The Glorious Feeling of Being Way, Way Out There

I wake up. I get out of bed. I have a shower. I brush my teeth. I get dressed. I go to the kitchen for breakfast. A boring start to another day.

I throw the kitchen window open. Birdsong and fresh summer air bursts into the room. I smile. It’s time to go! I eat a quick breakfast of anything in the fridge that will stink if left for a month. I heave my backpack onto my shoulders. Out the door. Down the road. On a train. On a plane. In the air.

It is so simple these days for most of us to leave our normal life behind. You need only to choose to do so and then work hard to make it happen.

The plane banks left and I look down at England’s green fields, small towns, and mesh of roads and infrastructure. There won’t be any of that where I’m going. I guess that’s a big reason why I am going there.

I look at my friends, Ben and Martin, sitting beside me. We all grin. We all feel the same way.

Seatbelts on. Prepare for landing.

We look down.

The Atlantic Ocean, grey and fierce. Even up here you can see it smashing hard against the black rocks of this empty isle. A rocky coastline, scrubby yellow grass clutching to the harsh land of ash and lava. The plane banks right and drops towards a small city on a peninsula jutting into the sea. The plane touches down in Reykjavik, Iceland. I’m hungry now. My London breakfast feels a long way away already.

Traveling is like diving into a swimming pool. On the side of the pool, everything is safe, normal, familiar. You can breathe and see and hear and move easily. It’s your environment. It’s where you belong, where you always are. It’s easy.

Dive into the pool and everything changes. That simple, tiny action of leaning forward and setting yourself in motion is all it takes. You reach a tipping point, and then headfirst you plunge into the water! You are but a tiny distance from where you were an instant before, but now everything is different. Can you cope? Will you thrive?

We’re in Iceland, but we’re only passing through. I love Iceland. I have memories here from some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever been. I also remember dancing until dawn under the midnight sun, expensive hangovers, barbecued whale steaks, and a cultured, civil people.

But this is not the time for new memories. It’s time to go deeper. Onto another plane. A smaller one this time. Ben and Martin’s grins grow.

Seatbelts on. Prepare for landing.

We look down.

It’s harder to see the land here. The land and the ocean blur together. The frozen land is covered in snow and ice. The ocean is frozen too, here in these high arctic latitudes. White ice floes spread across the blue sea like a jigsaw on a carpet.

The plane banks left and I see a handful of pre-fabricated buildings and a runway cleared of snow. The plane touches down in Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland.

Dive into a pool and the first sensations are all fun. This is different! It’s refreshing! The bubbles fizz around! But your instinct is to return to where you belong. Your body automatically tries to float back to the surface. It’s time to make your choice. Go back, or go deep.

We’re going deep.

Onto another plane. No seatbelt enforcers this time. No packs of peanuts. No other passengers. No tiny televisions or reclining seats. No security checks. It’s just as well; we’ve got a gun with us now. We’ve left behind our jeans, our house keys, our wallets, even our passports. We don’t need any of that where we are going. We’re dressed in thermal clothes and chunky down jackets. I can’t remember when I last grinned as much as this.

I peer down and see absolutely no signs of human life, just valleys and mountains covered with snow and utter, ageless silence.

The plane banks left. Then it banks right. It swoops down in a tight circle, low over the ground beneath us. The pilot is searching for somewhere to land, free from lethal crevasses. There is no runway out here. The propellers roar frantically as they bring us to a halt on the slippery, lumpy snow.

We jump down from the plane, out onto the freezing cold snow. We haul out all of our equipment, and then the red and white plane rushes off down the snow once more, gathering speed until it lifts off up into the blue sky, and we stand and watch it as it gets smaller and smaller and quieter and quieter until it has gone.

The harsh arctic light will dazzle our eyes and blister our lips. Our fingers will burn with cold. We will be together but we will be lonely.

We are alone. Silence. Totally alone.

We have gone deep.

“I’m bloody starving,” declares Martin, breaking the silence. London’s breakfast is a distant memory.

We are in a snow-filled valley in the Watkins mountains, Greenland’s highest mountain range. All around us are steep rocky peaks. They are oddly striped with horizontal bands of black rock. Most of the peaks we can see have never been climbed before. There is so much wilderness waiting out there in the world, once you begin to dive a little deeper.

Swimming down through the pool you begin to struggle a little. Warning messages ping to your brain. You can’t breathe! It’s getting darker! The pressure is building! Your body and your mind want to pop back to the surface, but it’s time for your heart to overrule your brain and to swim a little deeper.

Our lives out here depend upon each other, and upon the equipment and skills we have. The temperature is well below freezing. The sky is clear, but storms here are sudden, fierce, and potentially lethal. So we take care to pitch the tent perfectly, secured with ice stakes and tied to our sledges, heavy with weeks of dehydrated food and fuel. We have to melt snow each day to obtain our drinking and cooking water, so the fuel is key to keeping us alive. We won’t wash or shower out here. We’ll sleep on thin foam mattresses on top of the cold, hard ice. We’ll eat high-calorie, low-enjoyment dehydrated meals every day. We’ll be alert to crevasses, to storms, and to hungry polar bears stalking our progress.

And we will walk. For 12 hours a day we’ll ski, hauling heavy sledges behind us, taking it in turns to lead and to navigate. It’s freezing cold but we’ll sweat and suffer. The harsh arctic light will dazzle our eyes and blister our lips. Our fingers will burn with cold. We will be together but we will be lonely. For when you march in single file, following in the ski tracks of the lead skier, you have nobody to console you when the going is hard, only the pressure to keep up with the man in front and not to hinder the man behind you. Negative thoughts spin through the mind – this is too hard for me, the others are coping much better than me. I’m so tired, so hungry, so cold – I’m holding up the team. It is little consolation knowing that your pals are certainly feeling exactly the same way. It is beautiful out here, but it’s not easy.

And so the miles crept past, across that crisp, frozen landscape, as we trekked further and further, past the Watkins mountains and out onto the vast, featureless Greenland ice cap. In all directions is nothing. The world is white and flat and silent and timeless in every single direction all the way to the horizon. I feel very tiny, very vulnerable.

We’ve gone deep.

Swim deeper still, overcome those instinctive voices (“Stop! Go back!”), and you will surprise yourself. For your body realizes that actually, you are fine. You are coping down here. You have more breath than you realized. You slip into a rhythm of powerful, purposeful swimming. Below you the water is darker and colder and more tantalizing than ever. You can always go a little further. Nobody can help you down here. But the thrill comes as you realize that you do not need any help. You are free and you are happy.

It’s a wonderful moment.

On our final evening on the ice cap, I stood outside the tent for a while. (Evening is a misnomer in a land of 24-hour freezing sunshine). I had never been somewhere so empty, so featureless, so silent and vast before. It’s a heck of a long way to come to see nothing at all. But I had fallen in love with Greenland. I was free and I was happy.

We turned for home. And now, as you push back for the surface, the too-familiar, too-easy normal world that you dived away from now gleams and shines tantalizingly, and you can’t wait to get back to the surface.

To get home again, and to remember to be grateful for the warm summer air and the birdsong when you open your kitchen window at breakfast time.

Photos: Markus Trienke



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