Off the Ice (Part II)

May 3, 2009 3:55am

Longyearbyen, Svalbard (Norway)–N77º 47.400 E 014º53.856

One thing that did come up (and was confirmed to me in Lonyearbyen by two unemployed Reindeers) is that Santa was not to be seen at the pole because he was let go–on account of the AIG Christmas bonus scandal, I assume; and the economic downturn. (I had to recycle all those lists my friends had asked me to give him while there!) I will assume the position is now open. But a fair warning to applicants: it’s not as glorious as it looks on the brochure: very cold up here, and the accommodations leave some to be desired…!

While Keith and I had conservatively projected that the drift might have added sixty nautical miles to our travel, a consensus off the ice with the other teams, and a closer examination of our stats, revealed that we have actually traveled in excess of one hundred nautical miles additional due to the drift!  Our total distance traveled was thus in the order of four hundred and thirty seven statue miles or over seven hundred kilometers, at an average of twenty kilometers a day over thirty five days.

Tired and hungry though we were on the ice, I felt strongly that with adequate food supplies, my reserves could have carried me twenty or more days if called upon. However, once we got off, I was shocked beyond expectations to experience a complete physical collapse. Once removed from the ice, and the mental focus, my body essentially shut down. Not only was it challenging to talk to people; it was tough to walk! Getting off the Antonov in Longyearbyen–on the island of Svalbard in the Norwegian arctic—set off a personal mental countdown to the moment I would drop into a hot bath and soak! This ranks as one of the more blissful moments of my life! A note on hygiene on the trail: while we used hand sanitizer and I indulged in a “shower” consisting of one biodegradable baby wipe every five days, bacteria does not live well in very cold environments and we simply don’t sweat there. It might come as a surprise but odors were virtually non-existent in the tent. Still, I would not advocate for regular abstinence of such durations as a matter of habit!

In the final tally, I lost twenty two pounds, as did Keith; I got frostbites on all fingers; cold injuries around both eyes, and on my tongue (from sucking in cold air all day long!); lost a tip of my nose to frost and ice scrapes from my face system (it will grow back…); I have joint pains in both hands from gripping the poles fourteen hours-plus a day; my feet are swollen like cantaloupes; and my legs have as much spring as marshmallow. I am down to 7-8% body fat, and I have taken to eating five breakfasts in one sitting and doubling up on each meal. (I have never eaten so much, a concept which surprises me as much as it does the manager of the buffet style breakfast of the hotel!)

I spent the first few days following our pick-up mostly in my room sleeping, eating, recovering and organizing my images and film files. During that first week, I could not communicate with anyone; I did not even open my email until day five. Most of me wanted to hold on to the feeling I had on the ice, and communication from the outside, I felt, would shatter that suspended reality. Yet I recognized that to perpetuate a cycle of isolation would prevent me from psychological re-acclimation–always an issue after a long expedition. And I felt conflicted. My mind would fluctuate between a deep sense of personal satisfaction for this accomplishment; a feeling of anxiety from not being able to relate to a world that would race at me intent on claiming back the slack from months of preparation and almost two months away in the arctic; and the desire to be back on the ice, and re-united with the wild. I even felt emotional and inexplicably wept upon reading a congratulatory message from a peer! Clearly, my head needed a re-boot. I had plans for another (short) expedition in Svalbard to photograph polar bears and complete work for my next book. But I couldn’t get myself motivated. In fact my legs were all but buckling from under me!  Under those circumstances, I thought the best strategy would be to wait. And wait. Which is what I did for seven days, until I forced myself to hit the trail again. I had spent time researching a local outfitter. In the end, this proved to be the best thing I could have done: I hired a skidoo, locked in a guide, and took off for a few days, on the track for bear…

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