Jens-Pavia, my guide, ran to meet us from across the top of the ridge from the north. In the half light of nine pm Greenland time, I could barely make him out. It could also have been that by that time, I’d been up for 22 hours, hiking for more than eight hours over extremely epic territory. I’d had only eaten breakfast some twenty hours earlier. I might have been a little glazed over.
My stand-in guide hadn’t quite known the way.
When I had checked in to Air Greenland the previous morning, they kicked me off the flight, claiming I had no reservation. Five hours later, after the last flight from Copenhagen had departed, they were wringing their hands and all apologies, but the damage was done. Eighteen hours later I was finally in Greenland. My kayaking group was already at base camp, in high country, with Jens-Pavia.
To get me up there, Jens-Pavia’s wife had to co-opt a teacher with a GPS. The fact that the two of them spent nearly an hour poring over a map should have been my first clue.
My pack, even stripped of nearly all of my food, most of my medical supplies and a great deal more, still weighed 35 pounds. Since I’d started my day at 3 am in Copenhagen, by the time we started our hike to base camp it was 5 pm by my body clock. All I’d had all day was breakfast, around 5 am, at the hotel airport.
Nikolas, my stand-in teacher/guide with the GPS system, lead off with great enthusiasm, albeit not a lot of clarity. There was no trail (we had turned up the wrong valley). Greenland in summer is loamy, which is akin to hiking in quicksand. The low ground is damp, soft, and full of hidden holes and streams.
My right leg became a divining rod for those Greenlandic holes, and I badly sprained my hip and knee helping locate them. I’d use my hiking poles to ferret them out and promptly fall into another one sideways. No wonder the Vikings, my ancestors, concocted stories about ground-dwelling monsters pulling grabbing them by their thick ankles. I can attest. Both frustrating and hilarious, what appeared to be an easy hike across a flat valley became a lesson in patience, perseverance and pain. And tuft-jumping, if you will, because the only thing you could count on were the humps between the holes, the streams and the deep, unsteady loam.
Nikolas would periodically march us to the top of a long cliff, point to a lenghty valley and the mountains beyond and claim we were “almost there.” He’d use his GPS, then state loudly to no one in particular, “WE’RE RIGHT WHERE WE SHOULD BE RIGHT NOW.” Startled, I’d look around to see if there were other people in our party he was addressing.
He had no clue where we were.
However, Nikolas did get us to base camp. Eventually. I’ll give him that, although my suspicion is that his route added a fair number of miles to our expedition.
Despite the fact it was July, the moment the sun fell below a certain level the temperature plummeted. When Jens-Pavia and the group had hiked up the day before they’d struggled through a sleet and snow storm. On July 4th.
It is Greenland, after all. Days got into the 60s, and when the sun dipped low, it hit the 30s fast, and the wind picked up. If you’re sweating with the exertion, that kind of sudden temperature change can be very dangerous. That’s why my pack was heavy with proper clothing- not just for summer exertions, but for this kind of instant weather change. Down, gloves, hats, heavy socks. Hypothermia kills.
At the seven hour point I was beginning to wobble from lack of food. We had plenty of water- the streams are pure and clear. Nikolas had brought his own supply, but my pack was full of warm clothing and what kayaking gear I could cram into it. I hadn’t expected an eight hour hike. I’d burned thousands of calories from the ascents and valleys and hump-jumping. The plan had been five hours on an easy, mostly flat hike.
When we finally got to base camp, for me the equivalent of 1 am, Jens-Pavia and Nikolas stood jaw jacking in Danish while I stood swaying like a willow sapling in a high wind. Suddenly I slid to my knees on the wet ground.
JP looked at me and deadpanned, “You tired?” Then he took the pack off my back and looked at me in surprise at its weight. Nikolas turned and hiked back to town. As Jens-Pavia and I hiked the short distance to camp, I regaled him with what had transpired thus far. We were in stitches.
As it happened, the kayaking was superb. The musk ox impressive. Greenland is awesome. So are the mosquitoes, but that’s another story.
On the hike back several days later I commented wryly to Jens-Pavia that we failed to pass the waterfalls, ford the streams, or clamber any of the same hills or valleys that Nikolas and I had traversed on they way up. JP allowed that Nikolas had managed to take me on the hardest possible route up to base camp. On no rest, with virtually no food.
Adventure travel is, by definition, an adventure. Shit happens. You get bounced from the plane, the guide takes off without you, the second guide doesn’t know the way. You get injured. You get lost. It gets cold. You get tired, sometimes so exhausted you can’t stand up any more.
But you press on. You just press on. Because stopping isn’t an option.
I like those odds, because I find the outer edges of where I last defined my impossible. They get erased and pushed out further.
This is why I do adventure travel. When I set out on a journey, I don’t know what to expect. However, I’ve trained for what could potentially happen, as in this case. When you venture into back country, where civilization is a very long way away, you don’t have the luxury of calling Uber to come pick you up. You just keep going. You develop a wicked sense of humor, because humor is often what gets you through the worst of it.
Others far more intrepid than I climb Everest or explore the polar regions. Go to the depths of the ocean. Those take financial resources and decades I don’t possess. What I do is mild. At 64 and counting, my adventures are epic enough. I train constantly for exigencies like this. While I’m not a professional athlete by any means, I’m in terrific shape- and that allows me to do and see things and master situations that many others may not. It gives me options.
Truly, it makes no difference how you define “adventure.” Mental, physical, emotional, spiritual. The question is, what personal boundary are you willing to erase?
There’s still plenty of time in the summer escape season to plan a cool adventure, if you’re into something physical. Or perhaps this is the year you sign up for that degree program you keep putting off. Or ask that girl to marry you. Or whatever it is that gives you the heebie jeebies. That’s the prime indicator that you probably should Just. Do. It.
That adventure has your name written all over it, my friend.
My mantra is Just Do It NOW, because frankly, at 64 and with nineteen concussions, I don’t know how much time I have left. How many more of these I’m going to get to do.
Neither do YOU.
So for what it’s worth, would you rather be sitting on the couch, watching reruns of Blue Bloods all summer on Ion Television? Or doing that thing, that big hairy THING you’ve talked about forever? The one that draws you and scares you because you want it so badly?
Just Do It NOW.
See you out there in the wilderness.