Greenland – The Journal of My Journey (Pt. 1)

by matthay44

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I’ve been back from Greenland for nearly four months now, and I’m finding that my memories of the trip are becoming increasingly distant. Almost like it wasn’t me who went out there and did the expedition. It’s a very difficult sensation to articulate.

I’ve had plenty of time to digest the experience though, to “make sense” of it, and now I want to try and share some of that experience with the readers of this blog.

On my return from the Arctic a lot of people asked me “what was it like?”, “how was it?” or other similarly broad questions. I don’t know if they were actually hoping for me to distil the expedition into a pithy soundbite, which both captured its essence and made it relatable to them, or if they were just making polite small-talk. But my answer is always the same. If you really want to know what the expedition was like, you’ll have to go and camp in the Arctic next spring, in a tent, for five weeks, with just one other person. It’s impossible to otherwise convey the full reality of the experience. You need an appropriate scale of reference to fully understand.

That said, for those closest to me I drip-fed sections of my expedition journal in the weeks following my return to the U.K. Over email, I’d send through one or two entries a day and these, much better than conversation I think, allowed my family more insight into the soaring highs and frequent lows that are the reality of a polar expedition.

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to share two or three of these journal entries on this blog. They are all very different, capturing me at particular stages of the trip and in wildly contrasting moods, depending on my circumstances. However, I think they will serve me better than anything written in hindsight at communicating how it felt to be in Greenland at the time, and how much hardship there was, alongside the many picture perfect moments I’ve already shared on Instagram.

This first entry was written about ten days into the expedition, roughly one third of the way through the trip. (You’ll note that I’ve already started treating my journal as an animate object/surrogate person…the madness was taking root!)

At this stage in our adventure, we had just finished an exhausting 9-day pulk to get to the Stauning Alps, crossing first the rolling plains of Jameson Land and then the frozen sea of Scoresbysund fjord. We were now resting ahead of our first attempt at scaling one of the unclimbed peaks in the area.

The entry is long and full of worry, self-doubt and angst. But there is some resilience in there too. I hope you enjoy!

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Let it snow:

Another day of neglect, dear journal…I do apologise my friend. I’ll endeavour to make it up to you now with a decent entry!

The settled weather that characterised the first ten days of our adventure has at last yielded to something much more changeable. A warm front brought a bout of strong winds and snow, with temperatures then rising from -5 C yesterday morning to around or just above freezing! The warm winter season for this part of Greenland continues…

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Fresh snow overnight at our campsite in Gurreholm Dal

It was classic warm sector conditions all through yesterday morning: sticky, moist, cloudy and mild with the mountains shrouded in mist and hill fog. In some ways it seemed cruel that the weather should break as soon as we needed its stability most, particularly as poor Anna has had to take on the role of weather forecaster as well, with all her information constrained to the Norwegian Met Office’s output for Constable Point, over 100 km away from where we are currently camped!

However, after all that pulking to get here, my levels of exhaustion were such that I needed this bad weather to allow me to rest. Skiing on our recce yesterday was such hard work, I did not feel 100% at all…it feels as though my cold has bedded in, in my chest and in my lungs, and this worries me. Already I’ve been slowing Louis down on this trip, with my faffing and my comparative lack of fitness and strength. I don’t want to continue waylaying him, particularly as time is so very tight for the rest of our expedition, the science phase especially. 

Still, the warm, wet snow falls heavily today and this has granted me the reprieve I needed. I feel rested now, and even if my cold has not been banished entirely, I should be ready to take on this mountain when the weather window arrives. 

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Taking advantage of a rare weather window

It is worth pointing out that this will be my single biggest mountain day ever. 12km to the summit as the crow flies and nearly 1,500 m of vertical ascent. With heavy packs and plenty of fresh snow it promises to be a long and hard day! But, finally, I feel ready for the challenge and filled with a desire to climb that peak. Team Moskus WILL give a good account of themselves whatever else happens…

This is an idea that Louis has instilled in me…this trip has really opened my eyes to just how driven my companion is. He really wants, and has infected me with a desire, to wring every last drop out of ourselves on this expedition and to try and achieve all we set out to. He gently rebuked me, in his own fashion, for my comparative negativity about the science phase, which, I must confess, I have been vocalising too much of late. His way of confronting the issue was intelligent though, saying first how he had been filled that afternoon with a sense of positivity at our potential to achieve our scientific aims. Then came the request; “let’s not be too down on the science, I’d really like to make a good go of it”.

Point taken, I should try and attack that aspect of the trip with more positivity, but I can’t help the realist in me from feeling that it is an impossible task, one that will consume an enormous amount of our energy with only a very low chance of us completing it fully – we just haven’t got the time. 

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One of many incredible sunsets we witnessed in Jameson Land

Such thoughts can’t help but increase the turmoil I’ve been feeling out here in Greenland…I keep coming back to the same question again and again: why I am doing this? Why have I sunk so much time, money and energy into this adventure. It’s f***ing tough, the hardship (though I am slowly growing accustomed to it) is relentless and I’m feeling lost in the midst of it all. 

I guess this is what everyone else probably thought when I announced my decision to do this expedition …”why?”….”why bother?”

It has made me value the support of, in particular, my mum and Anna, who both got behind me with characteristic love and devotion, despite probably thinking I was mad to take on such a venture. Maybe they understand better than I do why I am doing this, and what I stand to gain. 

I do get flashes of what this trip is giving me: a real test and, so far, I haven’t crumbled. To my credit, I’ve remained good-natured throughout and haven’t allowed apathy or despondency more than a moment or two in control. But it really has made me question whether I like the Arctic and the outdoors. Maybe the discomfort of this kind of expedition becomes harder to tolerate as one grows older, and softer…

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It has also forced me to think hard about what I am doing with my life and what I should be doing. How do I balance my commitment to the planet with the need to earn money and ultimately provide…? Do I really need to live in Scotland? What about Anna’s career?? I feel like my passion for the Highlands and my dream of helping to restore some form of the Caledonian Forest runs deeper than most, but it is difficult to see a way to make a living from that career path. 

Our generation is perhaps unfortunate, for to go down the path of a regular professional career; banking, consultancy, law, etc., is to knowingly turn away from the rapid climatic and ecological disintegration of our planet. Our parents, or most of them at any rate, were never faced with that stark choice. To them the planet seemed in fine fettle, and devoting one’s energies to accumulating wealth for oneself seemed only natural…the onus to use their talents and privileged upbringings to help the world was perhaps less obvious.

But it is obvious to me and it leaves me feeling lost. Against that emotion I am struggling, and I am paralysed with uncertainty about how best to proceed. 

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Another day, another overnight snowfall…

On the flip-side  I’m hugely aware that I mustn’t fuse with these thoughts too often while I’m out here. It is particularly telling that they appear most frequently when I am tired or low…I will not let them govern my mood on this trip. I temper them also by reflecting back on some the amazing experiences I’ve already had out here – I cannot wait to go through all my photos when I’m home at last. 

In any case, now that I have committed so much to the Greenland cause, it only makes sense to see it through with as much good cheer as possible, and to take heart in how I have overcome the constant challenges thrown at me. There are also good bits to rejoice in, like coffee in the mornings, great chats with Louis, coffee in the afternoons, beautiful views, coffee, and reading ‘The Wolf’ while I’m cozy in my sleeping bag with the soft scratching of endless snowflakes falling on the canvas above me. 

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Brewing up some coffee on the sea ice!

The dampness isn’t so bad. The discomfort is only temporary and what we are trying to do out here is absolutely nails. It is no wonder we feel out of our depth at times, or at least I do!

I also owe it to Louis, to make this trip as good as possible for him. That alone should be sufficient motivation for me to be my best self for the next three-and-a-bit weeks.

But anyway, my journal, that is quite enough for now…I’ll be back later with tales of our mountain!

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