For Part I see The apocalyptic approach
“WHERE ARE THE FLAMING PACKAGES!!!”
5-6 days travel into the mountains with a day of food left. We’re at our first food drop, tummies rumbling, saliva dripping down our goretex. We’re surrounded by a perfectly white, flat desert of fluffy windblown snow. We double check the GPX point Camilo sent us. Triple check it. Reenter it. I run over to a faint ripple in the snow and furiously stab around with my pole, grasping on my knees for the hard feel of a package.
Four days prior – after three failed attempts – Camilo and Edgar flew over and dropped nine precious parcels out the window. They contain five days of food and fuel, our large first aid kit, some beer, whiskey, and Paul’s down booties. It took the six of us four full days to put the packages together – weighing food, double bagging and boxing everything, stitching up the burlap sacs. This was preeetty hectic. Especially the first failed attempt where we ended up packing the boxes while driving down the motorway.
Now our packages are somewhere around us, hidden in the blasted perfect white layer. Four of the nine packages have “ResQski” mini beacons. We fumble for the beacon tracker. “No connection to anything,” I note. Shite. In testing the beacons they worked pretty poorly. At first they seemed broken and the company wouldn’t send new ones – hence why we only put them in four packages. I had convinced myself that with spring snow conditions, our packages would sit on top of the snow, easily visible. “Hmmmmm.” Wishful thinking.
Mike has a go with the tracker and walks 20m. “SIGNAL!!!!”, hol-ee-shit. The adrenaline is flowing. We’re all following Mike. Dave has a shovel. Mike walks slow scanning left and right gaining more and more signal until he yells “IT’S RIGHT THERE!!” Dave pounces on the patch of snow and shovels furiously. 30cm deep. 40cm. 50cm. No package. “No, wait just there!” Dave shifts and strikes something hard before clawing into the snow to reveal a beautiful snowy box!
Mike repeats the process for the different beacons, “A SECOND BOX!!” then… “A THIRD!!” all pretty quickly. I have a try for the fourth and can’t get a signal – this one had a malfunctioning button. I loop for half an hour before giving the tracker to Mike, who we hope has the magic touch.
Opening up the parcels, we’re both excited and slightly depressed about our situation. While we have found some food, it’s not enough. We need more boxes. The parcels we found were completely invisible on the surface – one of them was 40cm deep, imbedded in an icey crust – so finding the others will be a crapshoot. We tally up the food and find we’re severely lacking fuel – which had to be separated from food in case of a burst package. Paul has just one of his two booties which he separated to increase chances of getting one.
As night settles we call Mike back to camp who’s still searching for the fourth package by headlamp. A sombre mood hangs over dinner. Without more supplies we’ll need to make a fairly quick exit off the ice field. With low fuel supplies, there’re no hot water bottles for bed that night. Henry in the frigid wet hole suffers, and wakes up the next day more exhausted than when he went to sleep.
Milling around in the morning we stumble to work. Breakfast is just a coffee milkie. I set about making solar snow melters – our lack of fuel means our water supplies are our biggest restriction. Mike is off searching for the last beaconed package with the last tracker battery, Joane and David are off probing the vast expanse for packages and Paul and Henry are studying photos on the SD card Camilo enclosed in the drop.
The idea was that Camilo would:
- drop three boxes equipped with beacons
- take photos of the packages from the air
- drop the five beaconless parcels
- take another photo
- attach the SD card with the photos into the last beaconed package
- hurl the final beaconed parcel with photos earthward
In theory, by comparing the locations and photo of the three beaconed parcels with the photo of eight parcels, we would thus deduce the locations of all the parcels. In practice here’s how the photo turned out:
Camilo later said after each package dropped they saw a huge cloud of cold-smoke powder – suggesting that the packages would be thoroughly buried. Huddled in the tent, we can see four packages in this last photo, of which we have found 3. By trying to guess the angle the photo was taken at and the location of the found packages we try and narrow down an area where this package could be. Paul walks to Joane and David a few times correcting their probing location. He walks slowly, we’re all slightly weak with hunger. Henry’s crook from his rough night and snoozes in the warm tent while I stay at camp feeding snow to the solar snow melters.
Trying a ton of different methods to melt snow, we use snow walls to reflect more incoming radiation, thermarests to stop transferring heat to underlying snow, sleds to funnel water, bags and pots to collect water and shovels to conduct heat from the hot tent air to snow. It’s hard to tell what worked best – but a mega parabolicish wall I made has a constant flow of water at midday, despite the fact temperatures are barely above zero. Over the course of the day we make 30 litres of water.
“SIGGGNAAAAALLL!!!!” Mike screams. He hops delightly forward following invisible tracks. Before I have time to reach him with a shovel he’s holding a box triumphantly skyward. 4/9 boxes! This is the crucial box of fuel!! Our adventure for now, will continue!!
A few hours later, “PACKAAAAAAGGGEEEEE!!!!” Paul bellows. “What an incredible bloody fluke!!” He’s probed a non-beaconed package by looking at the photos. This last package is full of lots of cheese, and lots of olive oil. We now have juuust enough food to cross the icefield – if storm days are foodless – and if our second food drop comes in in the next few days, we’ll be able to complete the entire route as originally planned.
(After a dreary day probing for packages) We set off to traverse the icefield. With flat, huge expanses of snow covered ice we cover ground quickly, picking our way between nunataks and drowned mountain chains. The neverending descents are extremely fast and fun – hurtling down the crusted snow, giggling, out of control with a heavy sled bouncing beside, threatening to overtake or overturn. The scenery is immense, we feel like polar explorers, insignificant dots pressing forward.
Paul admits the whole ordeal is a bit stressful. While we’re soaking in the magnificent mountainscape he’s stuck on the InReach satellite messager, trying to organise our next airdrop one tediously slow character at a time. The weather is pretty decent, we’re hoping it will come in that evening. We stop and set up camp so the pilots have a point to head for.
The clouds roll in.
“How is the weather at your location?” – Camilo in Vancouver
“Cloud at 200m” – Paul
“Doesn’t sound like good weather for flying” – Camilo.
“We happy to pay for petrol if you bail” – Paul.
With a horrible forecast for the next five days this is our last chance to complete our trip as originally planned. We don’t have enough food to wait out the bad weather window for a later drop. Camilo and Edgar wait an hour and as we pray for the weather to improve.
“Patchy cloud still” Paul writes.
“Up to you, we will make an attempt if you want.” – Camilo
“Yes, go for it” we decide as it socks in and starts to snow on us.
With not much we can do, and little hope – we light up a cigar half laughing half sobbing at the futility of the situation. The snowfall gets heavier. Beautiful large melencholic snowflakes float downwards, similar to how our packages would fall.
“Prrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrrrrr”
“OH MAH GOOOD IS THAT AN ENGINE!!!!!!”
Dizzy with excitement, we’re furiously trying to note the package locations as they fall from ridiculously high in the sky. Mike and Joane write coordinates, I film the falling boxes and the others guess what’s in them. Some of them fall from extremely high, 1..2..3…4…5 seconds of freefall holy wow.
Edgar dips a wing, and the plane putts into the distance, flying high above the cloud that surround us. Edgar and Camilo later tell us that they flew hours above dense cloud and the only clear patch was right where we’re camped. Clipping into skis, we swiftly collect the packages which despite being far and deep, are easy to find. Soon after, our miraculous hole in the clouds closes.
Constructing a banquet hall, we settle down to celebrate. Our first course is a normal sized dinner of burritos washed down with extra whiskey. Second course is pancakes, smothered in thick layers of honey recently dropped from the sky. Happy and fat we slumber cosy-like, with piping hot water bottles and pukus full of delicious digesting food. There’s no more anxiety – having starved so much we now have more than enough food to settle down into a relaxed, snowy ski camp for a few days before leaving the ice field. As well as a bunch of food and fuel, the second airdrop also dropped off our packrafts. We are now fully equipped to attempt the last part of our mission, a whitewater float down the Southgate river to the head of the nearest fjord, the seeaaa!