointment it's easy to give in to anger, denial or introspection. In our situation though what would that have achieved? Fortune has been cruel, yes, and not even being able to try hurts, but that's the game we willingly play. We have the opportunity, time and will to make something of our situation we did not expect but knew, in the fickle world of sea ice, could happen. Something special. Something new. And so to dogs.
I'm passionate about man-powered, pure and unsupported polar journeys and that writes off vehicles, planes, traction kites and the like. Dogs seem different and always have done. They are part of the very fabric of the Arctic and have been from the moment humans first ventured north. Like a naughty school child wanting so badly to break the rules (my own rules) here is the chance for us to indulge and learn.
There are a number of skills a polar traveller should eventually build if they are to, to me, have a sort of completeness. The ability to run a slick camp routine is one, and others include safe crossing of crevasse-fields, handling storms, making traverses of large icecaps and being at home in a harness in front of a large load.
Whilst Dark Ice sought to involve sea ice and the darkness, the art of running dog teams on sea ice and icecap alike is surely one of the most challenging, ancient and fundamental.
In the people of Qaanaaq we have found support, enthusiasm, a warm welcome (including a house for our mountains of gear and an invite to Christmas dinner) and eager instructors for our journey towards driving the hardiest (and most mischievous) sled dogs on Earth.
More on our first few days soon and a little later for plans of our planned journey with the dogs...