August 1, 2011

Champ Island glacier.

Cruising in the morning, waiting out the fog that has lingered and deepened since the night before. A couple of lectures on geology, glaciers and global warming, punctuated by sightings of beluga whales and a baby seal.

In the afternoon the fog lifts and the weather is pleasant. The helicopter takes us to Champ Island, which contains large, perfectly round boulders, called concretions and nicknamed cannonballs, that are found nowhere else on earth and seem to have been deposited from somewhere else. They are about 1 million years old and developed like pearls, as tiny sea creatures and their shells were bonded together with natural cement from layers of surrounding mud.

Round boulder on Champ Island, ship offshore.

Tiny, colorful mosses, lichens and flowers pop up all over the rocky terrain. A few formidable-looking peaks stand before us, and the challenge will be to reach the top of one of them before the three hours we are allotted on the island are up. As part of the expedition, passengers receive a bright red parka, suitable for all kinds of cold and foul weather, which is theirs to keep, and they are loaned a pair of rubber boots and liners for excursions ashore.

Purple saxifrage.

The boots protect feet from the ice, water and mud, and the liners help with the cold, but they are not much help on the rough terrain we frequently encounter. On this island, the ground starts out soft and sandy, which is misleading, because the trip up the mountain quickly turns rocky and steep. Still, many of the passengers are making the climb, and from the ground it looks easy, so I decide to give it a try. It is between 150 and 200 meters to the top, and they seem to be making it slowly but rather effortlessly. So off I go.

Early on it is rocky but not too bad, something like climbing a broken, rickety staircase. But the higher I go, the looser the rocks become, and the footing becomes unsteady. Concentrating on where I’m walking means looking down most of the time, so when I come to a turn or stop to rest and take in the view, I’m surprised at how steep and precarious my position is. I push on.

Nowhere to go but up.

Now the climb becomes more difficult. The rocks are looser and occasionally give way. There’s probably no danger of setting off an avalanche, but I’m not an expert, and a stray rock goes tumbling here or there. The climbing is becoming strenuous. My knees, never in good shape, are starting to feel it. The boots, sort of glorified galoshes, are not much comfort on the sharper rocks, and I’m afraid I’ll turn an ankle. A false step here or there causes the rocks to give away and I slide back or slip into a crevice. It’s getting harder, but the view, of the ocean, the ship in the distance, the mountains and the glaciers, is terrific.

But now I’m breathing hard, and my knees are starting to ache. I stop to assess the situation. I’m thinking, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, and I should turn back. Meanwhile, women are passing me. Children are passing me. People who are older than me are passing me. This will not do. Oh, well, I think, you only live once. And you only die once. So I look up at how steep the climb is becoming, and I keep going. Reminding myself, what goes up …

A view from on high.

I hear someone say that higher up, you have to use your hands as well. Good thing I’ve got heavy gloves. I bear down. Sometimes there are a few feet of relatively smooth terrain, and I make the most of it, moving quickly, as though that’s going to make it any easier. Three-quarters of the way up, this is still not a done deal. I am scrambling up, holding onto rocks, slipping, tilting backwards but not falling, breathing hard, sweating heavily. My back hurts. My knees hurt. My feet hurt. The view is about the only thing that doesn’t hurt. Some of the climb is not much more than a difficult walk uphill. Some involves more actual climbing. I am seriously thinking about quitting, turning around and going back down, which is going to take a long time. Then I think of Cecilie Skog, climbing her mountains all over the world. She would think I’m weak.

Above me, I hear someone calling down to a mate, “Go, go, go.” I think about a bike ride I did, long ago, from Boston to New York, for an AIDS-related charity. Three days, 260 miles. It alternated between exhilaration and torture. On the first day, a century (100 miles), the 98th mile was the steepest hill I’ve ever ridden. Most of the riders were spent, and so was I, and I was pulling over to the side to join them in walking the rest of the way. But just before I did, a few people started to chant that same “Go, go, go.” Others took up the chant, and that, and the thought of the people I was doing the ride to help, gave me the strength to go on. This climb is not so dramatic, but the memory of all that is enough to propel me the rest of the way. I scramble to the top. “I’m the King of the World.” First the Polar Plunge, now this, but no certificate this time. The walk back down is much slower and more difficult, but gravity can make it much faster, disastrously. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen.

Security men fire flares to frighten off a polar bear that came dangerously close to passengers on the beach at Champ Island. Click and magnify for a better view.

The word spreads that a polar bear has been sighted. Jonathan Geier, the well-traveled young man whom I wrote about earlier, is the first to see him, on the beach, perilously close to him, his dad and other passengers, who all take off running. A close encounter of the polar kind, unexpected, but then, expect that here. One of the security men who accompany us on every landing fires some flares to scare off the bear. As the helicopter flies passengers back to the ship, it makes a few detours to get a closer look at him. He’s in the water, swimming from iceberg to iceberg. Soon we are all back aboard, and it’s time for me, once again, to hit that sauna.

Wilczek Island glacier. Click and magnify.

In the evening the captain maneuvers the ship close to Wilczek Island and a huge glacier, thousands of years old, so close we can almost reach out and touch it. It is several stories high and reaches up to the bow deck. With a little mist and the strange, beautiful shades of aqua blue of the water and ice, it seems like anything might come out at us: a polar bear, Frankenstein’s monster, maybe. But it is just a quiet, spectacular moment, and when it’s time to leave, the passengers assembled on the bow give an ovation to the captain, who looks over us from his perch high on the bridge.