My mum and I are very different people, but together we worked in harmony. Efficient in our separate tasks and strengths. Over the course of the long weeks and months in the wilderness traversing the Coast Mountains on skis, I think we rubbed off on each other just a little.
Mum slowly learned to deal with being uncomfortably wet for long periods of time. She became an absolute pro at whiteout navigation. I learned to be stronger. To not break down every time it became too hard and scary and to immediately search for solutions instead. I learned to savour the little things, each tiny happiness in the moment, knowing it might be a long time before I was able to experience another.
The difficulties were numerous, as can be imagined from a trip so lengthy, difficult and remote: There were avalanches, treacherous crevasses, multi-day winter tempests, dangerous river crossings, cripplingly heavy packs, hunger and numbing cold. Yet the rewards were infrequent but priceless: The joy of finding a food cache after hours of searching, discovering a magical ice cave by chance, watching a full moon rise out of a glacier, or the taste of the last piece of chocolate, reaching out to touch the ancient gnarled trunk of an endangered whitebark pine. There were the perfect powder turns, stepping naked and exhausted into a remote hot spring in the rain, the simple satisfaction of crawling into a sleeping bag and knowing we’d survived one more day. Slowly our minds expanded while our bodies adapted, and simple concepts like cold, wet, tired and comfortable were re-defined.
Of course, we’d argue too, always over silly mundane things that somehow seemed important at the time. I’m a back seat driving tyrant when it comes to someone else breaking trail. On the other hand, mum could be a contestant for Olympic gold if faffing were a legitimately recognised sport. While I whine too much, too often, about things out of my control, Mum takes 40 minutes to get her frozen ski boots on in the morning.
The bickering is occasional, and it never takes us long to reconcile. We don’t really have a choice. Out here we need each other completely – one cannot survive without the other. We are a team, relying wholly on each other to stay alive. One of our worst disagreements over route selection lasted only a short time as a few minutes later I was caught in a slab avalanche. Mum watched horrified from a safe outcrop as I was dragged out of sight down the moraine onto the glacier below. Reunited moments later, we fell to sobbing in each other’s arms knowing how stupid we had been to argue. Then we simply carried on. There just wasn’t room for discord or crippling emotion out there.
The days didn’t fly by. I remember each and every day of the expedition individually like a shiny jewel I can pull from a secret hidden box in my soul. You can point to a map and ask “what happened on this day?” and I’ll tell you how the weather was. I can recount our challenges and what the landscape looked like (if indeed we could see it at all). I can describe the emotions, and whether it was a day I wanted to quit and go home or continue forever.
In the end, in that last week way up in Alaska, my mind was filled with fantasies of reading a good book, lying in a hammock under a palm tree by a sparkling Caribbean ocean. I’d be clean and barefoot and wearing nothing but a bikini. I would carry nothing heavier than a mai tai with a mini umbrella in it or the perfectly ripe mango I’d just pulled fresh off a tree. Mum, on the other hand, would have been overjoyed for that last step off the mountain into the streets of Skagway to be straight into a fully outfitted expedition canoe – to be off on another remote months-long expedition into the wild. Ok, she’d probably pause to stuff an extra-large pizza in her face first, but then she’d be back to dreaming of watching the northern lights dancing overhead from the un-zipped door of her tent. Maybe one day, by the time I’m sixty I’ll be tougher yet and feel like that too.
We’d like to say a massive thankyou and well done to Martina and Tania; for more information about their epic adventure then visit their website here.