Tuesday, July 16, 11:00p.m.: I’ve made it this far, and now every day is a bonus. I’m sitting in the dining area of a sweet, clean hostel in Qassiarksuk, Greenland, run by a Spanish explorer, Ramon, who spent three years traversing the Antarctic by sail craft. Twilight has settled over this giant icy country, and through the window I see a two-dimensional world, like a canvas painting: the fjord, white with glimmers of black water shimmering where the current moves; the sky, layered with soft light blue shades that darken as you look up; and the navy blue, filled-in outline of the mountains in between.
I decided to stay in this small town of Innuit and Spaniards for a half dozen days and then travel to Iceland for a week before flying home. I want to absorb all that happened on this rock climbing expedition on which I embarked with three friends almost exactly one month ago. My partners left Saturday. We were together more than three weeks, and then, just like that, we ended the trip two weeks early. Within two days of making that decision, they were gone, flying to different parts of the world. Nine months of planning, raising funds, and organizing; a week of travel by various planes, boats, and by foot; many nights spent outside of airports, hostels; and finally, two weeks of climbing; all cut short by death.
Thursday, July 11, 4:30a.m.: The pace of change in my life is sometimes faster than I want it to be. Laying in my tent, unable to sleep because I’m waiting to hear about the boat that will take me back to town, I turn on the satellite device. There’s no word from our local contact in Nanortalik about a ride. Instead I receive a message from Eve Hersh, my right-hand woman at MergeThis Media (the business I own), that my friend Andrew Barnes died in a climbing accident in the Black Canyon the previous day. I don’t know him well, but he is… was Quinn Brett’s good friend and longtime climbing partner with whom she had a deep soul connection. Quinn is a member of Team Glitterbomb, along with Prairie Ciel Larronde Kearney and our climber/photographer John Dickey, the people with whom I currently camp in a remote region of Greenland. We planned to and succeeded at climbing various first ascents of giant granite spires in the Torssukatak Fjord in the Cape Farewell region. We left mid-June and were set to return to the States July 23.
Thursday, July 11, 6:30a.m.: I shake John’s tent to wake him up and share the news. I can’t keep it to myself any longer.
“Oh my god,” he says.
“I know… How can I tell her?” I respond.
I tell Prairie soon thereafter, when she gets up for coffee. She says only, “No… This is so unexpected. I will tell her.” I see John’s and my worry reflected in her eyes. They are unsmiling, a state that is rare for this cheerful woman. But she is familiar with death of loved ones.
Hearing Quinn’s cry of anguish, I feel suddenly as if a hot, heavy blanket has fallen over me. John puts his head in his hands. When I finally hug her an hour later, I have nothing to say but, “I’m so sorry, so sorry, so sorry…”
We are all shocked.
“I feel empty,” John tells me.
“I feel deeply sad,” I admit. We talk about death, including the loss of Micah Dash and Jonny Copp, friends of ours who passed away in an avalanche four years ago.
“Micah was my closest friend at the time,” John says, an absent look in his eyes. They climbed together in Greenland, in the Tasermiut Fjord, a decade ago.
Micah and Jonny are still present in our minds and lives, we realize. Jonny inspired my first adventure to Pakistan; In 2001, I climbed the third ascent of a route he did in 2000. I think of him and our friendship when I do big adventures. As well, Team Glitterbomb received the Copp-Dash Inspire Award, a grant that honors Micah and Jonny.
July 11, 11:26a.m.: I decided to leave the team and the expedition a few days ago. My body is breaking down, and pain makes it increasingly difficult both to hike and to sleep at night. And after Prairie accidentally spilled boiling water on my right foot, giving me a 2nd-degree burn, I feel more than over it. I’m not angry or frustrated, I’m just done. I embarked on a solo walkabout to the neighboring valley for 2.5 days while the team attempted a 4th first ascent, which they didn’t succeed on. Though awesome, my adventure left my burn wound worse off. It’s too wet and cold here for my foot to heal. According to locals, this has been the wettest and coldest summer in a decade, if not longer. I have been trying to text Niels, our contact in Nanortalik, to hire a boat to take me out of the mountains, but because of communication problems I only finally get word from him.
“Oh shit, a boat is coming to pick me up in two hours!” I holler to my partners.
Thursday, July 11, 12:15a.m.: Less than an hour after receiving Niels’ message, the team has decided to leave base camp on the boat together. Quinn needs to get back to Andrew’s funeral and to be with her close friends in Estes Park, John wants to see his girlfriend, and Prairie just goes with the flow, as always. I send a message to Niels, who tells our boat driver, who then gets a second boat.
Thursday, July 11, 2p.m.: Quinn and John have retrieved our gear from advanced base camp, and Prairie and I have packed the entire camp and carried it down the grueling, steep hill, me injuring my knee and having a breakdown en route. I scream at the sky and curse and kick the blue barrel full of trash. I’m definitely not as strong or able bodied as I was two weeks ago when we carried the three 50- to 60-pound barrels and six equally-heavy bags up the hill.
The boats are small and open to the elements, and we aren’t prepared with enough clothing. Quinn and Prairie nestle together in one boat with their big fluorescent green GORE-TEX® jackets on, and John and I start out apart on the second boat, but after an hour sit close together to conserve heat. The ride is gorgeously miserable. Black water sparkles like onyx and quartz in the bright sunshine. Seals pop their heads out of water, but just as John says, “Look,” they dive under, and all I see are the ripples they leave behind.
Thursday, July 11, 5p.m.: The team is back at the hostel in Nanortalik, dazed and exhausted. We drink a box of wine, eat a dinner of pasta and frozen vegetables and salami, listen to music, take photos, and basically do whatever we can to distract ourselves from reality. But it hits us repeatedly, every time Quinn breaks down and cries. We hug her as much as possible.
Friday, July 12, 10:a.m.: It’s all set. Tomorrow we will take a boat to Qaqortoq, another to Narsarsuaq, and then the team will fly to Iceland. Except me. I’m staying. I can’t imagine going from base camp to Iceland and then the States all within a few days. Also, flights cost a lot, and I have no reason to go back. Eve says everything is great and that I’m not needed. I’m grateful; I can’t imagine diving back into the real world right now. I’ve just had the trip of a lifetime and some intensely sad days. I don’t yet know how to process. I need some time to think.
Saturday, July 13, 7:45a.m.: The morning is tense, and Quinn and I argue. It’s the first argument anyone has on the trip, and it lasts less than five minutes, but I feel overwhelmed, angry, sad. It’s about money, but not really. Quinn is just devastated and going back to the States early is going to cost a lot of money; I am tired and confused. After a short time, she approaches me, “You can be angry,” she says, “but please don’t lose the love.” We look deeply into each other’s eyes, cry, and then hug for a long time. I then sit outside by myself to process the feelings, but before I can, it’s time to get on a boat.
Saturday, July 13, noon: We are in Qaqortoq waiting for our next boat, which turns out to be the most pleasant ride of the entire trip. The boat is warm, and the guide is excited about the 3-story house sized iceberg we see. He drives around it so we can take photos. Eventually I follow Prairie downstairs in the boat to take a nap, and before we know it we are back in Narsarsuaq.
Saturday, July 13, 4:30p.m.: All team members except me get on an airplane. Wow. And they are gone, and I am here. I’m not totally alone. Our Spanish friend, Vincente, accompanied the team on the last hour of our journey together. Handsome with dark, wavy hair and expressive eyes, he smiles often and listens to me talk about the painful last few days. I’m so dazed that we decide to meet the next day for a sailboat ride and to share photos then. I spend three hours on the Internet, updating family and friends about the trip, before falling into a fitful sleep.
Sunday, July 14, 10:00a.m.-7p.m.: Vincente takes me and Ramon’s 6-year-old son, Inuk, sailing. We go the Qooqqut Fjord to see the glacier of the same name, though we don’t sail much. Most of the day passes with no wind, and water so totally tranquil and black, that the iridescent bluish-white icebergs seem suspended, motionless around us. Vincente turns the motor off for hours, and we float with the fjord’s currents, drifting among the bergs, sometimes into them. Inuk and I joke about making them our ice homes. “There is the bedroom, and there the kitchen!” he shouts in Spanish. “And you will bring your cats to live here!”
At times I lean over the boat and feel my mind reflects the water’s tranquility. I meditated daily, sometimes for four or five hours a day, while in the Torssukatak Fjord, in between climbing walls and hiking loads to and from camps. Now I can’t always tell when I’m meditating and when I’m not. Sometimes I worry, but not often. And whatever I feel, I feel intensely for short periods of time.
While Inuk quietly contemplates the water, I watch the clouds easing across the skyscape and the shadows they cast upon the rolling brown, sometimes snow-covered mountains. Eventually, he becomes sad and bored. Vincente and I realize we have taken too much of his time. About that same time, his parents call, worried. We set course for his home in Qassiarksuk, but it takes a few more hours to get there than we think it will. Inuk stops talking to us for an hour, but we eventually re-engage him with the iPhone’s Camera 360 app and other means. He smiles again and sits on my lap, talking away. He wants to continue to walk with me even after we arrive back to town, so we go together to the hostel with his mother riding her bike ahead. I feel pretty enamored with this little boy. I hope I get to have a child soon.
Monday, July 15, 9a.m.-9p.m.: I walk into the mountains, over to fish in a nearby town called Tasiusaq. I don’t find the river I seek, nor do I find fish in the fjord. I do find that my body hurts a lot, my shoes have worn down so much that they quickly give me blisters in the back of my heals, and my mind is blank. Thoughts come and go, but nothing sticks around for too long. I can only sing, so I do, to all the sheep I see. Fourteen kilometers later I’m back at the hostel, where Inuk meets me.
“Quieres Pescar?!!” I can’t say no.
Tuesday, July 16, 9a.m.: I sit on the deck of the hostel, trying to put into words the way this trip changed me. Hours pass and I type, interrupted by Antonio, the cook, bringing me treats and distracted by the constant breeze coming from the iceberg-filled fjord; it cuts the warmth of the sunshine I crave. It rained a lot in the Torssukatak, and I felt cold most of the time. I take off my jacket, put it back on, take it off, put it on…; I wear a light dress all day, because I want to feel the soft material after wearing plasticky performance wear and baggy climbing pants for days and days. I consider how to tell the story of this adventure, of Andrew’s death and how it affects me. I want to write a great story, to offer some final message using significant, powerful words. I sit with that goal all day. But then at 6p.m. Inuk comes by with his fishing rod, interrupting my typing.
“Quieres Pescar?!!!” he asks excited, his brown hair flopping into his eyes, his gap-toothed smile wide and expectant.
“Claro que si,” I respond. I close the lid of my computer, grab my fly rod, and head to the sun-swept, windless port.
Team Glitterbomb did three new routes in Greenland. “Plenty for Everyone” (5.10+/11-, 1800ft) on The Barnes Wall; “Morning Luxury” (5.11a/b, 1400ft) on The Breakfast Spire; and “Four Quickies” (5.10, 500ft on The Submarine Wall). The team is pretty certain that no one has climbed the Barnes Wall, and the only recorded ascent of a summit of The Breakfast Spire is of the Favresse Brothers/Ben Ditto/Sean Villanueva climbing up to a high point on it after summiting Shepton Spire (a neighboring spire) and traversing the ridge. The summit on which Team Glitterbomb stood may or may not have been the highest point, but it hasn’t been summited by another team.