Crossing the largest island on the Earth by ski
It was my first real attempt at cross-country skiing, and my Finnish friend Pasi had borrowed a special sit-ski, designed for someone like me to use. It didn’t fit well. To improve it, we improvised with duct tape, rope, and a kiddy’s plastic sledge, which made the sit-ski look more like an eccentric traveller’s trolley of junk than a piece of high-tech sports equipment.
The sit-ski needed to fit me like a glove so that I could plant my ski poles just ahead of my body and pull down on them to propel myself forward. We struggled to perfect the fit, but the daylight hours were short so we set off anyway. I could barely budge the sit-ski more than a few inches with each lunge on my poles. Without the use of my abdominal muscles, I flopped around like a rag doll at every twist in the trail.
As twilight fell, I felt wearied and bruised, frustrated and beaten. Cross-country sit-skiing scared me. There was no way to brake, stop or turn with the two skis fixed in parallel, not to mention the pain of defrosting fingers. For once I was glad that I lacked sensation below my spinal injury as we thawed ourselves out with hot drinks and fatty food. I shivered for hours, my toes like ice pops, my dysfunctional body thermostat utterly confused. I hugged a hot water bottle, then sat in the sauna wearing thermal underwear until the heat eventually penetrated my bones.
It was the most difficult sport I had ever attempted, and my skill seemed non-existent. At the end of a disheartening week of skiing, it seemed like a bolt of madness when Pasi said: ‘We should all ski across Greenland.’
It was an outrageous idea. I couldn’t ski; I couldn’t keep warm. But an excited voice in my head began whispering, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ I couldn’t imagine how it would be possible, but I grinned at the thought of skiing over miles of sparkling ice to experience an otherworldly place. I just had to battle the gremlins of uncertainty that lingered: in the idea, in my ability, and in all of the things that could go wrong.
For each concern, we made a plan and listed possible solutions, no matter how odd they might have seemed. Slowly, my confidence grew. When I discovered that some Spaniards had skied across Greenland the long way down, from north to south, on a sofa mounted on a sledge and powered by a kite, our plan didn’t seem quite so mad.
Skiing the void
When it comes to disability sport, equipment is everything. The right fit, and an extra strap in just the right place, can make all the difference between being a wobbling wreck and a high-performance athlete. I stopped worrying about how I would squat and hover and avoid a frostbitten bum when Hilleberg made me a tent with a toilet flap in the floor of the inner, and I borrowed a titanium-and-carbon-fibre toilet seat fitted with snow feet from Equal Adventure.
A rape alarm made it onto the packing list, too. This was a desperate measure to scare off a polar bear in the event that our unarmed party encountered one. At least I felt better armed with something, given my inability to run away, and the fact that my worries had been exaggerated by the other team members joking that when it came to polar bears, it was a case of ‘survival of the fittest: it’ll eat you first’.
It took only a few months for our idea to grow from a seed buried in a compost of obstacles to a firmly rooted sprout of possibility. We planned to cross Greenland from east to west: 700 kilometres from coast to coast. We would attempt to ski an almost straight line, with a deviation for Dye 2, a Cold War US radar station. Dye 2 was the only mark in the midst of the blank white map, a historical landmark and an abandoned fossil of war, with a shining white sphere that houses a radar. More importantly for us, it was a feature in the void – something to aim for.
At last, we were on the east coast of Greenland, on the edge of the ice. The air was still and the first day of skiing lay before us. The only sounds were our breathing lungs and scraping skis. Our strategy was to ski for 55 minutes, then break for five. We called each hour a ‘leg’. There would be a minimum of eight legs a day, with a longer break for lunch. In this way, we would be sure to cover 20 kilometres each day and cross the country before our rations were exhausted.
It didn’t take long for the monotony of the journey to sink in. We skied while clock-watching; it was as if we had boring factory jobs and couldn’t wait to escape the conveyor belt. By the end of each leg, we were hungry for both food and conversation.
After four legs, it seemed as though we had run a marathon, but the GPS told us we had only covered nine kilometres, which wasn’t even half of our planned daily distance. We began our procession again, and I counted legs so hard that I lost count, sure that we had done seven, deflated to discover we had only done six, uncertain my body could take any more. Each hour passed in a blur; my body exhausted, my mind worn out from thinking about what to think about.
Home sweet home
At the end of the first day, the sun was low on the horizon and my chin was numb from the cold breeze. The others were busy building tents. I zipped up my down jacket, silently thanking all of the geese that had been plucked to fill it. In the tent, I wriggled into a short sleeping bag that had been designed especially for me by extreme-equipment manufacturer Rab. It featured thick pile on the bottom and baffles of down on top. A zip ran up the centre and Velcro tabs helped to keep the insulation snug around my legs.
I tried not to feel frustrated with my legs’ inability to help me climb into it; after all, it was me who had brought my legs here, not vice versa. I’m determined to ensure that being paralysed from the chest down doesn’t dent my fervor for outdoor adventures, and staying active soothes my frustration at three quarters of my muscles not working. I’m often left feeling like a short chunk of jelly that’s prone to wobbling over.
As I moved around, I brushed against the inner tent. It was already stiff with ice. The frozen scabs of exhaled breath that had condensed onto the tent wall trickled down the back of my neck – the only part of me still exposed. I tensed up as I felt the ice melt, a cold shot of shivering wetness that ran down the track of my spine and then over the border to a place I couldn’t feel. Thank goodness for the roar of the Mountain Safety Research stove. The heat that radiated from it warmed the tent up closer to 0°C than we had been all day.
After hours of cooking, water-melting and camp rigmarole, I lay back in my down jacket, in a second down sleeping bag, on a down-filled mat. I then drifted off to sleep, wondering why I put myself through hours of monotony until my muscles ached and my tendons screamed. After the accident, when I found myself in a wheelchair, perhaps I had needed to know that I could live independently, have an active life, get outdoors, laugh and play. But that was a long time ago. It wasn’t like that anymore.
Dashing through the snow
Over the following days, as my arms pumped like pistons and my ski poles rhythmically punched the ice, I continued to search for an answer, but none came. The action was hypnotic, and my thoughts gradually emptied onto the trail until there was nothing left, just the thud of ski poles, the crackle of jackets and the slide of skis and pulks.
Weeks later, fitter and more skilled, I slid over the snow, at times so effortlessly that my arms lay loose at my side, enjoying a ride I would never have imagined possible. Everything shimmered, inside and out. My spine tingled as it only does in special moments. I forgot about the effort, the relentless heaviness of skiing uphill, the sore muscles, the aches that had radiated deep in my bones, and the draining weight of worry and fear.
In spite of everything that we had gone through, I would have endured it all 1,000 times over to feel what I felt that afternoon. The space that yawned around us had reached a space within me, and despite the uncertainty that still lay ahead, I no longer needed to ask, ‘Why?’