Landing on a snow-covered glacier in a Twin Otter plane is just totally amazing – and the pilots think so too. While we unloaded our gear, they grabbed their cameras and took photos of the plane with the mountains behind it, delighted grins on their young faces. Maybe they take these photos for future reference (they’d never landed here before), but it just seems like they are having immense fun.
We flew round and round in circles before landing, banking steeply while they got a good look at their landing site. They’d warned us that landings on glaciers can be a bit rough, but this one was smooth and gentle. Perhaps that explains their grinning faces?
We’d landed in the middle of the afternoon and the sun was blazing. There was no wind and, within minutes of getting off the plane, I was sweating – not what I’d expected at all. Even hours into the evening, I was still too hot to contemplate getting into my expedition-weight sleeping bag.
Lying in my tent, with my head close to the glacier below, I can hear a song; just three or four plaintive notes, over and over, faintly, as if from a great distance. At first, I think it must be the light breeze playing the taut strings of the guy-ropes. I listen for a while and then realise that the wind has died; the sides of the tent are completely still. But I still hear the song, as if it’s in my head. Is it the glacier, singing in the midnight sun? I imagine it’s so, that the glacier is singing a sad song of parting, of moving away from the ice-cap.
Sometimes, you can’t tell where the ice-cap begins and the sky ends. Late in the evening on a fine day, though, you can see the shadows created by the giant cliffs of ice, even though we are maybe 35k from them.
The ice-cap attracts my gaze more than the nearer mountains. It has a fascination like the sea; like the sea, its special nature is to do with being a changeover point, an ‘edge’ – where sea and land meet or where ice-cap ends and the land of mountains and glaciers begins.
My back ached from leaning on my short axe and I’d rarely climbed in my ski boots until now, which caused all sorts of problems – pains and pressure points. My calves ached from the ‘kick and glide’, which you don’t get to practice much during a Scottish winter (especially if you’re addicted to downhill skiing).
Al and CJ did a long, straight downhill run from a point that seemed quite high up the slope from where the rest of us looked on. We saw them become tiny dots as they sped off onto the glacier, making the most of their momentum. The rest of us weren’t prepared to let go quite so soon – some with good reason. Mark pointed his light tele skis downhill slightly further down the slope, but the skis rebelled on the crusty afternoon snow and he ended up creating an impressive body-width trench, several yards long. He was OK apart from broken sunglasses (later fixed with duck tape).
We skied almost all the way to the top, just ditching our skis for a very short uphill plod at the end, not needing ropes or crampons. We’d just switched to ‘night’ climbing and the quality of the light on the hills around us was new, different from anything I’d seen so far. Our shadows were long, blue-grey; the sunlit snow a soft white you could look at without sunglasses on.
The ski down, on the harder ‘night-time’ snow, gave me my first real turns of the trip. I whooped with joy as I sped out on to the glacier. But I was still tired from the long day on D2 and my inability to sleep during the day, so the almost flat ski back to camp took me some time.
I set off with the team across the glacier to our next peak, but soon began to feel slightly ‘off-planet’. I found myself getting mesmerised by the back ends of the skis of whoever was in front of me, to the extent that I felt slightly giddy. I tried to keep my eyes on the horizon but, gradually, my head would drop again and I found myself almost falling asleep on my skis. You know that feeling you get if you nod off on a train or in the passenger seat of a car – your head drops and you jerk awake? Well, imagine that happening while you’re on skis!
We got close to the hill and I was no better. I knew I had to bail out – I wouldn’t have been safe to climb with in that state. Nigel wasn’t about to let me go back to camp on my own, though, so Al volunteered to escort me. I was very relieved to have him with me; the giddy feelings didn’t truly disappear until I’d had a good night’s sleep.
Those long hauls back across the glacier from mountains climbed; it seemed to take forever to reach camp again. On the way out to climb a hill, I’d usually be fresh: it’d still be early evening and, even if I hadn’t slept much that day, I’d not be tired. The hill, though, would usually be demanding for me, the least fit member of the expedition, and it would be late at night before we started skiing back to camp.
Al showed me how to glide more and work less; a slow, almost lazy motion, covering more distance with each stride, lifting my boots off the skis the minimum possible amount. Ironically, though, when I began to tire it became impossible to do – I’d not the time to develop the stride to the point where it became automatic and had to concentrate on it the whole time. As I became weary, concentration became more difficult.
Most times, once we reached camp, I was capable of crawling into my sleeping bag and not much more. The notable exceptions were the descents from Marvid and from Meall a’Bhuachaille, which were downhill ALL the way. No effort. Now THAT’S the way to get home from the hills!
For the first time, I was both content and ‘in the moment’. We were moving camp and, as we started downhill, Gill and I were ‘released’ from pulk-pulling and able to kick and glide easily at our own pace. I skied alongside the pulks, looking ahead at the new views opening up, moving but hardly working at all. Everything else we’d done up to that point had seemed such hard work for me. That’s expeditions for you, I guess – they are not the same as holidays!
I am in the satellite photo that’s been on my computer’s desktop for the last eight months. There’s nothing but snow and rock. And yet, it’s not just the black and white of the photo. There’s blue ice as well as white snow and, when you get closer to the mountains, the rock is not black, but shades of warm, muddy grey and dull red. Get close enough to stand on rock and there is glittery mica and small, matte garnets embedded in the rock or – just once – lying in pools of melted snow collected in round hollows in the rock, like little aniseed balls. You could put your hand in and stir the loose garnets around.
On my evening alone in the camp, the rest of the team skied up a small mountain and found green lichen growing on the rocks at the top. There’s colour in the sky too – changing very slowly in the 24-hour daylight. Not at the moment, though – it’s snowing and we can only just see the hills under which we have camped. We are, for the moment, ‘tent-bound’.
Mark finds me a fin-shaped blade of blue ice and I carve the shape of a dolphin’s back into the snow and place the fin on top. It’s hard to photograph in the strange light – the eye sees it better than the camera – but we try anyway.
Marvid was my favourite top. From the point where we left our skis, the peak rose in ‘steps’ – steep sections followed by easy sections – allowing me to catch my breath easily without stopping. The way was varied and included a narrow section of ridge which Nigel negotiated ahead of me with great care; he told me the snow felt quite firm and I took equal care to make sure that I put my feet exactly where he’d put his, knowing that the steep drop-off of the snow slope to my right was there but deliberately not looking at it.
The friendly hill was a joy. I’d seen it on the satellite photo – it looked like you could ski all the way to the top. It was a long hill, a rounded snow dome at one end, a broad ridge in the middle and another snowy top with a tiny rock outcrop at the other end. It wasn’t high by the standards of most of the other hills we’d climbed. I confessed that I wanted to climb it, thinking that it would look too easy to appeal to anyone else, but was pleasantly surprised to find that Mark, Gill and Al all fancied it too. So, while Peter and Nigel went off to see how much they could scare themselves on Snow Blade, the rest of us started off across the glacier in the opposite direction.
We skinned up to a low point on the ridge and were rewarded with stunning new views of the glacier below and the other sides of hills we’d climbed during the last two weeks. We stuck our skis upright in the snow, got our crampons on and roped up.
Al led us up to the first top and we took it in turns to pose on the small outcrop of rock at the top. Gill had the best pose of all – she looked like a model! We reversed order and walked back past the skis and on up to the snow dome at the other end of the ridge, Mark leading. The snow was deep and soft in places and probably heavy going if you were at the front – but not so bad if you were following, literally, in someone else’s footsteps.
We spent some time on the final top, taking photos and in no hurry. I was so happy to be standing on the top of a hill that hadn’t, for once, cost me too much effort.
Al found a ‘baby’ bergschrund just below the final peak (without falling in it, I’m pleased to say). He knelt in the snow and threw snowballs down it. He could hear the pieces falling for quite some time.
We returned to our skis and headed back down. Where the snow had been in shadow for a while, it was hard and relatively easy to ski; a section further down the slope that was still in sunshine was crusty and awkward to turn on. The crusty section didn’t last long, though, and we were soon headed back across the glacier to camp – downhill all the way.
It was a very special evening out on a hill with good friends and Gill suggested we name it Meall a’Bhuachaille, after the hill I can see from my bedroom window in the Cairngorms – a hill the four of us had climbed together one wildly windy day.
The Twin Otter was suddenly in the sky, somehow having come over the horizon between two peaks without us noticing. It circled just once and then came in to land. “Beautiful sight”, says Nigel.
The flight out took us over the peaks we’d climbed, then out over ‘dry’ glaciers, row after row of crevasses following the shapes of their curves, turquoise blue pools of frozen lakes on their surfaces. Semi-frozen fjords, part sea, part ice-floe, gave way to pyramid-shaped mountains, layers of black rock rising in steps, with snow resting on each ‘shelf’ of rock. And then colour and life: grey, cream, brown and red rock, icy-grey, fast-flowing rivers, rust-coloured marshland and, finally, the mud, ice, portacabins and hangers of Constable Point airstrip. First step on the way home.