I promised an account of the last few days (sorry for the gap in blog posts) last night as I felt that sleep would have to take precedence after a fairly intense meander!
I said a few weeks ago after we had written off the primary Dark Ice Project expedition that our intention was to still spend a great deal of time on sea ice in the dark - and so it has been.
The team and I have been up to our necks in dogs, sometimes literally, but it has been at the forefront that we take advantage of the midwinter. Twilight will gradually build, here at roughly 78deg North, first only for a few minutes around midday but by February the sky will fill with an infinite number of shades of blue and pink.
Of course, winter doesn't end until the sun rises at the latter end of February, and even later the further north you go, but the true 'polar night' has a few more weeks left to run here in the Thule area. There are still countless stars in the sky even at noon and the occasional tease of the aurora.
Fitting into our sled-building (with one of the most experienced Inughuit hunters, Rasmus) and dog-herding duties, I set aside a few days in early January for a first classic winter journey in the style I envisaged for Dark Ice.
The plan was for us to load up full expedition-weight kevlar sledges (including our 'mini-pharmacy' and lead (open water) crossing gear of immersion suits and rafting poles) plus ten days of rations. Anders, James and I (Anastasia was forced by a particularly persistent case of the lurgy to stay in Qaanaaq on dog duty) devised an interesting route east out across the frozen sea. Given that it always aids motivation to have a tangible goal to aim for, and since frankly I was curious about it, we set sights on Qeqertat (one of a number of spellings). One of the remaining hunting outposts, it is tiny even by Thule standards with two dozen inhabitants. Around the Christmas period this halves as people visit relatives in Qaanaaq, a metropolis of nearly 600 people.
We knew that since the sea route had undergone at least two major 'freezes' this winter so far the ice would be far from perfect, but according to the latest satellite charts it was a world apart from the loose drift ice still plaguing the Kennedy Channel. Our sledges were ready, waypoints agreed upon and truthfully, all three of us were champing at the bit to get out away from the settlement and do what we came here to do - albeit east instead of north...
With a 100kg sledge each, kitted out with Montane, Bridgedale, Wolsey clothing and each with a dog (polar bears had been seen in recent weeks in the area), across the tide crack and away from the yellow glow of Qaanaaq we hauled. I had Dave on my harness and Anders and James shared Enrique and Odin. A walking dog is a different beast to a sled dog and so the untested pair were a work in progress! 63km (40 st.miles) lay ahead, the halfway point, and we put aside 6 days for the 126km return trip.
For ice surface geeks, we found the opening 5 miles to be a combination of pressured tidal rubble, small pans of thick first year ice then developing into large expanses of crunchy but landfast pancake ice. A dim glow in the sky to the south added to our buoyant mood and we realised that so far the snow was free of large ominous footprints, winds were low, temperature comfortable at -25 and the surface acceptably fast for our not inconsiderable sledge loads. We didn't consider the open water (and associated seals and therefore polar bears) probability too high - what we found was mostly small pressure ridges and small refrozen leads.
Settling into hourly sessions, we all found our ways of controlling our watchdogs. Dave is an excitable dog, forever spinning around, pulling forwards, then sideways, then eating snow, then washing his face in it. Enrique was calm and patient and Odin flitted between helping out when hauling over ice blocks and being, well, a bit hopeless.
As we clocked up the miles and approached the end of our eighth session, we were 37km short of our turn around point. Aiming for a sensible three days in each direction, the three of us felt strong and keen to push through to Qeqertat the next day. That though depended on rest.
Having set out the three dogs around our Tentipi tent, there was time for food, sorting a stove teething problem, drying damp liner socks and then the refuge of our heavyweight winter sleeping bags. I was pretty chuffed with how slick our camp routine was so early in our time as a team. A few tweaks and we'd be a well-oiled machine, plus the good humour which typified our months of preparation and the past few weeks up here continued uninhibited.
Day Two saw a continuation of the first, only with stars being replaced with snow and a balmy high of -17 degrees.
The very limited snow on the ice and the youth of the sea ice (meaning it's very salty) put a stop to boiling up much drinking water and so when the dim glow of our tiny quarry grew on the pitch-black horizon, it was not a moment too soon. Happy with our performance and with both bodies and equipment in good health, we happily accepted the generous offer of a church floor to sleep on and access to some of the settlement's, population now below a dozen as far as we could tell, limited water supply. Unlike Qaanaaq, there is no central electricity supply, outdoor lighting or communal water storage. The shop, a tiny room with 1960s era cash register, consisted of only basic tinned fare and our new friend (who had shone a torch to guide us in from the sea ice at 1am) told us it was restocked just once annually. Forward planning is a must for locals.
We slept long into Saturday and spent the remainder of the day eating, trimming the dog's paw-pad hair and receiving a curious villager it seemed every hour! They were amused we had walked instead of travelling by sled, told us of recent bear tracks they had seen whilst out hunting and said we were welcome as the first visitors of the year.
So, the plan was an equally spilt return leg of approx 32km per day back to Qaanaaq. We set off early so as to not camp too late, but our pace over the morning was over 4kph and as I broached a idea of mine, it turned out it wasn't just mine. We would commit to a ski (sorry, I tend to use that term whether walking, skiing or snoeshowing) to the finish. We knew it would be a ball-buster of at least 16 sessions, clear skies had let the temperature drop to nearly -30 and navigation in the dark would be as tough as ever. As we tired, we reminded each other that our scanning of the middle distance for bears mustn't slack.
Sessions eleven and twelve hit me hardest as we approached midnight. All three of us, although injury-free, winced as we stood for each hauling session and forced ourselves to eat and drink - it was vital for success. We even managed to crack a few jokes as the hours ticked by. 2am. 3am. 4am.
The final coastline, barely visible in the dark, was a real mental hurdle as it seemed never-ending - the dull glow of the lights in Qaanaaq evaded us as a target until the very last moment.
After nearly 20 hours of continuous hauling on sea ice, 63 kilometres with 100kg sledges and after navigating throughout in darkness, three very tired men knocked on our own front door at 4.35am to be greeted by a rather startled Anastasia (you'll be pleased to know is on the mend). Job done. Two days early.
Big days are often part of polar travel and I've done my fair share of them, but this one was right up there! What really struck me, apart from the satisfaction of getting out there after our disappointment in late 2013, was the way we pushed as a team. We all hurt the same and when help was needed, it was given in abundance. It makes me enormously proud of the band, all four of us, I put together and is proof that depth of character trumps a long, dry CV.
And to bed. More soon! I'll add more photos here tomorrow so do check back.