A false start

I'm sure many of you will have gleaned from Twitter or expedition news sources that we are, unexpectedly and unfortunately, back in England. Justin and I landed back in London last Friday and so I hope you'll excuse the few days taken to let the dust settle before writing up an article to let you know what has happened and what our plans are.

Midday in QaanaaqFirst of all, enormous thanks for the hundreds of messages of support we've received via every conceivable medium - we're both back safely and the Dark Ice Project is still very much alive.

For obvious reasons Justin is off the radar for a while so I'll try and speak for both of us.

After around a week of flights, slowly snaking our way further north into the dark via Denmark and numerous refuelling airstrips, we both met our local Inuit host Hans Jensen in Qaanaaq. The following few days were a period of frantic activity - unpacking our 800kg of freight which arrived by ship in the short arctic summer, checking equipment and speaking to local hunters about ice conditions and recommended routes for the first section of our journey.

Alex and Dave on the sea iceA vital part of our plan, and one we both had been looking forward to, was actually selecting the bear-alarm dog who would become 'Dave' and spending time familiarising with him. We chose to do this fairly early on as it would take time for a dog who knew only a life of hauling a sledge and being chained to a hillside to get used to a couple of crazy Brits who wanted only to walk very slowly in the dark! Dave turned out to be an absolute star - a four year old dark-coated male Greenlandic Inuit dog with a brilliant temperament and experience with polar bears. I took him for daily walks on a chain lead onto the sea ice near Qaanaaq whilst we were preparing everything else from our warm, comfortable HQ in Qaanaaq.

Having heard various reports about broken ice to the north-west and consulted the satellite ice charts and weather forecasts, Justin and I decided it was time to start hauling some supplies north. We would follow the coast to make best use of good ice and to allow us to depot regularly. Heading out further offshore would increase the likelihood of finding unexpected open water or other dead-ends, especially in the most tricky initial stage of the expedition near the Baffin Bay polynya. Things were looking up - we crossed the tidal ice cracks with minimum fuss, our 250kg sledges (or pairs of sledges) were moving reasonably well and we were finding routes through the pressure ice. The weather was forecast to be clear, calm and cold for at least ten days - perfect for sea ice travel.

Justin hauling 250kg on the ice, with Dave restingUnfortunately, this is where the good news ended. After some good miles made towards our goal, a niggling pain which Justin had previously put down to sleeping awkwardly or a muscle tweak began to intensify dramatically. From a mild complaint, within hours Justin was so heavily nauseous that he could barely contain himself and the stomach pain doubled him over each time we paused. It could no longer be ignored and so we spoke to our remote doctor via satellite. The diagnosis was clear and quick and the options very limited. Justin had a condition which needed medical attention at the very least and if it developed any further, emergency hospital treatment. Neither of these could be provided within hundreds of miles of our location and every step further would take us another minute from potentially life-saving assistance. We also knew that the only helicopter for over a thousand miles was broken (at Thule Airbase) and we had no ETA on its repair. Balking at the idea of a rescue or insurance claim in any case, we turned around and began the haul back through the jumbled ice to Qaanaaq. Luckily, the lack of snow and low winds meant that our tracks were easy to follow. 

The extent of our view for route-finding


Once the glow of Qaanaaq (a tiny settlement but welcoming nonetheless) appeared on the horizon it seemed like just moments before we again saw things which we'd mentally written off for at least three months - buildings, people, civilisation. A bizarre feeling given the internal dialogues we'd both developed to ready ourselves for our epic journey into the dark. Hans seemed more than a little taken aback as Justin walked slowly back to our HQ - first asking whether I was ok since I'd taken Dave back down towards the hill to his staking point. A few days of amazingly hard work on the logistics front from both us and our UK support team gave us access to the incredibly infrequent flights (one broken link would mean a two week wait) and a way home. Justin is now being cared for by some excellent medical professionals and his fiancée - hopefully to be fighting fit again within a couple of months. 

The disappointment of the situation and lack of luck experienced can barely be put into words - especially after the efforts of literally hundreds of people, thousands of my own planning hours and a not inconsiderable amount of money. But such is life and we both feel enormously lucky to be safe, healthy, have had the opportunity to make some progress on a mammoth project - and importantly to not have had to ask anyone to assist us physically on the ice. It's important to state a few things for those with an eye for detail: the issue Justin suffered had absolutely nothing to do with our location, the cold or the expedition and could have happened anywhere. We also made no use of our insurance underwriters or any government facilities - our return journeys were self-funded - as those who know my ethical stance on assistance will know is important to me.

Mixed emotions en route home with perfect polar lightThanks are also due to Justin for his attitude throughout a time of enormous inner turmoil and physical pain. He could have taken the easy option and said nothing, leaving me to fight for both my own life and that of a critically ill friend and team-mate hundreds of miles further from help. A strong and clear-headed decision in a tough situation where a desire to not lose face or look weak could have been disastrous. 

The Dark Ice Project is fully in action and will relaunch at the earliest opportunity.

A brief video is on the way. Stay tuned...

Alex Hibbert2 Comments